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Category Archives: General Rant about Leading

Even “bad” cultures get some things right

There is a noticeable focus on “culture” lately, whether the topic is recruiting, engagement, development, retention, what have you. It’s all good stuff to discuss. I mean, it’s been around for a REALLY long time, but I’m glad to see intentionality around something that is going to happen anyway.

The prevailing theme I’ve noticed is the idea that culture will make or break your organization; that if your culture isn’t right ain’t NOTHIN’ in your organization is right.

I’m here to say….kind of.

Even in the most challenging of cultures, there are things that an organization might be doing really, really well. Just like in a good culture, there are things an organization might be crashing and burning on. I think culture buys grace and benefit of the doubt – a good culture means employees are slightly more understanding when an implementation or initiative goes wrong. It’s not a get out of jail free card, though. Organizations still need to focus on the right things across the board to help their employees contribute their best selves at work.

I’m reading Patty McCord’s book Powerful, recommended through the HR Book Club (check out the book club here!). If the author sounds familiar, it’s because she was one of the co-authors of the famed Netflix Culture Deck. This (pretty long) document has evolved over the years and is often cited as an example of how that company just “gets it.” McCord has gone on to become an in-demand consultant, helping organizations with their cultures and growth. Whether or not you think Netflix is a company you want to emulate (and there are those who question some of their tactics), Powerful outlines some very relevant points about how to be intentional about the organization your building – from the culture to employee engagement. Much of the advice goes beyond traditional “HR” or “talent” suggestions – which I appreciated.

As I read the book, I couldn’t help but think that while the intent of the book is to imply only “good” cultures follow, I’ve worked in organizations that did many of the things in the book…yet had a reputation for being a “bad” culture. This was a helpful realization – it reminded me that even in the most challenging of environments, you can identify positive elements to take with you. 

I’ve jokingly referred to a past organization in past posts (rhymes with fish), and while yes…it was a very tough culture to work in, I learned a lot while I worked there. I also truly appreciated some of the business practices that leadership followed that I have missed in other organizations, including ones highlighted in McCord’s book.

Here are some of the things that were done in this “bad” culture:

  • Quarterly all company updates: Every quarter, the executive leadership team would hold a virtual “all hands” meeting – at corporate, it was live; in other locations, it was broadcast on our internal channels. At this meeting, employees heard from the CEO, CHRO, General Counsel, COO, CFO, CMO, and any business leaders spearheading a major initiative. The CFO update in particular was excellent – we learned how the company measured financial success, how to read a basic P&L, and what variable costs employees could help control in their jobs. Lesson: You want employees to learn how a business makes, saves, and spends money? Tell them.
  • Field visits: We used to call them “ride alongs.”  Basically, if you worked in corporate, you were encouraged (and at director and above, required) to do a quarterly visit in the field. This would include a day spent with an installation tech and a day spent with a call center agent – preferably, in a market other than your own. It was a great way to talk to employees in their own environment, and to give them a chance to brag about their jobs…and share their concerns about corporate. Lesson: Think HQ is too much in an ivory tower? Make people leave it.
  • Visibility to all parts of the business: Because not all employees could go on ride alongs, new employees learned about the business in new hire orientation. The group was given an overview of operations and asked to manage a budget spit amount R&D, field ops, call centers, corporate, and people; and based on the budgeting, they saw the impact spending had on other parts of the business and had to learn to think through business decisions strategically (or as strategically as you can as a new employee). In the high potential development program, we took participants to other locations and gave them a chance to learn more about a new business unit. Lesson: You want people to think like an owner? Let them see what they’re making decisions about.

There are countless other examples that occurred on a daily basis that helped me understand fully what the business was trying to do and why. Being in HR, I often saw more than the average employee about how and why decisions were made – it wasn’t always pretty, but it was fairly transparent. I cut my teeth on corporate America there and have carried those lesson with me throughout my career. And even though it may not have been seen as a “good” culture, it was definitely an “aligned” culture – we knew who we were and didn’t shy away from it. For those who loved the environment, it was a great place to work. For others…it was a great place to learn from and move on.

