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Swiss Consulting Group :: Newsletter :: Restoring Vision
May 2005

Thomas D. Zweifel


tdz@swissconsultinggroup.comMay 31, 2005

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A message from Thomas D. ZweifelThomas Zweifel, Ph.D.
Chief Executive Officer : ceo@swissconsultinggroup.com

Where there is no vision, people perish.
— Proverbs 29:18

You and your team finally built a shared vision that got you up in the morning raring to go. (If not, read our last eNewsletter at www.swissconsultinggroup.com.) You aligned on it, found inspiration in it, and went to work. But what if the vision no longer drives you and circumstances run the show instead? What if you and/or your colleagues have lost touch with the vision in the daily clutter of emails, meetings, or external demands — or if you (or a colleague) have run into an obstacle that seems like an insurmountable wall? How do you restore vision when it seems far away and irrelevant? Although the job of leaders is to "be today the future that you wish for in the world," as Gandhi put it, managers all too often forget to stand in the future and instead resign themselves to the status quo. To give just one example: a senior executive at a financial services firm saw in our first coaching session that his modus operandi was to find out the rules that others had made for him, and then fit his intentions within those rules, instead of building his own vision and then shaping the rules to match it. The result: "I am too focused on the details; I lose sight of the big picture."

Six Steps to Restoring Vision
Step 1: Realize how ever-present resignation is and how easy it is to fall victim to it.
Step 2: Let the person communicate fully and listen with compassion, without intervening or offering quick solutions.
Step 3: Reveal the moment when the person gave up. When exactly did they decide that it couldn't be done? Find out the facts of what happened.
Step 4: Help the person separate what actually happened from their interpretation of what happened. Put the past where it belongs: into the past.
Step 5: Revisit the person's original vision. Why did they commit to it in the first place?
Step 6: Invite the person to recommit to their vision. If necessary, help them find new pathways.

How can you help a colleague recover his or her vision? The first step is to recognize how pervasive resignation is. Resignation is really the result of the past limiting what you believe can happen in the future. An extreme example is Haiti, where Swiss Consulting Group works to build, train, and coach a network of Haitian leaders, from the government level to civil society, to achieve their vision of returning Haiti to its place as the "Pearl of the Antilles." Haiti's past has left a powerful legacy of defeatism: with thirty-three coups since independence, the world's worst AIDS infection rate outside Africa, and crushing poverty, people are understandably pessimistic. Most Haitians, and most people in the international community, believe that things will never change.

Haiti is only the tip of the iceberg. Resignation lurks everywhere: when we open the morning paper; when we drive to work among countless other cars or in a subway crammed with withdrawn passengers; when we are at work; when we go home and watch TV. Even in teenagers' homes, the background conversation is often, "These are your best years, so shut up and enjoy them." And resignation is oblivious to itself: from the vantage point of resignation, there is no resignation — it looks like realism. "You are dreaming, baby. I know how things are. Believe me, I have been there." Its blindness to itself makes sure that resignation persists. It is the party that has all the votes. No wonder that the former German chancellor Helmut Schmidt famously recommended that visionaries go see an eye doctor.

We carry our pasts around with us like true burdens. Do you know the Chinese story where two Buddhist monks walked from one city to another? They walked several days, mostly in silence. At one point they came to a river; there was no bridge or ferry in sight. The monks decided to wade through the river where the water was shallow. Suddenly a beautiful young woman appeared. She was too weak to wade through the water by herself and asked the older monk to carry her through the river. He did. The woman slung her slim arms, glistening with sweat, around the old man's neck. He carried her cheerfully across the river and set her down carefully on the opposite bank as the younger monk looked on in amazement. The two monks said good-bye to the girl and continued on their way. The young monk tried to suppress his agitation as they walked on; but the longer he tried to remain quiet, the more he felt the urge to speak. After several hours, the young monk simply could not hold back anymore. He blurted out, "How could you do this? You know that we are not supposed to touch women. How can you live with this shame?" The older monk smiled serenely and said, "I set the woman down hours ago. Of the two of us, which one is still carrying her now?" Like the younger monk, we carry the past with us wherever we go.

