What brings success? Is it better leaders? Better products? Better salespeople? What about better performance management systems?
Any of the above may bring some level of improvement, but research by the consulting company VitalSmarts reveals that sustained top performance can be tied to one thing; how well people communicate within a company.
More specifically, sustained success requires a culture in which open and honest discussion occurs around even the most difficult topics. It requires focusing on the issues, not playing political games. It also requires discussing or debating the potential consequences of all the solutions on the table, not making deals to get your personal favorite approved.
It doesn't take a brain surgeon to know that ignoring problems makes them worse, not better. What prevents problems from being addressed? Leaders who never learned to facilitate conflict; aggressive personalities who wage their war of intimidation; and insecure leaders who focus on maintaining an artificially-inflated sense of self-worth instead of doing what's good for the company.
If any of these three conditions exist, logical dialog can get replaced by all-out personality clashes or retreats accompanied by silent fuming. It may even lead to the ever-popular game of political positioning. In any case, when open and objective dialog is missing, so is the potential for sustained success.
The more I work as a consultant the more I observe that it's an organization's leaders who create most of their own road blocks.
As just one example of this, I recently listened to a senior executive complain about "all the inept people" he had working for him. He swore they were out to sabotage everything he tried to do.
Amazingly, I had already learned that the people in his department did indeed cover up problems. What was their reason? They were tired of receiving verbal abuse from this exec whenever they made a suggestion for fixing a problem they identified. Regardless of what policy, person, or procedure was the true cause of the problem, whoever brought the issue to the exec's attention was guaranteed to be the recipient of his verbal spears.
When I objectively tried to discuss this, the executive bristled and threw up his defenses. He refused to acknowledge any possibility that he was contributing to the problem. What made matters worse was when he began lying to me, telling me things I knew not to be true.
It didn't take long to realize that under all his bravado, this man didn't have a clue about how build a team or capitalize on his employees' knowledge.
It's true that an overbearing leader creates an atmosphere of fear and intimidation which chokes commitment and enthusiasm. But a leader who is encouraging, listens well, and seeks input for solutions is one who creates dedicated, passionate teams. Again, it's this type of environment that leads to sustained success.
An example of this can be found in Kelly Palmer, general manager of the Red Lion hotel in Idaho Falls, Idaho. One of three nominees for General Manager of the Year among the chain's 54 properties, Kelly is quick to point out that it's her people who bring the success; she just hires them and works to keep them happy.
For the record, I know Kelly to be a solutions-oriented, secure individual. When problems arise as they inevitably do, Kelly doesn't seek to place blame, she immediately solicits input on possible solutions.
As a result, she's built a culture among her management team in which they're free to debate their opinions without the fear of retribution or personal attacks. In the end, when a solution is decided upon, regardless of one's original opinion, everyone buys in.
It's this kind of leadership style that has her senior staff telling me she's the best manager they've ever worked for. That's good leadership. And it's produced sustained growth for Kelly over the 14 years she's been at that property.
Based on qualitative research and the examples lived out in companies worldwide, if your objective is sustained success, personality issues have to be set aside and replaced with focused debate about solutions. If you do this you are likely to enjoy successes like Kelly Palmer. If you don't you might end up like the abrasive executive and be sent packing.
Sadly, but not surprisingly, he was relieved of his position when his superiors finally realized the damage he was causing the company.