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.

Custom make your own conference

This time last year I was enjoying the Geneva Push In the Chute conference in Melbourne. I gathered with others from all over Australia, young and old, from a range of denominations, to encourage each other in the work of planting new churches. In some ways, I was the middle-aged pinup boy, heading to the Top End to begin all over. It was exhilarating to feel the energy, especially from those who were moving to new places to reach out with the message of Jesus. I had the privilege of teaching on why we need to keep planting new churches, how to build ministry teams, as well as sharing our specific dreams and plans for outreach in the Darwin area.

This year, I’m unable to attend. I’d truly love to be at the conference, listening to Don Carson teach, finding out how some of the new churches are travelling, and generally being encouraged to keep on with the work of ministry. However, health, other commitments, and distance are keeping me away this time round.

Depending on our networks, some of us could spend an awful lot of time at conference after conference. In my case, I get drawn towards church conferences, FIEC conferences, men’s conventions, CMS summer schools, Geneva Push conferences, MTS conferences, AFES conferences, FOCUS camps and conferences, RUPA conferences, Easter conventions, Arrow Alumni conferences, AFES staff and regional directors conferences, speaking at other camps and conferences, and the list could go on!  Sometimes it’s simply too much and not all of them are always that relevant. I understand that I’m there for what I can give as well as what I might get, but there are times when I just crave to focus on some particulars and we just don’t go there.

3stoogesI thought I’d share a do-it-yourself idea that I came up with a couple of years back. I customised my own mini-conference that just involved 3 or 4 people. Our church was going through a few strategic and structural changes and I was keen to gain wisdom from others in thinking through these issues. I made contact with a couple of other senior pastors, whose churches were at a similar size and stage, and we organised to set aside two half days to talk things through together. I took a colleague with me, and we flew to Brisbane to catch up with the other guys.

In order to maximise our time together, I wrote up a couple of pages of topics and issues that I was keen for us to discuss. This helped us to think ahead and to stay on topic in the limited time we had together. Each of us had been reading one or two of the same books that had been shaping our thinking about ministry, and so we were able to interact with these ideas also.

I confess to driving the agenda because there were things that I was keen to nut out. We were able to explore how each of us approached different ministry issues, what our churches were doing in a range of areas, how we planned and organised, and more. Talking together afterwards revealed that each of us had benefited in different ways through our time together.

Some of my peers do a similar thing from time to time, so as to focus on their preaching. They meet together for a couple of days, share ideas for a series of talks, preach and critique each others sermons, discuss their exegesis or illustrations or applications, and show how they’ve integrated the preaching with a series of Bible studies.

The advantage of these do-it-yourself mini conferences is that they are tailor-made. You meet for a clear purpose, you contribute to that purpose, and you get out of it what you put into it. It can be organised around your timetables and calendars. You can do it in-house if you have a large staff team, or you can coordinate with others in other places if you’re more isolated. This strategy will work to connect people in similar types of ministries also. Children’s workers can get together with other children’s workers … so can youth workers, women’s workers, executive pastors, small group coordinators, evangelists, school chaplains, and so on.

If you want to make the most of your time, then I recommend you consider the following:

  • agree on the main purpose of your conference
  • put together an agenda or list of issues to be discussed and allow time for people to prepare in advance
  • consider a book or two, or other resources, that are related to your issues, and get people reading these in advance so as to inform your discussion
  • clear your diaries of other commitments and meet in a comfortable place that is free of distractions
  • pray for each other throughout your time together
  • take notes of ideas and have someone distribute a follow up summary of discussion and ideas
  • contact each other a few weeks after your conference to see how things have progressed.

As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.  (Proverbs 27:17)

Silos, politics and turf wars

silosPatrick Lencioni is the guru of team work. His book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, is the place to begin. Then add Death by Meeting and Silos, Politics and Turf Wars and you’ve got an excellent tool kit for tuning up your team. This book is written primarily for executives in business who are seeking to align their organisations, departments and staff. I read it as the lead pastor of a church with multiple congregations, specialised ministries and a growing staff team. It helped me identify a number of areas that had been hampering our effectiveness as a team. The subtitle sums up its main message: about destroying the barriers that turn colleagues into competitors.

Our church would probably be considered mid to large on a scale of size and complexity for churches in Australia. We have three congregations meeting each Sunday (at one point we had four). There are forty to fifty small groups meeting throughout the week. We have children’s and youth ministries happening at various times and reaching around 250 young people. The church has sent and supports a number of home-grown missionaries. We provide staff and resources to university ministry on four local campuses. There are ten pastoral staff and seven ministry apprentices employed to work with the church and its associated ministries. All this means that we face many challenges in keeping people focused and cohesive as we pursue our mission together.