This post is meant to remind you that there is something to learn from every business…but it’s also a cautionary tale. Just because you check off a bunch of “culture positive” initiatives you read in a book doesn’t mean you’ll automatically create a positive culture. It comes down to the people who execute those initiatives and the daily interactions that happen among leadership, employees, and customers. It’s about the intention and morality of those people. It’s about what you reward and tolerate in your organization.

All hope is not lost, though. It’s still worth the effort to lay a good foundation and build from there. Even the toughest cultures can inspire employees to take the lessons they’ve learned and be better leaders. So don’t dismiss a “bad” culture outright – sometimes there are diamonds in that rough.

Have you worked in a “bad” culture that did some things right? I would love to hear about it! Share in the comments or connect with me online. 

 
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Posted by on October 29, 2018 in culture, General Rant about Leading

 

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The way we win matters

What’s that? ANOTHER movie reference in a blog post? Hell yes. Buckle up, buttercup. Let’s do this.

It’s no secret that I love science fiction (and science fantasy, where I firmly place Star Wars, but that’s a discussion for another time). I started reading Ray Bradbury and Harlan Ellison at a very young age. Which explains a lot, really. What I appreciate about the genre is that it is such a mirror of who we are as a society – and who we want to be. Some sci-fi is post-apocalyptic and depressing, some is unnaturally cheerful and optimistic. (You can probably guess what kind I tend to watch.) All of it acts as a social commentary for the time in which it was made.

One story I experienced first as a movie and then as a book is Ender’s Game. Regardless of what you think of the book’s author, the story and world building is brilliant and engaging. Years ago, Earth was invaded by an alien species and barely survived. Since then, society has been obsessed with preparing for the next attack, training children to be the leaders of the battle because their brains can process the multitude of data faster.

Ender, so-called because he is a third child in a society that limits most families to two, is unique among his peers. He is the perfect combination of aggression and compassion, believing that the best way to defeat his enemy is to love them, because only then do you understand them. When confronted by bullies at his school, he gravely injures the toughest boy – an apparent over-reaction to the situation. When questioned why later, he replies that he wasn’t fighting to win that battle – he was fighting to win all future battles, too. (Seriously, go watch the movie and read the book – so good.)JALWS Letterhead I

One line in particular has stuck with me. [SPOILERS AHEAD] Near the end of the story, Ender and his unit have been undergoing simulation after simulation to defeat the Formics (insect-like aliens). In the final simulation, they risk nearly everything to defeat the entire race of Formics. Ender sacrifices thousands of (he thinks) simulated lives to achieve victory. Following the simulation, the adults cheer…it turns out, the simulation was the real battle. Colonel Graff (played by Harrison Ford) explains they didn’t tell Ender because they didn’t want him to hesitate…that they needed him to do what was necessary. Graff insists Ender will be remembered a hero. “We won,” Graff proclaims. “That’s all the matters.” Ender fires back, “No. The way we win matters.

This line says so much. It embodies so much of our humanity…or lack of it.

How many times have leaders claimed winning is the only option? How many organizations sacrifice values, integrity, dignity because they tell themselves the ends justify the means? Win at all costs. No holds barred. You have to play the game to win the game.

How many times do people regret that approach? In the long term, I hope it’s all of them. Because you give up something vital when you tell yourself that it doesn’t matter how you won. In the short term, it might seem like the smart play, but ultimately, history judges us all. It exposes the lies we tell ourselves and lays bare our mistakes.

Right now, American society is at a crossroads. We have an administration that values “winning” and loyalty over all else. We have a majority party in Congress that is willing to “win” no matter what the cost. We have organizations that are choosing to align themselves with a president who has been accused of sexual assault, and then turn around and speak about the dangers of #metoo. We live in a world where the number of  impressions and Twitter followers appear to be more important than values and critical thinking.

Is this what winning looks like?

I’d like to believe we’ll right this ship; that we’ll realize that attention isn’t the same as regard. That small “victories” are meaningless if we lose the larger battle. That sacrificing what we believe for the sake of a photo op means more than a slight PR hit. The decisions we make moving forward as leaders – as human beings – say more about us than short term gains. Are we willing to admit that sometimes the right thing to do IS the hard thing to do? Do we have the courage to turn down what looks good in favor of what IS good? Are we willing to speak up when our leaders can’t? Or won’t?

