In Denver? Join Me In Person To Explore The Mind-Exploding Stuff I’ve Learned In The Last 4 Years!

Leadership

As you may know, I’ve been in a bit of a “tech-shaped hole” for the last 4+ years building this #lovework thing.

What you may not know is WHY I’ve devoted so many years of my life to this.

The #lovework project started with a haunting feeling that the WAY we’re doing leader and team development (the bread & butter of my career for the last 15 years) wasn’t REALLY working… it’s just not moving the needle on things like engagement like it could or should.

I was convinced something MUST be broken about it — but I had no idea what it was.

4 years ago I didn’t have the faintest CLUE what the problem was, or how to solve it.

Now, I know.

And I want to share these things with you.

If you’re in Denver, I hope you’ll consider joining me and Kali for this session. It’s super cheap ($25), and we get to spend 4 special hours in person together digging into all the crazy, sometimes mind-exploding sh*t we’ve learned…!

Because I want you to know it, too.

It might just change your life/career, and maybe together we can change the world a little bit better/faster…!

It’s all happening on Tuesday, January 16, from 1p-5p!

Hope to see you there.

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EVENT INFO

The Change Alchemist: From Information To Habit Formation (4-hour SKILL BUILDING session)

Participants will learn:

  • The reason why large-scale organizational change initiatives aren’t sticking
  • A powerful new model to translate information into habit formation
  • Exactly how to implement a better learning system in your organization

Date/Time: Tuesday, January 16, 1-5pm IN PERSON

Location: Library near Glendale (exact location provided upon registration)

Session Fee: $25 fee ($15 if not currently employed nor paid for your work)

Please RSVP (all are welcome!)

GO HERE TO REGISTER!

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The Corporate Way: Hide Everything

Leadership

The corporate way is to hide things.

Certainly, occasionally what’s being hidden is true illegality or criminal activity — but that’s not really what I’m talking about.

I’m talking about typical, “everyday” kind of stuff.

Managers might hide their reasons “why” because they can. HR might hide behind “precedent” or made-up rules or policies. Executives might hide themselves physically on separate floors or behind doors. Companies might feel pressure to hide parts of their financial picture, if only to highlight the more positive things for the next quarterly earnings call.

And then of course there are other small, “moderately unscrupulous” things. Things that would strike a person on the outside as just kind of… icky, if they were able to see what’s been hidden. (I suspect most of us either know personally, or have heard about, people “at the top” of organizations doing things that would instantly fail the “kindergarten test,” if we just asked ourselves “Would I be OK with my kid acting this way toward others?”)

But what we often miss about all of this is it isn’t just about individuals “behaving badly.” Certainly that’s part of it; individuals can absolutely make choices that are harmful. We all do this sometimes of course, even if we don’t mean to.

The larger challenge here, though, is a systemic one.

Perhaps you’ve noticed that “moderate unscrupulousness” is positively correlated with “power gained” — meaning, the more power one gets, the more “acceptable” it is for them to act just a little badly.

It’s important for us to identify this as a normal part of the standard workplace power dynamic. Put another way, “hiding things” is a natural output of fiat hierarchy. When we have systems designed to give people power simply because some people “need” to hold power over others, complicated and opaque structures are generated which permit, and somewhat encourage, the people holding power to protect their own self-interest… and, of course, this sometimes means using their power to hide what they’re doing.

And this next part is really important.

This isn’t a broken system — this is a system working perfectly, exactly as it’s been designed to.

You see, the more ladder I climb, the ever more slightly-drunk I get on the newfound power the system has granted me. It’s almost never enough to make me totally drunk — we humans acclimate pretty quickly — but is just enough corporate alcohol to make me want to swing my power around just a tiny bit more than I used to… maybe just to test it out to see if I can actually get away with it. And the answer is usually, “Wow, I CAN get away with it!” because an “extra rung up” just gave me permission to act a tiny bit more like a jerk.

Not a HUGE jerk, mind you! Just in small, mostly-imperceptible ways.

But make no mistake, these are aggressions.

They are micro-abuses of power.

And the biggest problem is: the system reinforces this behavior.

The higher I go in a fiat hierarchy the less I have to show anyone, just… because.

This is why I say the corporate way is to hide everything. It’s not because people even really want to be this way; it’s because the system itself promotes these behaviors. (Reference: Wells Fargo.) And even for really, truly good people, this kind of power is hard to resist — especially when it’s completely “normal” for leaders to hide almost anything they want behind that supremely-old-school parenting answer: “Because I said so.” (In an organization of fiat hierarchy, this sentiment is so implicitly understood it rarely even needs to be spoken out loud.)

Leaders “at the top” can do (almost) whatever they want and everyone will line up behind them, rank and file, like good soldiers, simply because it’s how we’ve been trained to respond. Ours is not to question why, but simply to obey. “Top” people are required to justify virtually nothing, and we’ve been conditioned to believe this is both normal and ok.

But it’s neither.

And this is part of what’s really hard about fundamentally changing the way we work.

It requires our leaders to become better leaders — bigger leaders — who somehow find a way to NOT care about the ladder climb, even though they’ve been told their whole careers that it is the thing that matters most. 

It’s about a leader deciding to eschew their power (which is actually force in this case), instead choosing to become the listener instead of the talker and the question-asker instead of the order-giver.

