How can we make “it” real?

In my last Viewsletter, I posed the question: How many north stars does one company need? The answer? Just one. Whether you call it your mission, brand, purpose, vision, or identity is beside the point. What matters most is that whatever statement you select be informed by the unique contribution your company is capable of making in the world; i.e., how it creates proprietary value. 

Once you’ve decided on what that statement is — your organization’s North Star — then the real work begins: How to translate that North Star — for me, your company’s identity — into decisions and actions that will illustrate its power and prove its intrinsic worth; in short, make it real. As promised last time, that’s the focus of this article. 

Execution is messy. Getting everyone to sign up for and work toward one central idea about who the company is and what it stands for can be like trying to herd cats ... No matter how dedicated employees may be, no matter how engaged they (hopefully) are, they’re still people, with all the idiosyncrasies, foibles, insecurities — as well as talents and passions — that come with being human. 

I’m not going to address such vital success requirements as consistent, clear-eyed communications, training and development designed to support what your North Star calls for, performance management practices that incentivize and reward behavior and results that reinforce your ‘star,’ or any number of other parts of the business system, which need to be aligned with that star. Much has already been written about these vital necessities. My focus lies elsewhere: It is to harness the essential humanness of all employees in ways that naturally connect their needs with those of the organization. 

What’s the logic?

There’s an unspoken assumption in business that humans and organizations are fundamentally different “beings,” who have different needs that must be met in different ways in order for them to succeed. The facts are otherwise. When it comes to understanding the deepest need of an organization and the deepest need of an individual, each is a mirror image of the other. What is that need? It is to create value in the world and be rewarded for it in return. Whether company or person, this need is universal.

If organizations and individuals have the same fundamental need, then, why not treat them in the same fundamental way? If the company has worked to crack the code on its identity as a way to understand how it creates distinctive value, then, executives should invite employees to do the same — to meet the company on its own terms, identity to identity. 

Doing so gives management a platform to ask people to be responsible for figuring out how to connect the best of themselves with the organization — first, within the context of their current jobs, and second, in relation to the company overall. Hold people accountable for defining, and making, a contribution that is meaningful to the enterprise as well as to themselves, and that becomes part of their performance standards.

A Microsoft moment

Not long ago, a team of nine high-potential employees from different parts of Microsoft was formed to create a new software application. Team members quickly learned what experience and skills each brought to the project. Still, something was missing; there was a lack of appreciation for the special contribution each individual was capable of making. The team leader suggested playing a “game” that would allow each person to clarify their uniqueness and the potential it held in relation not only to the immediate development challenge, but to the development of everyone’s careers. 

Three months later, the team had designed a software application that exceeded management’s expectations in terms of its prospective impact in the marketplace. The result was uniquely their own. Further, team members had come to know each other in deeper, more important ways and were now able to bring their personal identity insights back into their day-to-day activities. 

Having employees clarify their value-creating identities isn’t a silver bullet; the experience needs to be combined with the more conventional aspects of implementation noted above. What the experience will do is spark productivity in surprising ways: It will humanize the process of translating your North Star into decisions, actions, and operations that are distinctive, authentic and sustainable. 

It will bring the chances of success down to earth.

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