leadership dot #3373: old house

You hear a lot about a cultural revolution or an organizational transformation, but Kevin Oakes has a different take on how to frame your efforts. The author of The Culture Renovation suggests that you will lessen the resistance to the change if you speak about it in terms of a renovation instead, likening it to bringing a historic house up to code with technology, electrical power, etc. You still keep what gives the house its character, but you make it better.

In a podcast with Brené Brown, Oakes talks about the essential strategy of figuring out what to keep. It can be a tough call to know what to let go of and what to carry forward, but ascertaining the good and reminding people of what you are preserving helps the organization make progress. As in a renovation, we typically focus on what is new, but for a change effort to be successful you need to explicitly point out what will remain the same.

Oakes outlines 18 researched strategies that can serve as a handbook for those involved in a change effort (and who isn’t these days?). They follow a structure of Plan, Build, and Maintain — and whether you read the book or not, the renovation analogy can be a useful framework for any innovation. Too often, the Maintain element is forgotten, and “this old house” falls into disrepair again.

The next time you want to make changes, set out to implement a renovation. More people can agree that updating is a good thing — whether it be a new coat of paint, faster wifi, or a whole new kitchen — and you’re apt to get more buy-in than if you trigger their fears of losing everything they know.

The Culture Renovation by Kevin Oakes, 2020
Dare to Lead podcast — BrenĂ© Brown with Kevin Oakes, January 11, 2021

leadership dot #3356: overkill

A church rummage sale treated their jewelry section like they were Tiffany’s, even though you could have purchased the entire inventory for a couple of bucks. I bought a 25 cent pair of earrings but had to pay for them right at the jewelry table where they put them in a bag, double stapled it, then wrote “Paid” on the bag. Talk about overkill.

Organizations are guilty of the equivalent when they create detailed policies to monitor minor infractions or insist on treating their employees as if they were prone to theft. We would all be better off if regulations only existed for serious matters and in cases where judgment is likely to create an undesirable outcome. Otherwise, assume the risk. The trust you buy by doing so always has greater value than the losses your overkill aims to prevent.

leadership dot #3352: context-setting

The Major League Baseball game at the Field of Dreams revolved around the movie. It was much more than playing at the Field location. There were cutouts of players placed in the corn to appear as if they were walking out of the field. Hidden speakers played the iconic lines that were spoken to Ray in the film. Players wore throwback uniforms and similar players performed as “ghost players” on the original field. The fans and the players all entered the stadium by walking through rows of corn. Signs such as “go the distance” were placed throughout the corn maze. Everyone was quoting: “Is this heaven? No, it’s Iowa.”

The references to the movie were omnipresent. So, the most astonishing thing I heard about the entire production was that several of the Yankee players had never seen the movie. Ever. I can understand why a 1989 movie might not have been on their watch list initially, but to fly from New York to play on the Field of Dreams and not yet watch it — well, that I cannot understand. To me, this is a failure of leadership.

A big part of your role as a leader is to set the context and prepare your team to be successful. This involves more than teaching mechanics and includes helping your members understand norms, protocols, and culture. If I had been part of Yankees leadership, that movie would have played on the plane ride from New York. I believe it would have provided a much richer experience for the players when they understood the references, the sentiments conveyed in the movie and the reason for all the nostalgia.

As a leader, I have played such roles by preparing delegations to attend a conference, helping staff members understand the expected behavior in a board meeting, or teaching new employees the traditions behind signature events. All these context-setting conversations served to help the team members get the most out of their experiences and to avoid unnecessary blunders.

The next time your team is in a big game — whether that takes place on a field or in a meeting room — ensure that they are coached on the environment in addition to the playbook. A deeper understanding leads to a richer appreciation of the moment.

Cutout of a player walking out of the corn

leadership dot #3335: goats

I recently went on a goat trek — a delightful hour of walking through wooded acres with 20 goats along for the journey. Sometimes we walked them on a leash (to keep them from eating the grapevines) but most times they were free to roam in the woods and eat to their heart’s content. The owner called it a candy store where all sorts of vegetation were available for their choosing.

The interesting part to me was that goats don’t like to eat grass. I think it’s the stereotype of what people think they do eat, but in reality, goats only like to eat weeds. It makes them the perfect animal to reduce overgrowth along the trails and to save humans from weeding.

Most would see weeds as undesirable, but the goats love them. It’s a good example of matching skills with the right job. How can you do the same with your human employees — finding something that a person loves that others may wish to avoid? Maybe you pair an extraverted job with an extravert or vice versa with an introvert. Perhaps someone loves the behind-the-scenes detail work that would bore others to tears. Maybe someone wants to travel or work in the outdoors while others want a job that keeps them at a computer screen all day.

The goats love weeds but not grass. Find what your employees love and let them fulfill their days with it.

leadership dot #3333: name

At the County Fair, I noticed that some of the cows had human names like Marci, Mable, and Annie. Others were given pet names such as Cookie, Goose, and M&M. Still others just went by their ear tag numbers: 5531 or 5339, etc.

I wonder if it makes a difference in how the animals are treated. Maybe it is easier to sell #5531 vs. parting with your friend Marci. Or perhaps it is a matter of efficiency in keeping track of the individual members of the herd when using their tag number as their ID.

Whether consciously or not, I think organizations do the same thing. Some groups adhere to formality and call people by their given name. Other groups know their members so well that they develop nicknames or learn the preferred name of people and use those. Still other organizations are so large that they never make the personal connection and refer to people by their account number or some other numeric identifier.

