When you're stuck in shifting beach sand up past your ankles, unable to tear your gaze from the tsunami about to slam into the shore, the last thing that would be on your mind is, "Now would be a good time to be inspired by a shared vision".
Instead, you either freeze in place waiting for the inevitable, or you frantically try to extricate yourself, to run in the opposite direction. While neither one is very practical, both are very understandable behaviors, given the situation. However, this scenario is an environmental disaster of a different nature: our 4,000 person company is about to be acquired by a software behemoth almost 20 times our size.
Regardless of whether or not you've ever been "the acquired", imagine yourself facing that tsunami in other areas of your life, and you can relate to the chaos, confusion, uncertainty and fear that follows an event of such magnitude. In addition to an acquisition, such feelings can occur with a job change, a move, death, divorce, or serious illness. And, as much as we yearn for a leader to rescue us-Indiana Jones style-we so often feel alone, helpless, and ineffective.
With little information coming from our new overlords, and not much to do but wait and see, some employees can become paralyzed: "Who will tell me what to work on?" Others become hyperactive, racing to close another deal, finish the marketing plan, get that product release out the door. And still others will leave, preferring to strike out on their own. In such situations, survival skills (e.g., defend territory, look busy) often trump strategy as people begin to shut down, pull back, and play it safe.
Why plan anything when the future is so unknown?
There are two key reasons: Personal. Leadership.
As in: Why not equip our high potential employees with important leadership practices to bring with them into their next role? Why not use this time to help our best talent take a step back, and:
- Explore who they are becoming as leaders
- Look at what's important to them personally
- Develop a personal vision of leadership to share
Based on a successful Leadership Challenge® Workshop pilot we had held the previous fall, I contacted Steve Houchin of International Leadership Associates to discuss next steps. After initial hellos, and an update on the looming acquisition, his first comment was, "I suppose all training has been cancelled." "Why no," I replied. "I want to complete two workshops before we wind down the company." Silence for a heartbeat on the phone. "Really," he said. It wasn't a question; it was a statement. We got to work, planning two workshops over the following two months.
In the midst of the chaos and distractions dealing with various crises and issues related to the acquisition, about a dozen people committed the time and energy to focus on The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership®. Although the sessions drew fewer of our high potential employees than Steve and I would have liked, everyone understood that this was an opportunity to focus on developing a personal vision. They stepped up, and stepped into their developing leadership capabilities.
In both sessions, we acknowledged up front how difficult it would be to "Inspire a Shared Vision" about work, when no one knew their role, team goals, or even what team they would be on within two months. Yet, they all "nailed" their personal vision statements. One participant wrote: "I have a dream that I can live with passion, inspiring creativity, productivity and joy in myself and others." What employer wouldn't jump at the chance to hire someone with talent and passion like that?
There are several key lessons to be learned from this experience. While Indiana Jones is an amazing character, he is only fictional, not the real thing. Waiting for a hero like him to bail us out may mean waiting forever-and unnecessarily. When people realize that the leader they are waiting for is within them, they become their own amazing hero. They can stand and face whatever life throws at them, confident in the knowledge of who they are as people and as leaders. From there, it seems a short step to inspiring a shared vision of what's possible, at work and in life.
As I write this article, today is the last day our company exists as is. On Monday, those who stayed become employees of the new company, and I'm inspired just knowing that several of our very best people will be taking on new roles and leading new teams, having delved into The Five Leadership Practices®. I'm especially proud of each of them for taking the time to create their personal vision, as a cornerstone of those practices.
Christine Barnes works in Leadership and Development at a global level.