Chris White is Principal at Riverbank Consulting Group, and a faculty associate at Michigan Ross’ Center for Positive Organizations.
With all the talk about return-to-the-workplace policies and practices, I’m finding there’s much anxiety surrounding “The Great Resignation” and what leaders need to do differently to retain talent. The challenges are myriad, and it can feel like chaos out there. But, leaders: Don’t miss the forest for the trees.
Let’s be honest: While it seems everyone has an opinion, nobody knows the solution. Everyone is just doing the best they can. Be gentle with yourself and those around you. In a complex situation where there’s no straightforward, correct answer, the best you can do is learn your way to a new normal.
Your more significant problem is this: While you have been tenaciously playing the game, the playing field has shifted under your feet. Your underlying organizational culture has likely changed. I predict that your culture now isn’t what it was 18 months ago. Your culture may even be different from what you and your people want it to be.
You can likely sense this is true. After all, how could your culture have stayed the same, given what we’ve all been through individually, organizationally and societally during the pandemic? Based on my observations, many professionals are now soul-searching at a deep level, personally and collectively. You may even be doing some of this yourself for your own career and life choices. This contemplation goes much, much deeper than circular debates about how many days employees should work in the office each week.
But perhaps you can’t quite put your finger on what exactly has shifted in your company’s culture since the pandemic began. You might even feel like you are flying blind. “Am I imagining this?” you ask yourself. It’s an uncomfortable place to be. But your culture will settle toward a new normal. The only question is whether it’s a new normal of your choosing.
Some scholars believe that profound change often only happens when people face an existential crisis. Others think great leaders can create change in the absence of a crisis. There’s no doubt we’ve been experiencing a real emergency, and I believe leadership will determine what happens next for organizations and society.
In my TEDx talk, I spoke about the power of opening communication, becoming responsive and aiming higher. These steps are needed now more than ever. As a leader, you now must guide your organization in the exploration of four fundamental questions. They’re simple, but they aren’t easy.
1. Who are we now? “What has our culture become after our tumultuous 18 months?” This is a profoundly human question with immense organizational implications. Answering this question will require a process of compassionate and humble listening — and a skillful way of making sense of what you’re hearing.
2. Whom do we want to be? The “we” includes you as a leader. Your voice is essential. “We” also encompasses your leadership team and every single person in and around your organization. This dialogue is a shared journey — a common destiny. Where are you going together?
3. Where are we aligned, and where do we see things differently? Organizations aren’t homogenous. We’re all unique people with unique perspectives. You’ll have differences in opinion. Where do you and your leadership team agree on your answers to questions one and two, and where do you disagree? Where are your leadership team and the broader organization aligned, and where are there points of dissonance?
4. How can we close the gaps between where we are and where we want to be? There are always gaps between where we are and where we want to be. Some may think this is human nature, yet, it’s organizational nature, too. Great organizations embrace this and work relentlessly to define and close those gaps, celebrating success along the way.
Leaders, this is your moment. As Winston Churchill is known to have famously said during World War II, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” Choose carefully; what you do now will shape the culture of your organization.
My invitation is to choose sustainable success. The best leaders understand that sustainable success isn’t just about reaching the destination. Sustainable success comes from embedding a virtuous cycle of continual learning and growth, contribution and improvement. Sustainable success is about continually evolving toward being the best and most human versions of ourselves individually and collectively.
Don’t miss this opportunity to get back on the road to sustainable success — together.