“He’s cynical and skeptical about his own profession.”
That’s how a journalist summed up Mark’s approach to organizational consultation. Leading a practice for more than forty-five years, he readily cops to the impression yet believes these attitudes have shaped his approach for creating a strong and healthy working relationship with each client.
Typically offered to organizations’ C-level groups requiring 2–4 meetings. These invigorating sessions result in 3–4 drafts of a 400–2,000 word vision story, which must address specific themes and criteria. All intensive, facilitated sets of meetings are custom-designed to fit organizational needs, constraints, and levels of desire by senior management to lead the process. Beta testing of the vision to a larger representation of the organization, with final editing based on data feedback, may be facilitated by Lipton and colleagues or solely by key members of the client organization. See a short overview of the basic Vision Lab.
With a robust vision defined, the strategic planning process essentially picks off low-hanging fruit and strategic priorities from the vision. Planning is significantly easier but more importantly it takes on greater meaning. The vision serves as a beacon to guide and align, creating a map for the long pull. It enables leaders to buffer the intermittent winds that can take one off course. Some clients request vision articulation and then one 2–3 year strategic plan (after that there’s no need for a consultant). Vision-driven organizations find they can master a rapid-cycle strategic planning process thoroughly on their own.
Service offerings may or may not be coupled with a vision initiative. He offers executive coaching that ranges from three- to six-month engagements, each including a comprehensive front-end diagnostic workup. A range of innovative leadership capacity-building services are offered if an entire executive group is motivated as a cohort to enhance their effectiveness and work more seamlessly as a leadership team. He does not offer “leadership training,” per se, since his belief is that conventional training programs have limited lasting impact and neglect to address individual needs and differences.
Assuming a robust vision is in place, Mark will conduct a high-level analysis (meaning: brief and relatively low cost) to determine if key organizational elements are in alignment with, and supportive of, the vision. This typically includes reviewing people processes (both formal HR and informal managerial practices), hallmarks of the organizational culture, dimensions of organizational structure, and identification of high-impact methods to embed the vision into daily organizational life.
Organization Capacity Building
Over the past thirty years organizations have partnered with Mark to build capacity in specific areas.
His custom-designed capacity building with executive teams has created wider bandwidths of skills, greater tenacity for follow-through, and enhanced trust among those participating. Examples include:
- Accelerating organization change by decreasing sources of resistance.
- Creating executive meeting processes for parsing titanic and contentious strategic decisions.
- Exploring and evaluating critical factors impacting organizational futures (through scenario sketching and other techniques).
- Determining whether alliances with other organization(s) are advisable and, if so, building capacity to form and maintain beneficial partnerships
- Enhancing facilitation skills of anyone in the organization expected to design, facilitate, and/or become a featured participant in results-driven meetings, off-sites, or planning sessions. With C-level Facile Facilitation™, Mark coaches one-on-one to help others create more inclusive and dynamic meetings, whether s/he is leading a group of 6 people or 60. For those desiring to become master facilitators, his coaching takes full advantage of in-house “stretch” experiences and provides ample supportive feedback and modeling. Facile Facilitation skills development is available on an individual basis or through a four-day intensive Laboratory in Group Process, Facilitation and Intervention program, offered in your city, for groups of 15.
Mark’s extensive experience with board development in the nonprofit, for-profit, and international NGO sectors is equally intensive and brief.
Attitudes and Beliefs
Core beliefs guide the repertoire of services that Mark offers. Organizations must have a clear, distinctive, and potent vision. Absent this, he sees energy consumed by wheel spinning rather than those wheels moving the organization to a planned destination. With a vision in place, executives’ primary role is to fine-tune key organizational “levers.” They need to assure that people, processes, and organization design are focused on weaving the vision into the warp and woof of organizational life.
Stepping into the consulting role in the 1970s, he saw quickly the frustration—if not pain—that people in organizations often experience. From first-line supervisors to C-level executives, managers were looking for answers to problems often rooted in complex social dynamics where magic-bullet solutions rarely worked.
Senior leaders couldn’t figure out how they could spend so much time and energy considering strategic initiatives, only to witness some inertial force stopping well-intentioned plans in their tracks. Too many formal strategic planning efforts led to slick binders and PowerPoint decks stuffed with hopes for the future. Yet rarely would these futures be realized. “Why is that so?” Mark would ask himself in his early years of consulting.
“Too many formal strategic planning efforts led to slick binders and PowerPoint decks stuffed with hopes for the future.”
Then—as now—solutions to seemingly impenetrable organizational problems were peddled as simple, quick, and formulaic bromides. He was amused to notice how the overwhelming majority of management books and training programs could not survive a five-year life cycle. With the promise of finding greater innovation, higher quality, better communication, and new ways to motivate workers, why did the solutions die so quickly?
These questions drove Mark to start, and then accelerate, his doctoral studies in Management at the University of Massachusetts/Amherst. He continued to maintain an active practice during this academic tangent. After three years he created a base at The New School in New York where he was asked to design, lead, and teach in graduate management programs full-time. He straddled one professional world as a consultant to vibrant, complex organizations while simultaneously thriving in another world characterized by research, data, and low tolerance for preposterous claims and one-size-fits-all solutions to organizational problems.
But these worlds were actually quite complementary.
To this day, he continues “the straddle.” His clients, often intellectually inclined, experience him as a trusted partner. Rather than pitch advice, he is more inclined to ask questions. While still averse to universal and simplistic fixes to most organizational dilemmas, he manages to keep his engagements short, effective, and memorable. Clients feel greater confidence to assess and diagnose their organizations’ needs and find the right answers themselves. Read some of Mark’s research and opinions on client relationships here and here.
“While still averse to universal and simplistic fixes to most organizational dilemmas, he manages to keep his engagements short, effective, and memorable.”
Yet another belief he holds about organizational consultation (yes, there are still more) is the need to carefully manage the client relationship for promoting change and discouraging client dependency. He wants to get out of client engagements as quickly as feasible. When clients build management and leadership strength, and learn how to effectively facilitate change, they are far more confident to own their change initiatives and competent to succeed implementing them.
Even with a concept so mom-and-apple-pie as “vision,” Mark’s skepticism prevailed. He didn’t fully believe in a vision’s potential until five years of research data convinced him. It took another five years of beta testing strategies and techniques for implementing visions to realize their full potential. The research data were not merely convincing—they blew him away. His skepticism was transformed from a vision atheist to a born-again proselytizer. In 2003, Harvard Business School Press published his book on vision, Guiding Growth: How Vision Keeps Companies on Course.
Cynicism and skepticism, balanced with a confidence in the potential of executives to develop as leaders, suit him. Over time, these attitudes have brought rigor and cost-effective services to his clients.