Trust the Process of the Heart

All our fear is lodged in trying to control the future. We anticipate a recurrence or absence of an event  in the future. Even when in physical pain, we don’t fear the agony we are going through now. We suffer through it  and try and manage it. But what makes us anxious is that it may go on for ever – or a week. And then our thought is “I won’t be able to cope with that. Not another week of this. Not another moment.” What we forget is that we are coping. We are managing. Even if we are doing so with massive doses of painkillers or therapy, we are managing the present pain. The last thing we need is the additional burden of anxiety or fear that comes with trying to anticipate the future.

Yet we do it all the time. We try and manage the future of our bank accounts, our children, our businesses and even our souls. And by doing so we fail to clearly see the present. And what you don’t clearly see, you cannot manage.

“Trust the Process”

Eric Parsloe – the man who was my first Coaching Mentor – used to say, “Trust the process”. I thought he meant ‘trust the coaching process’. But I now think he meant, ‘trust the process of life.’ We know that life will bring us what life brings: encounters. Those encounters may harm or help us. They may add or subtract. Depending on how they interact with our view of the world, they may bring us joy, grief, pain or comfort. The word process comes from the Latin Procedere, ‘to go on, continue.’ It’s the fact of continuing life interacting with you.  It’s no good trying to jump ahead and anticipate how you will interact with it in the future. That depends on how you interact with it now. It’s like trying to build a house by constantly skipping the block in front of you.

Does that mean we shouldn’t take care at all? We should spend all our money now? Don’t lock the front door? Of course not. I will not spend all my money now because if I do so I am making myself broke now. If I don’t lock my front door, I am putting myself in a position now whereby I am vulnerable now. Never mind tomorrow or later in the evening, my vulnerability starts now. If that’s what I want to do, that’s fine. But my action now has consequences now.

The problem with anticipating and trying to control the future is that you simply fail to fully address the present. By trying to control the future, you create a personal model of that future that will, by definition, differ from reality.

“At least give yourselves a chance”

A company I know would, each year, build its annual forecast by deciding what income it thought it needed to achieve and then set its sales targets accordingly. When I asked the leaders whether they thought they had the products, market demand, distribution capacity and delivery to achieve that income, the reply was “We have no option. That’s what we need to achieve.” And year after year, their distribution system failed them, their production was late and they failed to change their customer research. And year after year I (and others) would plead, “At least give yourselves a chance. If you’re going to set a target, at least make sure that your assets are prepared today (and every day) to hit it.”  The company went into liquidation recently.

Filtering your view of life is dangerous. It’s what made that company go bust; it’s what fuelled the global financial crisis -and every one before that.

The toughest organ we have

But there is one filter I am learning we must have. It’s the Filter of the Heart. Very recently a Reiki therapist, a young woman called Susan Haberlandt, said to me, “Whatever you’re about to do, try putting your heart filter on it first”. So I did. I tried looking at the world through my heart. Sometimes it worked; sometimes I grew impatient and used my head; sometimes I grew impatient and just did it. But sometimes, something happened: I took a tough decision that I had been dreading; I saw just how vulnerable an aggressive man really was; I stopped feeling guilty; I started feeling concerned.

The heart is not a fluffy, pink cushion. It’s the toughest organ we have. It pumps blood to and from every tissue in your body. Symbolically or actually it ‘knows’ every particle in your brain, your gut and your left toe. It has helped fuel your thinking, your instinct, your immunity and your recovery from illness. So when you filter your actions with your heart, you equip that action with everything you have: everything you have been taught consciously, everything you have experienced and absorbed; and everything with which you came into this life. That’s not just powerful; that’s herculean.

We know how to filter our actions and reactions with the head: the logic of connections. “If the client wants me to extend the coaching programme, then I must think about what my code of ethics and my supervisor say about ‘dependency’.” Then there is the filter of instinct: the drive to survival. “Another year of coaching will bring me $x. I really need the money. I’ll do it. And anyway, if he wants more coaching, that means he needs it”.

