Kicking Over Rocks . . .

When we were young my brother Jim and I would often go down to the creek by our house and play in the water.  One of the things we always seemed to do as we waded through the stream was to trip over rocks.  Out from under the rocks would scurry all sorts of aquatic creatures, as well as mud and slime.  Pretty soon the water downstream was dirty and discoloured.

After a few minutes the water cleared up, the creatures all returned to their hiding places, and the stream was normal again.  Except when we disturbed the rocks in such a way as to create a channel.  Then we noticed the water flowed faster in the channel, the rocks we had kicked around forming walls on either side.   So we next rearranged the rocks on purpose to make a longer channel and again, after the initial disturbance and muddy water, we had a clear channel running down the stream, the water flowing swift and straight.

I’m still kicking over rocks 50 years later.  Not in the water, but instead inside of large organisations.  My job now is to help senior teams develop and execute on a sustainable forward strategy, usually in turnaround or growth oriented situations. And the analogy of rocks in the stream seems to fit nicely.

A strategy moves through an organisation and impacts in may ways on people and departments.  The strategy is analogous to the flowing water.  The strategy also contains sub currents, such as Grow Aftermarket Sales, Shorten Lead Time, Expand into China and India. To be successfully accomplished, these strategic initiatives must be supported by all the functions (e.g.. engineering for design, purchasing for the supply of materials, business development for the identification of new clients, HR for training, etc.).

The problem of strategy execution comes when the rocks in the stream are large and positioned in such as way as to deflect and even slow down the flow of the strategic initiatives. (Is the analogy making sense yet?)

And it is the role of the senior leadership team to realign the rocks in such a way as to streamline the flow of the strategic initiatives to more effectively deliver on the overall strategy.  But when we start kicking over “rocks”, we often find some not-so-nice things, like work process that take up time and resources but don’t add value,  poor management skills, or is some cases inappropriate leadership styles.  Too often when these “issues” are finally exposed, one or more senior executives tend to get defensive, lash out or aggressively justify the situation. This just makes the rocks bigger and the stream more turbulent.

One of the approaches to effective strategy execution is to help the team see the process of strategy development and execution as a positive learning adventure and not a business problem with rights and wrong attached.  With all the experience, skills, knowledge and wisdom in the room, coupled with courage, trust and respect for each other, most senior executive teams can accomplish pretty much anything and figure out a way to solve the most challenging problems.  After all, we put man on the moon and brought him back safely in 1969!

But without the ability to see the task as a positive learning adventure, it is easy for individuals to get defensive and “dig in”, often making the process and their teammates into “the enemy”.  The rocks turn into boulders and strategy delivery slows down or stops.

“It is part of the human nature always to judge others very severely and, when the wind turns against us,always to find an excuse for our own misdeeds, or to blame someone else for our mistakes.” ― Paulo Coelho, Like the Flowing River

I am amazed how quickly the situation can shift from aggressive defensiveness to delight and insight as the team discovers the joy of finding and eliminating blocking issues. Suddenly the rocks shift, forming a straight channel and the water flows swiftly and cleanly.

What’s hiding under your rocks?  How would you feel if they got exposed?  Strategy execution is either a positive adventure or a horrendous set of difficult and often embarrassing obstacles.  Your choice!

Tight Lines . . .

John R Childress

About johnrchildress

John Childress is a pioneer in the field of strategy execution, culture change, executive leadership and organization effectiveness, author of several books and numerous articles on leadership, an effective public speaker and workshop facilitator for Boards and senior executive teams. In 1978 John co-founded The Senn-Delaney Leadership Consulting Group, the first international consulting firm to focus exclusively on culture change, leadership development and senior team alignment. Between 1978 and 2000 he served as its President and CEO and guided the international expansion of the company. His work with senior leadership teams has included companies in crisis (GPU Nuclear – owner of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plants following the accident), deregulated industries (natural gas pipelines, telecommunications and the breakup of The Bell Telephone Companies), mergers and acquisitions and classic business turnaround scenarios with global organizations from the Fortune 500 and FTSE 250 ranks. He has designed and conducted consulting engagements in the US, UK, Europe, Middle East, Africa, China and Asia. Currently John is an independent advisor to CEO’s, Boards, management teams and organisations on strategy execution, corporate culture, leadership team effectiveness, business performance and executive development. John was born in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon and eventually moved to Carmel Highlands, California during most of his business career. John is a Phi Beta Kappa scholar with a BA degree (Magna cum Laude) from the University of California, a Masters Degree from Harvard University and was a PhD candidate at the University of Hawaii before deciding on a career as a business entrepreneur in the mid-70s. In 1968-69 he attended the American University of Beirut and it was there that his interest in cultures, leadership and group dynamics began to take shape. John Childress resides in London and the south of France with his family and is an avid flyfisherman, with recent trips to Alaska, the Amazon River, Tierra del Fuego, and Kamchatka in the far east of Russia. He is a trustee for Young Virtuosi, a foundation to support talented young musicians. You can reach John at or
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3 Responses to Kicking Over Rocks . . .

  1. Steve Borek says:

    Team members get caught up in the process because everyone is protecting their turf. It’s the job of the leader to ensure a cooperative atmosphere.

    They also tend to focus too much on “fixing” the problem vs. envisioning the possibilities. For example asking the team, “During our best years, what were the things we did well.” It’s a 1 degree nuance which creates massive change with ease.


  2. John, I did the creek rock kicking, diversion channel projects, sail boat racing…with my brothers. This post and the message resonated with me. Thank you for sharing.


    • David: I still find it amazing that life’s little events also at times hold significant business lessons. Guess there is truth in the saying that all things are connected.


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