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Consensus is not Kumbaya

by Rand Golletz

Note From Rand

What does it take to write a book? Wisdom? Intelligence? Insight? The right answer: Patience!

I finished my book, Consensus Is Not Kumbaya … Lessons In Tough-Minded Leadership, over a year ago – or so I thought. Here’s where we are: We have completely edited the book three times. Each time, we have found things we wanted (or in some cases, NEEDED) to change. I’m now done with it … I think!

Morgan James, my publisher, completed their initial book design. My editor, Barbara McNichol, and I liked many aspects of that design. There were a few other aspects we did not like, and as a result, MJ is refining their design.

I’ve been told that none of this is unusual, but I was not blessed with a great amount of patience. The book will be out in about 90 days. Here’s the cover, which I LOVE. My picture is consistent with the title, and both are consistent with my approach to my work:

This month’s article is a chapter from my book from which the book title is derived. “Consensus Is Not Kumbaya” discusses Frank, a Fortune 500 CEO and client of mine who got off to a bit of a rocky start after taking the reins of his company. The lesson (and I’ll quote from the chapter): “Never, ever assume that you and your team are on the same page unless you’ve tested for understanding, debated issues, worked hard to surface objections, and considered alternatives.”

I’ll see you in November. Until then, get real, get tough and get going!

Consensus is not Kumbaya

My client Frank (not his real name) had just been elected Chairman and CEO. His promotion was wildly popular and widely celebrated. His company, a Fortune 500 firm with more than 100,000 associates and 80 operating divisions worldwide, had elected only eight chairmen in its 100-year history. All had been life-long associates. The company had a history of ascending growth and earnings and a stable corporate culture, including corporate values that management both talked and walked. From an investor’s point of view, this was a “buy-and-hold” stock.

At the time of his election, Frank was 55 years old. Until his early 40s, his career was successful but unspectacular. No one really pegged him as “the guy” until the chairman at the time put him in charge of the firm’s largest division. There, he hit a home run; actually, he became Babe Ruth. To continue the baseball analogy, he led the league in home runs for the next decade, was made vice chairman at the age of 53, and placed in a head-to-head “competition” for the top job with the impressive president and COO.

Tough-minded without being hard-headed, Frank has five distinct strengths. He’s gifted at selecting and developing associates. He communicates extremely well with people from all walks of life. He’s an incredible listener, enveloping people with his attention. He also “connects the dots.” In corporate parlance, it’s called integrative thinking. His biggest strength, however, is his self-knowledge. Acutely aware of his strengths and weaknesses – personal as well as professional – he has never dismissed his shortcomings as irrelevant or unimportant. He creates “workarounds” to compensate.

Before Frank became chairman, he had a reputation as a great collaborator. He recognized the importance of winning emotional commitment from people and worked hard to obtain it. In his first several months as chairman and mine as his executive coach, Frank asked me to attend his regularly scheduled staff meetings. I had been working with him for some time, and the company’s senior leaders knew and trusted me. I had become his “eyes and ears” in the company and had a reputation as a guy who acted responsibly and confidentially with what I saw and heard. One Monday morning during a meeting break, Jake, the president of the company’s largest operating group, approached me with a concerned look. Our brief discussion went something like this:

Jake: “Rand, do you sense something different about Frank since he became chairman?”

Me: “What do you mean ‘different?’ He’s now the chairman; I’d say that’s pretty different. You guys are trying hard to relate to him in a new way because of his role. That’s also different. The power dynamic in the group has changed. That’s also something different. So yes, I sense that EVERYTHING has changed, and yes, it’s different.”

Jake: “I realize that stuff, Rand. I’m not talking about that. What I mean is, Frank seems to have become an autocrat. I feel like asking him, ‘Hey, who are you, and what did you do with Frank?’ It seems like he’s imposing his will because he CAN – even when situations don’t require it. We talked in our last meeting together about the priority of ‘consensus.’ He always seemed diligent in the past about ‘walking the talk.’ Not so much now!”

Me: “I’ll think about your comments. Let’s revisit this issue.” Subsequently, other members of the senior leadership team called me and expressed a similar concern. I asked Frank if we could discuss this at his next staff meeting. His response: “Fine, as long as it doesn’t become a whining session.”

Here’s what happened.

After they covered their normal business, I mentioned that several people on the team had brought up an apparent change in Frank’s management style. I then asked that each of them pull out a piece of paper and write the word “consensus.” A few of them rolled their eyes and I thought, “If this goes poorly, I’m outta here!”

I asked them to write a definition of that word and hand it to me. They did. I then collected and read the definitions, without attribution. They differed greatly. For some of them, consensus had something to do with voting before deciding. For a few, it had to do with reaching unanimity before executing major decisions. Still others had different ideas.

They gazed at me with looks that I interpreted as meaning, “OK, big shot. Why should I give a damn about any of this? You’re wasting my valuable time.”

I gulped and continued, “When I spoke to each of you individually about Frank and his style, you all used shorthand to express your thoughts. I heard the word ‘empowerment’ eight times. I heard the word ‘delegation’ just as often. Several of you used the word ‘autocrat.’ The word I heard most often was ‘consensus.’ Each of you used those words as if we should – or DID – automatically agree on what they meant.

“Here’s my point: Words create images and stories in our minds about people and situations. Effective ‘leadership’ is about the quality of our conversations, the images that they create, and the actions that they compel. Yet here we sit using a word like ‘consensus’ without agreement on what it means.”

I saw light bulbs go on, so I summarized, “It might seem frivolous on the surface, but I think we need to agree that on key issues, you need to have a way of getting to your assumptions about what things mean, so that you’re not taking inconsistent action and operating with divergent assumptions.”

To start, we spent two hours – two hours – on what the word “consensus” would mean to the team going forward. Here’s what we concluded: Consensus would mean that before action would be taken on issues above a certain threshold, all team members could and would support the decision, even if they didn’t believe it was the best possible decision. Consensus would not imply how a decision would be reached. Some decisions would still be made by Frank – alone with no input. Some would be voted on. Some would be debated in advance. Some would not. The point is, consensus would not imply the decision-making process employed; it merely would imply whether active support for a decision existed. In this case, whether their definition comported with Webster’s definition was less important than their recognition that common understanding was critical.

What are the implications for you? Never, ever, ever assume that you and your team are on the same page unless you’ve tested for understanding, debated issues, worked hard to surface objections, and considered alternatives. Agreement isn’t always necessary, and consensus isn’t about creating a “kumbaya” management approach.

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