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Ambassador Charles A. Ray

Good morning. I appreciate the invitation to be with you this morning to discuss a topic near and dear to my heart: Leadership and the key role it plays in organizational transformation. As you heard from my introduction, I have been involved in leading government organizations for over forty years. For the most part, I think I have been moderately successful.

In our short time we have together this morning, I would like to focus on leadership principles from a practitioner’s viewpoint, talking in plain language about the nuts and bolts and giving you real-life examples. I hope you will find this helpful, whether you are an experienced or aspiring leader of continuous process improvement and no matter what stage of lean six sigma deployment your organization is in.

I think you will see from my remarks that I come at leadership from a broad range of disciplines rather than concentrating on one component. My personal bent is to bring creativity to leadership application and not be a slave to the “school book” solution. I like to think of myself as not necessarily a master of any one skill, but a “Jack of all trades” which in my opinion is what leadership is all about and what process improvement demands.

In today’s business environment, organizations must periodically undergo performance transformations to get, and stay, on top. In many cases it is a question of organizational survival.

But in the volumes of pages on how to go about implementing a transformation, surprisingly little addresses the role of one important person. What exactly should the leader be doing in leading this transformation?

Based on my own forty year government experience and working with executives from diverse backgrounds, I believe there is no single model for success. Moreover, the exact nature of the leader’s role will be influenced by the magnitude, urgency, and nature of the transformation; the capabilities of the organization; and the personal style of the leader.

Despite these variations, my experience with scores of major transformation efforts, combined with research over the past decade, suggests that four key functions collectively define a successful role for the leader in a transformation:

  • Number one: Care for your people as individuals. People have a unique human need to feel important. To build a top performing, hard-to-leave organization, leaders must meet that need for every individual in the organization.

  • Number two: Promote shared values. In order to be successful, an organization must have a system of shared values. They serve as guidelines for delivering on the organization’s promise to its constituents. And the glue that holds these values together is the sense of honesty and integrity transmitted by the leadership and owned by the membership.

  • Number 3: Model risk taking. Trying new things entails taking risks even though it opens up the possibility of making mistakes. You learn more from mistakes anyway. It goes hand in hand with change, and is absolutely essential for transformation.

  • Number 4: Build a committed team. Teams are the engine for driving change. Effective leaders are networkers, building strong personal and professional alliances constantly.

Before I discuss each of these functions in greater depth, let me point out that everyone has a role to play in an organizational transformation. The role of the leader is unique in that they stand at the top of the pyramid and all the other members of the organization take cues from them. Leaders who pay only lip service to a transformation will find everyone else doing the same.

Those who fail to model the desired mind-sets and behavior or who opt out of vital initiatives risk seeing the transformation lose focus. Only the boss of all bosses can ensure that the right people spend the right amount of time driving the necessary changes.

Now permit me to elaborate on the four functions most essential to effective leadership and successful organizational transformation.

First and foremost: Care for your people as individuals.

For American businesses and corporations, even in an age when the internet has dramatically changed the structure of commerce on so many levels, the quality, talent and dedication of your people still make all the difference. Technology alone does not drive the success of American enterprise -- individuals do! But the truth is, very few companies internalize the people’s importance in their corporate culture. Genuinely caring for your people as individuals communicates this importance to them and is a crucial way to ensure long term organizational vitality and effectiveness.

One of the best examples I have ever seen of this was Colin Powell’s tenure as the U.S. Secretary of State. Prior to his assumption of the office, the Department of State was an impersonal place to work. The focus was on managing America’s broad foreign relations.

People in the department and its far flung outposts were expected to take care of themselves. Leaders were often aloof and impersonal, spending more time dealing with foreign dignitaries than with their own subordinates. This is not to say that they didn’t care about people, it just seemed that other things were more important.

Secretary Powell and his leadership team changed all that. He walked around the Department, even going directly to junior desk officers to get briefed rather than summoning their bosses to his office. It was Powell who saw to it that every employee of the Department had access to the most modern means of communication, including the internet. Before he came on board, most embassies had one internet terminal, usually in an isolated room that had to be shared by everyone.

I’ll never forget the meeting I had with Powell’s deputy, Rich Armitage, just before I left Washington to take up my posting as U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia. After covering the main issues in our relationship with Cambodia, Armitage closed the meeting with this injunction: “You might go out there and sign treaties, and make everyone in Washington and Cambodia happy, but if at the end of your tour, the people who work for you can’t say that they are better for having served under you, you will be a (expletive deleted) failure.” That statement certainly changed my view of what an ambassador’s duties were.

If you are in charge, it doesn’t matter whether you are leading a platoon of 40 or an embassy of 600, it is essential that you be seen by and have contact with every person under your command on a regular basis.

In all honesty, the casual contact often has more meaning than formal sessions and conveys the message that you care about your people as individuals. I have found that this is also an effective way to ferret out problems when they are still small and manageable, and amenable to an easy solution. People tend to be more candid in casual settings and will bring up subjects that they are reluctant to talk about in formal meetings. You should create an environment that encourages your subordinates to be open and frank with you.

