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After the Final Merger

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Now, in most of the world, there is no one left to merge with. Some still try to force-fit companies together, but the fact is that every sensible merger that could have happened has already happened. The stock market is still holding its own as people and mutual funds choose between different companies. But the game is over. And there is the smell of profound change in the air. It used to be that there were so many companies, and the oppressive effects of arbitrary hierarchy and bureaucracy were so widespread, that there was no clear target to resist. Now there are fewer targets. So much of what mergers were able to mask is still there: people not committed to each other; people treated like objects; a phony commitment to results; an environment in which process is more important than results; a lack of diversity; an absence of ethical vision; arbitrary actions by bosses and quiet compliance everywhere else; company interests that are more important than customer service; staying in business being more important than delivering value; the lack of shared meaning as a platform for people to live and work together.

When the subject turns to money and power, I’ve not seen much sustained corporate learning. Don’t get me wrong. There was learning along the way The problem is that it happened entirely in events like great meetings, training programs, seminars, startups, and hot projects. Sometimes it occurred in simple sharing with colleagues in airplanes, restaurants, and social situations. At these times, we seemed to wake up, to become conscious of our world as it was, and not as we were being told it was, or hoped it was.

In these events, each with a beginning, middle, and an end, we saw our past, present, and future clearly and distinctly. We felt powerful and aware. Then the event ended and we fell back immediately into the decisive corporate context that did most of our thinking for us. We felt like we were running through a huge maze inside a box programmed with its own agenda. The next day, 90 percent of our conversations were on cost-cutting and what was wrong with people.

We should have taken this “wake-up” primer with the same authority as the ten commandments. It seems idiot simple now: Tell the truth about your actual experience. Co-invent models for balancing extraordinary economic success with integrity in relationships, thinking, spirit, and shared meaning. Encourage the John Kennedy-like speaking of dreams and visions of companies in which people are individually 100 percent responsible and held to account for the quality of their relationships and results. Ask forbidden questions, and then talk in an open and vulnerable way about possible answers. Ask why no one has ever written a poem or love song about their corporate life. Listen generously.

In events, people would sometimes feel protected and many would let their guard down, speak openly, and generate alternatives outside the existing context. They would find their passion, compassion, and enthusiasm for extraordinary results. But, when trying to apply these principles to business-as-usual situations the unspoken reaction, almost always, would be, “I agree but I’ve got my job to do.” “You are a touchie-feelie, woolly-thinking, naive softie who lacks rigor. What’s really important here is performance. Everything else isn’t real. If I listen to you I won’t be able to do my job, which is who lam.” “Your style just doesn’t fit here.” “Stop complaining and give me an alternative I can use. I need help with what to do and not with how to change my thinking. If you can help me with what I am measured on, you can do what you want as long as it doesn’t look weird. I know you are right but I must look good in public, no matter what.”

Looking back, I would create a new model of leadership and management. My target would be the way the world measures performance. I would insist on measures that emphasize performance and results, relationships and conflict, inventiveness and creative thinking, and attention to spiritual values and principles. Too many corporations still only measure and act on performance. The transformation they need is in areas they don’t measure.

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