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Jones: Harness the advantage of organizational health

Patrick Lencioni, founder of the management consulting firm The Table Group, opens his recent book "Advantage" with these thought-provoking words:

“The single greatest advantage any company can achieve is organizational health. Yet it is ignored by most leaders even though it is simple, free, and available to anyone who wants it.”

Lencioni introduces this concept of competitive advantage by contrasting two basic qualities. To maximize success an organization must be both smart and healthy. Smart organizations excel at the traditional business fundamentals of strategy, marketing, finance and technology. Yet, these critical components of success are only half of the equation. The other half, the cultural health of the organization, tends to get overlooked or crowded out by other demands.

Leaders overlook organizational health as they keep their focus firmly locked on the “smart” components of the organization. Health is more complicated to measure and it’s difficult for leaders to assess and understand their own culture. In the daily push for results, the components of organizational health easily go undetected – unseen but very real and, whether positive or negative, exerting force on the organization.

Want to evaluate your organization’s health? Step into the role of an impartial observer as if you were an outsider introduced for the first time. Watch employees and their interactions with one another. Is information communicated formally or informally? Is there consistency between the two? Where do emotions run high? You can quickly uncover values by observing instances where people tend to get upset or excited.

Interviews and surveys also are important tools. There is much to be learned about the current state of an organization’s health by talking with employees in small groups. Periodic surveys of organizational climate also can provide a reliable way for employees to confidentially share individual observations.

Most leaders will find that organizational health has room for improvement. Lencioni recognizes that there is no foolproof step-by-step process to be followed to improve health but he provides four disciplines that provide a path forward:

Discipline 1: Build a cohesive leadership team. The leadership team exists as the organization’s primary cultural driver. Values must be consistently demonstrated by the leadership team and the team must set an example for the rest of the organization.

Discipline 2: Create clarity. Lencioni indicates that the responsibility lies with the leadership team to answer six critical questions:

1. Why do we exist?

2. How do we behave?

3. What do we do?

4. How will we succeed?

5. What is most important right now?

6. Who must do what?

Discipline 3: Overcommunicate clarity. After a leadership team has arrived at absolute alignment over the critical questions, the answers must be communicated with employees. Lencioni warns that it takes unwavering repetition in order to achieve belief. Employees are watching to see if there is real commitment and authenticity to the message.

Discipline 4: Reinforce clarity. Leaders must ensure that every process is built on the answers to the six critical questions. In healthy organizations, leadership is as involved in the design of processes for hiring, training and managing performance as they are in driving the smart attributes of strategy, marketing, finance and technology.

As leaders it’s up to us to harness the advantage of organizational health. Whether you are a small business owner, a CEO or a department head, your own commitment and active involvement is the single greatest factor for success.

• Catherine Jones is executive director of Workforce, Community and Business Programs for McHenry County College’s Shah Center. She may be reached at 815-459-7752 or at cjones@mchenry.edu.

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