During my recent interview with Aga Bajer, she shared some insights into how accountability, and keeping each other accountable, is one of the keys to long-lasting success for clients and practitioners. This type of accountability work can provide more tangible ROI and measurable outcomes, but clients must be committed in order to see these types of outcomes. Aga shared her thoughts with me and we had a fantastic discussion as part of a wider interview.
Could you talk us through your clients and how you find the best way to support them when you’re first approached? Do you see recurring themes in people or organisations, for example?
There are some themes, but I would say there are a few categories of clients that approach me for work. The first one is what I would call the ‘enlightened’ customer. The enlightened customer is a CEO, sometimes an HR person, who is very well aware of the importance of culture, and they want to be sure that they have the right foundations in place. And so they reach out to a professional to help them do this work from the start.
As I work a lot with start-ups and scale-ups, these are companies that often experience really fast growth. These CEOs understand that if they don’t have their culture in place before they start growing exponentially, they will not be able to grow as fast as they want to. They want to be able to articulate their mission, vision, core philosophy, and core values or desired feelings. They understand that they cannot control their growth and manage their people effectively without having these cultural foundations in place. These types of clients are very proactive; they are going upstream and looking to address problems before they emerge, which is always the best way to do it.
The second category is around 70% of the clients that come to me for help. They are chasing growth results and performance. Often they are impact-oriented, so they are very sensitive to the difference they want to make in the world. At some point, as they are speeding towards their vision, they bump into an invisible barrier. To them, it’s like walking into a glass door. They are looking elsewhere and suddenly they bump into their own culture and realise it’s an obstacle. But they will not be able to proceed unless they resolve some of these issues.
These clients reach out for help with a very specific ask – for example, how can we help our people be more innovative. When we start having a conversation about it, very often it’s not just an innovation problem but it’s a culture problem, and it’s a systemic issue; it’s all interconnected. So we try to find this point of connection and to find the levers we need to pull in order to have the results they want to see.
For your clients, what is the output that you’ve seen, or the feedback that you’ve received, that made you understand that you had been successful?
I look for how successful my clients are when it comes to working towards their vision, mission, and their essential intent. This is the most challenging part of my process with my clients, helping them translate all these lofty ideals into practices and specific goals. For example, we translate the mission statement into nested mission statements for each team, and then into an essential intent that has a timeline and measurable impact, so it’s possible to follow up on progress.
Something that I always do, so I actually know the percentage of success of our work with clients based on the percentage of success of their essential intent, is to review how implementation has gone. At the last count that we’ve done, we had around 95% success rate, in terms of essential intent realisation. This is mind-blowing. The only reason that this is possible is because we work in very close collaboration with our clients, there is 100% buy-in from senior leadership, and we only work with clients who are entirely committed to doing this work.
What helps is that we work with organisations that are very performance-focused, because startups – when you think about them in comparison to bureaucracies, they are really different – there is no lack of passion, there is no lack of grit, there is no lack of hard work. Everyone is very committed, people work around the clock, so I realise that these results wouldn’t be the same if we would be looking at working with huge corporates for example.
Sounds like your success rate is really high because you’ve got the commitment upfront.
Exactly. Sometimes what happens is that I can be quite pesky and annoying, but people eventually appreciate it. For example, I’ve been coaching a CEO and he identified a shift in the role that he’s been taking up in his weekly meeting with the whole team. I hadn’t heard from him after the meeting on Monday so I sent him a message on Tuesday – still hadn’t heard from him. I sent another message on Wednesday, then another on Thursday asking how the meeting went, and if the shift was successful. Eventually, he did come back to me and he said ‘you are freaking annoying, but I appreciate it, and you really keep me on my toes and accountable to those promises that I make to myself’. So I see this as an indication of success as well, that I can have this relationship with my clients and that they appreciate that I’m not just going to support and help them, but that I’m also going to be quite tough with them sometimes.
“As practitioners, we have a very important role to play in this, which is helping our clients to have these difficult conversations in their organisations.”
It sounds like you definitely keep them to account, because essentially what it is you are changing is behaviour, whether it’s leadership teams or the whole organisation.
You can make promises to yourself but if you don’t have an accountability buddy, we tend to fall off the wagon – it happens to everyone. If we want to be successful and effective as helpers to other organisations, we need to create these relationships where we can be an accountability buddy for someone. Even if it can feel sometimes a little bit scary, to put your foot down and say hey, you haven’t really been doing what you promised or whatever. But, for me, one of the principles is that I shouldn’t be afraid of stepping on someone’s toes or getting fired as a consultant, because if I am driven by this fear this is not going to help anyone.
I was reflecting on this thought about our behaviour – there are so many times I’ve been in organisations and we don’t talk about behaviour or our ways of working. We don’t make sense of things, and that impacts on the organisation as whole, right down to how people behave and understand the company. Would you agree?
Absolutely. When it comes to the here and now, very often you will have issues at work that are not being discussed. Recently I had a case where there was a COO and a CEO who had been in a weird kind of tension for a few months. The tension was all about ‘are we doing the right thing or are we not doing the right thing’, in terms of where to put our attention and energy. They would speak to me, but really struggled to speak to each other. It got to a point where I had to say I refuse to speak to you individually – I can help you have a conversation together if you want, or we can get together and talk it out, because this is your company and you need to communicate. They were co-founders as well, so not just COO and CEO. They found it really challenging, I can’t tell you how difficult it was for them to sit down, have this conversation, and talk openly about their concerns. It’s crazy that it happens all the time, but I think it’s important for us to realise that people struggle with those things.
I’m reminded of Esther Perel’s work. She says that a lot of our world is relational. Her work is all about taking those relationships into the workplace because that’s the basis of all of the work that we do.
I love her work and I know that she does sessions with co-founders as well. I love this idea of someone who normally works with people around their sex lives, finding that their work is so relevant to co-founders in companies – but it’s true.
“We forget that business is almost like lovemaking. It’s very intimate, building a business together, the stakes are high.”
It’s almost like creating a family together, bringing all these people under one company, and asking them to work together and pull together. It’s funny that people don’t think about the relational part of the equation when they start building a business with a partner.
To find out more about Aga Bajer’s work, you can visit her website or read our other interviews together.