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Focus on Leadership: Leader Job #2: NAVIGATOR - Clarifying Purpose
By Kim McKinnon, PhD
Author's note: This is the third in a six-part series focusing on some of the latest things we know about effective leadership - recent research, best practices and a specific approach leaders can use to improve their own effectiveness.

When leadership guru Tom Peters shared the opinion a few years ago that, "We are in a brawl with NO RULES!" some thought he was exaggerating quite a bit. Today, Peter's description of a confusing state of world affairs seems to be quite accurate. At the time of this writing, dramatic fluctuations in the world's economic markets seem to be governed by - "no rules!" Further, other major challenges exist that weren't on the radar screen of any previous generation - global terrorism, constantly "improving" modes of communication, ethical disagreements about advances in health care and even arguments about the planet's ecosystem.

Although some may not have noticed - rapid and significant changes have been taking place within organizations as well. All organizations - including yours - are experiencing major challenges in greater number than ever before. Specifically, re-organizations, cost-containment programs, changing government regulations, reductions in the workforce, information system upgrades and many more "improvements" have resulted in a workplace which, for many, is uncertain and difficult to understand.

In conditions like this, you do your job as a leader when you step up to the challenge and function effectively in your role as a Navigator - the person who takes time to meet with employees and discuss what's really going on - and what we're going to do about it.

Of course, the Navigator role is one of what we've been calling "The Fundamental Five" -- the five critical roles of leadership. In earlier articles, we've summarized each role as follows:
  • Guardian - establishing TRUST
  • Navigator - clarifying PURPOSE
  • Coach - building engaged PEOPLE
  • Architect - strengthening TEAMWORK
  • Revolutionary - leading CHANGE
As we focus on the role of Navigator, we discover that success in this area doesn't just happen - rather, "great navigators" become "great" through focusing on three important tasks:
  1. Keeping Informed
  2. Clarifying the Purpose
  3. Communicating the Purpose
Keeping Informed ...

Those who have served in the armed services are probably familiar with the concept of "Situational Awareness" or "SA." This term has grown out of the critical need many military people have to keep informed about quickly changing conditions. Excerpts from military publications explain "SA" like this:

"SA stands for the real-time ability to acquire and process different data in a constantly shifting environment and the ability to translate an assessment into action aimed at maintaining integrity. Sounds corny, eh? It really means "know what goes on and adapt to it."
-Air Force SOP

"Situational Awareness is the ability to identify, process and comprehend the critical elements of information about what is happening. More simply, it's knowing what is going on around you."
-Coast Guard Training

Effective leader Navigators don't wait for the unexpected; they tend not to be surprised too often. Rather they construct a systematic way to keep informed about the things that are most important to them. They typically have a well-defined approach - whether it involves networking with others, reading selected publications, participating in relevant professional associations - to keep them aware of "what's going on" and how it could affect them and the success of their work. Some have adopted the P.E.T.S. approach to ensure they are keeping aware of a wide variety of issues.
  • Political Issues:
  • Economics Issues:
  • Technological Issues:
  • Social Issues:
Because "information overload" is one of the challenges facing many leaders today, effective Navigators are selective about what sources they use and they manage the amount of information they include in their "keep informed" system. Stacks of professional publications on your desk are an indication that you could be more "selective" about what you include in your system.

Clarifying the Purpose ...

We often define an "organization" as "a group of people with a common goal." Such a definition can be used to describe your department or work team as well. While we enjoy this easily-understood description, we should be distressed when we learn how "uncommon" our department or organization's "common goal" really is. Studies examining how well employees understand and if they can even identify their organization's "mission" or "purpose" or "plan" uniformly show that the vast majority of employees report that they "don't know" or, as one stated, "we don't have a clue."

Navigators are leaders who have taken time to thoughtfully compose a meaningful statement of purpose which clearly, and ideally succinctly, identifies "why we exist" or "what our most important work together should be" or "how we need to work to be successful." Effective Navigators are careful to be focused on only the very few and the very most important areas. In their book, The Discipline of Market Leaders, Treachy and Wiersema outline how there are really only three basic strategies for success in organizations - "customer intimacy" (focusing on service), "operational excellence" (focusing on cost) or "product leadership" (focusing on innovation). They suggest that "leading organizations" choose one of these three approaches as the way they accomplish their mission. (They also propose not ignoring the other two areas - but working to be about the same as similar organizations). This focus on the most important thing reminds us of a pithy statement by Stephen R. Covey -

"The Main Thing is the Keep the Main Thing, the Main Thing."

Although this statement may sound kind of funny, it is easy to remember - and it is very, very true. The Navigator understands the need to design a clear "main thing" - and to communicate it often - our next area.

Communicating the Purpose ...

Noted Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner teaches us,

"Stories of identity - narratives that help individuals think about who they are, where they come from, and where they are headed - constitute the single most powerful weapon in the leader's arsenal."

Dr. Gardner's ideas are supported by the thoughts of others who agree that people (including your employees) are interested in being "part of things," "being in on things" and feeling like they are an "important contributor to success." When employees don't know the real purpose of the department or organization, they have difficulty feeling "in on things" - because they don't know what the essential "things" are.

Cognitive psychologists - those who study how we learn and remember and use our brains - have long suggested that people need to hear things a number of times before they really remember them. Some have even suggested that "seven" is the average number of times people need to hear something before they really remember. One thing we know is that most leaders rarely talk about "the purpose" a sufficient number of times for it be become embedded into most employee's memory. And though some leaders may think they talk about "the purpose" or "mission" quite often, they usually share their ideas with seven different people one time - rather than all people seven times. In any case, the effective Navigator is wise enough to talk about the "purpose" a lot; he or she makes the statement of purpose memorable due to repetition.

Making "main things" memorable is also something Navigators do well. They may have learned from advertisers whose messages have stayed with us over time ("Look Mom, no cavities!" and "A mind is a terrible thing to waste" and "It takes a lickin' and keeps on tickin."). Some such slogans are no longer in use and are decades old - yet we still remember them. While not suggesting that we turn our purpose into a simplistic slogan, talking about it - a lot - will make it memorable, and will result in your employees: (1) knowing the purpose and (2) really using it to guide their work.

Finally ...

Finally, it is important to remember the sequential nature of "The Fundamental Five" leadership roles. Before focusing on being an effective Navigator, make sure you have first laid a solid foundation in your work as a Guardian - that you have established trust with your work team. Adding an effective and compelling "statement of purpose" works best after your Guardian work is well underway - meaning, employees have confidence in you, they believe what you tell them and they feel they can really trust you.

Next time we will explore the leader's role as a Coach - the person who "builds engaged people."

Kim McKinnon, PhD is a leadership development consultant and executive coach in the Phoenix area and has worked with a number of ACMA members. In addition to his consulting, he also is on the faculty at Arizona State University and the Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara. Kim has enjoyed the feedback he's received on these articles and can be reached at: McKinnonConsulting@Cox.Net or through his website: McKinnonConsulting.Net
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