Lead to Win: Sustainability

November 27, 2016 | Lexy Thompson & Bill Gardner | HCI
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Revisiting unfortunate truth of leadership. 

In parts one, two, and three of our Lead to Win series, we discussed how leaders often unknowingly make the shift from playing to win, to playing not to lose.

Typically, four important aspects of successful leadership are impacted:

Innovation, Change, Communication, Sustainability

Last time we discussed how a lack of effective communication can cause a detrimental decline in accountability, essentially crippling an organization over time. Today, we’ll wrap up the series by focusing on how playing not to lose affects sustainability.

Understanding your mental models.

Your experiences, and your interpretation of those experiences, slowly and subtly lead to beliefs and assumptions, or mental models, that then drive your behavior. 

Those mental models may be driving you to play not to lose instead of playing to win.  We will present some “playing not to lose” mental models, as well as their antithesis “playing to win”, mental models for your reflection in each of the four areas mentioned above.  

The impact of playing not to lose.

So often, the people part of business, Human Resources (HR), is taunted by the saying “flavor of the month” when introducing new programs, learning or concepts to the business. What I would like to show you here is how playing not to lose caused the business leaders to fall into the “flavor of the month” trap they often accused HR of. As a result, the sustainability they were looking for was thwarted.

Dealing with turnover.

The SVP of HR at a manufacturing company was presented with a turnover report that caused the business leaders to be concerned about attracting and retaining the talent they needed to meet and exceed their customer expectations. The business leaders looked at the SVP and asked him what he was going to do about the turnover. The SVP was taken aback for a second as he was about to ask the same of them. 

After a deep breath, he shared he was equally concerned and his team was there to help develop and implement a plan to address both parts of the issue. He continued to share that the solution would need to include all the people in the room, and the business would ultimately be held accountable to the results. The room got cold and quiet.

The most senior leader stood up from his chair and shared that if that was the case, they didn’t need him or his team. He went on to share that the company culture was getting so far away from performance and results that the more he thought about it (45 seconds now) the more he felt they didn’t need HR at all. Everyone around the table demonstrated their agreement with head nods and sighs of relief. 

The SVP found himself in a place he was not prepared for— he had not seen this coming.  Because he already had his data ready to help, he knew there were things happening in the market that were compounding the issue. Not to mention, many of their new managers were not equipped to lead. “Would you like to review the report I prepared to help us address this concern,” he asked. The table refused and the meeting ended.

Swift reactions cause more problems.

What was not visible to the SVP of HR was that three executive leaders had been in meetings over the past month on how to address the concern without HR. They were looking at automating much of the process and felt that would solve the frustrations they were experiencing. Removing the “human” from Human Resources looked promising. This new idea, tool and process showed great promise in shifting their ability to attract the talent they needed. The leadership never spoke to the SVP about this idea or any other HR professional to vet the tool, feasibility and sustainability in their culture.

Their response to turnover was swift and drastic. There is nothing more likely to create swift, inaccurate change than the fear of losing—often our reaction is to play not to lose.  When this happens, we do not create the time or space to review lessons learned, pull all stakeholders together and slow down to move forward. This scarcity mindset creates a blind spot in our next move.  In this example, the leadership heard of a possible solution to their problem and, in the blind spot, started moving the “new shiny object” forward. The compounding event was the lack of connecting the dots to talk through integration of this possible solution. 

Had the leaders slowed down to review the SVP’s data, they would have learned two recent market changes had a direct impact in their turnover.  A competitor had targeted them as a source and had been very successful in pulling apart two intact teams. The second was the impact of three new leaders that were struggling managing an aging workforce. When those outliers were removed, their retention was flat compared to past data. Though the spike in turnovers was indeed a threat, it wasn’t one automation was not going to solve.

The importance of being curious.

Instead of their knee jerk reaction to solve the problem, the leaders would have been better suited getting into inquiry. By asking curious questions, they might have better understood the problem and created a plan that would effectively address the issue and be sustainable. In fact, getting curious is the easiest and quickest way to get out of a scarcity mindset and move toward abundance-based decision-making.

Examples of Curious Questions:

  • Before you acquire the “new shiny” thing, have you considered the ability to integrate it into your current system(s)?
  • Do you know and have you communicated the connection and leverage points of any new additions to your people, tools or process?
  • When the noise comes from the 20%, are you validating the “real” impact prior to installing new 100% policy/system changes?  Is the rule sustainable for the collective?

When we shift our mental model from playing not to lose to playing to win, the very landscape we are walking on changes. We ask questions, we look for integration points, we communicate the connections to optimize all tools, people and processes. We indeed slow down just long enough to allow sustainability to stay in view and for the solutions we create to be just that—sustainable.

Here are some beliefs, or mental models, about sustainability that can cause you as a leader to unintentionally sabotage your successful leadership:

Playing NOT to LOSE Mental Model  Playing to WIN Mental Model
“Flavor of the Month” in the name of innovation, not seeing the last “great” idea, tool or process When a new tool, idea, or process is introduced, look for the integration points and timing. Confirm that the “new” is complimentary rather than frustrates the current path.  Communicate the value add of the integration
Reactionary response to the minority— Responding to the 20% (the noise).  Change without the data and stakeholders to support the change Stop and make the inquiries needed to access the “real” impact. Address the gap for the 20% without a sweeping “rule” change for the whole
Lack of connecting the dots for team when presenting/demanding change Take the time to share the vision for the whole, point out connection points and confirm the team sees them and can create the action you are looking for with them
Throwing ideas around without clear communication on what is actionable and what is not Create clarity around ideas vs actionable items. This fosters sustainability of resources and results