What Really Matters

February 7, 2012 / General /

By Shawn E. Quinn

Can you name the last 5 Nobel Laureates in Economics (or literature or any other area)?

Can you name the last 5 Academy Award winners for actress in a leading role?

Can you name the 5 richest people in the world?

I have a colleague who does an exercise where he asks 5 questions like the ones above.  20 people in a room can sometimes come up with one or two of the names for each question.  Sometimes they can’t think of any names for one or two of the questions.  He then asks 5 of the following kinds of questions to the group:

Can you name 5 people who have helped you out when you were going through a difficult time?

Can you name the 5 people who have had the greatest impact on your life?

People find it a lot easier to answer these kinds of questions.  My colleague then says that we spend most of our lives trying to get on the first list and we don’t even remember who these people are.  Working towards getting on the first list is fine but not if it means we lose out on making people’s second list of answers.

Working with executives who are leading change has allowed me to experience a number of consistent themes over time.  One of which is that leaders get caught up in believing they are only successful if they see big outcomes occur in a short time which create a lot of recognition for them – as they try to make it on that first list.  The problem is that change actually comes through thousands of micro moments in an organization that begins to impact culture.  Culture then influences how the employees behave and the kinds of outcomes the organization produces.   The problem I experience is that many leaders unknowingly end up spending a lot of their time and attention on the wrong things, even if they are serious about leading change.

I was sitting with a group of very senior people in an organization.  They had been through a 3 day workshop on Transformational Leadership and then received coaching sessions leading up to the second two day workshop.  At the beginning of the second workshop they were to report out on success stories.  People shared very powerful experiences of impacting a person on their team or influencing a group of people to change their direction in a way that would be more helpful for the organization.  Others discussed how clarifying who they are has helped them to take more ownership and be more energized in their work.  The room changed and people learned a lot from each other.

Even with the successful stories being shared there was a lot of hesitation in the sharing.  This was a transformational leadership program and no one could share a story about the larger organization being transformed.  I tried to point out that these stories were about themselves transforming or influencing another person or small group of people to transform.  Most organizational and cultural changes take years and are made up of thousands of moments like the stories they were sharing.  If they focused daily on influencing a few people toward a more positive direction, they would have done their part to help lead change.  People got it intellectually but many struggled with seeing small moments as being important enough to feel like they were being successful. For more change to happen in organizations the attitude and ideas about what success looks like need to be revisited. Both people and organizations must realize that change is not an overnight process. It is a living animal made up of hundreds of organisms all doing their part and working toward a larger goal. It is constantly transforming and adapting to fit the needs of the people and the organization and may look different from one day to another. True successful change takes time, small acts, and yes, patience.