There is a CEO who was once the epitome of economic thinking. He then went through a crisis and discovered purpose, people and culture. He began to create a positive organization. Measures of employee engagement, customer satisfaction, and share price have all gone up and stayed up. When he became aware of the science at the Center for Positive Organizations, it gave him a language for what he was he was already doing, and he used the language and tools to speed the process. The last few years have been impressive.
As this man has led, his people have grown. Sometimes there were doubts about his positive aspirations and strategies. The organizational success, however, has changed doubt into belief. The thinking of the CEO has expanded. He now has a vision of doing more. In a recent meeting he shared the vision with his direct reports. He began with a surprising story.
He quietly talked of a prayer that was regularly offered in his family. The prayer suggested that we are what we think and our thoughts become reality. He indicated that when thousands of people align around the same thoughts that progress becomes unstoppable and that powerful new realities come into existence. I looked around the room and people were nodding.
He then went into a history that most of them shared. The company was once at such a low level of human and financial performance that it was difficult to see any positive alternative. He described a crucial meeting. He had asked some questions: What do we want to make of this company? Why and what do we personally believe that would lead to any given aspiration? How do we ground our given aspiration, and what would make it vivid? How can be become aligned around our aspirations?
He then sent his people away for an hour and asked them ponder and to write. When they returned he had each person share. People spoke from their hearts. Many told stories form their personal life. A pleasant surprise was that there was so much commonality and it was relatively easy to aggregate the responses and create a shared vision.
The CEO reviewed the notes from the meeting long ago and then said, “Everything we envisioned happened. Operational excellence, employee engagement, customer satisfaction, shareholder value, external reputation, and geographical footprint–all expanded and many exceeded our aspirations.”
Again, I looked around the room and the heads were nodding. He was recalling their collective, core story. It was no ordinary story. It was a sacred account of realizing potential in themselves and in others. To retell it was an experience in renewal.
The CEO moved to the present. He explained that he now believes that in addition to trying to be “best in the world,” a company can also become “best for the world.” It is natural to believe that the work of executives is to create a great organization that produces shareholder value. Focusing on anything else is illegitimate. Today it is fashionable for companies to do symbolic things for the greater good, but truly focusing on the issues of society is the work of government, not business.
He then said, “I think that this is our work–not symbolically but at scale. If the private sector does not change things, the problems will persist. I believe there is enough energy to do both the internal work and the external work and that one will feed the other. We are in a unique position to do things other organizations cannot do. Success will lead us to be seen in a new way and it will pull support for our core business.”
He then invited people to repeat what they did in that meeting long ago, to go off alone and answer the same questions they answered then. When they returned, each one shared. I hung on their every word. They shared many possible aspirations, envisioning futures that would normally be unspeakable. As they did, they were truthful about the perceived challenges, potential, and motivation. I was moved by comments like these:
- It feels like an add-on, an additional requirement on our limited energy.
- We would have to learn how to do what we do not know how to do.
- We would have to think and behave in new ways.
- We would have to be honest about the impediments and constraints.
- Resistance will be natural. We are going to have to lean in. We are going to have to work to open the minds of our employees.
- It is outside role expectations for the company and we will take heat. So I think it is about constancy: if we persist it will become acceptable over time.
- There are other companies doing versions of this. We can learn from them.
- The barrier is the conventional mindset. It is built on fear of failure and scarcity instead of abundance. I want to leave a legacy that persists long after I retire.
- The first time around I did not understand what we were doing, yet it resulted in more success than I could have imagined. I think we can do this.
- I believe what we are aspiring to do will have a magnetic effect. It will draw future employees and it will draw new investors. Many people are investing in sustainable companies.
- I think we have a unique opportunity to partner with some of our long-time adversaries and do things we could not have previously imagined.
- I think this company can become a catalyst, and I am prepared to make the journey.
- I want to do this because of my grandkids. We have an obligation to that generation. We need to plant the seed.
- I want my family to be proud of what we are doing. What we are aspiring too is aligned with my faith. We can move forward by failing frequently and often.
Creating a positive organization requires culture change and successful culture change is a function of belief in a vision. Most leaders struggle because they are actually managers who cannot create belief. What this case illustrates is that once you become a leader and create a positive organization, you have a very precious resource. It is belief in possibility. Because you have it, you can tap the past to create belief in a new future. It is a lesson every leaders should remember.
- Why did the group buy into such an unusual vision?
- How many people “want to leave a legacy that persists long after I retire?”
- How many people want their family “to be proud of what we are doing?”
- How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?