Sunday, April 28, 2013
By James Sartain
Categories: Leadership

At one point or another, leaders will be challenged with energizing a failing initiative or a declining team. It is the nature of organizational life cycles. Eventually, even the best winning streak will stall and momentum will be lost. A hallmark of a great leader is to recognize the warning signs of a losing streak and to be equipped with tools and techniques to revitalize and refocus.

There are many factors that can stall forward momentum in organizations. Rosabeth Moss Kanter, in her 2004 book “Confidence” describes nine pathologies that forecast signs of a losing streak that include:

  1. Communication Decreases
  2. Criticism and Blame Increase
  3. Respect Decreases
  4. Isolation increases
  5. Focus turns inward
  6. Rifts widen and inequities grow
  7. Initiative Decreases
  8. Aspirations Diminish
  9. Negativity Spreads

Each of these elements can be arranged in an ever-accelerating doom loop that becomes more toxic over time. Slowing the doom loop and reversing its course represents some of the most difficult work of leadership. So what do thought leaders say are the critical activities needed to jumpstart positive momentum? Kanter notes “Turnarounds are when leadership matters most because confidence has eroded on all levels. Instead of confidence, there is self-doubt and despair, negativity about others, cynicism about the system, and a deficit of eternal investment (Kanter, p. 146). She suggests three cornerstones required for the confidence to create a winning streak.

First, accountability is key. Leaders must develop accountability through straight talk about problems and expectations, demonstrate and reward courage to admit responsibility for failings and problems, facilitate open dialogue about problems and solutions, ensure widespread communication, set clear priorities, ensure attention to details, and provide useful performance feedback.

The second cornerstone, collaboration, is fostered by getting connected in new ways and through new conversations, carrying out important work jointly, communicating respect in all interactions, and demonstrating inclusion. Collaborative leaders invest in those systems that get people working together efficiently and productively–and who actively remove barriers to this process.

The third cornerstone, initiative, is created through leader behaviors that encourage ideas and appropriate risk-taking. Initiative is fostered through leaders who demonstrate a belief in their people and their power to make a difference. They show their people they are valuable by investing in things that matter to them. Leaders who foster initiative also direct energy tied up in negativity into positive actions. They leverage the value of the small wins–those victories that people can control–to spur even greater initiative. Kanter’s considerations continue to hold up well even in today’s rapidly changing work environment.

Through my work with my business partner, Kathy Davanzo (, we have expanded the focus of our efforts to work with stalled teams and businesses to include additional information from the scientific research around creating forward momentum and have created an organizing framework for evaluating organizational culture that tracks with our individual development model for leaders, Leader P.O.V.(r) which is provided earlier on this site as Figure 1. For cultural development initiatives, we have modified the center gear to reflect the “identity” of an organization and this includes this mission, vision, values, hedgehog concept. See Figure 2.

Figure 2: Organizing Framework for Organizational Forward Momentum

As reflected in Figure 2,  a series of integrated moving parts must be engaged if a culture is to move forward. The gray gear of intention is perhaps the “starter” for the machinery in that there needs to be a desire among a team or organization to be more and do more. Intention needs to be crystal clear and shared by others in the organization. This is one of the reasons many organizational development authorities (ourselves included) will tell you that starting an organization from scratch is easier than compelling an established organization to inch forward once it has stalled. There is something exciting about creating something new and different–particularly organizations–and galvanizing intention seems to be “built in” to these fresh initiatives. With that said, consistent leader behaviors such as a constant (almost redundant) clarification of intention and messaging about the future can whittle away at corporate inertia–but requires a bit of heavy lifting.

The center of the figure represents the internal gear in which all things rotate–and that is the identity of the organization. Identity is composed of the purpose, mission, vision and values of the organization. As Collins noted in his bestseller, Good to Great, this is where the Hedgehog concept resides: a clearly articulated understanding of the organization’s competitive advantage that incorporates the organization’s passion, economic drivers, and world class differentiator.

Orbiting around identity are four metacompetencies that are critical for leadership effectiveness as well as organizational momentum.

Examination: Examination represents individual and collective activities around looking inward at strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, risks, and barriers. Examination includes a purposeful review and discussion around what is working internally and what isn’t–what is contributing to forward momentum and what is getting in the way of progress. Critical to effective examination is cultivating an environment where reality is exposed (Bossidy & Charan, Execution), straight talk is fostered (Kanter, Confidence), and robust dialogue (Collins, Good to Great) is facilitated. purpose?

Exploration: The metacompetency of exploration requires leader and organizational behaviors such as looking beyond internal capacities, capabilities and challenges to examine what could be. What new territory to be conquered, expanded, or what old territory can be eliminated because it no longer offers a strategic requires expanded thinking and innovative solutions, and a focus on emerging trends and opportunities. What is possible, what is plausible would could likely happen, what you want to happen? Exploration needs to be cultivated as a habit and reinforced/rewarded throughout the organization. In his book, What Matters Now, Gary Hamel shares several issues that are paramount in today’s organization. Included in these new values is a renewed focus on innovation where it is essential that everyone in the organization takes responsibility. Further, adaptability is critical in that the organization needs to be agile and nimble to capture the new opportunities while it is strategically advantageous to do so.

Enlistment: The metacompetency of enlistment requires those leader behaviors that galvanizes action and inspires others to follow-How to best engage or re-engage those around you to help accelerate or recapture forward momentum. A key consideration in enlistment is how to facilitate meaningful and action-oriented collaboration among members. In the recent book, The Power of Pull: How Small Moves, Smartly Made, Can Set Big Things into Motion by Hagel, Brown and Davidson, the authors suggest a model for the new age that includes attracting people and resources that are relevant and valuable to the organization. Leaders have to cast the vision and then create serendipitous opportunities for collaboration to propel the vision forward.

Execution: The metacompetency of execution is the art and discipline of achieving the vision, strategy, and purpose of the enterprise. If the vision is the destination point identified during enlistment, execution is the roadmap for getting there. A central leader behavior is to facilitate the development of a clear, achievable and relevant plan of action while maintaining an unwavering commitment accountability for results. Bossidy and Charan, in Execution, noted that “Leaders must be in charge of picking other leaders, setting the strategic direction, and conducting operations. These actions are the substance of execution, and leaders cannot delegate them regardless of the size of the organization.” When evaluating your own organization for stalled momentum, we suggest first looking at the presence of one or more of Kanter’s nine pathologies. We then suggest a systematic evaluation of each of the elements of organizational momentum described above and to work hard to actively address corporate inertia that may be getting in the way of those behaviors critical for movement.

© James P. Sartain, CODA Partners, Inc. and Connected Leadership. (2013). Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to James P. Sartain, CODA Partners, Inc., and referencing the Connected Leadership blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. 

Leader P.O.V.® and CODA Partners® are registered trademarks of CODA Partners, Inc.  All rights reserved.

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