When you're at your best

For the past few years we’ve been building up our identity through an inventory of linguistic set pieces. “The Few and the Many” is one. “What does good look like?” is another. A new one that we’re beginning to move into place is that your cultural ideals are a description of “Who you are when you’re at your best.” The core language of this set piece goes like this:

The culture you aspire to is not detached from your current reality. It’s just not everywhere, all the time, in full bloom. If you travel around your company, you’ll find your cultural ideals in play now and then, here and there, more or less. So we’re asking you to step up in a big way, but not to step outside of what’s real. We’re aiming for consistency across time and place and uptake, to be “at your best” more often, in more places, with greater clarity.

Several years ago I was part of a team that was creating a management conference for a multi-billion-dollar international subsidiary of a U.S.-based corporation. Their president told us this: “I have 42 country managers who were selected for their ability to execute a plan and deliver a financial commitment. Now I need 42 country managers who have great imaginations. Because our future depends on our ability to re-invent the marketplace in every country.”

I asked for five or six people who had created some kind of change, on some scale, in some part of the world. And soon I was on the phone with individuals in South Korea, the U.K., France, Dubai, and Argentina. We built a change narrative around their stories and made it the centerpiece of the meeting. Rather than just advocating a more imaginative approach, we were showing them “what good looks like.”

The next year they wanted us to do it again, and again I was on the phone to all parts of the world. The stories were slightly better versions of the first round — heroic, individual, one-off bursts of imagination at work.

In the third year, however, there was a remarkable difference. The stories were clear examples of strategic initiatives involving teams and networks of people effecting institutional imagination — evidence of a widespread culture of imaginative leadership.

In three years they had exploded from a group that was at its best “now and then, here and there, more or less” to one that was demonstrably at its best “more consistently across time and place and uptake.”   

Bill @ sr4