Sometimes you have to do more than recognize the past. Andy Grove, the famed leader of Intel, had to shed the past, or it would take him down. One day in the 1980s, when Intel's position was slipping as Japanese companies were conquering the memory market, Grove, then the company's president, sat in his office with Gordon Moore, the co-founder and then chairman and CEO. Grove turned to Moore and asked: "If we got kicked out and the board brought in a new CEO, what do you think he would do?"

Moore answered, "He would get us out of memories." (No pun intended!)

After a moment of reflection, Grove said, "Why shouldn't you and I walk out the door, come back and do it ourselves?"

And so they did. They jettisoned Intel's memory business. It was not easy, neither for Grove nor for anyone else in the company: "As I started to discuss the possibility of getting out of the memory chip business with some of my associates," he wrote later, "I had a hard time getting the words out of my mouth without equivocation. It was just too difficult a thing to say. Intel equaled memories in all of our minds. How could we give up our identity?"

It turned out to be their best move ever. Intel had developed the microprocessor as an alternative computer chip. The 8086 and its next of kin, the 8088, helped launch the personal-computer revolution by providing the brains for IBM's pathbreaking PC. Grove and his associates had given up what Intel was for what it could be.

Once you have seen how pervasively the past reigns supreme, the second step is to open the lines of communication and simply listen to the person so they can communicate fully where they are. One of our coaches, Nick Wolfson, finds out as much as he can about the person and their situation. He looks at all aspects of his client's life and, if needed, speaks to their family and friends.

Your third step is to find out when the person gave up. When did the vision become "impossible," and what was the exact blockage that got in the way? It could be that they missed an interim milestone, or an important gatekeeper dismissed the entire project, or some problem outside of work got in the way. No matter what the interruption was, you want to identify the precise moment, not only to fix problems that may have arisen at that point, but also to hear how the person interprets what occurred. What did they decide?

Be sure that the person makes a split between the facts and their perception of the facts. This is the fourth step. Eighteen years ago, when I coached teams in twenty-seven countries to meet their financial objectives, I called a Finnish colleague and asked him how he was doing. There was a long silence on the phone (not untypical for the Fins); I almost thought the line had gone dead. I asked, "Are you there?" Finally he answered in a deep and dark voice, "I think I shall kill myself." I realized that he took his goal so seriously that he would rather die than live with the shame of missing it. His vision had gone out the window. I had to help him see that the facts (he was behind in meeting his financial objectives) was not connected to his interpretation (he should die) at all. Similarly, in Haiti, the calamities of the past have often led to an understandable belief that bad things are bound to happen and that people are victims of circumstances beyond their control: "It's not really up to me anyway." It is important to clarify that this is an attitude, not an objective reality. My colleague Nick tells clients, "You think this is about your project. It's not. It's about you." Once people make this distinction, whole new possibilities for action open up.

The fifth step is to revisit with the person their original vision; why did they commit to the game in the first place? What would be missing in their lives, in their organizations, or in the world if they stopped? They may have to step back from the current project or goal, wipe the slate clean and create their vision again from nothing. One top executive I coached a few years ago did this by creating a set of fundamental commitments; he saw that he could use his job — a job he had come to see as routine — as a perfect vehicle for fulfilling his own vision, including being a championship performer.

You may have to act as a "wall" for people's commitments so they "kill the alternative," in the words of Margaret Thatcher, of missing the goal. This is the sixth and final step. In many ways, the job of a coach is to have a player remember their fundamental commitment when the player forgets. Eighteen years ago I coached a Mexican fundraising team to meet a challenging monthly campaign goal; the end of the month was approaching and they had not been in touch. So I called the team leader and asked how it was going. She said, "They have revoked their goal for the month — they can't see how to meet it." I told her it would make a real difference to morale worldwide if the Mexican team led the way, and asked her if they could all recommit to their goal. I don't know what she said to them, but it worked. They recommitted, delivered the goal, and boosted their confidence for all future campaign cycles.

You are in charge. Focus on the future. Your tomorrow is what you make of it.

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