Recently I had the pleasure of meeting Nancy Braun, an organizational development consultant and the coauthor of Hanging the Mirror: The Discipline of Reflective Leadership. The title alone grabbed me right away, because it precisely captures the message of the book. (Two sample chapters can be downloaded here.) Because I’m always fascinated by the intersection of organizational change and corporate history, I reached out to Nancy and her coauthors Alan Scheffer and Mark Scheffer to explore some ideas. Nancy, Alan, and Mark are principals in Management Associates, based in Sioux City, Iowa.
Marian: You’ve consulted with numerous organizations. In your experience, when a company knows its own history, does that help it to perform better? Does it help it to better cope with organizational change?
Alan: It can go both ways. If an organization is healthy and has a vibrant sense of vision and mission, one that’s core to historical growth, then I think the knowledge of company history can have immense positive impact. On the other hand, if the history is basically one of being handcuffed by values and mission and vision that aren’t so dynamic or healthy, it can become paralyzing.
Mark: One of the things that makes an organization strong is when it has a strong sense of itself and its purpose in the world. Every business and every initiative starts with that. I know, Marian, that in your work with clients at CorporateHistory.net you put a lot of weight into the founder’s original vision. I agree that having a connection with the founder’s original vision contributes to an organization having a sense of who it is.
Marian: Right. Your book reflects that belief. Here’s a quote: “Workplace culture can always be traced back to the decisions of leaders. Far from a phenomenon arising of its own accord, culture is the inescapable product of leadership behavior and choices.”
Nancy: If an organization has wandered astray from its founder’s original vision, rediscovering that vision can help reinvigorate and get the business consciously back on track.
Marian: Are there any cases where you’ve helped businesses reconnect with key values they’ve lost touch with?
Alan: Many. As an example, we usually ask for what the organization would consider charter documents: employee handbook, mission statements, vision statements, value statements, et cetera. It’s not at all uncommon that those have lost their vibrancy. They may exist, they may be on the conference room wall, but you quickly learn when you talk to employees that the values are no longer active and dynamic. Part of our job is to reacquaint them with the very things that they say publicly, that they still believe in.
Nancy: Unless you are consciously trying to breathe life into that vision all the time – making sure that it meets on the ground with decisions and plans that are being made, that it’s woven into the jobs that people do, that they see the connection between the vision and the tasks they do daily – then that vision morphs into a public relations piece.
Alan: It’s not uncommon to hear people say, “Gee, it was real different when we were just starting. When we were small. When we could all get together in one break room and talk about why we exist.” As Mark was saying, back then they knew what their contribution was all about. As organizations grow and become more complex, often the focus shifts.
Marian: Right. Knowing that history, keeping that institutional memory alive and alert to today’s challenges – does that play a role in reconnecting what’s done on the front lines and those platitudes hanging on the boardroom wall?
Mark: Not on its own, but your phrase “playing a role” is important. When an organization sees the continuity of past to what it’s trying to be on into the future, that’s important.
Alan: One of the things we find so intriguing about our business is that people can live with amazing disconnect. They can go through daily lives with all kinds of notions of their purpose and not realize that they have become very secondary to the functioning of the organization and are almost totally ignored in terms of discourse, in terms of what they’re doing and where they’re going. Companies that have that history are much easier to challenge. We ask: “Are you aware that you’re living with some Dead Sea Scrolls that are wonderful in content but useless in terms of dynamic?” Almost always companies tend to respond harmonically, saying, “You’re right. We need to revisit who we are and why we’re here.” So having that history at that point becomes very useful.
Nancy: Part of the founder’s gift to an organization is to make clear the basic values and vision. For one thing, that helps the organization identify future leaders. One point we really try to get across to people right from the very beginning is that leaders are creating culture every moment of every day. Usually unconsciously! What we try to get them to understand is that the more consciously an organization can create culture, the more it can describe and work together on the culture, the better off it will be. We help them create a “true north” for the organization on its compass into the future. We always tell organizations, it’s like a dog chasing a scent. You don’t smell the scent and then zoom straight to the goal. You wander off. I’m mixing my metaphors, but anyway, when you have that true north that you can course-correct.
Alan: Some organizations have no sense of history. They have a history, of course, and it certainly influences who they are today, but they operate without that knowledge. Others maintain kind of a reverence, a respect, a regard for their history and that informs their knowledge.
Nancy: Here’s an interesting example. A human services organization with a few hundred employees, a client we’ve been engaged with on and off for 12 years, asked us to put together an overview presentation. How did all the things we’ve worked on in that time period fit together? As an organization, they’ve grown greatly in size and complexity during those years. For many people, the overview was very enlightening. Newer employees saw a history for the first time. Even long-time folks realized the connections. Some people who had been there the whole time even said, “I have never been able to articulate this until you connected it.” So I can see where connecting all those dots, as CorporateHistory.net does, can be very useful.
Marian: Right. Every company has a narrative. When you see only the individual pieces, you don’t see the bigger picture. Or you lose sight of it. Our engagements with clients often start when someone calls and says: “Our founder is 80 now and no one remembers what he remembers.” Or: “The people who originally worked here are getting older. When they go, that institutional knowledge will disappear.” Yes, it will, unless you take steps to capture it.
Nancy: After a certain point, it’s not re-capturable.
Marian: Without being morbid about it, we say, “Try to do those oral history interviews now, even if you don’t do anything with them right away. They’ll have a whole different meaning five, 10, 15 years from now, when nobody will remember what these folks remembered.” It’s interesting, too that you’ve worked with that client for 12 years. As your book says: “Eschewing quick-fix solutions, Hanging the Mirror does not aim to be an easy read.” Same goes for writing corporate histories. I often tell clients, “Your history took decades to develop; you can’t unearth it and understand it overnight.”