Exercising Leadership: A World of Starfish, Corporate Life and Span of Control

Most likely you have heard the Starfish Thrower . This is a parable built around the story of a grandfather and a boy walking along the beach. In the parable, the boy notices his grandfather stopping to occasionally toss a starfish back into the sea.

The boy asks the Grandfather why he does this since there is no way to throw all the starfish back. The boy’s question implies that–in the grand scheme of things –his grandfather’s efforts do not really matter. The Grandfather replies that it matters to the starfish he actually does throw back.

I find the Starfish Thrower parable something helpful to remember. Most of us cannot change the world for everyone within our organizations. We can, however, choose to impact those within our reach.

A few months ago, I jumped at the chance to join a larger organization. I have built a career working at small-medium sized organizations so this was something that I felt was missing from my resume. One the biggest cultural shifts for me has been getting used to the larger organizational pace and the ability to effect change.

Larger organizational structures are difficult to change. Action takes multiple cross-functional discussions and there tends to be an overall resistance to change given the approach to risk in general. The end result is while larger organizations have economies of scale, they require multiple people to make great efforts in order to enact even small amounts of change. This also means leaders have to accept it will be harder for them to impact any change, much less large scale change.

As an example, I recently published some posts on LinkedIn about organizational culture. Face it most of us are not at a level to set overall organizational agendas. Our ideas about culture, leadership styles and strategy are secondary to the larger picture of organizational leadership’s initiatives. The “If I was in Charge of the World” syndrome.

Yet, like the grandfather in the story we are not bound by the fact we cannot change the world. Just because we are in a larger organizations does not mean we cannot implement some of these concepts. What stops us from doing so within the realm of our control?

Nothing keeps us from seeking ways to offer a workplace that appeals to all generations. As regional, departmental, project team, or shift leaders we can work within the organizational framework to offers everyone a chance:

• To perform meaningful work
• At an organization we feel has a purpose
• Under the guidance of a leader
• For fair compensation
• With good work/life balance

These simple steps do not require larger organizational initiatives.

They only require we start a change within our realm of control. Building meaningful work and providing purpose does not require great effort. It merely necessitates a rethinking how we present ideas.

That does not mean all will come easily or that we can even achieve each one to the highest level. Creating a work/life balance may be more difficult in some organizations than others. We can still move the needle, which in turn will reap rewards that may influence others to do the same.

Fostering engagement through focusing on the things that build engagement is also achievable on a micro level. Consider the ability to:

• Assemble a workplace where employees understand organizational purpose
• Instill a passion for clarity that reinforces organizational values and goals
• Establish processes for employee input when setting organizational objectives
• Foster an environment where honest communication is not only shared but valued
• Develop pathways and advocates that encourage employee development
• Create opportunities for employees to do what they do best each day by ensuring you place your team in roles where they get it, want it and have the capacity to do it.
• Make all employees accountable to one another for accomplishing results they are responsible for.

All you have to do is look around at truly successful teams within larger organizations to know this is possible. Those teams are likely already doing this.

It would be easy to ignore our ability to control these things. Making excuses, blaming outside influences beyond your control is easy stuff. The problem is it truly takes more work when you consider the issues that arise from turnover, employee dissatisfaction, and lack of accountability.

It does take hard choices to initiate change within oneself. Once you have the mindset to implement these steps the reward will be less work and happier work life. A body in motion stays in motion it just takes energy getting it in motion.

If you think your organization is difficult to change think of nature. Then choose to make a difference…one starfish at a time.


Author: Timothy Koirtyohann

Prior to his most current role, Tim was overseeing strategy and transactional HR for 3 companies with over $50M revenue. In his role as Director of Human Resources Client Relations, he managed HR consulting offices in TX, GA, NM and SC with 7 direct reports providing HR business partner and customer support to businesses employing over 7,500 employees.

Tim’s experience also includes multiple charitable and civic roles. He frequently participates in charitable events, Habitat for Humanity, Junior Chamber of Commerce and Weatherford Noon Lions Club. He has held positions on several boards, including City of Willow Park Planning/Zoning, FW Junior Chamber of Commerce and FWHRMA.

Tim’s philosophy is simple: Everyone is in a client service role.

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