These challenges are experienced at a staff level with people on the team having different areas of responsibility. Some staff are deployed to work across multiple congregations, taking responsibility for connecting or growing or serving. Some have primary teaching/preaching responsibilities, whereas others work mainly with individuals and small groups. Some staff oversee teams on the different university campuses. One directs the youth ministry, another the children’s ministry, and another the ministry among international students. Some work from a church office, others work mainly from home, and a couple are most likely to be found in a coffee shop! It can be difficult getting everyone together, let alone working as a highly functioning team.

When it comes to team meetings that are working on church issues, it’s easy for the campus ministry staff to feel disconnected. If we spend time planning or reviewing the kid’s ministry, it might seem entirely unrelated to needs of the international student ministry. Different departments of the church can end up in competition for attention, people, budgets and resources. It’s easy to feel like my area is the most important and to resent the time wasted engaging with others’ concerns. Silos can arise in any organisation and growing churches are not immune. Sadly, divisions are far too common in churches. They can be found among staff and other leaders, and sometimes they can polarise whole congregations against each another. It’s so tempting to focus on ourselves and our areas of responsibility, and to forget that the church is called to a unity of people and purpose.

Silos, Politics and Turf Wars is full of practical wisdom for getting people and organisations together on the same page, supporting one another, sharing our problems, and celebrating our various successes and achievements. Lencioni offers a model for combating silos, consisting of four components:

  • A thematic goal
  • A set of defining objectives
  • A set of ongoing standard operating objectives
  • Metrics

Lencioni argues that determining the thematic goal is the key to aligning the organisation and its people. He defines this as a single, qualitative focus that is shared by the entire leadership team – and ultimately the entire organisation – and that applies for only a specified time period. (p178) This is different from a long-term vision, a five year plan or a ‘Big Hairy Audacious Goal’. It’s designed to focus the organisation over the next six to twelve months and provide clarity about what’s most important on the agenda over this period.

There should only be one thematic goal. If everything is considered equally important, then nothing ends up being important. However, the thematic goal needs to be broken down into a number of actionable defining objectives. These are the building blocks that clarify what is meant by the thematic goal. Everyone needs to be committed to these objectives, regardless of the role they have within the organisation.

The standard operating objectives are different. These are the objectives that don’t go away from period to period. These are the things the organisation needs to keep monitoring regardless of the current thematic goal. Depending on the business, these might include such topics as revenue, expenses, customer relations and so on. These aren’t the type of things to rally the organisation around, but they do require constant attention.

Once the thematic goal, the defining objectives, and the standard operating objectives have been established, it will now be important to measure progress. The leadership team will need to establish appropriate metrics.

Lencioni includes a number of fictional, but realistic, case studies at the back of his book. One of these case studies depicts a church and I will reproduce it (with modifications) to demonstrate how this model might work in practice. Don’t judge the details, but simply consider the illustration!

Situation:
Attendance at weekly services is up. More and more people are coming each week. The building size is limiting further growth. Regular giving is increasing. Many new people are not in small groups or serving in the life of the church.

Thematic goal:
Expand to enable healthy continued growth.

Defining objectives:
Add another Sunday service.
Offer more small groups.
Train more leaders for groups and other ministries.
Develop an integration process to assist newcomers into groups and ministry areas.
Add another member of staff.

Time frame:
One year.

Standard operating objectives:
Maintain attendance growth.
Maintain quality follow-up of all newcomers.

Maintain quality of Sunday services.
Maintain regular giving.
Increase numbers of people in small groups.
Maintain support and equipping for all leaders.

If you’re part of a growing organisation, and things are becoming more complex, and you’re keen to ensure people are clear on their roles and working as a team, then I expect you’ll find this a useful book. I recommend that you read The Five Dysfunctions of a Team before you read this one, because it’s more foundational and you’ll discover that they complement each other nicely. Like most of Lencioni’s books this is written as a ‘leadership fable’ so it’s very easy to read and the points are clearly summarised in the final section.

The five dysfunctions of a team

My wife thought that my last book review was a bit random in a blog that had focused so far on our personal journey! But my plan is to include diversity and focus on a range of issues. In particular, I’m keen to spotlight books on a range of topics that I believe will be helpful to others. As I’ve spent nearly all my working life as a church pastor, I hope to review a number of books on topics such as ministry, leadership, teamwork, theology, church and the like.

