What I Do When I Work (2/2)

Executives engage in conversations with me on topics high on their agenda because of the 10,000s of hours of consulting experience I bring to the table[1]. They value the fact that I have seen literally hundreds of businesses, worked with literally hundreds of managers, and observed literally hundreds of organizations in their specific ways of functioning – or dysfunctioing. Being experienced managers themselves, the dreams they bring to our working together are not the ones that can be realized using pre-fabricated cookie-cutters. At the same time, these leaders come with a solid intuition that their dreams are also not evasive pies-in-the-skies, but can be boiled down into quite achievable real-world scenarios. So what they seek me out for is help in identifying the unique set of measures to take to come as close as possible to realizing their dreams – for the organizations they lead and for themselves.

Two underlying principles

In my previous post, I described the three fields I usually work on in my client engagements: Developing strategies, organizations, and executive teams; progressing individual careers; and upgrading institutional cultures. I ended by emphasizing that my approach is always specific, personal, imaginative, and conversational. These characteristics are deeply rooted in two underlying principles that I follow throughout everything I do (not only when I work, by the way): The singularity of success, and the power of prejudice.

The singularity of success

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”. These are the famous opening lines of Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina”. A look at today’s business writing reveals that, apparently, common consulting wisdom has come to the conclusion that: “All successful companies/managers are alike”, or – to give credit to a slightly more sophisticated interpretation of what might be meant – at least: “Looking at successful companies/managers, we can extract patterns which can then serve as guidelines to make other companies/managers successful”. Famous business classics like Stephen Covey’s “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” (1989) or James Collins’ “From Good to Great” (2001) have firmly established the belief that looking at examples of successful individuals or enterprises will teach other individuals or enterprises what to do in order to become successful themselves[2]. The omnipresent stories and lists of things successful (or famous, influential, rich, beautiful, etc) people do are based on this very same assumption, as if adopting certain behaviors would immediately make everybody as successful as those role models – from wearing the same outfit every day, to never skipping dinner with the family, and from knowing every single employee’s name to delivering rock star performances in front of investors or customers.

I love stories, and I very much respect the persuasive power of a good example. But: In my work over the years, I have seen that factually each successful company (and each successful manager) is successful in their own way. Of course, we can all learn from looking at what others do (or don’t do), and we can copy and paste bits and pieces of others’ attitudes and behaviors into our own maps and journals. However, the art of learning consists in knowing how to decide what to imitate – and what to ignore. Copying too much is either stupidity or superstition – copying too little is either arrogance or cowardice. Every single time, with my clients, I walk the fine line between the specificity and personalness of each individual’s and institution’s particular situation – and the manifold ways in which each of them is similar to, comparable with or even the same as others. Carefully sifting through why, when and how to borrow ideas, inspirations, or methods of implementation – and why, when and how to create unique visions, aspirations, and tailormade practices: This is both the joy and the challenge of working with leaders who understand the singularity of success and are committed to discovering their own path as they walk.

The power of prejudice

Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” was published 65 years before “Anna Karenina”, and at first glance, its opening line appears even less nuanced: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife”. At second glance, however, this line invites the reader to take an investigating stance towards what is being said: It what is being said really a truth universally acknowledged? And if so, does that mean that it is a universal truth? In other words: The simple fact that the supposedly universally acknowledged truth is earmarked as such opens the mind towards considering that, in the end, this might not only not be a universally acknowledged view – and much less a universal truth. In that sense, it is precisely not what the title of the novel evokes: It is not prejudice, because it it not prior to being subject to judgment. So much for the multi-layered wisdom of Jane Austen – how, then, is this relevant to my work with clients?

All human activity is based on assumptions, and without unconscious, internalized or automated assumptions none of us would be able to cross a city street, go grocery shopping, or have a chat with a friend. Sometimes, however, such assumptions lose their validity and get in our way – and this is when they become prejudice, i.e. preconceived views that narrow our field of judgement and choice. Even if it was once a life-saving decision to run away from striped snakes, because they were always venomous, it’s now a mostly useless motion to flee from striped ropes accidentally left on the floor of a meeting room after a creative team building exercise. And in the same vein, it would be lethal to pick up the venomous striped snake escaped from the zoo assuming that it was just another one of those team building ropes. So: Identifying, piercing, and then consciously adopting or rejecting assumptions is a crucial skill in all walks of life – and even more for leaders who have the power to create, maintain, or destroy the predjudices held in their organizations. When I work with executives, my aspiration is always to find and name the assumptions which limit them and their organizations – and then either shatter these predjudices to make place for other (more helpful) frames of mind, or embrace them purposefully and with intention. This takes imagination on all sides, and it is an eminently conversational experience in which leaders get a taste of the first hand feeling of accessing a new dimension of seeing themselves and their organizations.

* * *

My work is anchored in these two principles, firmly believing both in the uniqueness of each individual and institutional story and in the human mind’s ability to shed limiting views. In these two aspects, indeed, all successful leaders are alike.


[1] This is the second of two posts describing what I do when I work, written on the occasion of me completing 2,000 days of running my own consulting practice The first part is here [retrieved Nov 16, 2018] .BACK TO TEXT

[2] The very concept of the highly prestigious Harvard Business Review (which I like to read every other month) relies on this logic, as every single of its articles tells a story of a specific company (or sometimes individual) and then retrieves learnings for the reader how to benefit from what worked in that particular case.BACK TO TEXT

Respond to What I Do When I Work (2/2)

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