Thoughts on Organizational Character

It’s amazing how much can be changed without changing anything. Work streams mobilized, problems identified, action plans captured, chairs rearranged, titles juggled, internal and external marketing spun, and teams inevitably disappointed. Sadly, I have become accustomed to being disappointed by the inability of organizations to do the right thing, at the right time, at the right speed. And that’s unfortunate.

I hate being cynical. I am an optimistic guy, and I put a lot of passion into the work I do. Clearly I am experiencing some degree of burnout — to pour myself into a job and a team, and not see things turn out the way I had hoped (it probably has more to do with the beautiful weather outside, with me stuck indoors). I can understand business change, having run a couple of my own companies, and in past companies having worked myself out of a job a couple times due to operational efficiencies I had helped champion. And don’t get me wrong — I love working for Microsoft, and don’t necessarily view this as something systemic to the company. But, generally speaking, I think this has everything to do with team cultures being unable to embrace reality, to find some organizational humility, and to make the changes necessary to heal. And when I say team cultures, I believe that culture is a direct reflection of the organization’s leadership.

One of the things that genuinely impressed me when interviewing for my current role was my final interview with one of the senior directors within my org — she asked a few questions that focused entirely on self awareness and humility. I liked that. We talked at length about the differences between leaders who can recognize fault within themselves and work to improve, versus those who were unwilling or unable to recognize issues. I appreciated that conversation, as it was a quality I too had recognized and sought after in previous hiring roles. The fact that it was important to this team was a factor in deciding to accept this offer. (I should point out that the Director, Kim Saxton, is one of my favourite leaders, and I am grateful to have her as part of this organization)

So why is it that strong leaders who “score high” individually, when added together with other high scoring leaders, don’t necessarily add up to a high scoring organization? Do we turn a blind eye to people we like personally, but who may not be doing the right thing/making the right decisions for the organization? How does this then change the overall organizational character, and team culture? Former CEO and author Dennis Bakke summed up his leadership approach, and I fully embrace this model:

My focus is to show how a leader can make principles and values, especially fun or joy, a significant part of an organization’s definition of success. My views may not get high marks from many top executives. Few embrace the central organizational principles I advocate, especially giving up power.

One of the most difficult lessons I have had to learn is that leadership is not about managing people. People are not resources or assets to be managed. Nor is leadership about analyzing issues and making big decisions. Leadership is about the leader’s character, not his or her skills.

Joy at Work: A Revolutionary Approach to Fun on the Job

There are always two sides to this: the company, and the individual. Organizations that believe you can simply train good leaders or send crappy managers through a week-long experiential learning event and suddenly have a well-functioning team are crazy, and yet the response to most leadership droughts is to throw some cash at the morale budget, send some people to training (or one person, followed by a brown bag) and hope for the best. Even the best-intentioned, thought-provoking, internally-questioning-cause-its-good-to-get-it-all-out sessions are like watering flowers: the flowers (good leaders) will appreciate the positive affirmations and the opportunity to dig into and discuss opportunities for further improvement, but it just further dampens the manure (the crappy managers). You need to look beyond the fact that your leadership team looks good on paper. They achieved great results last year, but at what cost? Are they the right leaders for next year?

And then there are the individual’s responsibilities: we own our own careers — nobody is driving them on our behalf. Burnout is largely caused by our own inability to moderate our passion over the course of our travels:

“I have to smile. As we speak, the ‘fast company’ ethos is crumbling, and the ‘slow company’ of bricks and mortar is roaring back with vengeance … and eating many a ‘fast company’ for lunch.

“The greed, speed, and ambition that have fuelled the fast company environment of the past five years have inspired great energy and technological advances. At the same time, they have spawned arrogance, burnout, and now, predictably, disappointment.

“Once again, a generation is confronted with questions of value in life: the eternal trade-off between a sane life in the long run versus a ‘big hit’ in the short run. The lottery mind-set that pervaded the Net revolution is now coming apart, leaving many players broken.

“They’re young, mostly, and will land on their feet. But it is time to remind them of the eternal and necessary balance between life and work, no matter how enticing the imbalance seems at times.

“We learn from defeat. We gain manners, humility, patience, humor, and determination. Or we become bitter blamers. The choice is ours. It always was.”

Mark Albion in FastCompany

And so here I am, at conflict with myself: reflecting on my own shortcomings (opportunities, as we call them here at MS), and on my personal/professional goals and ambitions. I am disappointed about how some of the year has played out, but overall proud of what I have accomplished this past year. And yet when I look to my next year of commitments, and what I want to accomplish, I struggle with seeing past failures of organizational character. If I knew that the leadership team was self aware of their opportunities, and had some level of humility in trying to resolve them, I think my next steps would be clearer…

 

[side note: as I was sitting here writing this, the song ‘Two Worlds Collide’ by Inspiral Carpets came up on my Zune. I hit replay a couple times, and it really just set the tone for my post 🙂 ]

Christian Buckley

Christian is a Microsoft Regional Director and Office Servers and Services MVP, the Founder & CEO of CollabTalk LLC, an independent research and technical marketing services firm based in Salt Lake City, Utah, and CMO of revealit.io, a blockchain-based video technology company.