Guest Column | November 22, 2016

Not Fulfilling Your Biggest Aspirations? It Doesn't Have To Be That Way

By Conrad Amos, JMW Consultants

Most leaders of successful organizations in the global marketplace understand they need to be extremely dynamic, agile, and resilient in an ever-changing landscape. Many of them also understand that when it comes to transformation — and the importance of causing the significant and sustainable shifts necessary to remain as competitive as possible — it’s not a one-shot deal. The current marketplace calls for having the kinds of cultures, leadership, and strategies that can flex and adapt and cause transformation time after time. No organization has the luxury of stagnating in the status quo or even being satisfied with continuous improvement after a single paradigm shift.

That means working differently, starting at the executive level. My colleagues and I see so many well-meaning, committed senior leaders determined to take their organizations to the next level. But oftentimes they are unduly fixated on a particular solution. Their focus is on things like launching a strategic review, or restructuring, or perhaps leadership development. And while those are all worthy endeavors in the right context, it’s the context that ought to be understood first and foremost.

If you step away from these perceived solutions, the context becomes clearer. Tactics such as a strategic review, restructuring, or leadership development may ultimately become part of the picture, but first you need to understand how everything is framed. We’ve often been called in to support senior leaders very concerned about their strategy, and it’s turned out they actually had brilliant strategies, but there were other things getting in the way of its effective and meaningful implementation.

That’s because there’s the strategy in theory, and the strategy in the context of how people see it — their relationship to it, if you will. If we gather five key leaders from an organization in a room and ask about how they view its strategy, challenges, what it sets out to deliver, etc., we will very likely get five distinct views. There are always unspoken thoughts for people — both positive, negative, and in between — that shape their relationship to what the organization is trying to accomplish. When you can have a straightforward conversation amongst people about exactly how they view the challenge at hand, then you’re on your way to figuring out the path to transformation.

To illustrate that point, in 2010 we started working with Yarra Valley Water, a water corporation responsible for providing water services to 2 million people and over 50,000 businesses in Melbourne, Australia. To their credit, they had already spent the past decade working hard to create a culture capable of high performance and innovation. But their senior leaders knew they were capable of more.

As the organization’s General Manager for People and Culture — Anne Farquhar — puts it: “Although we were already pretty good, we were determined to elevate performance.” She very aptly identified their biggest problem at that juncture: “Having managed through the drought and water industry reviews, we no longer had a burning platform. We had great opportunity, but it had to be framed in a way that would get people out of the ‘drift’ of everyday work and motivate them to take us beyond what they thought was possible.”

Over the course of five years, that’s what they did. It was a rigorous and extremely deliberate effort, starting at the very top of the organization. We pulled together 40 key leaders, including executives, divisional managers, and team leaders. After a series of candid sessions about how people viewed the current strategy and trajectory of the organization, a shared vision emerged about what was of fundamental importance to Yarra Valley Water, what the organization could become, and what it could accomplish beyond the predictable trajectory. Then, and only then, did people begin to agree to a new strategy together.

With a strategy that could be championed by all involved, they continued to work towards additional transformation, from executive coaching to development sessions customized to address business and infrastructure needs as they arose. Very little of it was predictable, but all of it was based on that shared vision of reaching far beyond that place of “pretty good” they had attained by 2010. By 2014, in a bold move, the executive team made a pivotal decision to loosen the reigns, delegating operational execution of the strategy to divisional managers. This freed up the senior team to focus on what would be next on the organization’s road map.

By 2015, Yarra Valley Water had set new Australian benchmark culture results, reduced quality complaints by 30 percent, increased hardship assistance rates by 36 percent, driven down serious injuries by 80 percent, and reduced operating expenditures by 20 percent. And as we tend to see when clients develop a stronger culture of responsibility, innovations began to really flow. Yarra Valley implemented an award-winning hardship program for customers in need, introduced new water recycling methods to drought-proof 100,000 properties, and launched Australia’s first stand-alone, profitable waste-to-energy facility. They’ve also developed a new way for companies to holistically understand and report their environmental, social, employment, and financial performance to investors, customers, government, and regulators.

In recognition of their achievements, Yarra Valley Water was included in the prestigious Australian Business Review Weekly’s ‘Most Innovative Companies’ list — a first for a utility in Australia. And in 2016, the work JMW and Yarra Valley Water did together earned us an international award from the Association of Management Consulting Firms.

These are the kinds of unanticipated leaps that organizations can make when their people get to the point where they decide, “Circumstances just don’t get in our way.” Of course, there were many series of steps that led to the topline results. And there were critical areas of focus — such as discipline in execution and leadership development to equip managers for more autonomous roles — that were critical to the work. But it all started with a sober assessment of the organization’s current reality and a meeting of minds at the executive level of the organization about blowing the roof off any perceived ceiling to their targets.

It can be easy to get lulled into a false sense of security. But when we take a real, honest look at the question “Are we really fulfilling our aspirations?” we often can’t answer “Yes.” Rationalizations such as we are “doing everything we can see to do” and we are “getting there,” etc., can serve to enable our deficiencies and acceptance of limitations. But if we can see clearly that we’re doing just okay, or coming up short — even if just a little, time and again — the next move can be critical. Rather than mask the challenges and transformations that are required if we are to reach our aspirations, we can address them head-on.

What if Yarra Valley Water hadn’t shifted into high gear when they did in 2010, and instead resigned themselves to a certain degree of culture awareness and operational improvement? Fortunately, we’ll never know. Instead, we will continue to see them — and other evolved organizations like them — flex and adapt and transform into the future.

Conrad Amos has supported a range of public and private sector organizations in executive development and coaching — as well as exceptional project delivery for major infrastructure projects in the water, construction, energy, and defense industries. He has a deep background in helping leaders and their teams around the world reach new levels of high performance, and serves as Asia Pacific Business Leader for JMW Consultants. Prior to joining JMW in 2007, Conrad was an Engineering Officer in the Royal New Zealand Air Force. He is based in Melbourne, Australia and has undergraduate and graduate degrees in Mechanical Engineering and Aerospace Technology, respectively.