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The Advantage

By Patrick Lencioni

(Jossey-Bass, 216 pages, $33.95)

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These days we hear lots about the importance of organizations being nimble and innovative. But California-based consultant and best-selling author Patrick Lencioni puts the focus on two other attributes: being smart and healthy.

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Smart organizations are good at the classic fundamentals of business such as strategy, marketing, finance, technology and innovation. But that’s only half the equation for success, even though it swallows up much of executive time. It’s equally important for a company to be healthy, even if that side of organization is usually neglected by top executives.

For Mr. Lencioni, healthy refers to a company that is whole, consistent and complete. Management, operations, strategy, and culture fit together neatly, and make sense. There is minimal politics, minimal confusion, high morale, high productivity, and low turnover.

“The single greatest advantage any company can achieve is organizational health. Yet it is ignored by most leaders even though it’s simple, free, and available to anyone who wants it,” he writes in The Advantage.

It’s not complicated, just basic stuff. And that’s the problem. He believes the reason so many organizations are unhealthy is because executives find the basics are too simple, beneath them. They would rather be sweating over complicated spreadsheets and creating brilliant strategy.

He wants leaders to focus on four key factors: building a cohesive leadership team; creating clarity; communicating that clarity enthusiastically and repeatedly to staff; and reinforcing clarity through a few critical, non-bureaucratic systems.

At the core are cohesion and clarity. Mr. Lencioni frames a series of practical steps to achieve them. He finds too many organization have artificial harmony, as they try to avoid conflict. While you don’t want destructive combat, with people at each other’s throats, he insists that you need some degree of direct, honest disagreement on issues so that ideas are thrashed out and a viable path determined.

“Two people who trust and care about one another and are engaged in something important should feel compelled to disagree, and sometimes passionately, when they see things differently,” he observes.

Leaders, therefore, must mine for conflict in meetings, looking for and exposing potential and even subtle disagreements. When people start to disagree in a meeting, the leader should interrupt to advise them that what they are doing is valuable; this helps them to overcome any guilt that might prevent them from continuing to engage in healthy but uncomfortable conflict.

“The reason that conflict is so important is that a team cannot achieve commitment without it,” Mr. Lencioni writes.

“People will not actively commit to a decision if they have not had an opportunity to provide input, ask questions, and understand the rationale behind it. Another way to put this is, ‘If people don’t weigh in, they can’t buy in.’”

But debate is not enough. At the end of discussions, cohesive teams take a few minutes to ensure that everyone sitting at the table is walking away with the same understanding of what has been agreed to, and what they are committed to do.

Mr. Lencioni stresses the importance of values in determining how a healthy organization will behave. Too often, he says, we try to make our values mean all things to all people, coming up with umpteen “core” values.

He suggests you separate your organizational values into four streams:

Core values

These should be limited to two or three behavioural traits inherent in the organization, such as the airline he cites that refuses to hire anyone who doesn't have a sense of humour about themselves as well as life. They are truly core values if you are willing to be punished for living them. They are not designed for convenience or cosmetic appearance.

Aspirational values

These are characteristics the company wishes to have but for now are just wishful thinking. He recalls working with a chief executive officer who wanted the company to list “sense of urgency” as a core value, but nobody in the organization, including that CEO, felt it described current behaviour. Naming it as a core value would be hollow; instead, it became an aspirational value, something to work toward.

Permission-to-play values

These are the minimal behavioural standards required in an organization, the table stakes that every organization should deem essential (values such as honesty, integrity, respect for others). Often they appear on lists of core values, but shouldn’t. “Although they are extremely important, permission-to-play values don’t serve to clearly define or differentiate an organization,” Mr. Lencioni says.

Accidental values

These are traits that have come about unintentionally and don’t necessarily serve the good of the company. For example, one day you notice most of the staff is drawn from the same socioeconomic group, or wearing similarly hip clothing.

This book is a departure for Mr. Lencioni, given that it isn’t a fable like several of his other hits ( Death by Meeting, Getting Naked, Three Signs of a Miserable Job, to name a few). But like those fables, it’s clear-eyed, practical and highly absorbing. You can’t help but re-evaluate areas where your own leadership approach is weak, and walk away with ideas for improvement.

*****

Postscript

At the end of a typical two-day off-site meeting for leadership teams, consultant and best-selling author Patrick Lencioni leads management through an exercise to build the accountability needed for a team to perform well.

He asks everyone to write down one thing that each team members does that makes the group better – not technical skills, but ways they behave that enriches the team. They repeat the process for one aspect of each person that sometimes hurts the team effort.

Then, starting with the leader, they go around the room, asking for everyone to report on that individual’s positive characteristic. The individual can then provide a one-sentence reaction, before the group moves on to the negative, in similar fashion.

It takes about one to two hours, depending on the size of the team, for everyone to be addressed; at the end they are usually amazed by the direct, honest feedback they have shared and how productive it is to hold themselves accountable.

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