What do we expect from work?

Gimbel’s manager: “Why are you smiling like that?”

Buddy-the-Elf: “I just like to smile. Smiling’s my favorite.”

Gimbel’s manager: “Make work your favorite. That’s your favorite, ok? Work is your new favorite.

I recently spoke with a student about her career plans. She’s feeling the tension between her growing sense of direction and purpose and her family’s expectations of transactional practicality. They want her to get a well-paying job. She wants that too, but in a way that allows her to do what she loves.

Her father’s never been happy with his work and he never expected to be. He believes that work is only meant to provide an income and that satisfaction in life comes from the quality of his personal experiences.

We are overwhelmed by dualistic thinking in our society. And when it comes to the workplace it’s sad…heartbreaking even…how willing so many people are to make this trade-off.

Trading time for money is a trap. It’s the legacy of the old corporate ethos that employees are commodities meant to be utilized and operationalized in the quest for even greater efficiency. In exchange for being treated like machines the corporation provided steady employment, medical benefits and a pension fund.

As that era of the long corporate experiment takes its final few breaths we are not left with a clean break from the past but rather a muddied set of interpretations about what the “new deal” should be, or if there should be one at all.

In the face of that unknown, the old pattern of thinking about what work means, what it should feel like and the role it should have in our lives remains largely intact. In the absence of a clearly defined “better,” the human condition is to stick with what we know.

While there are many companies working hard to set a new standard and many firms in existence to measure whether or not they really are, I remain dubious. In part, because the “best places to work” industry feels like the corporate replica of the much maligned college rankings. It’s a game of putting a shine on something that might not be so shiny, after all.

It’s the anecdotal evidence of people like my student’s father that make me take pause. If so many companies are creating meaningful, human centered workplaces, why are so many people still so disenchanted with their work? I think it’s because they expect to be burned, because our faith in institutions remains at a historic low, and that it’s much easier to say “it’s just a job” than to invest that job with any level of personal meaning that, if compromised, would be devastating. Could this explain why, after all of the studies of employee engagement and all of the dollars spent to increase it, the numbers just won’t budge?

I don’t know and I’m not sure we’ll ever know. What I do know is this: it’s possible that “smiling is my favorite” and “work is my favorite” can coexist. It’s possible that our workplaces can foster and facilitate a more human-centered experience while also achieving extraordinary results. It’s possible that we can find employment that feeds our bank account as well as our emotional reserves. It’s all possible.

Will we expect it? Will we work for it?

DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world. Connect with him on Twitter at @berrydavid.



Boring is Better

“Honeymoon experiences cannot be sustained. We must always return to the ordinary.”
Richard Rohr

Fancy: going “offsite”
Boring: better meetings

Fancy: brainstorming sessions
Boring: asking people how things could be better

Fancy: bean bags, free food, relaxation chambers
Boring: a clean, well-lighted workspace

Fancy: (pointless) performance reviews
Boring: regular, meaningful conversations

Fancy: for us to win, they have to lose
Boring: working hard, being generous

Fancy: “we need more creative employees”
Boring: “we need leaders who know how to access human creativity and put it to work for the business”

Fancy: email, text, Slack, etc.
Boring: picking up the phone, walking down the hall

Fancy: mission, vision, values posters/placards/videos
Boring: modeling the mission, vision and values

Fancy: company parties, generic “thank you’s”
Boring: specific individual/team recognition of good work

Fancy: the “open door” policy
Boring: getting out of the office to see what’s going on

Fancy: “high potentials”
Boring: we hire authentic, talented people; we teach them our culture; we help them grow or we help them move on

Fancy: the “suggestion box”
Boring: an environment in which people freely share ideas without fear of recrimination

Fancy: being the boss
Boring: being a human who cares about helping other humans achieve awesome things

*What would you add?*

DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world. Connect with him on Twitter at @berrydavid.

The Constant Gardener

A few years ago, during a renovation of our backyard, we established a garden area that contains four raised-bed planter boxes. Those beds, with our care and feeding, have yielded beautiful lettuces, bucketfuls of cherry tomatoes and a variety of peppers, carrots and peas. It’s a garden that, once started, tends to take on a life of its own. Such are the favorable growing conditions of southern California!

