Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Always Lead With Context

Overheard from various managers:

"I know it doesn't make any sense, but corporate wants it done this way."

"You don't need to worry about the Why…just do your job."

"Because I said so."

Chances are you've heard one of those statements or some variant of them at some time during your professional life. They are obnoxious, offensive and importantly, they take a perfectly good opportunity to get the best effort out of someone and stomp all over it and then flush it down the toilet.

The empty orders above are utterances without context.

Context in this case is that not-so-secret ingredient that helps people understand the idea or issue and how it connects to something important in the workplace. Context provides the basis for understanding and assessing a situation or a request to do something. It has the equivalent workplace outcome of adding yeast to the process of making bread.  Without it, everything is flat.

People and teams do their best work when they understand how their efforts fit into the bigger picture of the organization. It's unfortunate that in the hectic pace of business, too many managers fail to leverage the catalytic power of context, and instead, end up issuing empty orders to their compliant but not fully engaged employees.

The Three Levels of Context in the Workplace:

1. Big Picture…What We're All About Context (Organizational Context). This is "reason for being" context and it provides that sense of belonging to something meaningful and purposeful.

Inherent in this type of foundational context is a directional component as well.  Mission, Vision and Values are powerful context builders here. Unfortunately, these important concepts are often reduced to meaningless jumbles of framed artwork hanging on conference room walls. Instead, Mission, Vision and Values should be used to offer critical foundational understanding of the purpose and general direction of the organization.

Your Actions:

  • Periodically talk to team members about Mission, Vision and Values. Ensure that new employees understand the relevance of these elements to the broader work and functioning of the organization.
  • Use the values to define acceptable and unacceptable behaviors.
  • Teach people and teams to leverage values in decision-making.
  • Engage senior leaders in the discussions and politely challenge them to make Mission, Vision and Values relevant in the context of the firm's current situation.

2. What We're Doing to Win with Customers and Beat Competitors (Strategic Context). Whereas foundational context (Mission, Vision and Values) provide a sense of belonging and general purpose and direction, strategic context gives people the high level understanding of the importance of their actions and how and where they fit in support of helping the firm win customers and beat competitors.

I've never understood why so many senior leaders fail to provide adequate strategic context to their broader organizations. One leader kept his firm's strategy securely locked in a drawer, lest anyone leak it to competitors. Another rationalized that the big picture thinking was for senior leaders only. Both grossly misunderstand how important this context is to helping the organization move forward.


  • Talk strategy frequently. Don't kick off projects, discuss results, set goals or talk about improvements, cost cuts or just about anything, without anchoring the discussion in strategy.
  • Invite front-line professionals (sales, customer service) to talk with your team frequently about marketplace realities and issues.
  • Ensure that all goals discussions are in the context of strategy, and always, always, always link scorecard and other discussions about business performance to strategy.
  • Ask for input. The broader topics of strategy and execution should be bi-directional, with employees offering ideas for improvements and feedback on what's working and what's not.

3. "Me" Context.  We all want to understand how we as individuals fit into the picture. We also want to understand at least in general where we might be going as the team or organization succeeds.

"Me" Context provides us with purpose and with a sense of belonging. "I count, and my work here contributes to helping move the team forward and ultimately to helping us win with customers and beat competitors."

The absence of "Me Context" results in a kind of out of body experience at work, where people go through the motions, but don't truly engage with their full force and power.


  • Always frame positions and job descriptions in terms of how the role is expected to contribute to the firm's/team's success.
  • Ensure that goals discussions are anchored in Strategic Context.
  • Deliver behaviorally-focused constructive and positive feedback often and always link it to the business.
  • As identified above, ask for input. Your act of asking and listening…and then acting reinforces the connection that people have with their organizations and teams.
  • Don't ignore professional development and advancement. A surprisingly large number of organizations that I encounter don't have anything formal in place for developmental activities and discussions. The absence of this system is not an excuse for you.  Help people grow and they will pay you back many times over.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

One of your core tasks as a leader is to foster an environment where people have the tools and resources to do their best work in support of the firm. Context helps create the effective working environment. Consider this as critical context for your own role.

Thanks to Art Petty / Strategy & Management-Innovations, LLC.


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