A crowded Montgomery, Alabama city bus stopped at its usual spot and a middle-aged African-American woman boarded the bus. As the bus pulled away, she realized every seat was taken and was prepared to take the trip on her feet. But, something changed that stance. Three different white men in three different locations on the bus simultaneously got up to give their seat to the woman.
It was December, 2005; exactly fifty years after Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white man boarding the city bus near the exact same bus stop. It was a commentary on the unifying impact this “mother of civil rights” made through her non-violent act of courage.
Rosa Parks was a bridge builder. The daughter of a teacher, she was quiet, soft spoken and sensitive. Diplomatic by nature, she selected a simple and ordinary act as the underpinning for an important cultural transformation. When she was arrested for violating a racist law, she triggered a 381 day boycott by blacks of the city bus system. African-Americans made up two-thirds of the riders on the bus. The Supreme Court overturned the law and a powerful bridge began to be constructed between the races.
Why must leaders be bridge builders?
Bridge builders are needed to repair the “dark side” of organization. Organization is the hand maiden of efficiency. Think of a world class pit crew. However, as organizations grow in complexity and when accountability and rewards accrue to individuals (and individual units), a crack can occur in the foundation of order. Employees start to view other units within the enterprise in negative ways—obstructionist, competitors, and selfish. The seeds are sown for the most insidious weeds of organizational strangulation—silos. At some point the sickness of silos overtakes the strength of their efficiency. It takes a bridge builder leader to resurrect the connectedness that is crucial to shared effectiveness.
Silos have many drawbacks. When work requires effort across departmental lines—collective labor or great handoffs—employees tend to favor their individual units over the union of the units. Silo interfaces can be like a conversation between two people who speak different languages—understanding often gets lost in the translation. Since many organizations compensate employees for individual performance (or at best unit accomplishments) other departments can be seen as “the competition.” Likewise, customers lose when energy that should be devoted to their requirement is diverted to internal spats and turf conflicts.
Rosa Parks’ actions can be instructive in educating leaders how to effectively construct connections between departments. In the countless eulogies following her death, we learned that she never wavered in her commitment to being a bridge building leader. Her courage was not the reflection of a single moment on a bus, but the soul of a person of true moral fiber. She was focused, sensitive and humble until her death.
Focus on a Higher Purpose
The principle driver that fueled Rosa Parks non-violent act was her allegiance to simple purpose—fairness. “As coloreds, we were required to board the bus from the rear,” she would say in an interview. “Many times the driver would just drive off and leave us standing there. I was tired from work. I was also tired of being treated unfairly. I decided this time I was going to take a stand.”
Key to building bridges between units is to remind people of their collective purpose. When Ed Zander took over as CEO for Motorola their internal units were “warring tribes” fighting each other harder than they were fighting the competition. Units had conflicting products, unrelated strategies, and even separate booths at trade shows. Zander refocused the company to work together toward creating “wow” products. He also added a new company value—“I am here to win.” The result of his bridge building leadership was a far more integrated company; the payoff included a revenue increase of 25% and net income up over 50%. Customers today rave about their “cool” products and their responsive service.
Model Great Partnering
Bridge builders understand the creative power of partnership. Rosa Parks did not protest in a competitive way. Her non-violent act was powerful (full of power) because it was power-free. Her focus was not on “oppressing white people,” it was on equality. She was not attempting to defeat racism so those embracing it relented or acquiesced. Her goal was to render it irrelevant by inviting its perpetrators to start practicing equality. Bridge building leaders focus more on starting interdependence than stopping competition.
The soft side of partnering includes keeping agreements, telling the truth, showing respect, and demonstrating a commitment to the relationship. It includes crafting protocols that insure understanding and minimize dissension. The hard side of great partnering requires valuing the whole as much as the sum of the parts. It means joint accountability must be embraced not just accommodated. It entails seeking metrics that effectively gauge collective toil. It demands candid critique of contribution and shared confrontation of the barriers to interdependence.
Focus on the Relationship
Great leaders know that if they take care of the relationship, results will follow. “Successful partnerships are not built on deals and contracts,” said Marriott CEO Bill Marriott, Jr. “They work because of the heart and soul of the relationship.” Teams may merit from some fun-filled ropes course, but partnerships are spawned from hammering out the covenants that guide values and behavior, not just outcomes and results. The role of honesty, reliability, passion and support are a vital as goals, roles, rules and accountability. It means choosing a long term vision over a short term stance.
Relationship building requires extreme acts of empathy to turn suspicion into support. “You are not eligible to change my view,” goes an ancient Buddhist saying, “until you demonstrate you understand my view.” The “walk a mile in my shoes” philosophy calls for more than a tacit appreciation of an opposing view, but a blatant exhibition of empathy. When Nelson Mandela appointed his enemy to his cabinet, he telegraphed such an understanding.
Create Settings for Interdependence
The movie “Remember the Titans” was a study in bridge building. Based on a true story, Coach Herman Boone was the newly appointed African-American coach of a Virginia high school their first season as a racially integrated team. What was his first move as coach? He took the team to a summer football camp and made white players room with black players. While the community remained in racial conflict, the young men returned from camp with new bonds of friendship and cooperation that proved to be a model for their parents. They went on to win the state championship.
CEO Ron DeFeo assumed leadership of Terex Corporation, a large manufacturer of heavy construction equipment. The company was an amalgamation of several companies. Realizing the route to synergy included breaking down the emotional walls that separated them, he used a large company-wide meeting as one effective tool for bridge-building. The four hundred leaders sat as their old company in one of three sections of the giant ball room. He asked all three sections to shout their former company name at the same time. It was obviously pure noise. Then, he asked them to shout the new company name—Terex—at the same time. The symbolism of clarity served as a tone-setter for the three days of joint goal setting, joint customer strategy discussions, and joint updates on products.
Changing silos into alliances does not occur suddenly. The civil rights movement lasted decades. And, it was not a smooth transformation from a compilation of well-coordinated initiatives. It was a collection of quick wins from many isolated efforts. Great bridge building leaders are patient. But, like the leaders of the civil rights movement, they seize small opportunities to move toward a clear goal that never escapes their sights. They know that bridge building can involve two steps forward and one step back. Yet, like Rosa Parks, it begins with the courage and commitment to take the first step.