leadership dot #3500: safe place

While out on a walk, another dog darted out of the owner’s garage and came charging at me and my pooches. In the ensuing chaos, one of my dogs slipped out of her collar and ran away — at full, gazelle-like sprint about a quarter of a mile uphill in the snow (seriously!). Miraculously, she was sitting outside my door when I made it home. She instinctively knew to go to her safe place.

I’ve been thinking about safety of a different sort as in my class we’re covering psychological safety. Harvard professor Amy Edmundson is the guru of this area and defines the concept as “a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.” It means feeling like you belong in the environment you’re in and it allows you to express emotion, trust others, admit struggles, ask for help, and raise concerns. It creates a safe place to be yourself.

It’s no surprise that safety is one of the lower tiers of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Whether running away from a growling dog or admitting to bewilderment on a topic, we need to first feel safe for anything constructive to follow. Do your part to cultivate the type of culture where it’s a secure place for others to land — both physically and psychologically.

leadership dot #3493: next level

As a way to inspire students to pursue sports at a higher level — or more importantly, to help them believe that they can — Plano (IL) High School has a prominent display of athletes who are competing at the “next level.” Their gym hallway features two displays: a board listing the names, college, and sport of all recent collegiate athletes, and larger photos showing the same information for those who received a Division 1 scholarship to play.

It’s an impressive list, especially for a school of only about 700 students, and I’m sure it serves as an aspirational goal for many who would otherwise think their small-town background made D1 sports unattainable. And, of course, the quest to add one’s name to that recognition makes them better at their sport while at Plano — a win-win for all.

It’s one thing to say that people in your organization move up the ladder or go on to do amazing things but it helps others fulfill that aspiration when you make it real for everyone. Think of how you can visually acknowledge the achievements of people who are doing the kind of “next level” work that you desire. A plaque of front-line workers who became team leads? A display of all the interns who accepted full-time positions? Former volunteers who later joined the staff? Assistant managers who went on to run their own store elsewhere? Your sous chefs who earned their own kitchen?

Employees are inherently thinking of their next move; help inspire them to think in the direction you desire by subliminally creating a vision to shape their aspirations.

leadership dot #3475: all hands

I was out shopping yesterday and it seemed like everyone in town had the same idea. There were lines everywhere! I’m sure that same frenzy is occurring in warehouses and shipping facilities but we are shielded from it; the packages just show up at our door with the calmness they do in April.

In The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon, author Brad Stone recounts the story of Amazon’s earlier days when they only had two warehouses and more orders than they could fulfill. Rather than put the holiday spirit for thousands — and the business itself — in peril, Amazon required everyone to work two overnight shifts to help fulfill orders. Executives, friends, and family members all rallied together in their “Save Santa” program that included contests, food carts, and lots of coffee to get people through the rush.

Amazon has come a long way since the emergency and now operate 110 highly sophisticated distribution centers, but that esprit de corps effort in 1998 probably made everything else possible.

You can’t run on overdrive all the time, but the right mission and culture can allow you to dig deep on occasion when it is truly warranted. The “all-hands-on-deck” effort, provided it truly is all hands and truly an exceptional need, can help create a sense of camaraderie and belonging while achieving a nearly impossible goal. Don’t be afraid to “Save Santa” — once.

leadership dot #3466: stations

I previously wrote (dot 3439) about how phone cases allow people to express their personalities. I think churches do it through their Stations of the Cross. I am always fascinated by the differences in style to communicate the same story. Some are modern, some traditional, and others are symbolic, such as using materials from a previous building to create the stations.

What are you doing with your space to communicate the character and culture of your family or organization? Try to capitalize on your ability to tailor almost everything to represent your style and be intentional about having everything in your space reflect who you are.

leadership dot #3443: automatically

There is a story circulating on Facebook where a father tells his young son the secret of life: “Cows don’t give milk.” He goes on to explain that: “The cow does not give milk, you have to milk it. You have to get up at 4 in the morning, walk through the corral full of manure, tie the tail, hobble the legs of the cow, sit on the stool, place the bucket and do the work yourself. You milk her or you don’t get milk.”

I could tell a parallel story to the young supervisors about the secret of organizational culture. It doesn’t happen automatically either. You need to slog through uncomfortable conversations when you call out someone who violates group norms. You need to make time to show appreciation even if you do it late at night or at your own expense. You need to make tough choices to say no to tantalizing opportunities because they don’t fit within your vision. You need to fire strong producers whose behavior goes against the culture you are trying to create. And, yes, political manure is often involved.

Cows don’t give milk and effective cultures don’t just happen. Those who have been at the work for decades may make it look easy, or you may have the benefit of hiring into a well-established culture but, just as with milking, there is someone who needs to tend to it every day. Nothing worth having comes automatically.

leadership dot #3422: dinosaur

I have a friend who has been interviewing for the same job since August. He went to multiple in-person interviews plus had to do a presentation but still has not finished the process. The company is a 9-5, in-person only, formal dress kind of place — and that, combined with their antiquated interviewing process makes me think that they are less than progressive with their culture and way of operating.