Think of where you fall now — as well as where you would like to be. The 4-H farmers aren’t the only ones who deploy naming protocols. You set the tone by the name you use for others.

leadership dot #3324: renovation

A friend just moved into a new house and gave me a tour. There were both cosmetic and substantive changes that he is planning to make in every room, and several of the renovations were already in progress. The result was that the whole place is torn up and none of the rooms are functional. He can’t be unpacked anywhere while he simultaneously works on flooring, painting, wall removal, and electrical re-wiring.

It reminded me of starting a new job where you come in and see a host of problems and immediately create a wish list of projects and changes that you want to make. It is tempting to jump right in and (metaphorically)tear the place up, but just as in my friend’s house, trying to tackle too many enhancements simultaneously only results in chaos.

Whether you are reimagining a house or an organization’s culture, tackling too much too soon never works out well. In my experience, it is best to pick an aspect or two to gain a quick win and then repeat the process as often as necessary until you achieve your desired results. With any kind of renovation, you’ll never be done, but it helps to finish something rather than starting on everything.

leadership dot #3314: caddie

Over the years, I’ve heard many positive stories about the John Deere culture but this new one stood out for me. The company sponsors a prestigious Golf Classic Pro-Am but instead of the CEO serving as one of the players, he chose one of their employees to represent the company — and he served as her caddie. On the day of the Classic, he even wore a hat emblazoned with “CADDIE” so there was no confusion as to his role.

On LinkedIn, Chairman John May wrote: “I feel more at home on my farm than I do on the golf course,” so he opted to ask for submissions from employees as to why they should have the slot. It was a win-win for everyone: an employee was able to play, the move generated internal goodwill and external publicity, and May was able to remain in a role in which he felt more comfortable.

Think about this episode the next time you find yourself with a leadership perk. Is the opportunity something that others would relish and you would dread, and if so, could you leverage it in a different way to benefit others in your organization? Or is there a non-traditional way you could show your support and involvement (such as being a caddie instead of a golfer)?

Having a CEO humble enough to carry the golf clubs instead of swinging them is a hole-in-one for the culture.

leadership dot #3312: Isabel

While on vacation, we stopped at Isabel’s Market + Eatery. I assumed that the name came either from the owner or someone special in the owner’s life, but I was wrong. Isabel was long gone before the market opened but her life’s story epitomized the community-centric mission the owners were trying to achieve so they adopted the name to inspire them.

Isabel Graham was a teacher and principal in Chicago for her career, but when she died in 1954 she gave $5,000 to the church her father built in Michigan where she was born. Today, the gift is valued at over $1 million and funds many charities every year.

The Market + Eatery dedication reads: “We chose the name Isabel because of our deep respect for her commitment to our community. We will continue to try and honor her by setting a good example, teaching those who want to learn, ‘planting seeds’ in the community she loved, bringing people together, creating memories, and always expressing gratitude for where we live.”

Who can you look to for inspiration? We often think of people we know personally or those who are famous and known by many, but maybe the best role models are the “Isabels” in your orbit. Think about the values you wish to preserve and find someone who lived them to bring your story to life. Remaining true to your “Isabel” is much more tangible and likely to occur than if the values you aspire to follow are only from a nameless poster on the wall.

leadership dot #3311: falls

Over the holiday weekend, I went to my first waterski show. Even though the teams of performers put in hours of practice on the Mississippi, during most passes at least one of the skiers fell into the river. During some runs, multiple skiers ended up in the water instead of remaining part of the acrobatic display.

And yet, the show went on. The performers who stayed standing continued to do their mounts and waves while a separate team circled around to pick up those who had fallen. Multiple rescue boats were as much a part of the group as the skiers themselves.

Think about how your organization treats missteps that can be anticipated. Do you accept them as a natural consequence and plan for them or do you let them disrupt your operations? Have you engrained a sense of normalcy in your team so that they can get right back up after a fall? Do your expectations align with anticipated realities?

Help your team know that getting wet is just part of the process that comes from trying something new.

Note that two of the skiers are missing their “riders” (who are in the river behind them)

leadership dot #3282: Tomorrowland

In a recent workshop to help a new staff configuration intentionally craft a culture, I referenced the 2015 Tomorrowland movie and challenged the staff to create their own version of this mythical place. Tomorrowland is “a place where the best and brightest people in the world came together to actually change it.” The dreamers and thinkers unexpectedly received a T pin as their invitation and were transported to this new world where nothing was impossible.

While the movie was “meh,” I have always liked the concept of having a place where dreamers and thinkers come together to do magical things. I thought about this movie again when reading No Rules Rules about Netflix’s “high talent density” culture where they pay top wages to assemble the best people in each position and if you are only “good, not great” you are given a generous severance package and asked to leave. It reminded me of this utopian Tomorrowland but showed that creating the impossible is actually feasible if the right assembly of talent comes together.

You may not be able to shape the whole world as in the movie or even the entire culture like at Netflix, but can you provide metaphorical “T pins” to invite a collection of stars to convene on a specific project? Is it an option for you to identify those worthy of a pin in your organization and afford them latitude to think and dream on company time? Or could you create literal “T pins” as a form of recognition for those who demonstrate that change is possible?

Sometimes we need the arts in order to push our boundaries and set our sights higher. Take steps now to get one step closer to your Tomorrowland today.

No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention by Reed Hastings and Erin Meyer, 2020.