What would the heart say? What would it tell you about what all that is you  thinks is right, and not just your association’s code of ethics. What would it tell you about what would be best for the client, without your fear for your own future?

The Lens of the Heart

The filter of the heart is not a filter at all. It’s a lens that pulls together all that we are, to deal – in the sharpest focus that we can muster – with the world we inhabit. It may be worth while learning how to use it. If you do try, you may find (as I did) 5 things:

  1. There’s nothing ‘magical’ about it. What you’re doing is mustering all your appropriate resources to focus on a decision
  2. The more you consciously think about it the less it works (you’re using your filter of logical connections)
  3. The more you worry about whether it will work, the less it works (you’re trying to control the future and not managing the present)
  4. The more you try it the more effective it becomes (you access more resources)
  5. The more you try it, the less time and effort you have left to worry about ‘the future’. You’re dealing with it now.
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The Behaviour of Ailing Corporations

I once managed a portfolio company for a private equity firm. Its chairman didn’t teach me many things but he made up for it by by teaching me one big lesson. One day he told me that one of my Exec. Directors had been rude to ‘an outsider’. I apologized and said I would deal with it. “You’re not getting it”, he said. ” What I’m interested in is: what is it about your behaviour that makes him think  he has permission to act in this way”?

I’ve used that story in my coaching for over a decade – ending it with either of these two questions:

” What is it about your behaviour that allows your people to behave in this way?”

or

“What is it about your organization that gives permission to behave  in this way”?

My experience over the years is that creating space for certain kinds of behaviour can  quickly pervade entire institutions. It  may well be started, tolerated or even ignored by the leadership. More  interestingly, it may be the unforeseen result of a particular focus of business. Focus – human or institutional –  affects the way we see the world which, of course, affects the way we behave in the world.

As leaders, it’s important to reflect not just on how our organizations perform but on how they behave. Not just because  of the ethical contradictions but because neglecting to do so may threaten the entire business or service. How an institution behaves with all its stakeholders is a strong indicator of its state of health.  It is our responsibility to check those symptoms, regularly and honestly, ensuring we always widen our circles of enquiry; what a friend of mine recently called ‘increasing the circles of discomfort’. Don’t mistake the behaviour check as something ‘soft’ or driven by political correctness. The behaviour your colleagues display, both the consistencies and inconsistencies, will have a direct impact on your  purpose and business.

What I focus on, in the world impacts how I see the world; impacts how I deal with the world; impacts how the world sees me; impacts how the world deals with me.

An  institution’s strategic focus dictates what it views as important and what as not . This tends to create behaviour which favours the important as against the unimportant. If my strategic focus is  that my prices must be the lowest in the market, then I will favour those who help me achieve that focus: internal cost cutters,  tough bargaining, internal, buyers and (only) those suppliers who can deliver at the prices I require.  The ones I will not favour are my suppliers’ suppliers; my own staff development and welfare; in fact, anything that may affect my margins.

Now, that’s fine as long as I am aware of  the impact of that cycle of  strategic focus  and behaviour. If the institutional focus is on delivering lowest prices to its customers then that means, in  its behaviour, it may not focus on quality or even reliability of delivery. It will certainly mean it will not focus on the quality of life and welfare of its suppliers’ sub contractors. It may even try and minimise the costs of its waste disposal and environmental provision. And, if price is king, then customer service – which may be directly related to (costly) staff training and (costly) staff welfare – will be pauper. 

“Listen, you’re getting it cheap. What do you want? A smile or a damn bargain? Take your pick”.

Result?  You become linked with sweat shop labour; you get attacked for polluting the local environment (where  your customers live); your staff get grumpy and leave – or, worse still – get very grumpy and stay. Your customers dislike coming into your outlets and decide “You know what? I know the store down the road is 10c more expensive but at least it’s clean and I get treated like a human being”.

You may well end with no customers to offer your lowest prices to – or at least not in the volumes where they are viable.

How your company behaves to any one section of its stakeholders offers the world a window into its soul: its values, priorities, limitations, aspirations and ability to reach its outcomes.

