Plowing New Ground Growing New Culture

  • Several years ago, Vistage speaker Vincent Langley  plowed up ground on his cherry farm in Traverse City, Michigan. The process started him thinking about how companies can “plow” new ground while reinventing their corporate cultures.”Our block of cherry trees outlived its productive life and I had to cut them down, dig out the stumps, burn the brush and prepare the ground for a new crop,” Langley reports.The new plants, grapes, required a completely different nutrient environment, so he started by planting sorghum, a tall leafy grass that resembles corn. The following year, he turned this under and planted rye grass for a year. The year after that, he finally was able to plant his grape vines. The soil had to be prepared correctly and the microbes adjusted to allow the grapes to take root and grow. Sometime within three to five years after planting the grapes, he produced a viable crop.

    “Organizations go through the same process when change is first implemented,” Langley says. “Deciding to do something different, rather than keep dealing with decreasing results and ongoing problems is the first step in creating an environment of high performance.”

    Here’s what he suggests to cut out and burn:

  • Top-down bureaucratic management
  • The use of negative reinforcement and judging people
  • Crisis management
  • Fear and intimidation as a motivational tool
  • Gut feel of the boss in making decisions
  • Educating only the top of the organizational pyramid
  • The organizational pyramid
  • Unclear common goals
  • Paying people to work (as opposed to think)
  • Vocabulary of “killer statements” (i.e., I can’t, We already tried that, They won’t let me, It’s not my job, etc.)Preparing the Ground

    “After the stumps were dug out and the brush pile burned, I prepared the soil to accept a new crop,” Langley says. “I used my plow to do the initial rough work, then a disc to break up the furrows into small chunks. Then I applied a spring tooth harrow to get the soil ready for the seed.”

    Organizations, he says, go through much the same process.

  • The plow is a rough tool and leaves uneven results. When you remove the traditional management tools of fear and top-down management, there’s often chaos in the decision-making process as people experiment with new roles and new skills. Their confidence that the change is sincere is low and they’re testing leadership resolve in actually planting a new crop.
  • The disc breaks up big clods of dirt and smoothes out the contours of the new field. The organizational disc is time.“As people see persistence and tenacity from their leaders, they start to believe that the change is real,” Langley says. “Gradually they become skillful in the application of new tools and start thinking and working in a new way.”
  • By dragging the harrow across the ground, he prepared the soil to accept the seed. Education is the organizational harrow. “Everyone in the company has to learn new skills, not just a few at the top.” These skills include:
  • Leadership
  • Statistical process control
  • Working as teams
  • Appreciating diversity in people
  • Using a consistent process of change
  • Really knowing the needs of each customer
  • Being proactive”When preparing the seed bed, it’s necessary to cover the same ground many times,” Langley explains. “Each time I drive the tractor across the same ground, I’m using a new tool. Each new tool has a purpose.”Planting the SeedsNew crops begin with the right seed. When Langley decided to plant sorghum, he didn’t get a few pounds of different types of grass and mix them all together.

    “Too often, people in companies lack a shared purpose,” he says. “They see a little commitment to this and a little commitment to that. This results in skepticism and low productivity. Decide on the crop to be planted. Allow others to have input into what will be planted. Let them be farmers, too.”

    Letting the Plants Grow

    What if a farmer goes out to a field of seedlings every day and pulls up each plant just to see how the roots were growing? The obvious answer is: It won’t turn out to be a bumper crop.

    “I’ve seen organizational farmers do this, just as their people are starting to grow. It’s called bed-checking or micromanagement. As people begin to experiment with new tools, they’re looking over their shoulders for the boss to judge them. This is a hold-over from the old way of thinking. Only when they see a coach instead of a boss do they truly start to use the new tools.”

    The leader’s job is to nourish and encourage without disrupting growth. Use objective measurements of growth. Keep these measurements visible. Celebrate each tiny success.

    A Promising Forecast

    Farming is a long-term proposition. Langley has to remember why he’s doing each activity in the field and keep his goal in sight.

    “Leaders are challenged to do the same thing. On the way to outstanding bottom lines, the leader must appreciate each small success. If you don’t appreciate the intermediate accomplishments, discouragement will overcome you. Be consistent in all behaviors and exhibit truly tenacious commitment.”

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