What’s your rallying cry? Thoughts on how to break down silos and stop organizational politics in its tracks.
By Karlyn Borysenko, Leadership Content Director
Prior to joining Eduventures, I spent over a decade working at three very different colleges – colleges large and small, serving traditional-aged students, adult learners, and veterans, based both on campus and online. But there was one notable commonality among them: instead of working cooperatively and productively, some employees engaged in political games and turf wars. At each institution, everyone acknowledged and felt the effects of this problem, but no one thought it could be solved. Some employees are just immature and will refuse to work together, right? In fact, it is not so simple.
Contrary to popular belief, this problem is not intractable. In his book “Silos, Politics, and Turf Wars,” Patrick Lencioni lays out a framework for stopping the petty organizational battles that hinder progress. This framework can be applied to any type of organization, from a startup to an established business to (yes!) a university.
It Starts at the Top
Before beginning, it is critical to acknowledge the critical role that your senior leaders play in this process. Every silo in every type of organization can be traced back to the top. If they are at war with each other, and engaging in their own political battles, then the rest of your staff will likely follow in their example. A strong, cohesive leadership team is an uncompromising must have. Everyone at the top must buy into a common vision, and take personal responsibility for the execution of that vision even if elements of it are outside of their own tactical area.
Once that cohesive team is built, they must carry the message of that vision to their individual teams, and work to build a similar buy-in and cohesiveness that those at the top are modeling.
Create Your Rallying Cry
Many times, inter-office politics and departmental rivalries spring up because the leadership is failing to provide a common vision and a compelling context for working together. Without this context, it can be very easy for employees at all levels (particularly those at the top who have more direct control over staff and budget) to revert to a “what’s in it for me?” strategy that puts personal interests above what’s best for the organization. Every individual contribution is important, from groundskeepers and security, to administrative professionals and executive assistants, to faculty, to mid-level professionals, to directors and above. A lack of cohesion and teamwork at any level can hinder your progress to your desired end result.
To create this compelling context, bring your leadership team together and work as a group identify a short-term goal that is critical to the future success of your institution. This is your rallying cry – is a single, qualitative goal that is stated unambiguously and will be the primary focus of the leadership team for a specific period of time. For example:
- Complete the rebranding process by the end of the year.
- Build a more scalable infrastructure to accommodate the increasing number of online students within the next 12 months.
- Create scale and build efficiency by integrating the technological systems that used by our campus and online students within the next 18 months.
The purpose of this exercise is not only to build cohesion in your leadership team, but also go give a clear goal that can align employees throughout the organization around a common cause.
The four key elements of your rallying cry are the following:
- It’s singular. The point of the exercise is to rallying your staff around a common goal. ONE common goal. Having more than one fails to provide clarify around what is truly important.
- It’s qualitative. It’s not a number, and is not specifically measurable. It will eventually be supported by key metrics, but that happens later in the process. This is a clear statement that articulates a desired accomplishment.
- It’s time-bound. This is not an ongoing objective – it has a specific target end date.
- It’s shared. This is a goal that everyone on the leadership team will be held accountable for achieving, regardless of their functional titles. It is their job to move beyond the specific interests of their own department to help the company progress.
To get ahead of the game, here’s how you might deal with some common objections to this idea:
“But, we have more than one goal!”
Sure, you can have more than one goal, but to create a shared vision that is the responsibility of the cohesive team to attain, one goal must take priority. That is a critical component of being in a leadership position – making decisions about what should be a priority, and what needs to go on the backburner.
“What about all of our day-to-day obligations?”
The rallying cry is not meant to replace, or even to deprioritize, standard operating objectives such as meeting enrollment goals, maintaining a high student retention rate, or meeting fundraising goals. These goals are evergreen – they are always going to exist at your institution in some form or another. The distinction between your standard operating goals and your rallying cry is the timeframe – your rallying cry should not exist beyond the time allotted to complete it. It’s important to define your standard operating objectives as a part of this process to avoid confusion in this area.
