Baby Steps, Giant Leap!

If you'd prefer to skip to The Bottom Line, please scroll all the way down. Otherwise, I hope you enjoy the entire post. 

One of the vivid memories I have of the very early days of my career in manufacturing is watching the news and hearing about young soldiers in another part of the world walking through minefields to clear them so that tanks could get through and advance on the battlefield. In the midst of all the emotions that this sort of news conjures up, I remember thinking, “What would I be willing to give my life for?” Nothing came to mind! I mean, sure I’d be willing to give my life to save my wife from harm, and of course my children, who were not around yet at that time, but there was no particular cause I could think of that I would be willing to get hurt over, much less face death for. 

I started reflecting on the experience I was having trying to get the line operators to comply with simple requests like taking hourly readings or making sure that the equipment was running at target speed, and things of that sort which would literally take no personal sacrifice and only a few minutes worth of effort. In hindsight, I had no clue how to influence anyone to do anything back then, and I was trying any and every technique I could think of — and it wasn't working! I remember thinking, “How is it that those guys are motivating people to give their lives for a cause, and I can’t even influence someone to sacrifice five minutes of effort per day to do something that is part of their job?!”  That was a hard pill to swallow! 

Can you imagine how much good could come from people being half as committed to accomplishing a goal as those soldiers were to getting the tanks through the battlefield? Can you see how fast a company with people of that level of commitment would put their competition out of business? There are organizations who have figured it out. Many of them have created a culture of trust, pride, and camaraderie that consistently yields superior results, and for every one of those there are hundreds who are still in the boat that I was in early in my career. They are trying all kinds of ways to get people to do what they need to do and failing! Why is that and what is the secret to turning it around?

As I have alluded to in previous blog posts, I don’t believe that major transformations are the result of big announcements, projects, and company-wide initiatives. Those things are sometimes necessary to declare a certain future and align resources behind a certain cause, but it’s always the culmination of thousands of small, seemingly insignificant, decisions that are made by a multitude of people everyday that leads to major shifts in the culture or results of an organization. What may seem like a giant leap in hindsight actually involves countless baby steps. 

It’s always the culmination of thousands of small, seemingly insignificant, decisions that are made by a multitude of people everyday that leads to major shifts in the culture.

If you subscribe to this idea, then a leader’s greatest challenge, and opportunity, is to figure out how to influence those baby steps to be taken in the right direction. This is a much more complex undertaking than chartering a project and throwing some resources at it, announcing a new initiative, or conducting some training classes. It requires diligence, strategic thinking, and constant course corrections over a period of time to create the magic, but when it is done right the results are leaps and bounds superior, and far more sustainable. 

I have had the good fortune of seeing and being a part of the magic happening and organizations reaping the benefits multiple times in my career and I believe it comes down to one key factor, and that is common objectives! I don’t mean common objectives among all team members, which is of course important. What I mean, specifically, is that individuals feeling like their personal objectives and then objectives of the organization are so well aligned that doing the right thing for the organization would also be good for them individually. We all consider what is known as WIIFM (What’s In It For Me), right? Who among us has not experienced that moment when we knew something was the right thing to do for the team, but we hesitated or just went completely the opposite way because it wasn’t necessarily the best thing for us?  We have all been there.  I am also sure you can think of times when you did what was right for the team, even though it required some sacrifice on your part but wouldn’t you agree that if you were faced with the same kind of choice over and over again, you would eventually succumb to choosing what is good for you over what is good for the team?

Influencing culture transformation is a much more complex undertaking than chartering a project and throwing some resources at it, announcing a new initiative, or conducting some training classes.

This is where great leadership makes a difference. Great leaders constantly create environments in which team members see clear alignment between their interests and those of the team, and are willing to make short term sacrifices when needed because they know that in the end they will also win, individually.  Effective leaders also instill confidence, over time, in their people that it is safe to make the assumption that doing what's right for the organization is also right for them such that there is no need to weigh every decision. They inspire trust that no matter how it looks, as long as everyone comes together and does what’s right for the team, everyone will be rewarded. Once common objectives and a feeling of “all for one and one for all” is established, it eliminates that tug of war that goes on in our minds, and it powerfully latches what’s right for the organization on to our own natural desire and drive to do what’s right for us.  That is when the magic that I referred to earlier happens and win-win relationships are established and the people and the business flourish.

The million dollar question is, “How do you establish such an environment where common objectives are the norm, not the exception?” Here again, like any other worthy cause, there is no silver bullet and it takes effort to establish trust on the part of the leader, and willingness to extend trust on the part of the team members. The following represents only a few of the many considerations that could help you get off to a very strong start and create a solid foundation to build on:

As a Leader:

  • You must have a genuine intent to consistently align the company’s objectives with those of employees, as opposed to making sporadic attempts to make it look that way.

  • Your basic assumption must be that team members want to do the right thing and that they have a desire to succeed individually and as a team (i.e. McGregor’s Theory Y).

  • You must clearly demonstrate that you recognize that you are not entitled to the team members’ full commitment and express your gratitude when they go out of their way to do what’s right, especially if it takes personal sacrifices on their part.

  • You must ensure that your formal reward systems are designed to reward the right behaviors.

  • You must consistently provide informal feedback in the form of positive reinforcement and/or straight talk and inquiry when team members exhibit behaviors that are not aligned with the best interest of the team.

  • You must have regular formal and informal career planning discussions with team members.

As a Team Member:

  • You must assume positive intent on the part of your leader and if you are dissatisfied, initiate a discussion to get the issue resolved or accept the situation as is and move on.

  • You must actively participate in career discussions and work in partnership with the leader to create win-win propositions.

  • You must give up your entitlement mentality and not expect extraordinary rewards for ordinary contribution.

  • You must always look for opportunities to extend trust and take a chance on delayed gratification rather than always looking to get something when you give something.

The Bottom Line: 

It takes thousands of steps in the right direction to create a giant leap, and create a sustainable shift in the culture and results of an organization. We all face the choice to do what’s right for us or do what’s right for the team multiple times in the course of a day or a week. Leaders who create an environment where the needs and objectives of the team members are aligned with those of the team get to enjoy the benefits of each team member’s natural desire to do what’s right for them and succeed individually. In cases where such common objectives are not established, it is only a matter of time before team members are disheartened and begin to choose to do what’s right for themselves. As team members, we can and must also contribute to the creation of common objectives, no matter where we are on the organizational chart.

Have a great week! May you Boldly Declare, Courageously Pursue, and Abundantly Achieve the Extraordinary! As always, I would love to hear about your victories and/or challenges. Please leave your comments below or send me an email at

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