First, Turn the Soil

Soil HealthEveryone wants to talk about harvesting. A few want to talk about planting. Even fewer want to talk about preparing the soil.

I came across an article yesterday called What Amazing Bosses Do Differently. Like so many books and articles out there right now it says all the right things. None of it is new. Here’s the last paragraph:

The common denominator is attentiveness. Pay close attention to your employees as individuals. Take that extra bit of time to build their confidence and articulate a vision; to provide constant, ongoing, high quality feedback; and to listen to their ideas. And ensure that your own messages are consistent.  Is it hard work? Yes. But it’s worth it.

Attentiveness? Check. Vision? Check. Feedback? Check. Consistency? Check.

Hard work? Check. Just not the right kind.

Do we really think another researched-based study that comes to the same conclusion as the last one is going to get our leaders to change their behaviors? That will only happen when organizations realize they don’t get to have it both ways.

Telling our leaders what they already know without getting them ready to apply it is a recipe for cynicism. It promises to deepen the resistance to change that is fed by corporate pronouncements about “employee engagement” that fail to come with any substantive cultural change to support them. Our leaders continue to default to fear-based, controlling behaviors for two reasons:

  1. It’s what their organizations are compensating them to do.
  2. It’s the easiest way to ensure performance in the short term.

The best way to appreciate the danger of the reality we’ve created – yes, we are all complicit – is to go back to the farm.

If you’ve worked on a farm of any size or even carefully tended a garden you know that planting and harvesting can be good, hard work. You also know that those activities are nothing compared to what it takes to properly prepare the soil. Turning just a few spades of dirt, especially in compacted and root-bound soil, is enough to remind you what physical labor really is. And it is our willingness to stick with it – to turn it, amend it and smooth it out – that makes the difference in the quality of what it will produce.

One of the first principles of planting crops of any kind – assuming you want to avoid chemically “enhancing” the soil – is that from one year to the next you rotate them into different sections of the field. (This applies to small garden planters as well.) Since different varieties absorb different nutrients from the soil this prevents any one crop from taking more than it’s share.

The corporate bias, in a thoroughly unimaginative response to the speed of complexity and change, is to simply take all it can while it can. This failure to tend their own soil makes them slaves to the present instead of caretakers of the future. In the same way that crop yields diminish in depleted soil so too do organizational results wither from the lack of attention to the first principles of long term growth.

 

Defining “Hard Work” 

What we need to talk about – what so few want to talk about – is the kind of “hard work” that our organizations and our leaders must engage in if we are to see real change. In my experience, a person who is both willing and able to do the “hard work” of practicing great leadership behaviors does so because first – first – they have tended their own soil.

Organizations must create the conditions where this is not only possible but also expected. To be a “leader” must come with clearly articulated, high expectations of self-knowledge that precedes behavioral training. Advancement to leadership positions must be contingent upon an individual’s ability to display a detailed understanding of their values, strengths, aspirations and limitations. They must be able to define themselves both at their best and at their worst, demonstrating an awareness of the conditions in which they thrive and those most likely to send them off the rails.

My bias would be to send a prospective leader to therapy or counseling for a year before he or she took the role. Since I live in the real world I will relinquish that fantasy in favor of developmental initiatives that allow for a deep understanding of each individual’s “soil composition” and just what is needed to amend it for them to grow – and support others growth – as well as they can. These programs already exist. We just need organizations to have the courage to put them into play.

We must also stop confusing positional competence with leadership capability. It’s a shortcut, knowingly taken far too often, that utterly fails to serve men and women who would otherwise thrive with the influence of a qualified leader. Organizations will further impoverish themselves if they continue to teach new skills to people who have not addressed their own compacted and root-bound soil.

The articles about “brilliant bosses” and the lists of “best leadership behaviors” are sure to keep coming. They will be dressed up differently but made of the same stuff. We need to do better than this.

We need to collectively reject the temptation to plant in poor soil, the bias for short term thinking that limits the quality and quantity of our yield.