“We already have a strategic plan”
Your rallying cry is not the long-term vision for the organization. Rather, it is goal with a target completion timeframe of 12 to 18 months. It should be consistent with the vision articulated in the long-term strategic plan, but the shorter timeframe required allows an additional level of flexibility so that the institution can adapt to unexpected changes that may arise. It also allows your staff at all levels to see a very clear light at the end of the tunnel. These days, it’s rare for individuals to stay in their jobs longer than a few years, let alone the 10 years that is common for a strategic plan! They need to feel personally accountable for the goal and that is difficult when it is a decade away. A shorter-term goal drives a greater sense of urgency among your entire staff.
“We already have a goal for this year – meeting our numbers.”
It’s really difficult to get a large group of people excited about meeting a financial goal. And that is, after all, what meeting the enrollment project is all about – bringing in the desired amount of revenue to the institution. Think about framing your rallying cry differently. For example, in the book The Heart of Change, John Kotter and Dan Cohen described a government agency that encouraged all of their departments to rally around the goal of improving the service experience for their patrons. In doing so, they cut expenses and began operating more efficiently than ever. Translate this to a university setting and perhaps your rallying cry is improve student satisfaction ratings by 20% of the end of the spring semester – that’s something your people can get excited about and also has the very predictable side effect of aiding in both recruitment and retention efforts.
“This doesn’t seem to have much involvement from my department.”
The whole point of this exercise is to force your leadership team, and the staff who report to them, to look beyond their specific functional areas to participate in the attainment of a goal that is critical to the institution as a whole. This is not about moving their specific department forward – it’s about moving the institution forward. Encourage your people to take off their functional hat and think outside the box about how they can contribute to the big picture.
Define Objectives & Metrics
The rallying cry on it’s own is not a roadmap to success. Once the leadership team agrees on this specific goal, they need to define the objectives that will help the organization achieve it. Essentially, this is your project plan. Like the rallying cry, the objectives should be qualitative, shared, and time-bound.
For example, if the rallying cry is “Complete the rebranding process by the end of the year”, the objectives might be:
- Evaluate the mission, vision, and values of the organization against the strategic plan.
- Redesign the university logo and any departmental sub-brands.
- Update the university styleguide and distribute internally.
- Conduct departmental trainings on the new guidelines.
- Update all university letterhead.
- Update marketing collaterals, both print and digital.
- Update university signage.
- Eliminate all materials that do not align with the approved brand.
Once your objectives have been defined, it’s finally time to turn to establishing the metrics that you will use to measure progress towards your goal. These can be quantitative or qualitative. Be wary of trying to force all of your objectives into a quantitative measurement – setting arbitrary outcomes may actually hinder progress towards your goal.
Communicate It Transparently
Once your leadership team is on board with your rallying cry, and you’ve established your objectives and measurement, this information should be communicated very transparently throughout your organization. Ideally, the timing of this process could coincide with the beginning of the academic year when an all faculty/staff meeting would make the most sense to convene. Additionally, the leaders of your various departments should have follow-up meetings with their staff to reiterate the rallying cry, build some energy around it, and clearly define what that means for them. Presenting a united front and getting everyone on board with the same vision at the same time is critical to a strong kick-off that will rally the institution around a common goal.
Consistently Evaluate Progress
Once the rallying cry is presented to the community, focused effort needs to be made to keep it top of mind and to hold people accountable for achieving it. Start every cabinet meeting with an update on the status of each of the objectives, and encourage your team to start their departmental meetings on the same note. The status does not need to be a specific number, but rather more of a general assessment of where you stand in relation to where you want to be. Consider adopting a simple ratings system like “red, yellow, green” to indicate status, and make the assessment more of a discussion among your team as a group exercise rather than merely a statement from one individual who seems the most directly responsible for the individual objective. That will force them to work as a team and think about what they and their departments have done, and could do, to contribute to meeting the desired goals.
A Good Start
Will this get rid of all of the political battles and turf wars occurring in your organization? Of course not. The problem is far too complex to be solved that easily. But making sure there is a common vision that can excite your community, and ensuring your leadership team is modeling the type of behavior that you want to see throughout the institution is a good start. It takes time, patience, and constant reinforcement but ultimately this exercise will force your staff to work across departmental lines by creating a sense of urgency that may not exist otherwise.
Once you’ve met your goal, take time to celebrate and acknowledge the good work of the community. Then get right back into it and establish your next rallying cry to start the process all over again. As with most things, it will be easier the second time around!