This Wednesdays for Women blog is a guest blog from Claire Williams, talent development leader and executive coach at The People Side, a global leadership development and executive coaching practice based in Minneapolis, Minn. She shares her perspective on how to develop an enterprise mindset in today’s blog.

Like so many kids who grew up playing the piano, I played diligently all throughout my childhood, then promptly fell out of the habit once the realities of adulthood set in. Recently, however, through a stroke of good fortune, I found myself in possession of a beautiful grand piano, completely free of charge, and I’ve begun playing again. The piano is in wonderful condition, but it’s not without its flaws. Before I had the instrument tuned, some notes were so out of tune that a simple three-note chord offended the ears. Despite a thorough tune-up, one particular F# continues to emit a subtle yet grating buzzing sound each time it’s played.

A piano is a complex instrument, with most of its 88 notes consisting of two to three strings that together form a complete sound. If each of these strings is not tuned to the same frequency, the piano will produce an unpleasant wavering sound as the frequencies fight against one another and even cancel each other out. When all the parts of the piano are not operating in perfect unity, a beautiful piece of music falls flat, at best. At worst, it tortures all who are in earshot!

A piano reminds us of a core truth about how systems function. If one small part of a system isn’t working, or if one small factor in the surrounding environment shifts, it affects the entire system’s output.

“Operating as one” is the obvious choice for an instrument. Yet how often do we ignore this same principle in our organizations?

Whether a massive Fortune 50 behemoth or a 25-person tech startup, all organizations face the temptation to operate in silos rather than as one unified system. One department head makes a decision that has unintended impacts to other departments, then shrugs and says, “Not my problem.” Two teams are unwittingly working on the same idea, and the redundant work goes undetected for months because each team doesn’t know the other exists. One business function lobbies for more resources, without truly understanding the implication to the total business or to other functions.

What happens when organizations give in to this temptation and fail to operate in unity? Business performance suffers, employees get frustrated, and the company simply fails to reach its potential.

The most successful companies recognize the power of an Enterprise Mindset. Their leaders are committed to developing it and spreading it across all levels of the organization.

Leading with an Enterprise Mindset means filtering everything through the lens of enterprise (aka, total company) goals and impact. People with an enterprise mindset do the following:

  • When making decisions and solving problems, they act first as a champion of the total enterprise and then as a champion of their business unit and team. They appreciate enterprise-level trade-offs and resource implications.
  • They don’t just tolerate the other business functions in the organization – they truly value They appreciate the upstream and downstream impacts of their team’s decisions on other parts of the business.
  • They’re willing to de-prioritize their own team’s preferences and projects in service of the greater good.

For many of us, operating with an Enterprise Mindset involves a seismic mindset shift and new, intentional actions. The shift seems complex and ambiguous, and we may believe being more enterprise-focused will slow us down. And frankly, the here and now of our business and our preferences is simply more concrete and accessible, so we tend to focus there instead.

Who benefits when we operate with an Enterprise Mindset? You do! Your coworkers do and the whole business does. And, critically, your customers and shareholders do as well.

Here are 5 things you can do to grow and demonstrate an Enterprise Mindset:

  1. Start with customer centricity. Your customers don’t care about your silos. They care about the quality and affordability of your products and services. Keep their concerns front of mind and you’re more likely to steer clear of siloed thinking.
  2. Become a student of other business functions. In his great HBR article “How Managers Become Leaders,” Michael Watkins says, “Enterprise leaders need to recognize that business functions are distinct managerial subcultures, each with its own mental models and language. Leaders must be able to speak the language of all the functions and translate for them when necessary.” This helps leaders “resolve…competing issues…[and understand] how to make tradeoffs.” Set up time over the next 6 months with one person from each business function outside of yours and bring questions that will help you understand the goals, challenges, and success measures of those business areas.
  3. Cultivate cross-functional relationships. It’s not enough to simply learn about other business functions. Companies are best served when meaningful human relationships exist across functions. This may not happen naturally, and you may have to make it happen. In one heavily-siloed organization I worked with, executives from various business areas came together for an out-of-state week-long leadership development program. They learned a lot, but more importantly, they created friendships and connections across business functions that allowed them to work more seamlessly together to achieve the company’s goals.
  4. See the entire ecosystem. In addition to learning about each business function, start to see the whole system as a series of interconnected parts. This starts with an in-depth understanding of how the business works and what creates profit and loss. I’m often astounded at the lack of business and financial acumen even among high-level leaders. At one point in my own career, I acknowledged that I needed a deeper understanding of corporate finance, so I got a mentor who made a world of difference for me. I gained an understanding of the various profit and loss levers and an appreciation for their dependencies on and implications for different business areas.
  5. Point back to enterprise goals. With your team and with partners, rely on phrases like “I know we both want the same thing – to help our company reach [enterprise goal],” or “This decision gets us closer to [enterprise goal A] but may also have implications to [enterprise goal B].” Ask questions that bring the conversation back around to broader goals and enterprise impacts.

Developing an Enterprise Mindset may be the single-most powerful lever available to you in your quest to achieve goals – your goals, your team’s goals, your business function’s goals, and the goals of the organization. Remember the wisdom of the piano: one small part of the whole can enable or limit the potential of the total system. Sometimes it’s time for a tune up.

At The People Side, Claire facilitates bold conversations that reveal the deeply human conditions behind performance. Claire previously served as a leadership development consultant and coach at Target Corporation, and she has coached and trained hundreds of leaders in dozens of organizations across five continents. Claire is also on the faculty of the University of St. Thomas Executive Coaching Certificate Program, where she teaches and mentors coaches-in-training. Claire savors the simple joys of spending time with her husband and 2 kids, reading books, kayaking, and rediscovering her love of the piano.