“Permission to practice badly!” Creating culture through practice-in-action

Kelly Ritchey-DavorenKelly Ritchey-Davoren has had unusual – and unusually successful – practice as a culture-building leader. During one period as an operations executive at The Decurion Corporation (one of the most paradigm-shifting companies you’ve never heard of), she and her teams improved critical metrics while launching 5 new locations and prototyping a new culture that unleashed human potential in all frontline roles.

Decurion is one of the rare Deliberately Developmental Organizations (DDO’s) profiled in Robert Kegan and colleagues’ April 2014 Harvard Business Review article. Despite her experience at Decurion, Kelly humbly resists being positioned as an expert. Instead, she describes herself as a multi-year experimenter who’s worked in many different communities of practice.

We asked Kelly to share some of her experiences. (Just say yes to humility: a blog comment from Kelly got us at Deeper Funner Change interested in what she might say about creating a culture where coworkers support each others’ success. When we asked her to tell us more, she gave us a little tune-up! Her perspective really changed how we were thinking.) We suspect you’ll enjoy Kelly Ritchey-Davoren as much as we do.

DFC: Can you tell us a bit about your own leadership journey, including what drew you to create environments where people recognize and support one another?

KRD: My own deep desire and interest to help others support each other is simply in my essence. I also believe that such a desire is present in most other people as well and not unique to me at all.

What I have come to understand in my own leadership journey is that various conditions, particularly those traditionally practiced in business, don’t skillfully cultivate the innate desire to recognize and support others. When supporting one another is organizationally championed, it is often in service of another desired outcome the organization wishes to reach. I mention this not purely as a criticism, but because it conflicts with a deep sense of integrity I hold and which I believe is related to my leadership approach.

At one point in my career, I landed in a privately held firm beginning to prototype a deep organizational transformation. Through this experience at The Decurion Corporation I awakened another level of consciousness in myself and my leadership approach. I became more fully aligned. Through the practice of aligning what I knew myself to be (my essence) and what I could contribute to the firm and others, I gained a deeper sense of my own wholeness. (I know these words aren’t often used in conversations about business. Words are hard to find for conveying what is profoundly experiential to me.) This sense of wholeness sparked a deep desire to continue engaging whatever challenges and work might be necessary to cultivate wholeness in myself and others.

This type of work has been the most challenging and rewarding of my life.

DFC: How do you begin building a culture of championing coworker success?

KRD: I haven’t worked in an environment where “building a culture of championing coworker success” was a singularly stated desired outcome. As I consider the phrase, I believe you might actually create an organization where achieving that outcome conflicts with the success of the firm’s profitability and/or authentically developing an individual. However, the spirit and essence of championing coworker success describes an element of what I experienced at Decurion.

Building a culture that sustainably creates, nourishes, and enables such an intention to be experienced is beyond the scope of this blog contribution. I recommend anyone who is interested in understanding how this was done at Decurion to go to www.decurion.com; the blog there describes their approach in far greater detail, accompanied by the supporting source material that led the organization along its path.

For me, as someone exposed to and expected to practice within the organization’s “why, what and how,” I believe this kind of work starts by:

  • Raising the individual and collective consciousness within the organization
  • Ensuring fit and openness to develop between the why/what/how of the organization and those employed within it
  • Holding standards that behavior/action among all individuals be aligned with the espoused why/what/how of the organization
  • Courage to be vulnerable and simply practice together (repeating this cycle over and over and over!)

DFC: In the context of your work at Decurion, can you tell us about a time that you did something that really helped coworkers support each other?

KRD: It was the first week of a busy time of the year in the theater business. I had visited many locations Friday and Saturday, as was a typical practice of mine to check readiness. I was shocked to witness many things going wrong operationally. I was deeply concerned. We didn’t appear to be positioned to optimize the holiday season, and we were putting achievement of the annual plan at risk. I was deeply troubled and struggled with what to do. Between my visits (including more on Sunday), I used a set of practices I had been building – things like self-management, and reaching out to my peers (aka: community of practice). Following my reflection and these authentic conversations I realized I needed to be courageous and act boldly. And I needed to respond differently from my typical way.

Fortunately, we had a weekly operations team structure in place. The community was already scheduled to gather on Monday. In that meeting,  I shared with the community the edge I felt: that I could choose to behave as I the operations leader I had been to date – controlling and directing, down to the tactical level. Or, I could choose to practice differently with them.  I told them how deeply vulnerable I felt at the thought of practicing in a different way, given the stakes. 

I shared my desire for a different outcome, my understanding that achieving it required me to change how I was leading, and my trust that our collective training together prepared us all to shift.

I then shared what I had seen in an “events, patterns, structure” framework (The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning OrganizationPeter Senge, 1990). I did not supply any answers or tactical directions about what to do (my typical approach). I offered to be available for consultation with them at certain intervals, by request, throughout the meeting. Then, I left the room.

[DFC sidenote: Kelly told us about a credo used at Decurion, “permission to practice badly!” This story shows what practice-in-action really looks like. We don’t know about you, but we’re barely breathing. Back to Kelly…]

Before the end of the session, I returned to find that they had a well-crafted plan to deploy.

And they deployed it. We not only delivered on the plan but exceeded some key performance indicators!

Members of that community say to this day that this event cultivated a level of connection, commitment and support for one another that they had previously not experienced. While the sense of community was initially created from a “crisis” (not unusual in many organizations), it also started a repeatable Monday process (influencing many other processes), that grew and endured.

This community, including those they led, did not need to be controlled or directed in the traditional way I had used up to that point. We could trust other practices, processes, and structures – and most importantly, one another – to do whatever was needed to succeed. We all experienced ourselves as “the community of the adequate,” limitless in our ability to do great things if we changed ourselves. And this continued to build upon itself.

What could it look like to practice differently with your team?

What might your team need “permission to practice badly” around, and how could you give it to them – and yourself?

2 thoughts on ““Permission to practice badly!” Creating culture through practice-in-action

  1. Well. Wow.

    So interesting, I’m about to start reading the whole interview again.

  2. Thank you Karen. Let me know if connecting by phone/Skype is something you are up for!

Comments are closed.