We need to get our hands in the dirt, face up to the reality of what we find there and make it ready to support the growth for which those we lead are so hungrily waiting.

DAVID BERRY is the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world, especially the parts where he doesn’t handle it very well. If you enjoyed this post someone else might, too. Please pass it along.

An Open Letter to All Employees

“Most of us don’t have the freedom to complain at work…Our Protestant work ethic has blended with contemporary notions of self-actualization to create a situation in which we are all expected to whistle like Disney dwarfs.” – Paul Jaskunas, The Tyranny of the Forced Smile, New York Times, Feb. 14, 2015

An Open Letter to All Employees:

I heard a rumor recently that one of our employees is not happy. I have a hard time believing this is true – it would be the first time in my 19 years at the organization – but just in case I wanted to take a moment to address it. My request is a simple one:

If you’re not happy, please just fake it.

Our mission is so important to all of us that if we took the time to listen, much less respond, to a complaint about what goes on around here we might just derail the entire enterprise. We have proudly operated in line with our values – trust, integrity, collaboration, performance – for as long as I can remember and not one person has said otherwise. That speaks for itself.

If I believed for one minute that someone who works here was unhappy I would have no choice but to encourage that person to find employment elsewhere. Life is too short and your leadership team has worked too hard to create this culture with very little support from the rest of you. I look out and see an empty parking lot at 5:15 every night and I wonder aloud, “Don’t they care? Don’t they care at all?” And when I get home at 9:30, my kids asleep and my spouse well on the way, I am thankful for the opportunity to provide for them. Whatever it takes.

Most importantly, the thought of one of you complaining just makes me uncomfortable, as if we’re doing a bad job. Honestly, it just doesn’t feel good at all! Your leadership team is trained to execute the functions of this business as outlined by the demands of our board, our auditors and our shareholders, in support of which you play a small but essential part. To expect more from us than that is just unrealistic and more than a little selfish.

Lastly, please remember that whenever you point a finger at someone else there are three fingers pointing back at you.

With appreciation for all you do,

The CEO

Empty Room

IMG_2047Last week a friend of mine asked if I would fill a speaking slot at a local business expo/networking event this afternoon. I spoke at it last year and had a good experience so I was happy to do it again. I didn’t expect a big crowd both because of the time slot and the fact that my talk was a late addition to the program. Last year I spoke to about 20 people so I figured it would be in that neighborhood, probably fewer, this time around.

There are two more reasons I eagerly said “yes.” First, I absolutely love sharing my point of view. I relish any opportunity to speak and inspire, to challenge and to share ideas, to possibly move people to consider questions and invitations they have never considered. Nothing is more gratifying to me. Second, I learned a deeply important lesson this Spring about the risk of underestimating the potential of a talk to lead to a business opportunity. I found myself in the back room of a suburban diner about to speak to a whopping six people during a lunch meeting and I was pretty down about it. As I was being introduced I gave myself a quick pep talk, decided to seize the opportunity to learn from the experience and ended up earning a significant new client as a result. It only talks one, right?

That brings us to today. I titled my talk “Leading Change: A New Conversation With Complexity.” The time came, the time passed and nobody showed up. I should have named it “Free Beer and Snacks” because that’s what most folks were interested in. If you left work early to attend an event like this would you rather sit in a seminar about stuff few people really want to talk about or would you rather visit the booths and meet new people in between samplings from local food trucks and microbrews? Yeah, I know.

A few minutes past the starting time I was growing confident that the talk was a no-go so I decided to snap a picture of the meeting space. It’s pretty spare, a small partitioned section of a vast warehouse. Sadly, it reminds me an awful lot of how so many organizations look and feel these days. Caught up in the relentless layers of complexity and change we are all feeling and facing inertia has settled in, preventing aliveness, preventing possibility. One in eight workers worldwide – a whopping 13% of those surveyed – say they are “psychologically committed to their job” according to Gallup. I believe that’s because those places we call “work” have in so many cases ceased to be about those things we all really want: meaning, purpose, vision and being a contribution to something larger than ourselves. The organizations that will win in these tumultuous years ahead are those that will courageously reclaim the mantle of meaning. Making that change will require leaders who are willing to have the conversations no one wants to have but that must happen if we are to break out of this malaise. Those leaders will be an invitation to others through their deep commitment to speak to as many empty rooms as it takes before people take notice, before each room is brimming with the vibrant interaction of a deeply committed community of possibility.

