As we begin the new year, our neighbors are readying to move into a newly built home. The latest version is wonderful. Truth be told, so was the one they knocked down – wonderful for its time, that is. For a time, our neighbors lived in that older home just fine. Their days were busy with two younger children, two working parents, and life. They could have simply continued living in the house as-is and called it a day. And then another day, day after satisfactory day. Pause for a moment, and it’ll dawn on you that it’s not unlike how many leaders and their teams exist in business models and operating systems built in and for another time.
Our neighbors didn’t just stick with as-is. Instead, they looked around at the existing home with a finer eye. They noted things that worked well and others they were simply accepting, mainly because that’s just how things had always been. Through this exercise, bit by bit, they didn’t just see an opportunity for improvement, they also began to remind themselves of who they were or wanted to be and began to ask how the place around them was or wasn’t supporting those things. Gradually, an improvement here, a trade out there, they reimagined the kind of place they wanted to operate in. They re-honed their vision and began to see a better version of a place to pursue it. Then they pointed themselves towards it.
Remain outside your work world and in this story just a moment longer, and consider this: The asking and reimagining cost them nothing. Zero. They weighed their ability to make the changes that would make them better later, after the good, the bad, and the reason for it all had been fully reconsidered. They engaged in a full, honest discovery process rather than allowing a premature “it’ll cost us too much or be too hard” thought to dominate. When they did decide to make a change, theirs was an informed decision — to change and to reinvest in their home, but also in themselves. It was a little inconvenient at first, but now, at the start of a new year, they’re readying to restart in a place that’s a better fit for who they want to be and where they want to go.
Why am I telling you this?
The answer is simple: If you’re a senior leader, you and your team should consider doing the same thing. Every year, you should engage in a “cost-of-living-where-you-are” analysis. In other words, deliberately take time to look at your organization — not the physical, so much as the operational and the aspirational, and then ask yourselves: Is this how we should be living and doing, or do we need to make some serious adjustments?
I’ve written in the past about a remarkable leader who does exactly this: Alice Waters. Among the many innovations and accomplishments Alice is known for, she’s the founder of the famed restaurant Chez Pannise in the San Francisco Bay area. There’s a reason it’s thrived for decades, and years ago, when I interviewed Alice for my first book, she told me a story about one reason why. Every year she’d threaten to close Chez Panisse – not an idle threat, but a serious one. As the year ended, she and her team would look around and ask: What value have we brought to the restaurant, our patrons and the world in the past year? Was it an improvement over the last? Does the coming year offer a new opportunity to up our game? Are we, is this place, up to the challenge? If not, what was the point of staying open? It sounds dramatic. But only because it was raw and complete honesty, in the sense that it didn’t simply look at the bottom line for answers, but at the dreams and assumptions the bottom line relied upon.
Most leaders and most organizations rarely, if ever, do this. Sure, many put together an annual budget. Some do a regular strategic plan (whether or not they live it). Rare few strip the organization to the studs, metaphorically speaking, and peer inside … gazing through the walls rather than being impeded by them, and also taking the time to look out into the world and ask, is this place right for us, for what we do, for the impact we seek to have? Most don’t, but should. It truly is a cost-of-living-where-you-are assessment — an appraisal of where and how you’re living right now and whether or not it’s yielding the returns you want and need or costing you.
It may sound like a mental game, a flipped view, or just a rejiggering of what is. And it is. But this simple, cost-free exercise may be exactly what you need — not just to start the new year with a new plan, but the fresh start you, your team and even your company culture need to reaffirm, reinforce and reclaim that deeper sense of what drives you. Tis the season to resolve to do something truly wonderful: create a present capable of shaping your future.
Larry Robertson, named a Fulbright scholar in 2021, is the founder of Lighthouse Consulting and works, writes and guides at the nexus of creativity, leadership and entrepreneurship. He’s the author “The Language of Man: Learning to Speak Creativity,” “A Deliberate Pause: Entrepreneurship and Its Moment in Human Progress” and the new “Rebel Leadership: How To Thrive in Uncertain Times.”
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