As CEO of a technology company I once visited a media corporation to discuss a potential supply contract. I had a genuine interest in securing a contract but I also knew that our group wanted to buy it. So I was very interested to see what their behaviours could tell me. They kept me waiting for over an hour, they didn’t bother to even address my two associates  (clearly considering  them way too beneath them) and they  told me that they would only consider our technology if we agreed to an unsustainable price and terms. They did not – they declared – like my company or the group we belonged to but they would work with us at the ‘right price’.

We were a supplier of key technology that we would be obliged to  maintain to very precise standards  to ensure minimal disruption over at least five years. That required satisfactory terms and a trusting relationship. And yet they treated us as if we were a one off. Either they didn’t understand their own business or the business itself was less important than an exit from it. If exit was their target then my suspicion was that their customer offering would be just enough to get them by. After I left the building I found out that both content and customer service were  spartan. Churn  (customers leaving the service) was worryingly high. Because the focus was on exit,  I guessed attention to staff relationships, let alone staff development and quality of life, would be scant. Hence, their rudeness to my associates. All was confirmed later:   staff  skills, morale and loyalty were abysmal as were organisational and structural development. This was a company that existed for no other reason than to enrich a small group of people through its sale. It was hollow inside. Without doing anything more than observing behaviour in a meeting and making a few discreet enquiries later on, I discovered that this company a) was not worth very much as a going concern and b)  could not afford to hold out ‘for the right price’ for  long before  its losses and hollowness became very public.

Neither the behaviours of the media executives and the grumpy store cashiers, nor the impact they provoked were intentional – or even understood – by the company. But they were a logical (arguably, an inevitable) consequence of  the strategic focus: the organization’s view of the world.

All organizations betray their true focus by their behaviours.

The problem is compounded by the fact  is that these behaviours normally happen over a period of time within a very specific environment: a perfect setting for the boiling frog syndrome. The water is heated up  so gradually and gently that the frog fails to realise he is boiling.

Some institutions do try and check for the problem obliquely; most often by a ‘values’ exercise. A set of corporate values and standards of behaviour are identified or retrieved and staff are reminded (in workshops, pamphlets, posters and so on) of  the aspirations, priorities and acceptable behaviours. They are usually fruitless because the behaviour and values to support the institutional strategy are not those the company espouses.

If the investment bank’s values  speak of behaving with respect and integrity towards each and every client but its strategy focuses on maximising short term return from those clients, then ‘respect’ and ‘integrity’ will make a swift exit.

In legal terms, a corporation is a persona; it behaves, has authority and takes responsibility much like an individual. If  an individual’s behaviour contradicts his espoused values, profession, role or even image, we  may consider that person to be untrustworthy or even ill.

So it is with organizations.

Institutions – in my view – need to embark regularly on a  process that reviews the alignment of their strategic focus with their behaviours.

The TOTAL STRATEGY: the starting point is to develop, understand and clearly model the  strategy in very pragmatic terms; not just financially but the Total Strategy,  in terms of their organisation,offering, resources and stakeholders (what are we offering, with what, to and with whom, to what end?).

MODEL THE IMPACT:  develop and model a range of scenarios of  the possible impact of the Total Strategy on all internal and external stakeholders. ( If my strategic focus is to offer cheapest airfares on the market, what impact could that have on my staff training and therefore my quality of service?)

STRATEGY BALANCE:  Review what is a ‘must have’ in addition to your original strategic focus: I want to be the lowest cost provider with excellent customer service and reliable suppliers. So how ‘low cost’ am I prepared to be?

BENCHMARK AND MANAGE:  the competences,  skills, behaviours, values, structures, processes,  resources and risks that align with that balanced strategy.

CHECK THE SYMPTOMS: check your organizational behaviours regularly with your stakeholders; risking more and more discomfort as you go along. If  you don’t risk discomfort, the chances are you’re playing  it safe with your questions and your target group -and you then risk being very miserable indeed when you start boiling.

If you would like some help in identifying whether your organization’s behaviours threaten your strategy – or if you’d like to discuss the Total Strategy Programme, please contact me at stephen@stephenbarden.org

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