Can I ask your professional opinion about something?”
We were celebrating the successful launch of my good friend’s new amazing business. We already had a glass of champagne and were on our way to another.
But that question put the jovial feeling at risk. (It’s always risky when a friend invites you into the consultant role. Whereas I am instinctually happy to help and advise, I also like to keep things clean — read my post: Relationship Clarity, One Role at a Time).
“Sure,” I said, mildly tipsy, clumsily taking the bait.
“I want to know about how to create the best culture for this team.”
The team was comprised of different leaders across the nation that telecommuted for meetings. I went over my checklist with him. Are you making an effort to get to know them and their work style? He was. Are you allowing them time to get to know each other? Yes. Are you creating an environment for open communication? He gave me a few examples of conversations – the most central element of culture – that sounded right on target. I already knew he was being jovial and friendly with the team, because that’s just who he was . . .most of the time.
I offered my diagnosis:
“Sounds like you are well on your way — setting the tone for a good culture. It will develop naturally over time.”
This was not to his liking. “I thought you’d have more tips. I want to create a culture of fun, enthusiasm, of creativity.”
“The tips I am concerned with right now are on the grill,” I said, walking over to flip the tri-tip steak. “But at this stage, it seems you’re doing everything right, especially by being enthusiastic yourself. It’s a small, evolving company. People need time to know each other and the ropes of their jobs. And you need some time to see how the company develops and who they really are before you can impose a culture. Otherwise it will feel rigid.”
“Really?” He said, quite disappointed. “I thought you’d have more to offer than that.”
I took the steak (and my slightly bruised ego) off the grill, and as I arranged the meat and veggies neatly on the platter, I thought about how you can’t really organize people in the same way. My friend, with the best of intentions, was trying to create an environment free of command and control leadership by following rigid steps and formulas to create a relaxed, creative environment.
I see so many well-intentioned leaders making this mistake. You cannot dissemble command and control leadership through command and control thinking. Click To Tweet
Incidentally, people starting new relationships make the mistake of rushing to create a culture as well. Think about the woman who, after two dates, brings up the topic of moving towards marriage, or the widower who tries to recreate the routines and interactions that worked with his wife with his new girlfriend. If you impose too many conditions on a relationship too early, it will likely blow up. It takes time to let true connections evolve, in which private jokes, communication styles, routines and true compatibility emerge and are established.
If you really want to invoke a new style of leadership, you must be comfortable with process — staying open to what is unknown and yet undefined, to what feels a little unstable, to what is becoming.
You must keep asking the right questions, without rushing the answers.
True leadership transformation takes time and guidance. Need help? Contact me for more information.
Great lesson here. I would have liked the story to finish with the steak, though. And the Oscar for best supporting meat goes to…steak.
I like the character of the steak in the story too, Ben. Thanks for reading and playing along.
Great story Blair. Having been through this a number of times I can attest that cultures are organic not a math problem you solve. They evolve and you try to make adjustments to guide it in the direction you envision. To me the joy is in trying lots of things and taking lots of steps none of which are guaranteed to work but believing that in the end the cumulative effect will bring out something along the lines of what you hoped for, maybe even better.The fun is in the journey, and it never ends. 🙂
“The fun is in the journey, and it never ends.” Oh, would it were that we could all truly grasp this! I would love to hear more about your work and experience in developing organizational cultures. Thanks for commenting, Scott.
I love the comments, Ben & Scott. I’m thinking about Buddhism for some reason. The opposite of “I want I want I want…” Sometimes the best way to get what we want is to be patient. Of course, as you point out Blair, it is necessary to set up conditions so you’re on the right track, but for the most part, letting go is the best way to gain.
Alternatively one could simply establish the lay of the law, but if you are trying to avoid command and control style leadership, then a certain degree of letting go and letting things evolve is necessary upfront. Thanks for stopping by, Dave!
I wonder if your good friend makes similar comments to members of his new team — “I thought you’d have more to offer than that.” Doesn’t seem like a comment that would engender much “fun, enthusiasm, or creativity.” Ironic, given the context of a fun, celebratory evening! I’m just guessing but maybe the issue wasn’t so much how to enhance the culture of the team but how to shift the leader’s unconscious behavior. Next time, invite ME over for the steak, too, and I’ll share a few thoughts with your friend.
All the best
Dan, that is so insightful of you, and is the stuff of another rich post. In fact, the way I saw it at the time was as if he were saying to me, “help me, but don’t you dare get in between me and my perfectionism!”
To his credit, he did collect himself and apologize, which bodes well for his leadership –but should he ask me for help again, I’ll send him to you!
You have been doing such yummy writing over at Unfolding Leadership and I really appreciate you taking the time to stop by. You are welcome for steak any time!