One of the most readable and helpful books I’ve found on the topic of teamwork is Patrick Lencioni’s The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A leadership fable. I read the book cover to cover in one sitting at my favourite coffee shop. In fact, I remember wishing that all books were written like this one. Hook you in with a story, keep you wanting to know what happens next, develop the key points throughout the story, and then summarise the theory at the end. More importantly, I was hooked because I could see myself in the story. I could relate each of his points to our staff teamwork (or lack thereof). I knew that this was a book that I would keep buying and giving others to read. I got hold of a video of Lencioni teaching on the topic and we had a staff retreat to discuss our teamwork. I purchased the workbook and have used it in team contexts. I’ve given the book to rugby players and coaches, pastors, headmasters, CEOs and other team leaders. And I’ve recently ordered the Manga version!

The easiest way to summarise the content is by quoting from a brief article on Lencioni’s own website:

Dysfunction #1: Absence of Trust

This occurs when team members are reluctant to be vulnerable with one another and are unwilling to admit their mistakes, weaknesses or needs for help. Without a certain comfort level among team members, a foundation of trust is impossible.

Dysfunction #2: Fear of Conflict

Teams that are lacking on trust are incapable of engaging in unfiltered, passionate debate about key issues, causing situations where team conflict can easily turn into veiled discussions and back channel comments. In a work setting where team members do not openly air their opinions, inferior decisions are the result.

Dysfunction #3: Lack of Commitment

Without conflict, it is difficult for team members to commit to decisions, creating an environment where ambiguity prevails. Lack of direction and commitment can make employees, particularly star employees, disgruntled

Dysfunction #4: Avoidance of Accountability

When teams don’t commit to a clear plan of action, even the most focused and driven individuals hesitate to call their peers on actions and behaviors that may seem counterproductive to the overall good of the team.

Dysfunction #5: Inattention to Results

Team members naturally tend to put their own needs (ego, career development, recognition, etc.) ahead of the collective goals of the team when individuals aren’t held accountable. If a team has lost sight of the need for achievement, the business ultimately suffers.

As our staff team explored these ideas together we recognised each of these dysfunctions in varying degrees. We wouldn’t have said that we lacked trust in each other, but the fact that we avoided conflict showed we did. We’d describe ourselves as a team, but in some ways we were functioning as a bunch of individuals who got together now and again. It would often take forever for us to make changes or implement ideas, and yet we’d claim to be focused on getting things done.

This book has been around for a few years now and my guess is that many of you will have read it and found it helpful. But if you haven’t got into it, then let me give it a rap by sharing a few stories.

A senior pastor friend was sharing with me about how his staff team was fragmented, with one person in particular only interested in his own agenda. Everyone was uncomfortable with the dynamic that had set in, but no one knew how to address it. I sent my friend a DVD of Lencioni speaking on this topic and a copy of the book. The team watched the video and it was like having a consultant critique the team, and highlight the dysfunctional behaviour. The book then offered a framework for moving forward.

Another friend heads up an international software company. To describe the employees as a team is probably pushing it because the people don’t spend much physical time together. Some of them do, and a couple of them were creating chaos by refusing to communicate with each other. My friend was required to fly across to the other side of the world to resolve a spat between highly intelligent professional people who were refusing to talk with each other! So I gave him a copy of the book to read on the plane. He found it gave him a framework to tackle the issues and break the impasse.

Sometime back we were interviewing people for a job as an associate pastor. I stressed that team work was important to us, and asked each applicant to take a look at the Five Dysfunctions and discuss them with me. I was determined to find a team player. One of the applicants seemed very unimpressed with the model and I chose not to offer him the job. Interestingly, he got another job, but quickly decided that he didn’t really want to be a part of that team and went off on his own.

Our church is somewhat complicated. We have multiple congregations, various age-specific ministries, dozens of leaders, small groups, and a large staff team. Team work is vital. A challenge to us has always been engaging the staff and key leaders together in team work when the focus in on areas outside their direct responsibility. This book, and another by Lencioni called Silos, Politics, and Turf Wars, has been so helpful in drawing people together. It has reminded us that a win in the youth area is a win for the whole church. A struggle to ‘connect’ people into the church community has a direct bearing on every other area of church life. Everything is connected and you need a strong team to make it work. Lencioni kept pushing us to value each member of the team.

Teamwork is something that ought to be a hallmark of a church, or a ministry staff. And yet sadly, many of us know too well the pain of relationship breakdowns, competition for resources, and clashes of vision and priorities (our church included). I recommend getting a dose of Lencioni!

Of course, the best of this wisdom is but a pale reflection of the teaching of the Bible on teamwork. God has called people into relationship with each other, to be part of a body, a community, a team. As it says in 1 Corinthians 12:24-27:

24 … God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honour to the parts that lacked it, 25 so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. 26 If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.
27 Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.