When I welcome new people to my organization, I tell them that I solicit their ideas, even if they disagree with my own. I maintain an actual “open door” policy. Any member of the organization is welcome to come to me with problems and ideas. Of course, more often than not, I visit them in their work space, where the same rules apply.

Second, for organizational transformations to be successful, leaders need to promote shared values.

I think of values as organizational anchors especially during times of change when so much is constantly in flux. The rapidity of change in contemporary society can provide a sense of uncertainty of direction and lack of clarity about the future. However, organizations that have clearly articulated values and that behave congruently with those values can more effectively navigate the white water of change. Gandhi said it best: “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Two things I constantly remind myself and my organization: “Is this the right thing to do?” and if so, “Am I doing it right?”

In terms of organizational performance, promoting shared values enables an organization to serve its mission and achieve its vision. Successfully shaping an organization’s future requires its leaders to recognize and articulate those values that drive its decisions and to disseminate them throughout the organization.

Let me give you a personal example. Values such as character and integrity in a leader are not described, rather they are demonstrated. To be accepted by your followers, they must be sincere. A strong sense of shared values starts with leadership and must be evident in your every action and word.

So, how does the leader get the members of an organization to commit to a shared value system? By example. It is the responsibility of the leadership to instill organizational values and ethics by constantly living up to the standards that support those values. Let me elaborate.

In our embassies abroad, we deal on a daily basis with documents that are sensitive and classified. Each embassy has a Marine Corps security detachment that has the duty to check offices each day to ensure that all such papers have been properly secured. Whey they find sensitive material left unsecured, they lock it up and leave a notice of “Security Violation or Infraction” on the desk of the offending party. Too many violations can have a negative impact on one’s career. Infractions earn letters of reprimand, and if they continue, can also short circuit promotions and assignments.

When I served as Deputy Chief of Mission at our embassy in Sierra Leone, this was a particular problem because, in addition to our regular diplomatic duties, we had to contend with a violent civil war that threatened to tear the country apart. All the competing demands and the fast pace of events, along with the sheer volume of classified information we had to handle, put a great amount of stress on everyone in the embassy.

Late one day, I was working on a particularly sensitive document when I received an urgent summons to the Foreign Ministry. My secretary was not at her desk, but I assumed that she had only stepped out for a moment, so I put the document into her in-tray, secured my own office, and rushed off to my appointment. The meeting ran late, so when it concluded, I went home. The next morning, when I arrived at the embassy, I found my secretary nearly in tears. She arrived early to prepare for the day and found a “Notice of Security Infraction” on her desk. She assured me she had properly secured her desk before leaving for the day and had no idea how a classified document came to be left exposed in her in-tray.

It didn’t take long for me to realize that her “infraction” was from the document that I had put on her desk. Since our offices were considered “secure” spaces, the infraction was considered minor, but it left her visibly upset nonetheless. There was nothing on the document itself that identified any particular individual and it would have been easy for me to ignore it. No one knew it had come from me, and with my record of sensitivity to such issues, no one would have ever thought of me.

But, I knew. I explained to my secretary what happened, went to the Marines and had them cancel her infraction and issue it to me instead.

That incident, as insignificant as it was, had an enormous impact on embassy morale. It demonstrated far better than any formal document or speech could what I stood for. Honesty and integrity are not just buzz words, but are an integral part of who I am. The only way I could earn the trust and respect of my people was by acting on the values that I espoused.

People want leaders they can trust to do the right thing and be truthful, even when the outcome is bad. Standing always for honest and integrity will gain a leader greater respect and support than any other character trait.

And the 3rd function essential to organizational transformation is to model risk taking.

Let’s face it. Very few systems fosters a culture that allows employees to be completely frank and truthful. In most organizations, mistakes are not tolerated, and the guilty are rewarded for hiding the truth. The person who has not made a mistake in the last year is also the person who has been afraid to try anything of significance. In these turbulent times, organizations cannot afford managers and executives who are afraid to try. If that is the case, they have to change their attitudes toward risk taking -- or be replaced.

As a leader you sometimes have to acknowledge that getting the results you want requires moving forward even without perfect knowledge. As my grandmother used to say: “The only way to finish a job is to get it started.” This would seem obvious, but I have been amazed over the years at the number of people who have difficulty getting jobs started. In government, academia and in the private sector, we have thousands of people who just can’t seem to get a project into the implementation stage.

I encountered this during my first tour as a Foreign Service Office, in Guangzhou, China in 1983. Younger listeners probably do not remember a time before computers and word processors, but in the early 80s, most government offices still produced documents on trypewriters, complete with carbon paper and rubber erasers. During this period, automation was just being introduced.

When I arrived in China as a brand new Foreign Service Officer in the spring of 1983, letters and memos were still being done in multiple copies on IBM Selectric typewriters. Shortly after my arrival, the Department of State shipped several boxes to China containing the components of the Wang OIS (one of the first generation automated word processers). Along with all the hardware was a carton containing manuals showing how to install and use the system. What didn’t arrive was a technician who could show us how to put it together.

