Question what you think you know and your head will hurt, but it’s worth it!

My company partners with business leaders to build conscious businesses that operate in a different way. These companies are the best of the best – they care deeply for their employees and customers – in fact all stakeholders – and they are determined to solve a worthy problem in the world. Because they set out to do business differently they must think about most things differently. We know the model of running businesses in profit maximizing way at all costs can’t continue. Damage in one place damages us all. If you read my last blog you know that I’m questioning a lot of what I’ve learned over the years about running a company. This blog is a continuation of the same theme.  I hope you feel inspired to check your assumptions, think about who is best served by a specific decision, and never do anything just because that’s the way it’s always been done. Most of that stuff was wrong. Here are some more examples for you to ponder.  

When people don’t work out it’s always a shared responsibility

Remember when you interviewed the candidate and decided to hire them for the job? You knew the most about the job and they knew the most about their experience and somehow now it’s not working as planned. The employee did their best to determine whether this was the right role for them and you did your best to figure out if they could do the work and would fit with the company. Mistakes with this magical match making happen all the time. And if we acknowledged it for what it was – a mismatch for both parties – and came up with a plan together to solve it that would be such a different experience. What often happens now?Employee isn’t meeting expectations, the manager doesn’t tell them, the employee continues on unaware they are failing but also starting to feel miserable because they know something is wrong, the manager starts to get fed up and acts differently, the employee feels bad. Somewhere along the way if there is a progressive discipline process (ugh!) then the employee gets a verbal and written warning. By this point the relationship between the manager and the employee is not salvageable. 

What about if you just committed to doing two things as a leader – I promise to let you know how you are doing and if it’s ever unclear to you I want you to ask me. I want you to let me know when something isn’t working for you and let’s figure it out together. The figuring it out together might involve acknowledgement of the mismatch and giving the employee time and support to find a better match, recognizing that the reason they are in this mismatched situation is at least half your fault. Actually, it’s usually more the employer’s fault in my experience.

It is unacceptable to facilitate suffering

Seeing a person suffering and not doing anything about it is cruel. There are a couple of ways this plays out. It shows up as someone who is unhappy in their role but doesn’t know how to address it or someone who is failing in their position and everyone else is talking about it behind their back. I’ve seen both scenarios happen SO many times. Too often we stall thinking it will get better, or project that if it gets worse, we’ll do something then. But by that time the person is already written off, their reputation damaged, their confidence shaken. The likelihood of finding another position in the company is squashed. Don’t let this happen, as the fallout is seriously damaging to the person and your company. Be straight with people. When it’s not working out tell them. When other people are telling you that someone isn’t working out or isn’t pulling their weight, it’s your responsibility as their designated leader to tell them, even when it’s hard.  It’s your job to provide support and coaching. It’s your job to see if there is something that can be done. When this is handled well it’s a morale booster that spreads. When a leader takes the time to understand someone’s natural talents and advocates for them to be in a different role suited to those natural talents they demonstrate the company cares for the people that work there, not only cares about work getting done.

Emotions belong at work

Somewhere along the way we convinced ourselves that humans must become machines at work and drop their feelings at the door. I used to take great pride in my masterful ability to compartmentalize home and work so I could be ultra-focused on work. Where did the idea of being robots at work come from? Maybe it was during the industrial revolution when we started to clock employees and wouldn’t let them use the bathroom in the name of productivity. Dehumanizing people by asking them to put on a mask and act a certain way has psychological impacts on people. They have to shut down parts of themselves to survive. Repressed emotions manifest in many ways that will not help your business in the end. Don’t make the mistake of shaming those who express emotions. They have courage and are likely the untapped movers and shakers in your company.

We don’t have to be professional and get along

Many times over the course of my career I said to an employee having trouble with a colleague, “you don’t have to like the person, you just have to learn to work with them”. This is a favorite go-to of HR people because it shuts a perceived complainer down. Now I really wonder about this belief. Why should any of us have to work with people we don’t like? Yes, we aren’t going out to socialize with everyone we work with, but when you’ve worked with someone you don’t like what has it done to you? Definitely made you more negative about work, created a stress reaction in your body, drained you of emotional energy, and elicited a feeling somewhere on the spectrum of dread. Life is short. Find a team or company where you like the people so you don’t have to worry about “getting along” and “being professional”. 

Managers should be talking with their team members about their personal lives

This is a finer point on all us being human but it’s so important that it deserves its own call out. You should know the names of your team members, significant others, children, pets. If they are comfortable sharing, you should know their hopes, dreams and passions, even when they don’t align with the jobs they are currently doing. You should strive to build a relationship where your team members feel comfortable talking to you about something going on in their life that is impacting them. You should be checking in with them regularly about how they are doing as a WHOLE person, not just narrowly as someone at your disposal to get work done and meet deadlines. When people care about each other genuinely there are so many wonderful results, including research demonstrating your company performing better and improving financial results. Teach your managers to lead from the heart. 

You owe your employees as much as they owe you. Reciprocity!

Culture is science, not art

Would you bake bread without a recipe? Only if you want a pile of mush. The same is true with culture. Every organization has a culture. Do you want your culture to be built deliberately with a recipe or randomly without intention or guidance? Everyone knows what culture is but it’s hard to put your finger on it. And that’s just the point. A great bread recipe has combined all of the ingredients to work together to get the bread to rise, taste great, be the right texture and in the end make people happy. The same is true about culture. There’s not one ingredient that stands out, there are many ingredients working together to create a cultural experience at your company that is unlike any other. This is your distinct DNA. It takes you spending time determining the unique recipe that you need. This unique recipe would be experiences, processes, practices, principles, rituals, communications, space, policies. EVERYTHING. Each element has to be thoughtfully curated and aligned or else your culture will be mush. 

Your choice – a culture that engenders indifference or fuels  dinner conversation about the worst place to work or a culture that is bragged about and engenders a deep sense of commitment and pride.

Your title does not make you a leader

Titles are meaningful to people, particularly in the typical hierarchical structure we have in most companies. Once you have been designated with a certain title you might believe that justifies or confirms your value as a leader. Nope. Leadership has nothing to do with your title. Assuming you are a leader of a team, the only people that can confirm your value as a leader are the members of your team. Imagine that they were your constituents in a political process and each quarter they had an opportunity to vote you into your role or out of your role. What would they do? How would you know? Do you ask for feedback regularly? Do you know what your team needs from you? Do you know if they would vote for you again?

I’m sure you can think of many people with a certain title – whether in your professional life, friend and family experiences or media coverage– that were never worthy of a certain title. Remind yourself of these stories often because they will hopefully elicit humility. They will remind you that you have to earn your designated title every day. And if when reading this you have a fuzzy understanding of what great leadership is then let’s talk! No time to waste!

The time has come to reimagine organizations

There is much coverage in the mainstream press about how our business model over the last 60 years needs dismantling. From the August 2019 statement from the Business Roundtable to the November 2019 issue of Fast Company emphasizing that capitalism as we know it is failing us, the challenges to our ways of thinking are thankfully on the rise. Let’s keep the momentum going together.