What I Do When I Work (1/2)

Some time this week, it will have been 2,000 days since I started my own consulting practice. Even if I had only worked on two out of three of these days, and never more than 8 hours per day (both of which are probably underestimations), the total time I spent on doing what I do for work will by now have surpassed 10,000 hours. By common wisdom[1], these 10,000 hours equal the achievement of me really knowing what I do – “the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert – in anything”[2]. In my case, of course, these 10,000 hours are backed up by 12 years of experience in academia and 12 years of working with a global consulting firm, easily worth another 25,000 hours of experience each[3].

But back to the mastery I achieved over the last 10,000 hours of running my own business: What, you might ask, is the “anything” that I would now like to claim mastery in? Or, in other words, what do I actually do when I work these days?

In the proverbial nutshell, there are three fields of work in which I support my clients, and there are two significant underlying principles that I follow in all my work engagements. This post talks about the three fields of work; the following post will then say more about the two underlying principles.

Three fields of work

Developing strategies, organizations, and executive teams

Many executives turn to me when they embark on a new iteration of developing their company’s strategy, organizational setup, and/or leadership team. These days, practically everybody sets off for such endeavors by running a series of workshops with their management board. CEOs often want such workshops to be structured and run in ways that deliberately deviate from their teams’ day-to-day ways of working – in order to ensure that innovative ideas are brought out, limiting assumptions are exposed, and trust and commitment amongst team members are deepened. And indeed: It is highly unlikely that an offsite which feels just like any regular board meeting is going to produce industry-shattering perspectives[4].

In such cases, I work with executives to design and deliver their top team workshops on strategy development, organizational structure and culture, or team dynamics in ways which allow all participants to individually and collectively move forward effectively, efficiently, and with ease[5]. The topics of these workshops are those of highest relevance to my clients – and they are as different as the organizations they lead: Crafting an entity’s vision, its mission, its purpose, or its values; understanding industry trends, market dynamics, customer preferences, or competitor strategies; defining business models, assessing use cases, or evaluating supply-and-demand scenarios; reshaping organizational structures and processes, interfaces, or informal ways of working; tailoring lean, agile, design, digital or other methods to each organization’s needs and wants; upgrading a team’s or an organization’s habits of discussing, making decisions, cooperating, and communicating – and many more.

Progressing individual careers

Other times, executives reach out to me when they are looking for a thought partner to discuss, define and decide about the next steps in their personal careers. Leadership has always been a lonely path, and the more exposed someone becomes within and beyond their organization, the less they can bounce musings on personal career deliberations off those they are working with. At the same time, the leader’s family and personal friends might be sympathetic sounding partners for such deliberations, but only in very rare cases do they also bring a broad horizon of experience on professional careers and how they progress. CEOs preparing for or just starting on a significant change in their careers therefore often see the benefit of having their plans challenged, their beliefs calibrated, and their hopes and fears explored. In practice, just like most of us, even highly accomplished leaders feel better about their decisions when they have listened to others’ views on the matter – even if in the end they discard all advice incompatible with their initial ideas.

With such clients, I work in loosely structured sequences of shorter and longer meetings, both in person and virtual, taking the lead from whatever questions each person brings to each meeting to help their individual (outer or inner) journeys go smoothly. Again, the contents vary depending on who I work with: Some are thinking about their purpose in this world and their legacy in this life (or even beyond); some are planning their next career step within or outside their current company. Some are considering quitting a job and wondering about what to do next; some are just starting a new job and going through the first steps of defining how best to embody their new role and responsibility. Some are firmly rooted in their present organization, striving to bring their personal strengths to its purpose; some are stepping into new institutional settings, often also newly defining how they see themselves as leaders. With some clients, I talk just once or twice – with some I work over months or even a year or two.

Upgrading institutional cultures

Finally, executives often approach me with questions about how to change their organization’s culture. Sometimes they have identified features of organizational culture that they firmly believe in – and don’t see sufficiently practiced in their institutions. Sometimes they notice dysfunctionalities in the way people work – and cannot quite pinpoint the root causes for what is out of sync. These days, CEOs understand the power of aligning their organization’s culture with its strategic goals. At the same time, many leaders feel lost when it comes to choosing how exactly to further develop their organizations’ ways of working – not the least because of the vast amount of nicely packaged recipes for organizational well-being, cultural change, or transformational breakthrough currently on the market[6].

For such situations, my approach is first and foremost diagnostic: Analysing, on the one hand, what kind of changes in working together would contribute to whatever business goals my client is pursuing, and, on the other hand, what the shortcomings in the current ways of working are with regard to the changes needed. The former mostly happens in deep discussions with the core leadership team; the latter is achieved through interviews with a broader group of leaders and stakeholders throughout the organization. The result is a clear sense of the desired direction of change in institutional culture – as well as a thorough identification of obstacles in today’s culture preventing such change. And, here again, the specific stories vary: One company might want to move from hierarchical top-down decision making to distributed networks of power – while being stuck with implicitly rewarding leaders who overrule all diverging perspectives; another business might want to move from chaotic all-over-the-place initiative taking to clear prioritization of strategically relevant projects – while being stuck with never saying no to any new project in order to not demotivate managers and employees. I support both (and many others) in precisely defining which principles and practices to cultivate – and which to let go of.

* * *

In all three fields, my work is specific, not standardized; personal, not prescriptive; imaginative, not intrusive; conversational, not conventional. In the next post, I will talk about the two principles that inform and infuse this professional approach of mine.

[1] The “10,000 hour rule” made popular by Geoff Colvin’s “Talent is Overrated” (2008) and Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers” (2008).BACK TO TEXT

[2] A quote from neurologist Daniel Levitin, taken from Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers”, p. 40.BACK TO TEXT

[3] Using the same metrics as above.BACK TO TEXT

[4] And as an aside: The need for direction-setting debates to be different from day-to-day discussions is valid regardless of the prevailing organizational culture of a given institution. Just like a command-and-control-type company might benefit from flexible, networked, and creative methods to spark their thinking into disruptive wildfires, an agile entity with a strong culture of decentralized decision making might need strongly structured, process-heavy approaches to rise into new dimensions of rainbow-in-the-sky innovation .BACK TO TEXT

[5] In most cases, I’m personally present in these workshops as a facilitator. However, in a few cases, I’ve worked in the background, preparing the CEO to run the workshop herself –  who was then consciously wearing the triple hat of being a) the boss, b) a team member, and c) the facilitator.BACK TO TEXT

[6] In a recent interview (in German) with Management Radio, I elaborated more on what makes for effective cultural change – the recording is here [retrieved Nov 15, 2018].BACK TO TEXT

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