For several weeks, the boxes sat unopened in our warehouse. In the consular section, where I worked issuing immigrant visas to Chinese citizens, the question was often asked, “When will we get the new system up and running?” Requests to Washington for assistance were met either with silence, or the unhelpful response that no help was available. The Consulate General, like all other organizations receiving the equipment, would have to do it in-house. This generated groans and shrugs, and everyone went back to their typewriters. The general mood seemed to be, if they really want us to do it, they would send someone to help us. Since they are not doing that, it must not be important.

To me, this was an unacceptable situation. At the time, we were processing over a hundred visas a day and the manual processing we were forced to use caused some long work days. During a rare lull in visa processing, I asked my supervisor if I could take the manuals home to read them. My request was granted, and I began the arduous process of becoming “computer literate.”

When I felt comfortable with the new information, I asked for permission to try to assemble the system. Since no one else had expressed any interest, and the equipment was taking up much needed warehouse space, this request was also quickly granted. After a few false starts, the system was finally up and running, and I was given the unofficial title “system manager,” and generally looked to as the in-house expert. Despite a lack of formal training on computers, the label stuck and in two subsequent Foreign Service assignments, I was given responsibility for the organization’s information systems, which included not only installation of new systems, but upgrading an existing network. I have no degree in computer science, and to this day have only had a few formal courses, but I have the respect of the computer professionals, and am frequently referred to even now as one of the few “bosses” who can use information systems effectively. All because I decided to chance it.

Trying new things necessitates making mistakes. It goes along with change. Not everything is going to work and there will be false starts. Executives and managers need to do everything they can to mitigate the risks, but too often the government is reluctant to try anything new because it is afraid the innovations might not work. Agencies need to manage risk, but we often learn more from mistakes than we do from our successes.

One side benefit of encouraging risk taking is a general improvement in the sense of empowerment throughout the organization. As people feel that they can take risks to move the organization forward -- find new sources of “cheese” as “Who Moved My Cheese” author Spencer Johnson likes to call it -- their ownership of the decision-making processes increases, as does their pride in the organization. Moreover, empowerment results in members knowing that they are making a significant contribution to the development of the organization.

And finally, superior organizational transformation hinges on the efforts of a strong, committed team. As a leader, I found few things compare with building such a team.

During my first tour in Vietnam in 1968, I worked with units that conducted reconnaissance missions deep behind enemy lines. These 12-man Recon Teams were lightly armed and not intended to engage in combat with hostile forces. Their mission was to go in, learn what they could, and get out; all hopefully without being spotted by the enemy. Unfortunately, the target area was so populated by North Vietnamese and Viet Cong units, and we were putting so many teams on the ground, it was inevitable that there would be clashes.

One particular incident of a “compromised” reconnaissance stands out in my mind because it illustrates how transformations can occur not only in spite of obstacles but because of them. As long as you have a committed team.

One of our teams, led by a young staff sergeant, was spotted by a large enemy force shortly after leaving the helicopter insertion area, but too late to turn back and be extracted. There were well over a 100 well-armed North Vietnamese regulars and they soon had the team maneuvered into a small depression in the elephant grass-covered plain, with its back to a steep hill. Surrender was not an option. We had good reason to believe that the enemy forces had orders to execute our guys if captured. Nor was it possible to hold the position for the length of time it would take for relief forces to arrive from our base camp, though it was the best of the textbook options.

My sergeant reviewed his options, then did something that would have earned him a stern lecture if this had been a training exercise. He lined his team up, 12 abreast, rose up out of the elephant grass and yelled, “Charge!” Twelve camouflaged-clad warriors, rose as one and dashed headlong at the Vietnamese, yelling and firing as fast as possible. One can only imagine what must have been going through the enemy soldiers’ minds. Whatever it was, it involved anything but fighting these mad men. The entire enemy contingent broke and ran, fleeing the area as if they were being pursued by devils from the bowels of hell.

As soon as he was confident that the enemy was far enough away, and an unimpeded route was discovered, the sergeant called cease fire, and he and his team made their way to a secure clearing where they were rescued by helicopter. The result of this unorthodox maneuver was over 20 enemy soldiers killed and with no injuries to the U.S. team.

While there are any number of learning points from this brief anecdote, I think it best illustrates Colin Powell’s remark that “Leadership is the art of accomplishing more than the science of management says is possible.”

In my closing remarks, I would like to continue to encourage you for the transformations you are already making. Banish any preconceptions you might have! One of the most destructive phrases and a personal pet peeve is, “That’s the way we’ve always done it.” Those seven words have quashed more ideas than any other obstacle. Even worse, they have destroyed the desire to change.

Transformations require extraordinary energy, from the leader, the employee, the team, and from the enterprise as a whole. Everyone must fundamentally rethink and reshape the business to keep it flexible and enduring. The coming months will be exciting and filled with opportunities. I believe the aspiring leaders I see being groomed in government today will be at the forefront of those changes. We look forward to what they can accomplish.

I thank you again for having me and I look forward to taking your questions and talking with you throughout the conference.

This is a talk I gave at the Department of Defense Lean Six Sigma Breakthrough Convention in Arlington, VA on October 23, 2008 as part of the “Role of Leadership in Organizational Transformation” workshop.

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