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Investing our people in our problems

In May 2018, I was invited to spend a few days in a university library's restricted collection section studying the journals, calendars, and letters of the founder of what had become a leading international consulting firm. It was a fascinating way to learn the organization from its beginnings -- and to experience the visionary leader who helped make it what it became.

On one of the journal pages, there was a fascinating exchange that has stayed with me. The founder described being cornered by two of his leading consultants in a hallway after a meeting. They demanded raises for the coming year. They told him that the company would not be what it was without them. They told him how important they were to the organization's future. In his journal, the founder recorded that he didn't say anything back, that he couldn't think of anything to tell them. And then, he offered an explanation why. "I realized that I had not told them about our budget problems, about anticipated shortfalls and potential layoffs. They didn't know any of that. I realized that they were invested in themselves and not in our collective problems, not in our collective work. And that was my fault."

"They were invested in themselves and not in our collective problems, not in our collective work. And that was my fault."

It's not every leader who could or would reflect critically and constructively on such an exchange. Not every leader could see how their actions -- or in this case, inactions -- contributed to such a request. Rather than grow angry with or resentful of the two consultants, this founder saw something he could do differently -- he could figure out how to invest his people in the organization's problems and not just in its profits or payroll.

This is a delicate balance, of course. Sharing our organization's problems with our staff invites their participation in addressing those problems. It welcomes their skills, talents and creative energy. At the same time, though, it also invites them into the uncertainties and anxieties of organizational leadership. Because of this, what we share and how we share really matters. (And there are problems that we cannot share with everyone in our organizations because of the sensitivity of the problem.)

Take the example of the consulting firm. Had the two consultants known about the budget situation, they might have brought their professional experience and expertise to the challenge of the budget shortfall. They might have helped the founder think differently about monthly cash flow or alternative revenue models. They might have found a new urgency in their work identifying and recruiting new clients. But they also might have been paralyzed wondering who would be the first to be laid off or if the company would close. They might have dedicated time, effort and energy to search for their next professional position instead of helping the organization address its financial challenges.

So, how could the founder have harnessed the best that his employees could offer without debilitating them with worry? Perhaps, it is the way the leader explains the challenge before the organization that would matter here.

Values-driven leadership is essential in moments like this.

At Saison, we believe that clear values-driven leadership is essential in moments like this. Let's say that transparency and mutual accountability are two of your organization's core values. Honoring those values in a time of financial challenge, you as the leader would share the problem openly. But then, you would also explain how those same core values will guide your organizational response to your challenges. You might say something like, "we will communicate with you clearly throughout this time. While we face significant challenges, our commitment to each of you is that you have a job as long as you want one. What we ask of you, in return, is that you give us your best effort so that together we can build a future will be better than the present." It's transparent and invites mutual accountability. It reminds your colleagues of your values even as it calls forth their better angels.

A quick aside. The assumption in this example is that your organization has done the work of identifying your core values and has made them a central touchstone of your life together (beyond just putting them on a poster on the wall or at the bottom of the letterhead). At Saison, we don't take that work for granted; in every client engagement, we spend time clarifying values and their meaning in your organization. We have known too many organizations that don't have clear core values or a shared understanding of what those values mean for day-to-day work, and frankly, when difficult times come, as they inevitably will, that hobbles an organization's response.

Back to the larger point. In this season when so many businesses and business models have been upended by COVID-19, now is the time for us to invest our people in our organizational problems. Let them surprise us. Let the way that we live our values help us find a better way.

If not now, when?

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