Interview with Rick Haller, by Kaylee Somerville
Corporate scandals like Enron or Theranos show the risk of organizations that fail to hold themselves to higher standards.
Rick Haller, one of Riverbank’s executive consultants and the previous President & COO of Walbridge, believes that self-awareness is the first step in building this higher business-standard. Yet, research shows that while most people think they are self-aware, only 10–15% actually are. I had the opportunity to discuss with Rick how to effectively develop self-awareness among leadership teams and its importance not only as an individual but also within an organization.
What is organizational self-awareness?
The standard definition for self-awareness is the “conscious knowledge of one’s own character, feelings, motives, and desires.”
According to Rick, organizational self-awareness is about developing a succinct way to understand who an organization is and who the organization wants to continue to be. “These values are immutable, simple, and easily articulate what is important to the organization.”
“Organizational self-awareness is a clear understanding of your strengths and weaknesses as an organization (your “who” which is more about your “spirit” than about your mission or purpose).”
“Values define the qualities of how you work, grow, and treat others (whether clients, customers, stakeholders, or employees).” Similar to how a riverbank controls the waters’ movement, values frame and steer the quality of action. Values are the SPIRIT of who you are and choose to be. So, in this effort to move toward this outcome of who you want to be, you must hold yourself and your organization fully accountable.
Thus, it is less of a “purpose” and more so principles declaring how you and your organization choose to operate in the world.
“It isn’t necessarily saying, we’re broken, let’s fix it, but instead, “how can we be better?” How can we align everybody to being the best we can be as an organization?”
Why self-awareness is important
Self-awareness hosts an array of benefits for well-being and productivity. If we understand ourselves and our purpose, we have stronger networks, improved profits, better interactions, and richer lives. Self-awareness in business also has a surprising host of benefits. Employees working in organizations with strong values and aligned purpose are more calm, healthy, happy, satisfied with their jobs, and perform better. It also helps develop strategic intent, which is crucial for business innovation.
How does self-awareness help us work better? Research shows that typically, we run on “autopilot”. We become distracted by daily tasks that we leave self-reflection for when things go wrong. For Rick, crises in life catalyzed a moment of deep reflection and later understanding of himself and how he operated. After this reflection, he began to see opportunities for improvement in himself and how his organization operated, inspiring his journey to create clarity of organizational-self awareness and identify organizational values. The organization still stands by these values today.
Look for conflicting values to find what needs to change
The first lesson is to recognize organizational values is to look for conflicting values. Your personal values (how you operate in the world) should be integrated into how you behave at work and home. But often, this is not the case. “Take, for example, transparency, says Rick. “Being transparent with one’s spouse and family is a natural thing. Yet, at work, many discussions happen among leadership groups, and information becomes available only to distinct groups.”
So, in developing organizational values, ask yourself: what feels like second nature at home but feels uncomfortable at work? Why? Asking these questions is a good start to discovering how you believe the organization should behave.
Creating organizational self-awareness is a collective process
“Building organizational self-awareness asks first who you are as an individual. It then brings individuals together to ask “who are we as an organization?”, says Rick.
Do not expect to find unanimous alignment with the rest of your leadership team, Rick warned. For Rick’s team, it took three days in a collaborative leadership meeting to agree on values. “We listed them, debated them, and rewrote them. Our individual views of the company and its future were entirely different from one another. We simply didn’t know what we didn’t know about who the organization was.”
Make values simple
How do organizations effectively teach their values to all the employees in the company? According to Rick — simplicity. “Our values are in our nature. We all have intrinsic, core values that are embedded in us. Take the concept of safety, for example. As humans, protecting ourselves and those around us is a natural concept. Safety, in its simplest form, means to protect ourselves and those around us, and is therefore a natural behavior. When simply put, the values should be so straightforward that you ask, “How could we NOT?””
Rick also mentioned the importance of communicating organizational values in a simple manner. “There is no punishment for ignorance. The first step to holding employees accountable to values is to explain and help the entire organization understand them. The goal is to encourage employees to not only understand the values themselves but why they exist at the organization.”
The beauty of having clear and simple values is that they are easy to communicate to others and have others hold us accountable to them. Rick emphasized to me that “once organizations develop their values, [leaders] should talk about them at company meetings with executives, spouses, employees, and customers. Expect and encourage feedback from these groups to ensure you are continually meeting the values you set.”
“Life can only be understood looking backwards, but it must be lived forward”. — Søren Kierkegaard”
Thank you to Rick for sharing his insights on developing organizational self-awareness. I learned that similar to individual self-awareness, organizational self-awareness is an ongoing process. Rick concluded that “It is a journey that consists of constant self-analysis and recognizing that we are imperfect beings in constant need of change. Discovering and explicitly stating our values helps us remain accountable to them, but it is ultimately up to us to give it our best to make a difference.” In essence, if we understand who we were looking back and how we want to be now, going forward will be an entirely different experience.
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