After a morning of turmoil, Andy Bowen was relieved when the annual strategy session broke for lunch. It wasn’t the process of these sessions that had so upset Andy—actually the facilitator was one of the better ones he had come across in his 20-year career—but rather the fact that he was beginning to feel deeply isolated from his peers on the leadership team, and it was starting to make him feel downright uncomfortable.
Andy had joined Reilly Technologies just 18 months earlier, and was brought in to head a very successful new division. After months of discussion with Jenny McBride—the CEO and his chief recruiter—Andy was convinced that they were serious about moving into some new markets, a task that he was excited to help the company tackle. One benefit of the lengthy recruiting process was that Andy had gotten to know all members of senior management, and he had liked the whole team.
He still did, which made his realizations during the morning session all the more jarring. As this group of his peers headed for lunch, he trailed behind in angst, wearing an almost comical smile, a state that reflected the sharp contrast he felt between the conclusions they seemed to have reached that morning and the statement of values that had been launched with great fanfare just 4 weeks earlier. The morning conversation had been all about growth—how it might be realized, and what measures would help to deliver it. As he headed for the buffet table, Andy was pretty convinced that the intention of “imagination” was being overwhelmed by the pragmatism of “efficiency”. It felt like a glaring truth to Andy, how could the others not see it? Perhaps it was because Andy faced a considerably larger opportunity space and fewer stresses in his relatively new business unit one that remained small compared to the core businesses most of his colleagues were focused on, even though it was the fastest growing unit.
He knew that his colleagues appreciated the values implied by the ambition, “Co-Creating Imaginative Solutions,” but it seemed to him that most of those values didn’t quite make it into their thinking the same way they made it into his. That realization was accompanied by the strange feeling he had that his colleagues always seemed to draw different conclusions than he did from the same set of data. Early on, Andy had wondered if it was just his unfamiliarity with the language, but in recent months he had become more and more dispirited. During the morning session, even the most radical of ideas put forward already seemed rather incremental compared with the scale of organizational innovation that Andy found he and his sales team needed to point to in every single boardroom presentation, ones at the moment that were producing a steady stream of significant contracts. When your thinking and priorities for the business and company rarely matches your peers, what do you do?
Suddenly, a voice echoed across the hallway, interrupting his private reverie. It was Jenny’s. “What did you think of the morning?” she asked. Only a short pause was permissible before he would have to give a response, but he was lost for words. He thought that the vision conversation that morning had seemed to distress Jenny, but how could he be sure? He bought a little time by repeating the question, as if to make sure he had interpreted it correctly, but he knew an answer had to come quickly.
He also knew that Jenny was really asking him if he was going to stay on board, though she was far wiser than to ask such a binary question. So many of the senior leaders and even middle managers had been with the business for over a decade. Well paid, highly skilled in the nuances of fine-tuning the core business, they were masters at squeezing more “water from the stone” that yielded healthy bonuses for many (though perhaps not their customers), year after year.
In recent weeks, Andy had been reflecting on what was required for a brand to think imaginatively. The question had haunted him all morning. It was all very well to tout a brand that was all about “imagination”, but he found it to be a commodity in short supply amongst his peers in leadership. Nearly every comment all morning had been predictable, as if each colleague was programmed only to think in a certain reductionist and incremental way. As he began to form a sentence that would open his reply to Jenny, it was more than imagination that he needed to artfully convey his growing alarm – that would require a good helping of courage as well.
He knew it was time to begin. “Well, I’ve been thinking about it…” he stammered, “and I’m pretty sure that our conversation so far could not be described as, ‘co-creating imaginative solutions,’” he paused, then plunged onward. “In fact, since you asked, and at the risk of speaking out of turn, I’d say our thinking felt a bit more like ‘regurgitating predictable platitudes’ than anything else… and now that I’ve broken the ice, I’d be interested to hear what you really thought?”
How would you describe the way your organization thinks?