Like many people in this age of COVID-19, I am grasping at things in these final days of 2020 to try and determine what is coming next after what we could call the Lost Year. And it really is not clear that we know what is coming next.
Meanwhile, I go about the business of leading my client projects and navigating the many complex and diverse personalities that make up the key stakeholders in my client organizations. If we look more closely at this word Stakeholders — a very commonly used word in the parlance of projects — we begin to get a taste of how difficult things can be. By definition the word implies that an individual has some stake, some interest of some kind or another, in this project I am trying to manage; but that stake may be vastly different, and may even conflict with the interests of another Stakeholder, with whom I must work in order for the project to be successful; also, none of these people work for me (I do not ensure they get a paycheck), and so they have no obligation to do what I ask them to do to move the project along toward what I consider to be a successful project outcome.
This can be an exhausting proposition, at times: the requirement to work in this consensus-based, consultative fashion, which is so much a part of what so many of us must do.
Revisiting Peter Block’s Teachings
From the earliest days of my firm, I was a student of Peter Block’s Flawless Consulting (Block, Peter, Third Edition, 2011, Pfeiffer, San Francisco, CA). Over the years, It has become a bible of sorts for me, as I’ve continually tried to go a bit deeper into clearly understanding more of why I love the work that I do. I know now that part of it is that, in the end, it is the people that make the crucial difference, and I have always been an inclusive type of individual, puzzled, fascinated, and, ultimately, hopeful about what people have to offer. This is also why I am, at times, completely exhausted: we cannot get anywhere without finding a way to work with people of all types, shapes, and sizes, and this can feel like all of your own blood is being sucked out of you in certain scenarios.
The instinctual response to these kinds of situations is to attempt to get better control of the people who seem to be causing much of the difficulty that we are facing. In a recent interview with Forbes, Block talks about the difficulty that many of us a face in this typical struggle for control. As Block puts it, business people are often:
…all stuck with the questions “How can you have impact?” and “How can you make a difference when you have no control over what people do with what you produce?”
Crucially, Block points out that “the hardest thing for people to understand is that the relationship is the delivery system of anything you try to accomplish.”:
So we’ve tried to help people make relationships accessible. I originally wrote (Flawless Consulting) for engineers, so I put in boxes and lines and lists. I studied engineering myself. When you’ve invested your life in developing expertise in things like finance and marketing and IT and nuclear science, it’s hard to accept that what you know will never have the desired impact if you don’t pay attention to the quality of relationships. Not just between you and the client, but between and among the client’s people.
It is reassuring and inspiring to know that Block really does walk his own talk when it comes to these principles, and I’ve recently discovered his diverse ways of infusing goodness into the world. In addition to Flawless Consulting, Block lists several other “Initiatives” on his website, including the Common Good Collective, which defines its purpose as providing:
…change leaders with the means to learn and work with one another to design, implement and sustain neighborhood, systemic and spiritual transformation.
And none of this would be possible without ensuring that relationships are paramount.
Leadership Without Control
In my GlobeBlog Post on what I call the White Coat Theorem, I discuss Choice Theory and how we often try to control outcomes, while also attempting to control the people we think are barriers to these outcomes. This is the very essence of what it means to misunderstand the importance of relationships. As Block puts it in the conclusion to his Forbes interview:
It’s simple only if you decide that relationship parity really matters. If you decide that you’re in charge and the other person’s view is irrelevant, this methodology is useless. That’s why a leadership model based on anything other than mutual respect is a fairy tale.
The key is, as leaders, it really isn’t about us (see also the GlobeBlog Post The Servant Leader). We certainly have our goals and objectives. There are definitely things we need to achieve, but we cannot force our Stakeholders to care about them. We have to persuade and lead people in the direction we feel will bring the best outcomes for everyone involved, while leaving the specific path, and the choices required to walk it, up to each individual. I know that sounds exhausting — and as I’ve said it often can be — but it is the only real and sustainable way to lead people through change.
In The End, It’s Still About Relationships
A few weeks ago, I was giving an interview about the nature of my consulting practice -- specifically what I do, and why I do it -- and all of a sudden, I found myself speaking Peter Block’s words of wisdom about relationships:
I think the human element matters because, at the end of the day, it’s all that matters….We’re doing this….We’re calling it a job. We’re calling it a profession...but when we’re in our last days the only thing that matters is the relationships that we’ve had and that continue on after we’re gone.
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