This year, for so many very good reasons, the beds are empty. Optimistically, we replenished them with potent new soil but then simply didn’t follow through and get them planted.

The image of those empty beds came to mind yesterday as I was thinking about what happens in too many organizations; mission, vision and values statements are decided upon, videos are made and posters are placed without any clear plan for activation.

Just like my empty planters, those high-minded statements and principles contain essential nutrients. They have the potential to sustain the growth of something quite powerful but only if thoughtfully activated and carefully tended.

You would never assume that just creating the space for a garden and filling it with fresh soil would lead to a bumper crop.

So why is it repeatedly assumed that videos and posters are sufficient means for helping thoughtful people act upon something as important as what your organization stands for and who you aspire to be?

Culture is the sum total of the conversations you have about the things that matter most. It has the potential for vigorous growth – in precisely the ways you would like it to – but only after it is properly seeded, watered, picked and pruned. In other words, paid attention to.

You can build those planters in a day or two. But you will never be done with the gardening.

DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world. Connect with him on Twitter at @berrydavid.

Change at the Margin

At the edges, not at the center. That’s where real change begins.

We work from the outside in, a series of small but potent actions in service of our highest aspirations:

  • small gatherings of like-minded colleagues marked by a commitment to knowing the people for who they are, not just by what they do,
  • brief but sincere check-ins on values and culture to lead off every meeting,
  • brief but sincere recognition offered at the end of every meeting,
  • “below the line” conversations with customers about their aspirations for their own enterprises,
  • common sense support for healthy distance from work after hours, on weekends and on vacations,
  • regular, rich, candid and mutual conversations about performance that make “performance reviews” irrelevant
  • and how many more can you think of?

These acts do not require permission, nor do they require authority. They require initiative.

These acts, over time, lead to a more open system, a system that is learning how to learn and therefore, learning how to change.

DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world. Connect with him on Twitter at @berrydavid.

The Body Count

Othello doesn’t kill Desdemona because she has betrayed him. He kills her because he believes she has betrayed him.

Some basic investigation and direct communication would have resolved the matter quickly. Instead, the bodies pile up.

There will always be an Iago, sowing doubt and fear out of his own inadequacy. Paranoia is not the answer and neither is ignorance. Be watchful, be direct and do not play the fool.

Shakespeare was not writing for 16th century England but for the modern day corporation.

DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world.

How to Test Your Culture

If your company has a mission, vision and/or values and you are curious to find out if your employees are living them each day, there’s a simple way to find out.

And for the purpose of this post let’s say that one of your company’s values is integrity. To find out if integrity is practiced in the way that you have defined it, try this:

Invite a group of 5-10 employees to attend a meeting at which you ask them to respond to this request:

“Please tell a recent, truthful and specific story about a time you saw a colleague practice integrity.

Give them a few minutes to think about it and then sit back and listen.

Stories are the fastest way to the truth of what’s going on. If there’s a compelling story to be told, you have compelling evidence of the existence of that particular part of your cultural aspiration. If not, it doesn’t exist…or at least not how you hoped it might.

And that leads to your second request of the group:

“What ideas do you have about how to bring integrity alive in our organization.What would make it more likely that you would have more stories to tell?”

Repeat the conversation with another group and then another and another, until all leaders share the responsibility for being collectors of stories and facilitators of the ideas that will bring your culture to life.

DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world.


Culture is a Playground

What if you thought of your organization’s culture as a playground?

You might establish clear boundary markers. You might provide resources that induce creative interactions. You might not legislate rules but rather allow them to form organically, as a result of your teams natural inclination to create a workspace of accountability and accomplishment. You might provide soft landings for those who risk, experiment and explore.

You might keep alive an enthusiastic conversation about where you are going so the team is reminded of why they chose this particular playground on which to play their game.

You might lead by example, creating a higher standard of engagement for those who have the most responsibility and the biggest paychecks. You might not allow team members to “sit this one out” but rather learn how to have the conversations that re-engage them in the work. You might help the bullies and the narcissists and the prima donnas find the exit as fast as humanly possible.

You might provide drinks and snacks and sit together once in a while to celebrate a job well done, a game well-played.

You might.

But will you?

DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world

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,


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?