I hope so.

THE WAY WE WIN MATTERS.

 

 
 

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The power, and danger, of being liked

There’s a scene in Rush in which the F1 drivers are arguing whether or not they should race the Japan Grand Prix. The weather is questionable…but it’s the last race of the season and the points for the championship are very close. Niki Lauda (played brilliantly by Daniel Bruhl) calls an all-driver meeting to discuss the cancellation of the race. His justifications are reasonable and logical – it’s not worth the danger to continue in the race. James Hunt (played equally brilliantly by Chris Hemsworth) steps in and sways the crowd, arguing that Niki only wants to cancel the race because it will clinch the championship for him. He uses emotion and charisma against logic and fact. The vote is taken – the race is on.

As Hunt walks out of the room, he leans over to Lauda and says: “You know, Niki, every once and a while, it does help if people like you.”


James Hunt is right – it does help if people like you. You’re more likely to get hired if you’re likeable. You make friends more easily. Likeable sales people tend to have higher close rates. Hell, some people argue that Hillary would have won, if only she were more likeable. (And we can unpack THAT little statement another time.) In general, likeable people seem to go through life with a little extra verve and a little less friction.

Being likeable means being relatable to people. If someone feels like they can go and have a beer with their leader or coworker, it humanizes the person, highlighting commonality and empathy. It’s an important trait to cultivate if you’re trying to influence and lead. The grumpy, no nonsense boss of the past only gets so far. Same with the person who is always right and lets you know it. Look around your organization at who gets promoted – is it the charismatic leader that motivates people, or the sharply intelligent person who rubs folks the wrong way now and then in pursuit of truth?


If the above paragraph made you think, “Wait…there are a lot of charismatic douchebags who got promoted at my company and they can’t do shit…” then congratulations! You’ve found the danger of being liked. Too often, being liked is valued over being smart or thoughtful. Being liked can be addictive. People crave it and will sacrifice anything – logic, values, integrity, partnerships – as long as they keep that likeability. The need to be liked can lead to awful business decisions and really, really crappy leadership. Managers who want to be liked have a really hard time telling their employees that they aren’t doing a good job…because what if the employees don’t like that manager anymore???

I’ve seen too many teams struggle with artificial harmony because they think debate means someone doesn’t like them, and the thought of not being liked is TERRIFYING. Fear of not being liked too often keeps mouths shut or breeds defensiveness during serious conversations. It causes people to use gossip as currency and undermines relationships. Chasing likeability will hurt you in the long run – especially if it’s obvious that you’re trying too hard (see aforementioned charismatic douchebags).


So what to do? Be the jerk who is sure you’re always right? Be the charmer everyone loves even though deep down, you aren’t always making the best choice?

I think the answer is somewhere in the middle. If people “like” you, it usually means that they trust you on some level. Personally, I’d rather be trusted than liked. I’d rather people think I have character and competence over popularity. In truth, I suspect I’m more like Niki Lauda than James Hunt. But I recognize the power of likeability and want to spend its value wisely.

You get some grace when making mistakes because people trust you’ll do right by them. If you’re always going by “gut instinct” and never consider logic and facts in your decision-making, you’re apt to lose that grace fairly quickly. On the flip side, people who rely entirely on logic and facts are typically seen as cold or non-empathetic. Despite the fact they’re often right, people don’t trust it because they aren’t seeing the human side of the decision-making. Tempering logic with likeability and balancing charisma with critical thinking can go a long way.

Next time someone gives you feedback that you need to be more “likeable,” consider what that means. Do you need to be more open to feedback? Do you need to be more approachable? Do you need to build more relationships? These are all good things to work on. But if they use “likeable” to mean you need to be more outgoing and smile more, feel free to keep on keeping on.

After all, James Hunt only won one F1 championship. Niki Lauda won three.


[Author’s note: Ironically, even Lauda liked Hunt. Despite the way their rivalry was presented in the film, Hunt and Lauda were good friends. Lauda said Hunt was one of the very few he liked, a smaller number of people he respected and the only person he had envied.] 

[Author’s note, Part 2: I really like that movie.]

 

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