And yet, in the latest interview, the vice president commented on how they were a fast-moving company that was able to pivot quickly. The misalignment between how they see themselves and how they act is a red flag. It’s one thing to work at a place that follows traditional practices, but worrisome when the leadership doesn’t realize that their human resources are anything but cutting edge.

It’s easy to get so used to the culture that you can’t see it from an external perspective. Counteract this by capitalizing on your new hires or using external groups to get a reality check on how you are perceived by those who aren’t ingrained in the organization. It’s ok to be a dinosaur, but not ok to be one and think you’re a cheetah.

leadership dot #3416: deep

I watched a panel discussion with the members of Spotlight, the Boston Globe investigative unit that won a Pulitzer for their coverage of priest abuse in the Catholic Church. I was a journalism major and have a special affinity for those in the news, especially today when investigative journalism is more important than ever.

The panelists shared that one of the gifts of the unit is the luxury of having time to truly research a story, conduct follow up, file information requests, put pressure on people to get the story, and be persistent enough to “get the information from people that don’t want to give it to us.” Having extended time to research a story frees them from the pressures of a daily deadline and allows them to not only research the story and write it but also to add the interactive multimedia elements that allow their findings to resonate with a broader audience and have a greater impact.

A panelist commented that not all the work of Spotlight makes it to the front page, rather some of their most important work is the scandals that they prevent because people know Spotlight (and good reporters like them) will be looking over their shoulder.

While your organization likely doesn’t need an investigative research unit, consider whether it would benefit from a team that has the luxury of time. Could you dedicate a team (or person) to go deep on consumer feedback? Have a few people who are given time to pursue new partnerships? Allow selected staff members to have the time to reengineer high-impact processes?

The world operates on tight deadlines but surprising and significant work can happen when you allow the right people to work without them. Go deep to uncover insights you don’t see on the surface.

Source: Boston Globe Summit: Spotlight — an institution within an institution, September 24, 2021

leadership dot #3413: otherness

There is a sweet spot between hiring people who are different from the norm but not so different that the culture does not accept them. One clear example comes to mind where I hired someone who pushed the envelope — just what we needed — but was ultimately let go because his “otherness” was seen as a negative by the wrong people. Previous employees and professional association colleagues also have played a contrarian role or brought a perspective that was outside of the rest of the group but were dismissed because of this.

To ensure that the differences are an asset instead of a liability, it helps to be clear from the start what you are looking for in your hire. If the hiring team (and those above them) agree that the organization needs someone to shake the status quo, ask the tough questions, offer perspectives that will be uncomfortable to hear, it’s helpful to return to that agreement when the new hire actually does those things.

People often say that they value someone who is different than they are but in the end, many revert to someone like themselves as it is often easier to dismiss the “other” rather than to integrate them into the culture and learn from the view they bring. Be intentional that it’s not the case with your organization.

leadership dot #3406: streaks

I was driving and my windshield looked fine — until I turned and was facing the sun. Then, the glass appeared to be full of streaks. I used the windshield washer and wipers with no effect. I washed the glass again when I got gas and even wiped the inside. Better, but still streaky.

I think that toxic people are like the streaks of organizational culture. Many times you don’t even notice them, but then you turn into the sun and their presence becomes disruptive. When you see them, you may try to remove them, but it is difficult to do. Their residue frequently remains whether they are visible to you or not.

What are the “streaks” in your organization? Consider how you can shine some sunlight to learn what clouds your culture.

leadership dot #3393: belong

It seems that everyone is scrambling to hire employees. How would the focus be different if instead organizations placed their emphasis on retaining good staff?

In Daniel Coyle’s The Culture Code, he describes an experiment at a call center in India that had turnover rates between 50-70% per year — embarrassingly normal for that industry. Attempts at raising salaries and adding benefits did not yield many results but a one-hour experiment did.

During employee onboarding, one group received an extra hour of orientation that focused on the employee rather than the company. Trainers sought to understand more about the people as individuals and what they brought to the organization. At the end of the session, instead of the company-branded shirt the other groups received, this experimental group received a shirt with the company name and their name. Those were the only differences in their initial intake process.

Seven months later, the group who received the personal emphasis was 250% more likely to be retained than those who only received company information and 157% more likely to stay than a control group. Wowza — that’s a difference from only one hour of intervention.

It wasn’t the hour — or the shirt. Coyle describes it as creating “psychological safety” — a culture-defining moment by the organization to engage people from the start and signal that they belonged. Keep scrambling to hire great people — but when you find them, put in the extra effort to connect them to your organization to make it more likely that they will stay.

Source: The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle, 2018