Taking Your Company's Pulse During Times Of Change

This article originally appeared in Forbes.

Co-Authored with Agata Antonow

The jungle vines hang low, obscuring the view. An intrepid traveler crawls slowly past hissing snakes and scuttling scorpions as she listens for the distant roar of a lion. Nimbly, she avoids a trap that would send her dropping 20 feet into a cavern and steps around a pit of quicksand. Her eyes are on the prize: the ancient ruins that contain a treasure.

No, it’s not the latest movie or video game. Often, this is what a business can feel like when values, ideas and actions are not aligned. What you need is attention.

Stay Alert and Actively Listen

Whether you’re in a distant rainforest or a boardroom, you need to be able to take a pulse of your climate. A static map is not enough. To stay as deft as our explorer, you need to be ready to adapt, and that means always staying alert to how the wind is blowing. Taking the pulse of your company lets you spot dangers and ensures you can explore new territories instead of treading water.

So how can you do that? Start with a simple adventure: a visit to the breakroom. What’s the conversation like there? Are your people sharing ideas, swapping approaches and applauding someone on their team? Or, are they complaining about their bonuses or lack thereof? This is one of the first places to look to understand the overall mood of the organization. If you’re met with hushed silence when you walk in, you know something is awry.

Often, this is what a business can feel like when values, ideas and actions are not aligned.

If you’ve never been to the breakroom or have to ask someone how to get there, you might want to consider adjusting your leadership course. Leaders need to know what team members are thinking, and this doesn’t always happen during official meetings. Getting to know people’s concerns in a more relaxed environment can tell you more about your company and its community than a stack of reports. Listen with curiosity and openness when team members share, and listen actively -- without defending or even speaking back. Your trip to the breakroom is about active listening and appreciation for the information you are getting. If you get defensive or start acting upset with whatever feedback you get, you’re unlikely to get more information.

Assess Your People and Culture

The next step on your journey is to ask, “Is there someone who is sucking the life force out of the company?” and “Am I ignoring some serious communication issues?” Take a long look at the people who are on this adventure with you. They need to be ready for potentially epic battles, sweeping changes and a success story worthy of the silver screen. If they’re not, what price are you paying?

The director-level leader who no one wants to work with, the genius who lacks leadership skills, and the creative who becomes moody and doesn’t clearly communicate expectations, are all having a big impact on your company culture -- maybe even more than you realize. And if you’re letting some of these team members have this kind of influence, what other elephants could you be ignoring within your organization’s culture?

Look Inward

While you’re looking at other team members, take a look at yourself, too. If you’re the leader of this expedition, you need to let go of your micromanaging forever. Get over it. Few things get your company culture sinking as fast as this type of quicksand. If you’re talking the big talk about innovation but are clinging to quarterly goals and can’t quite trust your people, you just can’t build an across-the-board learning organization.

Freedom and a long-term focus mean your people take initiative, which leaves you freer to build more success.

Adopting a long-term vision and letting your team shine may seem scary at first, especially if you miss some quarterly numbers or feel that little sense of fear about what your team might decide when left without careful management. But if you want to build a culture that thrives in periods of change, you have to loosen the leash. Freedom and a long-term focus mean your people take initiative, which leaves you freer to build more success.

Finally, when you’re still thinking about goals and your team, you need to ask: Are results more important than people? Are people more important than results? Is your leadership philosophy ruled by either one of these core beliefs?

There’s no right or wrong answer here, but consider this: What if you shifted that mindset to include both? What if you could be strategic and tactical at the same time? What if you were already wired to include both into your processes and ways of not just reporting but also how you reward and recognize your people? By investing in your people and your revenues at the same time and with the same determination, you could ensure you’re building a culture that supports all stakeholders. What might that look like at your company? How can you support both instead of polarizing sales and teams?

Whether you feel you’re making your way through vines and deep undergrowth in a forest or think your business is smooth sailing right now, constant change is part of the deal for any business leader. The sense of adventure is, after all, what draws many executives to this field. By staying alert to your surroundings, you can navigate these territories more effectively and maybe start embracing those new adventures more fully.

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