My professional work is in turbomachinery, designing and building large equipment that spins fast and makes—as well as uses—a lot of power. I’m currently working to find pathways to decarbonize the global energy system. That’s what I do. There’s another important aspect of my work, which focuses on being. How can we help teams become more vibrantly alive? Because vibrant teams are the best way to create exciting new solutions.
Along the way, I have found that a lot more vibrancy is possible in work teams than most of us realize. To help illustrate this, I’d like to share an experience from when my kids were in high school. At the time, I was in an executive role leading a large turbomachinery design team when an opportunity arose to volunteer with the Mason, Ohio marching band. My kids, of course, were in the band. Mason consistently ranked in the top-20s out of 20,000 US high schools but self-destructed the year they stretched to reach the top-12 ranking in national finals.
In their relentless pursuit of excellence, the group had collectively developed a shadow of aggression and they lost sight of creating a vibrant community. It was painful to watch. I began having spontaneous insights about how to help these student-leaders. It involved simple ways to come to a coherent purpose.
For example, in one exercise, I had the students form an inner and an outer circle. As they rotated, they each told another student why they were there. In the end, we discovered that the 36 student leaders had 32 different reasons for being part of the band’s leadership.
Modeling Positive Behaviors
We also focused on modelling positive behaviors, with tight feed-back loops for self-correction. When Mason’s core leadership team consistently modeled the better behavior, we slowly entrained the rest of the organization. The outcomes surprised me.
This roughly 300-person organization built a community where everyone, top-to-bottom, was excited to give their very best, which is all that truly mattered. But they also achieved objective productivity gains far beyond what all my engineering and business experience suggested was even possible. A group consistently in the top 0.1 percentile of their peers was suddenly accomplishing 40 percent more, week upon week.
They became resilient and vibrantly alive, and in subsequent years their productivity improved even further. I sat up and paid attention. Mason modeled what is possible when leading from a deeper inner place of vibrancy and wholeness. Using their example as a guide, I replicated it with a turbomachinery engineering team.
This corporate team produced an extra 40 percent productivity to the business, year over year, and self-funded much of its innovation work. In a $2B company, they won top prize for cost-productivity projects eight straight quarters, often sweeping all three places. What was most satisfying to me, though, was the leaders that were with me saying it was the best work experience in their careers, unmatched before or since.
These outcomes were not magic. They were the result of a series of seemingly small people-related behaviors that can either be focused to magnify the creative energy of a team or squandered and allowed to dissipate the team’s energy.
When Mason’s core team wrote down a list of the reasons they were in leadership, there were 32 unique answers among 36 people, or about 10 percent coherence. Their scattered vision created a vagueness about where they were headed and how they would get there. When I asked similar questions as a corporate leader, I found similar results. It turns out there is typically far less coherence than leaders assume.
Closely related to coherence within a group is the coherence of each person in how they show up and act within the group. An excellent definition of integrity is coherence in how you think, feel, speak, and act. People can think one thing, feel another, speak something else and act in yet a different way. In fact, most people often spend parts of their day operating from patterns of behavior they aren’t consciously aware of. This can affect the people around them to a surprising degree, and it can be devastating to the vibrancy of a team.
I learned a hard lesson about this myself. The year I turned thirty, I damaged my body by over-training for the Ironman triathlon. My passion for the sport was not in balance with my body and my nervous system began shutting down. This turned into a crisis that I didn’t know how to resolve. I had to refocus my passion into a commitment to healing myself—mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually—as deeply as I could.
I began paying close attention to every inner disharmony I experienced. My daily intention became to see every place I had inner negativity and destructiveness. I found extraordinary teachings that guided me in healing the fragmented and separated parts of myself. Walking this personal path also provided unexpectedly deep insights into the professional teams I’ve been part of. I saw the importance of focus.
Aligning Our Focus
People typically start and finish their workday with a backlog of waiting tasks: email to answer, presentations to create, orders to expedite, processes to drive. As a result, living a set of underlying values becomes, in practice, rather vague and is typically only discussed once a year during performance reviews. Worse, leadership then becomes an exercise in creating pressure to complete those actions and results. When that kind of leadership is rewarded, it further overshadows living a set of underlying values. Where you focus matters.
Balancing this Triad
These three topics—coherence, positivity and focus—are self-reinforcing. But they do so for better as well as for worse. Get it right and they work together in a powerful way to open new possibilities. Get it wrong and they interact to create further fragmentation. In order to head in the right direction, I set a vision for my leaders that we would collectively create a thriving group that was: technically competent, business and customer responsive, and vibrantly alive. To attain this, we sharpened our focus on living our values:
Model the Way—Be a living example
Inspire a Shared Vision—Envision the future and enlist others
Challenge the Process—Search for opportunities, experiment, take risks, be challenged
Enable Others to Act and Grow—Foster collaboration, strengthen others
Encourage the Heart—Live heart values, celebrate victories
We held a weekly session focused only on living our values in real time. This did not necessarily require a lot of time or resources, just consistency and self-honesty. I asked each of our leaders to give examples from the previous week where they had lived the values, and where they had not. We talked about the patterns that were happening, how we were wielding power and influence, and how we could change to positively transform the organization.
We gradually built trust through small and nuanced daily positive behaviors and interactions that, over time, steered the organization to create a better work environment where people could thrive. The energy and engagement in the organization rose noticeably.
Many of us spend a large part of our lives at work. I want to create places that are vibrantly alive to spend that part of my life. I’ll leave you with a question I keep in front of my teams: “How are you being while you’re doing what you’re doing?”
* Our values were a tailored set adopted from the book The Leadership Challenge by Kouzes and Posner