Sunday, May 8, 2011

Only YOU can prevent forest fires!

I have this picture of Smokey Bear on my office door.
On my poster I have written, "Prevention is our motto!"

Smokey Bear might seem like an odd choice for an IT department mascot.  But he is there for a reason: to remind me and my staff that it is far easier to prevent fires than to put them out.

One of the most valuable skills a leader can model is problem prevention and mitigation. A significant percentage of the problems most leaders encounter in a given day can probably be prevented from recurring, often by documenting business processes, revising policies and procedures, improving communication, etc. However, I have often observed leaders who are so busy putting out fires that they don't spend any time thinking about how to prevent them.  As a result, the same kinds of issues pop up repeatedly and people spend their days putting out fires instead of focussing on the bigger issues that are of long term benefit to the organization.  Leaders who operate this way are constantly stressed and so are their employees.  If this is your leadership style, you are negatively impacting your entire organization.

It isn't always easy, in the heat of the moment, to devote the extra time needed to determine the best way from preventing a problem from recurring. It is often easier just to move on to the next fire, because this kind of analysis is often hard work, and we may not reap the benefits of that analysis immediately. Yet I find that I have never once regretted spending time analyzing a problem and implementing preventative solutions.

When problems occur, it is human nature to ask "Whose fault is it?" However, I have learned instead to ask first, "How do we fix it?" And then, "How do we prevent it from happening again?"

As Smokey would ask: What are YOU doing to prevent forest fires?

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Thoughts on Organizational Culture Change

My husband recently did some consulting work for a company and had an interesting experience to share. Before every single meeting - no matter what the topic - someone presented a safety briefing. This practice was completely ingrained in the company culture. The topic could be about work or personal safety; anyone, even a junior employee, could stand up and give an informal presentation at the start of a meeting.

What my husband found so surprising was how enthusiastic everyone was about these safety presentations. Participants eagerly contributed, listened, and shared their own experiences; it was not just a hoop they had to jump through. This was not a small company, either; at the time he estimated that they had about 20,000 employees.

As this was a construction company, safety was paramount. But what impressed me about his description was how deeply the concept of safety was ingrained in the corporate culture, and how immediately apparent it was to my husband, coming in from the outside. And it got me thinking about the whole idea of developing an organizational culture, and the impact that a leader has, good or bad, on influencing that culture.

In the hustle and bustle of everyday business, I think it is easy for leaders to forget how much influence they have on their organization's culture, and how important it is for them to do a regular "reality check" as to whether their words and actions are aligned with the cultural principles they claim to support.

How often do a leader's actions undermine their stated intentions with regard to their organizational culture? How many leaders believe themselves to be open-minded, but shut down when someone tells them something they don't want to hear? How many supervisors think that they are supportive and generous bosses, but go around gossiping behind other people's backs? How often do leaders state their support of a business process, yet behave in ways that undermine that process?

Developing or influencing a culture for the better requires that leaders:

1. Embody the principles that they wish to inspire through their words and actions
2. Clearly communicate their expectations and check to make sure those expectations have been understood
3. Support their staff in ways that enable that culture to take root

Often, this is easier said than done. It is easier just to hang motivational posters on the wall. But when I think about the culture of safety embedded in that company my husband worked with, I am reminded of the benefits and of the responsibility that we, as leaders, hold.

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