The Indispensable Mortar


What is it that makes a business more successful than others? How does a business determine what it needs to change? There are so many ways of working, ways to deliver, to manage, to create, to think. What is the best combination?

I have dedicated the past years explaining, teaching, mentoring, convincing people into working in a better way. Businesses I have worked for were trying to emulate other successes by using the same tools, practices, ways of working, frameworks and methods their successful competitors used.

The thing is, no matter how hard we worked, how clear was the explanation or how well those practices were followed, how perfectly those frameworks were implemented, we were always missing something: a key element that makes everything work, stick together, and last.

In this article, I intend to describe what I have discovered using a very simple analogy: the construction of a wall.

The wall

Here, I’ll take the example of a digital transformation, as it is the source of my inspiration. However, I believe it applies to any transformation a business undertakes, with the objective of being more successful.

What we are trying to build, as actors in a transformation, is represented here by the wall. To build it, we use different elements: the first and most obvious, the bricks.

The bricks

In the digital sector, or IT, the bricks can represent things like the Mission and the Purpose of the business. They can also represent different practices and frameworks such as OKRs (Objective Key Results, democratised by Google), or the Agile and Lean ones, like Scrum or Kanban, or even DevOps.

For other businesses, bricks will be other frameworks or ways of working I do not know of.

If we want to build a beautiful wall, we need those bricks. They have to be solid, they must have the proper shape, and be stacked in the correct order (that’s when we start talking about strategy). They have to be of good quality. We can even go as far as having different colours, or make them clean and shiny. If we want to build a wall, we will care about all those things, the visible aspect.

Now there’s another element that we need in order to build a wall, not so visible or good looking, but equally (if not more) important: the mortar.

The mortar

Without entering too much into the details of how we make mortar, here are the usual ingredients: cement, sand and water

By mixing those ingredients, we obtain mortar. We have to use those ingredients in the correct proportions to make good mortar and, of course, the better the ingredients, the better the mortar.

So, what are those ingredients in the context of business?

They are human values.

These are, I think, the most important human values we need in order to produce high quality mortar: humility, empathy and altruism.

Obviously, everyone will probably have a different set of human values they care the most about. Other necessary human values are honesty, integrity, courage or openness.

By mixing those values, we obtain a set of interpersonal skills that helps us inspire people to advance, together, towards a common goal.

It is most commonly known as leadership.

Why is it so important?

Inspiring people makes them link their intrinsic motivations to the goal we are pursuing, therefore powering engagement. It has been demonstrated that people are a lot more engaged when they believe in why they do what they do.

It brings trust. People feel safe to admit mistakes, to speak out if they are asked to do the wrong thing, to suggest new ideas. Trust essentially reduces stress and creates a healthy and stimulating working environment, where employees thrive.

And finally, it helps people communicate and interact with each other in a way that maximises collaboration.

Those are only examples and, of course, there are many other benefits of good leadership that will contribute to making a business successful.

What composes it?

Mortar is essentially what binds everything together, what makes the construction resilient, what makes it last. It is an indispensable element. It is very hard to get right at first, but once we get it, we can build the strongest, most robust walls, that will last for many, many years, dare I say decades.

Here are 3 things that, I think, compose a good leadership: an infinite mindset, empowerment and compassionate communication.

Later, I will dedicate more time and go into further details for each of them, as well as list a number of other practices and tools.

By mixing those values, we obtain a set of interpersonal skills that helps us inspire people to advance, together, towards a common goal.

A pile of rocks

Have you ever tried to build a wall without mortar?

It usually ends up being just a pile of rocks. You can try to make sense of it as much as you want, put them in any way, order, direction, but it will always be a pile of rocks.

Maybe some people are ok with a pile of rocks as a wall, and I am sure in certain conditions it is useful.

In the business world though, it is useless, costly and even sometimes painful.

A ruin

Now, imagine we launch ourselves into this fantastic adventure of building a beautiful wall. We know the bricks could make this wall beautiful so we invest a lot of money in very expensive, well-shaped, shiny bricks. Then, we know we need to hold them together so we look for the cheapest or quickest way to do just that.

We buy the first ingredients we find. Cost-effective and easy, just add water and we are good to go. Why would it not work?

We build this amazing wall, we are proud of ourselves as we were successful in stacking up the right, good-looking bricks and made the whole thing hold together.

Then we quickly realise cracks start appearing. Our wall starts falling apart after a couple of wind gusts or rain showers. What went wrong?

This is what happens when we use the wrong ingredients, or bad quality ingredients. Examples of those ingredients are fear, pressure, control, punishment and rewards. At the first risks or incidents we are going to encounter, at the first challenge created by our competitors or our market, everything we have built will collapse.


A choice

I am an optimist. I believe most human beings have the right values to make good leadership. It is just a matter of realising its importance and necessity, and then choosing to mix them together, if we want to lead.

All of us are served with a certain amount of humility, empathy, altruism and other human values. We are born with the capacity to develop them, and our very survival depends on it.

Throughout our life, we cultivate them, helped by our education and experience. Some of us prioritise some values more than others of course, it’s a choice we all have to make.

Finally, if we never had the chance to cultivate them, they are still there, hiding under the surface, ready to grow. It is never too late to start.

A responsibility

It is down to us to make the best use of those values, to place them at the service of others.

Some choose not to take that responsibility, for very good reasons. To lead, we must believe in why we do what we do. It has to connect to our intrinsic motivations as well, to who we are. I believe we are all leaders in something, but we don’t have to be leaders in everything.

If we choose to lead though, we must cultivate those values and mix them in order to build a wall that will hold as long as possible, that will allow the things we build to last.

Leadership is for everyone in an organisation who takes the responsibility to lead a group of people towards a common goal. From the moment we take that responsibility, we have to decide what kind of leader we want to be, what kind of mortar we want to make. And that is what will set the business in the direction of success or failure.

I believe we are all leaders in something, but we don’t have to be leaders in everything

The Mixer

There are many ways we can mix those values we need in order to create good quality leadership, to build those interpersonal skills and learn those practices and tools we will need.

Here is a list of references, to start with:

  • Leaders eat last & The infinite game, by Simon Sinek
  • Turn the ship around, by L. David Marquet
  • Non-violent communication, by Marshall Rosenberg

Sometimes, it is also necessary to have a little help, to have someone around who can guide us through this journey. This is called coaching.

For businesses interested in improving their leadership, a leadership coach can fill the mixer, and help every leader of the organisation produce that high-quality mortar. And finally, for IT businesses, leadership coaching is part of the Agile coach role.

What about you? I am interested in your experience, whether you are currently experiencing a digital transformation or not. Where are you in the process of building this wall? Do you have a good quality mortar?

I use my skills in active listening, coaching and conflict management to influence change, improve communication and facilitate continuous improvement