Leading from Zero: Sustaining Organizational Relevance

This article is an adapted excerpt from Dave Coffaro’s upcoming book, “Leading from Zero.”

The concept of leading from zero is grounded in a principle similar to zero-based budgeting, the approach where each new budget cycle starts from a baseline of zero assumed recurring revenue or expenses.

Leading from zero assumes an organization starts its day from a base of zero: zero customers, zero employees, zero revenue. Leaders must influence their organizations and earn relevance with customers, employees and other stakeholders daily.

Businesses have no entitlement to customers, employees or revenue. They recognize customers and employees have free will and will only engage with an organization if its mission is relevant, its value proposition is clear, and it continually delivers on both.

Practicing leading from zero requires an organization to differentiate itself as a resource development exemplar, practice self-initiated disruption, exhibit an obsession for continually adding greater value and consistently demonstrate efficiency gains in operations. Each of these practices represent ongoing processes that must be sustained as business as usual over time.

When leaders recognize the dynamic flow of their operating environment and sustain expectations around perpetual adaptation to evolving conditions, then employees are empowered to define, design and deliver leading from zero strategies.

Within this context, sustainability means continually earning organizational relevance, when conditions for relevance are subject to ongoing evolution – different today than yesterday or tomorrow. Sustainability is experienced through:

  • Regularly refreshing organizational expectations in alignment with the operating environment – As the external environment evolves through new customer needs, expectations and alternatives, business expectations are redefined within context of the organization’s vision.
  • Functioning as a learning organization, grounded in the life cycle of knowledge and skills – New strategies are developed to propel the business toward earning relevance with stakeholders. This requires ongoing knowledge acquisition and employee upskilling. Concurrent with changing knowledge and skill requirements is the progression of job descriptions. This process is deductive, starting with the picture of what the organization expects to contribute to its stakeholders; ingredients included in each job description contribute to defining how the vision is fulfilled. The learning organization continually develops individual and collective knowledge and skills to re-earn stakeholder relevance.
  • Individual and organizational resilience – In his 1966 hit song “That’s Life,” Frank Sinatra sang: “I’ve been up and down and over and out and I know one thing. Each time I find myself flat on my face, I pick myself up and get back in the race”. Individual resilience is the ability to return to “the race” of life in the face of adversities. Resilience enables people to recover from setbacks and overcome challenges by finding a new path toward their goals. In a leadership context, resilience includes guiding the organization forward while leading through difficult operating circumstances and recognizing challenges in current conditions — all while holding focus on what can be accomplished toward the vision.
  • Intentionally demonstrating and buoying positive urgency in matters of pressing importance – In “A Sense of Urgency,” Harvard Business School professor emeritus John Kotter explains: “Urgent behavior is not driven by a belief that all is well or that everything is a mess but by a core belief that the world contains great opportunities and great hazards”. Kotter wrote: “[U]rgent action is not created by feelings of contentment, anxiety, frustration, or anger, but by a gut-level determination to move, win, and now. These feelings lead to behavior in which people are alert and proactive, in which they constantly scan the environment around them, both inside and outside their organizations, looking for information relevant to success and survival.
  • Change leadership – Adapting to change is reactive; initiating change is proactive. Change leadership is grounded in proactive identification of opportunities to achieve gains in stakeholder relevance.

Each element of sustainability is a process. Expecting the unexpected, anticipating uncertainty and aligning with changing conditions are characteristics of leading from zero. Sustaining these processes requires recognition that the business environment is dynamic, in perpetual motion.

When leaders embrace these sustainability perspectives, team members learn they are change agents with their fingers on the pulse of dynamic operating conditions outside and within the organization. Leaders set the tone by defining their organization as living, breathing, learning ecosystems, reflecting aggregate motion and sentiment of their members.

Sustaining relevance with stakeholders requires ongoing observation, awareness, understanding and adjustment to the dynamic environment.

* Originally published in SmartBrief on Leadership 8/14/20 – Image courtesy of SmartBrief on Leadership

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