The water surged through the levee breaks, a dark, roiling force swallowing up homes, cars, people, memories, and livelihoods.
On August 29, 2005, when Hurricane Katrina tore through New Orleans, the city initially appeared to have survived. But storm surges on Lake Pontchartrain eventually led to more than fifty levee breaches, and within two days roughly eighty percent of the city was underwater, with flooding as high as fifteen feet in some places.
Kathleen Blanco, Louisiana’s governor, and Michael Brown, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, spoke about what a tragedy the flooding represented. But some residents unable to evacuate were living on rooftops with no food, clean water, electricity—and increasingly, with faltering hope.
“As leaders get farther away from the real work, their understanding of what is happening on the ground diminishes,” says Christine Cavanaugh-Simmons, president of CCS Consulting, Inc. She explains that as a result, leaders’ language naturally becomes more abstract. And using this abstract language during times of difficulty or change conveys how out of touch they are—and can even make them seem insensitive.
Referring to Katrina’s aftermath, Cavanaugh-Simmons adds: “So here you have the governor of Louisiana, and the head of FEMA, and these people are talking at this level of abstraction. Meanwhile, you have all these other people who are living in the concrete world of consequences.”
In other words, perspective is everything.
Cavanaugh-Simmons, a management consultant who has helped leaders discover their strengths and use them to effect positive change within their organizations, notes that the divide between the abstract and the concrete following Katrina inevitably led to several outcomes. First, although leaders intended to help those in need, their abstractions created a muddled, delayed response. Second, leaders had a much more positive view of the relief effort than they should have, at least initially, as evidenced by President George W. Bush’s remark to FEMA’s Brown: “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job.”
Cavanaugh-Simmons says executives need to truly understand what life is like for lower-level employees on a daily basis if they hope to encourage positive change.
Successful Japanese leaders use just such an approach to effectively implement change within their organizations in a process called a genba walk (often spelled gemba in the Western world). Before trying to change things, the Japanese leader first goes to where the work is being done.
Say an organization wants to improve customer service. Prior to firing off memos, reorganizing functions, establishing benchmarks and targets, and generally cracking heads, the Japanese executive will spend time in the customer service function and objectively observe the operation.
“You cannot live in the world of change management, abstractions, and objectives,” Cavanaugh-Simmons says. “Of course, you have to create context and focus and intent, but all of that has to be informed by going where the work is being done.”
And objective or neutral observation means exactly what it sounds like. “You’re not there to mess with stuff or direct it,” Cavanaugh-Simmons says. “You’re simply there to observe so that you walk away with your own direct experience.”
The next step in the genba walk is for the leader to meet with the team, which includes those who are doing the work, and to discuss his or her observations.
The leader might say something along the lines of: “This is what I saw. What did you see? How do you interpret that? How does that relate to our process improvement goals? What changes do we need to make?”
It’s in these sense-making circles where real progress happens, Cavanaugh-Simmons says.
“A leader has to engage to move from the abstract to the concrete,” she says. “They’ve got to go observe, they’ve got to engage in the sense-making circles. But it’s important to emphasize that a leader can only get to the concrete level with true curiosity and dialogue.”
Consider the case of a white male senior executive who recognizes his company’s need to do a better job of promoting women and people of color to positions of power in the organization.
“Leaders speak at the level of intention,” Cavanaugh-Simmons says. “So in other words, this leader knows he has these problems, but when he looks down into the organization and formulates this intention, it is very abstract. The women and minorities live a very concrete world of consequences.”
Rather than talk past each other—never a fruitful process—executives and the high-potential women and minority promotion candidates need to thoroughly understand each other and speak the same language. The process begins with their individual stories, Cavanaugh-Simmons says.
“The best way to do that is to fully re-live those stories that have shaped you,” she says. “This is not about a Wikipedia page, which is just the facts of your life. You have to truly re-live your life, examine it, unpack it—and then use what you’ve learned as a leadership tool.”
This is a subtle process. White male executives often have trouble moving from a fact-based narrative to an embrace of their deep life stories, Cavanaugh-Simmons says. On the other hand, women and minorities typically have to be encouraged to share all facets of their stories, including the unpleasant aspects that are always present in the stories of those on the margins of power.
“Women and minorities who have risen in largely white corporations almost invariably leave out stories that demonstrate what shaped them as women or African Americans or Latinos growing up in the United States,” she says. “They’re reluctant to share the story about the time they were harassed by a boss or got pulled over by the police. But these are powerful stories of agency and redemption that often reveal the sources of their strength as leaders.”
Once a company’s leadership team has engaged in the “Who am I?” process, it can enable and facilitate the organization to author or even re-author its “Who are we?” story. From there, the organization can write its “Where are we going?” story.
“Before you can really say ‘Here’s where we’re going,’ I believe a leader needs to do the deep ‘Who am I?’ work,” Cavanaugh-Simmons says. “After the personal work, the leader is better prepared to go out and engage and observe and listen and ask for stories and sit in these sense-making circles before putting a message out there saying, ‘This is the hill we’re going to charge up.’”
The process is not easy. “You personally have to make a commitment to discover, un-pack, re-live, and connect,” she says. “You’ve got to go deeper. You can’t be at the abstract level, you can’t be cueing off the research or the latest poll, and once you’ve realized that, you begin to see when you go back into your organization that you cannot work on the abstract level there.”
Cavanaugh-Simmons serves as a translator and bridge between people, and much of her work centers on helping diverse groups understand each other.
“This kind of narrative work has very real challenges,” Cavanaugh-Simmons says. “You have privileged people who are part of the power structure on one side, and people living in the world of consequences on the other. You have two groups that aren’t speaking the same language. So I will work with clients to help them understand that and find a way to share stories and build understanding.”
She pauses, then adds: “How do we start to share these stories and give voice to the people who are living in the world of these race and gender issues so that the people in power, the people of privilege, see this in a new way instead of through a lens of abstraction that has nothing to do with what life is like for people of color or women? One way is by developing an even higher degree of narrative intelligence in an organization’s leaders through narrative coaching. That’s where the magic happens.”