That’s what I was going to talk about today. And I will gladly show up again tomorrow. Any takers?

Redefining the “C” Suite

What if we replaced “Chief” with a new set of “C” words? What would happen to our organizations if excellence in these domains was the price of admission to the board room?

CHARACTER – key words: self-awareness, trial, values, openness, courage

“Leadership is a potent combination of strategy and character. But if you must be without one, be without strategy.” – General Norman Schwarzkopf

 “My greatest enemy was not those who put or kept me in prison. It was myself. I was afraid to be who I am.” – Nelson Mandela

 “If you must live an unexamined life, please inflict it on somebody else.” – Parker Palmer

COMPETENCE – key words: expertise, skill, standards, learning, teaching

“I am, as I’ve said, merely competent. But in an age of incompetence, that makes me extraordinary.” – Billy Joel

“If the next generation is to face the future with zest and self-confidence, we must educate them to be original as well as competent.” – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

CONNECTION – key words: trust, relationship, vulnerability, consistency

“We are like islands in the sea, separate on the surface but connected in the deep.” – William James

 “Do what you did in the beginning of a relationship and there won’t be an end.” – Tony Robbins

 “The influence of a vital person vitalizes. The way to bring the world alive is to be alive yourself.”  – Joseph Campbell

CULTURE – key words: values, vision, meaning, learning, engagement

 “An organization’s ability to learn, and translate that learning into action rapidly, is the ultimate competitive advantage.” – Jack Welch

 “Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose.” – Bill Gates

 “Change almost never fails because it’s too early. It fails because it’s too late.” – Seth Godin

Winning with Culture

I spent nearly eight years of my professional life working to bring a “coaching culture”  to life within the TaylorMade Golf Company. Alongside brilliant product creation, exceptional marketing efforts and flawless sales execution, our ability to sustain a purposeful culture of learning and development led to some truly incredible results. Hardly a perfect science, in the pursuit of a coaching culture we rarely got it all right. But that’s missing the point because culture is always unfinished business. It is a work in progress if ever there was one. But, when a company grows 4X over 12 years you can and should look to many reasons why. If you don’t look at culture you’re missing a huge part of the story.

Here’s a piece from the Wall Street Journal that does a nice job of explaining the measurable elements of TaylorMade’s rise to dominance (How TaylorMade Made Its Move). What it fails to address is one of the most glaringly obvious reasons for this historic growth: a company culture that will knock your socks off. I appreciate that the WSJ lives mostly in the land of the rational, the measurable and the known. I further appreciate that culture, leadership and learning are decidedly fuzzy and definitely “soft.” As such they don’t get discussed in the mainstream business media which is a sad reality that has to change. I know the role that culture played in achieving those results because I was there. But you don’t have to take my word for it since TaylorMade isn’t the only one linking an intentional culture to incredible results.

Zappo’s has been playing this game for a little while, also. And they also have the results to show for it as they have taken the idea of an intentional and purposeful culture to an entirely new level. Zappo’s leaves no room for doubt that it is the squishy stuff like culture that took them to a billion dollars in revenue.

I had the opportunity to visit their headquarters last December and it is obvious from the very moment you step foot in the place that there is nothing “squishy” about what’s going on there. For as much fun as they seem to be having they are dead serious about maintaining a culture that allows them to deliver exceptional business results. Again, it is their culture that allows for the results to follow. This is on purpose for one simple reason: it works.

I appreciate your skepticism. The media never talks about it because they haven’t figured out how to do so. I suggest you go see for yourselves. The good people at TaylorMade and Zappo’s are waiting for your call.