It Is What It Is … Today

One of the more frustrating phrases I see in offices and on leaders’ walls is the phrase “It is what it is.” I know that this is meant as a recognition of reality, which is an important capacity for leadership. But there is also a forlorn surrender in that phrase, an abdication of responsibility or capacity for change.

The phrase “Up Until Now” (UUN) is almost an incantation for creating accountability. It is a small but very powerful reframing that reminds any leader that he or she is accountable for the future the organization creates for itself. It is critical for leaders to be able to assess reality honestly. If the current conditions are not good, you can either put lipstick on the pig and keep it — or find a way to actually be the catalyst for a different future. After all, that is what leadership is about.

Years ago, I traveled with a client who was COO of a global manufacturing firm. We visited eight countries, meeting with leadership in each. His intention was to refocus them on greater profitability. My role was to observe and provide feedback. What I was thinking I would see was recognition for efforts made on the company’s behalf and an enthusiastic rollout of intended programs to increase margins. Instead, the first meeting reminded me of Darth Vader arriving on the Death Star, announcing to the commander that he was “here to put you back on schedule” with a not-even-veiled threat about the consequences. When we discussed it, he said, “It is what it is. We are in a tough market right now and costs are high. So we do what we have always done — squeeze the factories and vendors.”

I would love to tell you that this leader adopted a “UUN” viewpoint. Sadly, I heard the same speech and saw the same concerned response in each of the countries we visited. Change did not come about in the organization or to its margins for another 18 months. The leader I had traveled with was gone (at the board’s request) five months later and a new COO was brought in. His approach was quite different.

He brought the country GMs in for an extended meeting at HQ for the purpose of sorting ways to increase margins in what was now an even more difficult environment (owing to increased costs for raw materials). The first day was spent in developing a new vision for the future. Each time the conversation veered to how hard (or impossible) their ideas would be to implement, the COO stepped in quietly and asked that for the moment they stay focused on what could be.

On the morning of day three, we started to brainstorm about all the reasons that the new future they had envisioned would not work. Each time they began to run out of ideas about why it was impossible, he insisted that they dig deeper. When finally they were exhausted, the COO went to the white board and wrote across the list in large block letters “UP UNTIL NOW.” The balance of the week was spent in smaller work teams, looking for solutions to the challenges on the impossible list. There is an infectious energy in teams that are able to crawl out of the tyranny of what they cannot do and begin to focus on what they can accomplish — and that energy took over for the rest of the week.

The tactics put into place over the next year were neither miraculous nor extraordinary. They were savvy business moves taken by the team based on a new reality: What is may be what is — but it is not permanent. For instance, rather than just trying to squeeze raw goods vendors, the organization made some key acquisitions and provided more ability for country GMs to source locally where procurement could be improved.

More importantly, a sense of accountability and ownership pervaded the team going forward. The new poster that showed up in their offices (in several languages) was “It is what is today — but it will be what we make it tomorrow.”

Originally published in Arkansas Business, Barry Goldberg On Leadership, June 30, 2014.