Featured Article: When "The Right Stuff" Gets Snuffed by the "Vision Thing"
By Bill Catlette and Richard Hadden
Quick - What is the mission of space shuttle Atlantis that launched from Florida's Kennedy Space Center last week (July 8, 2011)? What has been the program goal of the prior 134 space shuttle missions (launched at about $1.5 billion/copy) over the last 30 years? What has been the goal of America's space program since 1969, when, standing on the shoulders of their predecessors, the Apollo 11 crew fulfilled President Kennedy's 1961 promise that we would put a man on the moon and return him safely to Earth before the end of the decade?
If the answers aren't coming to you quickly or clearly, don't feel bad. We suspect you're like most people, including many in Congress who vote to fund NASA, and even some at the agency itself. To wit, is it really any wonder that America's space program as we have known it seems to be riding off into the sunset?
On our way to Titusville, Florida last week to view the final shuttle launch, one of us (Richard) asked the other (Bill) for his thoughts, as something of an aerospace junkie, on the eminent conclusion of NASA's shuttle program. In the pre-dawn darkness some eight hours prior to the launch, Bill hadn't yet sorted out his emotional reaction to the program's ending. What we talked about instead is just how similar NASA's current situation is to that of other entities (companies, governments, et. al.) that lose their way, their funding, and their mojo.
Proverbs 29:18 says, "Where there is no vision, the people perish." In this case, an agency that has long operated with a very cloudy, or at best misunderstood sense of purpose, direction, and priority is in real danger of going away, not because a nation has grown tired of space venture, but because of the persistent failure to clearly articulate a credible and compelling vision for the future.
The very same thing happens to companies, business units, departments, and teams whose leaders fail to credibly articulate and maintain a compelling sense of purpose and direction. As leaders, we have got to determine, articulate, and then permanently illuminate, with one of those big 5-cell flashlights, the path ahead. What are we about? Why does this organization exist? (The answer to that one may start with a "C") Where are we going? Why does it matter?
Fail to connect the dots on any one of these items and slowly (at first), but inexorably, the lights go out, and the party is over. Here are a few suggestions on keeping the lights on, and the party alive:
1. Having decided upon the "vision/mission thing", it's not enough to announce it once or twice and then hang some relevant testimonial junk on the wall. Rather, to overcome the understandable cynicism that exists inside organizations, we need to practically "carpet-bomb" the place with repeated signs that this is more, much more than some new program. Rather, it is to be our way of life. Words are important, but actions trump syllables.
Think about a time when your team, your department, your company accomplished something pretty amazing. We'll bet you a free book that the accomplishment was accompanied by a clear, simple, and repeated articulation of the mission. And one that was either visible, audible, or both.
The builders working on the restoration of the Pentagon after 9/11, had in front of them, every minute of every day, a huge countdown clock that displayed graphically, the number of days, hours, and minutes remaining until the project leader's much-publicized deadline: finishing the work before the first anniversary of the attack that blew up much of the building. The job was finished before its highly ambitious deadline, and with practically no worker turnover.
2. Whatever words or symbols we use to enunciate the mission, we have to operationalize and breathe life into those words and symbols by making it clear to the folks on our team that good faith efforts on their part to enact the mission will never get them in trouble.
Similarly, if they are doing things that don't line up with that purpose, they should stop doing them as soon as practical. On an institutional level, we must take pains to be sure that budgets and reward mechanisms support our declared purpose and direction.
No clearer illustration of this has ever presented itself to us than a story we tell in Contented Cows Give Better Milk, chapter 4 ("The Path to Commitment"). While conducting a Coaching Skills workshop for the corporate management of quick service restaurant Chick-fil-A, in their Atlanta headquarters, one class member volunteered that Founder & CEO Truett Cathy had "always been very clear about what we do here at Chick-fil-A: We sell chicken. It's as simple as that. And no matter what you're doing, if it pertains to sellin' chicken, then you're probably doing the right thing. If not, stop. That's pretty much how Truett has run the [highly successful] company."
At one point in the workshop, I accompanied a small group from the class to a breakout room on another floor. As the elevator door opened, there stood Truett Cathy. After warm greetings, Truett asked, "What are y'all doin?" (Keep in mind, they were attending a leadership workshop). Without thinking, they all chimed in chorus, "We're sellin' chicken!" Truett beamed, and he probed no further.
3. To be sure, Level 1 and 2 managers (the folks closest to the front line, and the ones with the toughest jobs in any organization) should be charged with ensuring that their teammates get the big picture. But, because people don't operate day to day in the big picture, they must see to it that those around them clearly grasp the top two or three priorities. We can all spot-check this by periodically asking a few people to articulate the top three priorities for the organization. If they can do it, celebrate it, right then and there. If they can't (more likely), we've got more work to do.
In the meantime, Godspeed to the crew of Atlantis STS 135, and the men and women here on the ground who have worked tirelessly in support of them and our nation's space program.
Get a chance for a free book.Tell us where it hurts. Send us a quick email - or a comment on Facebook - and tell us the number one issue, with respect to the workforce, and leading people on your team, that keeps you up at night, or causes you the greatest heartburn. We'll take all the entries, and on July 29, we'll have a drawing for a complimentary copy of Rebooting Leadership. To email - either reply to this email, or send a new email to Richard@ContentedCows.com, but MAKE THE SUBJECT LINE say "Workforce woes". Otherwise, the email might go to the wrong place. For Facebook, go to http://www.facebook.com/contentedcows, and "like" us, if you haven't already, then post a comment on our wall. We'll publish a list of the best answers in next month's Fresh Milk, but we WON'T identify any names or organizations.