The four obsessions of an extraordinary executive

four-obsessionsThe four obsessions of an extraordinary executive is another easy-read, high-return leadership book by Patrick Lencioni. This book describes a competitive advantage available to every organisation. It’s not about technology, strategy, marketing, or money. It’s about organisational health. Extraordinary executives and standout leaders are described as paying attention to the health of the organisation they lead. Healthy organisations put less drain on morale, time, energy, and output. There is less staff turnover and greater work place satisfaction. We all want our organisations to be like this. As a pastor, I want our church to be like this. The book recommends four leadership priorities that will help build such organisations.

#1 Build and maintain a cohesive leadership team

This is the most important discipline because it enables the others. It doesn’t come easily because it commitment from the leader and team. People must grow to trust each other. This means being willing to work through disagreements and issues together. It requires people willing to be vulnerable, and fight over issues often. The fights are not to be personal, but focused on issues and achieving the best outcomes for the organisation. People learn to ask difficult questions and challenge ideas. Others learn to respond without feeling threatened or taking things personally. Working to achieve cohesive teams requires the effort and investment of all the leaders.by ever but it’s well worth the effort.

Cohesive teams require trust, and an effective way of building trust is what Lencioni calls ‘getting naked’. Don’t worry! He’s not speaking literally. It’s about team members becoming comfortable with their colleagues seeing them for who they really are. There are various tools that can help with this. He suggests teams take the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test, which is a very effective tool for helping people understand each other. He also recommends The Wisdom of Teams by Jon Katzenbach and Douglas Smith, and his book The Five Temptations of a CEO as good books to help teams identify and address weaknesses and problems.

Sharing personal histories helps people get to know each others backgrounds, family circumstances, personal philosophies, hobbies, and interests. Spending time together is essential. And teams that have been through difficult times together can develop strong levels of trust, but it needs to be maintained by a willingness to address core issues.

#2 Create organisational clarity

Most executives profess to understand the importance of creating clarity in their organizations, but ironically, they often fail to achieve it.  (p151)

Organisational clarity isn’t about choosing the right words to describe mission, strategy, or values. It’s about agreeing on the underlying concepts that drive them. This type of clarity provides everyone throughout the organisation with a common vocabulary and set of assumptions about what’s important and what’s not. It builds a sense of unity around everything it does. Resources get aligned around agreed values, goals, and strategies.

These basic questions help the organisation to build clarity:

  • Why does the organisation exist, and what difference does it make in the world?
  • What behavioural values are irreplaceable and fundamental?
  • What business are we in, and against whom do we compete?
  • How does our approach differ from that of our competition?
  • What are our goals this month, this quarter, this year, five years from now?
  • Who has to do what for us to achieve our goals this month, this quarter, this year, next year, five years from now?  (p154-155)

#3 Over-communicate organisational clarity

Organisational clarity must be communicated throughout the organisation. This is the simplest of the disciplines, but a common point of failure. Much of the hard work in achieving clarity gets wasted through poor communication. Over-communication is much better than a failure to communicate. People might get sick of the message, but at least they get the message.

The three most critical practices of effective communication (are) repetition, simple messages, and multiple mediums.  (p168)

Some experts say that people need to hear a message six times before they begin to believe and internalize it. The problem is we don’t like to keep repeating the same message over and over.

We also need to avoid over-complicating important messages. In an age when people are bombarded by useless information, we need to be crystal clear about where our organisation is going and how people can contribute to getting there.

Multiple mediums help to get the message through. Most leaders have a preferred form of communication and stick to it. It could be large groups announcements, special meetings, emails, or communicating through other staff to the relevant areas. We need as many mediums as are required to hit the maximum number of people effectively. We need to tune into people’s preferred means of receiving messages too.

Lencioni believes the most powerful communication strategy in any sized organisation is ‘cascading communication’. After every executive staff meeting, there are usually important decisions that have to be communicated to the organisation. Sometimes people leave meetings with different understandings of what’s been decided and what needs to be communicated. So take a few minutes at the end of the meeting and ask the question, ‘What do we have to communicate to our people?’ This will show up what issues need clarification and which are ready to be communicated.

#4 Reinforce organisational clarity through human systems

Over-communication isn’t enough to maintain clarity in an organisation. Clarity must be reinforces by being built into the processes and systems that drive human behaviour. The challenge is to do this well without getting tied up in red tape.

There are four primary systems in an organization that reinforce clarity:

Hiring profiles
Employ people and appoint leaders who match the values of the organisation. Look at behaviour and seek to objectively evaluate if the applicant aligns with the core values. This is very different from asking ‘Did you like him?’ which tells you next to nothing about how they might fit with your organisation.

Performance management
This is not about filling in endless forms and having endless interviews. The goal is to foster good communication and healthy alignment. The best performance management is an ongoing dialogue, rather than an occasional event. This means managers and leaders need to make a priority of investing their time into other leaders.

Rewards and recognition
This system has to do with how organisations reinforce behaviour. Healthy organisations remove as much subjectivity as possible. They use consistent criteria for paying, recognising, rewarding and promoting staff. Recognition should be more about alignment to the organisation’s values than increased productivity.

Dismissal
Healthy organizations use their values, and other issues related to clarity, to guide their decisions about firing people. This prevents decisions being subjective or arbitrary and limits the costs to the people and the organisation.

Conclusion

The model described here is a holistic one: each discipline is necessary to achieve success. Different organisations will struggle with different aspects of the model. Some teams building trust but fail to put good systems in place. Others love strategy but lose interest in repeatedly communicating their plans.

Successful organisations are healthy organisations and leaders need to keep this their number one priority. Extraordinary executives focus on that above all else. The ability to identify a few simple things and stick to them over time is one of the most powerful tools any leader has. An executive who does this will be extraordinary and will often end up leading an extraordinary organisation.

Some thoughts on how this can impact church leadership teams

The focus on organisational health is important for churches. It’s easy to be swept up in the latest fads, establishing clear vision statements, adopting a special program, engaging new ministries, employing new staff, planting new churches… and fail to notice how unhealthy the church has become. We don’t want to reproduce sick churches. We don’t want to drive ailing churches toward terminal illness. So organisational health is critical. And we need to be biblically clear about what this should look like. A desire for God’s glory, love for one another, care for all, compassion for the hurting, submission to Scripture, humble prayer, passion to see people saved, a willingness to serve, growing leaders, sacrificial service, generous giving, and more.

Pastors and leaders can get so busy and caught up in chasing their tails that they fail to step back and focus on how and where to lead the church. We get so occupied in the ministry that we don’t have time to work on the ministry. If the pastor and leaders cant see the big picture because they are so buried in the detail, then church won’t know where it’s headed. We need to gain perspective. We need to look at the function of our churches as a whole. We need to evaluate our systems and determine what’s working, what needs changing, what needs axing and what needs adding. We need to open our calendars and determine ways to get ahead of the game, so that we’re not always reacting to the latest problem.

Senior pastors and overall leaders need to spend time with their ‘direct reports’. Associate pastors, elders, youth workers, children’s ministry coordinators, and so on. These are key people for creating clarity and alignment for the church. If the lead guy doesn’t do this, then he will soon discover that the church is headed every which way. People will fill the vacuum with their own ideas and priorities. Teamwork will be little more than an idea. The health of the church will suffer.

This Lencioni book is another opportunity to ‘spoil from the Egyptians’, as Augustine put it. Sift through the ideas, apply some uncommon sense, filter it through the message of the Bible, and improve the way you lead your church.

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