The Secret of Alignement

By Alec Corthay

One is the title of a famous song by U2. That song (one of my favorites) shares about the secret of unity.

That secret is worth a leader’s life-time pursuit. It is the doorway to multiple business gains in productivity, client satisfaction, revenue and so on. It is a path of leadership innovation.

Conventions, Secrets and Mysteries

There are conventions, secrets, and mysteries. In management, a convention is something most executives agree on, for example that “Specialists get better job offers than generalists” (when, in fact, the opposite is true), that “client is king”, or that “Money motivates people”. Unlike a secret and a mystery, a convention may or may not be true.

A secret may reveal how things work. Few executives know, for example, that what most motivates people is the feeling of making progress (money may, in fact, just do the opposite).

A secret is demonstrable. People tried to understand the relation among the three sides of a right triangle until Pythagoras came up.

Mutuality of Benefits

So why bother about unity? Because of the business case for unity. Studies demonstrate unity “works”:

Ten years ago, the President of a global food company I will not mention here asked: “What should be our level of profit?” That question was raised to the Board of Directors. The company could pressure suppliers in order to reduce costs, and maximize profits. But by doing so, the Board reasoned, it may also weaken its supply chain and put at risk its ability to deliver to customers. The Board opted for a policy of “mutuality of benefits” with suppliers. In the world of maximizing shareholder value, that policy was innovative. It is based on a belief that unity with suppliers is better than conflict. It fosters productive, sustainable development.

Companies that value unity over conflict are innovative. They cultivate what has been called the innovator’s DNA.

A preference for unity is also key to customer satisfaction. It has been referred to as the “symmetry of attention”. That expression suggests that the way you relate to your frontline employees impacts how they relate to your customers. As a Palace hotel, for example, attaining great customer satisfaction will be achieved through great employee satisfaction. For a great story about unity and customer service, read what appened to Taj Mumbai on the night it was assaulted by terrorists.

Not surprisingly, a preference for unity over conflict improves employee’s health. It also impacts their Safety (see Leadership in Safety, a white paper published by large industrial groups). Have you ever seen a happy employee who works in a conflictual environment? Or would you want to fly a plane that was built in a climate of fear and conflict?

What Unity Feels Like

Unity is difficult to grasp because we are accustomed to conflict, and because it is a rare thing to watch. Unity, I find, is better understood in the context of a team. Even in the seamingly most performing teams, there can be a whole lot of disagreement.

Unity is difficult to grasp because we are accustomed to conflict, and because it is a rare thing to watch.

One leadership team I worked with found that “growth” did not mean the same to all parties: for some, it meant growing the existing business, and building new operations for others. They worked at their objectives for 18 months until they finally realized they had different assumptions. This “assumption gap” resulted in a significant waste of resources and energy.

Another team found it perfectly OK to silence their objections during meetings, but then to act based on their objections rather than on the decisions made. Another would let outsiders make the real decisions “in the hallway”, while still running meetings “for the show”. These habits, some of which are cultural, are disharmonious at best and damaging at worst. They usually result in wastes of time and energy. They also weaken a leadership team’s credibility and ability to influence the company.

Contrary to what we may think, I have found that readiness for change calls for childlike qualities like wonder and playfulness.

Working with leadership teams, I have found that alignement (or unity) is more a process than an event. It takes time to build a one-minded team. At its most basic level, unity grows upon four building blocks:

  • Recognition: Recognition means valuing others. There is little more damaging for a team that when one feels unvalued, intimidated, or patronized.
  • Respect: Respect means creating space where others can discover who they are. Respect takes a lot of listening skills, as well as being patient and slow to anger.
  • Regulation: In that context, regulation means making decisions in agreement with one another, and aligning with it. Agreement-and-alignments skills are a make or break for teams.
  • Readiness for change: How can you tell your team will unanimously support the new strategy? Contrary to what we may think, I have found that readiness for change calls for childlike qualities like wonder, candor, and playfulness.

Teams that develop recognition, respect and regulation are more “one” than others. Their decisions are quickly implemented, thus accelerating the execution of strategy.

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