It’s about leaders becoming people who are emotionally mature enough to respond instead of react, who can pause before speaking, and who will think before acting. 

It’s about a leader choosing to use their fiat power to do something rather unfathomable: start to strip away the very layers of hierarchical complexity that give them unfettered power and privilege, and instead create better systems that are more fair and transparent. 

It’s about waking up see see that we are ALL — leaders and followers, those in power and those without — at the affect of a deeply oppressive workplace operating system that was put in place long before we were born, and will remain long after we are gone… unless we change it into something transparent and worthy of being visible to all.

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Don’t Work On “Company Culture” — Focus On Your Operating System Instead

Leadership

Culture is complex.

By its very definition, “culture” is almost unreasonably complicated. Read just a few lines in a dictionary, and you’ll quickly trip over phrases like “manifestations of human achievement regarded collectively.”

Oof. Like I said, complex.

These days, leaders want to understand the impact of culture on their organizations, and it’s become even more popular since the pandemic. Overall, this is a very good thing, of course. We’re moving beyond seeing statements like “culture eats strategy for breakfast” as platitudes and moving toward grappling with the profound impact culture has on our organizations. But the intricate nature of “culture” itself is one of the largest obstacles to doing culture work, as its inherent complexity makes it difficult for organizational leaders to know exactly what to DO with it. 

That’s why, if we truly want to understand how to understand and impact the culture of an organization, leaders ought to forget about “culture” — and focus on something else entirely.

There’s a moderately famous quote from Steve Jobs about “design” that helps us better understand culture’s problem… and the solution.

“Most people make the mistake of thinking ‘design’ is what it looks like. People think it’s this veneer — that the designers are handed this box and told, ‘Make it look good!’ That’s not what we think design is. It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”

– Steve Jobs

Culture has the same misconception as design.

In organizations, culture is often equated with “perks” — things like food trucks at lunchtime, “mandatory fun” employee events, pets in the office, jeans on Friday, great snacks in the breakroom , etc. But perks are just the veneer — it’s what we see, NOT how it works.

And company culture, properly understood, is how it works.

You’ve probably noticed this is one of the more common ways you’ll hear culture defined at work: “It’s how we do things around here.”

So, to properly get to the “how” of culture, leaders ought to think of culture using the metaphor of an operating system.

In the hands of capable leaders, this metaphor is immensely powerful, because it does 3 very tangible things:

  1. It helps everyone understand what culture actually is, 
  2. It helps everyone see why most organizational changes don’t stick, and
  3. It helps everyone know how to make a more powerful impact.

First, the operating system metaphor helps everyone understand what culture actually is.

Most of us use multiple operating systems every day, even if we don’t realize it. An operating system, or “OS,” is that invisible thing that runs in the background on all our phones and laptops and makes them work. And even though most of us don’t give those operating systems a second thought, they are in fact dictating everything that is allowed (or not allowed) to happen on the device. 

Can I install this app? Can I type this here? Can I share this file? 

The OS determines it ALL.

And this is exactly what culture does for our organizations — it dictates what is allowed to happen and what is not.

Can I make this choice? Can we move this forward? Can we help this customer? What can I say to them? How much can I help them?

Just like the OS in a device, the culture of your organization is a decision-making matrix, providing the architecture and mental models people need in order to know what’s allowable and what’s out-of-bounds.

Culture = your organization’s operating system. And thinking about it in this way makes a very complex, intangible thing suddenly feel much more real and grounded.

Second, the operating system metaphor helps everyone see why most organizational changes don’t stick. 

We humans like to think of ourselves in a fairly self-determined way — that is, we prefer to think we are autonomous and able to make our own choices.

But the reality is that we don’t make nearly as many choices as we think we do. 

What actually happens is that we choose systems, and those systems make choices for us

For example, let’s say you decide to go to a university for a four-year degree. That decision may be truly yours, but once you’ve chosen a school, that school’s system decides most everything else for you. It tells you when you need to wake up in the morning, how much you need to work in order to pay the school, when you will have free time, and so on. 

It’s the same with our workplace operating system (culture). Despite being invisible and ignored by most, it is the very thing that makes the majority of decisions for everyone working there.

It’s “the way we do things,” after all.

And this explains why most organizational changes don’t stick, because most change initiatives are simply the equivalent of “new apps” that come and go — i.e. they get installed for a time and then eventually uninstalled when we move on to the next initiative. Most change projects never apply to the operating system itself.

But when we approach culture as our operating system, we can think of it like another piece of “technology,” and this gives us hope — because technology can be upgraded!

Third, the operating system metaphor helps everyone know how to make a more powerful impact. 

Perhaps the most enlightening part of this metaphor is that it teaches us all how to make a more powerful and lasting impact: we aim to upgrade the operating system.

This is the work of true leaders, at all levels — first, to simply see the operating system that’s dictating everyone’s choices, and then to actively work on making that OS more life-giving and energizing for every human in the organization.

In principle, the framing question is a simple one: does every part of your organization’s operating system give people more energy (focus/attention/motivation) or do some parts suck the life out of people?

Having an OS that gives people energy is the clear target of the organization of the future, because it’s a powerful and tangible way to tap every benefit we want that comes from having a healthy, thriving culture. 

When people have more energy for the work they’re doing, they do it better and they do it faster.

They do things more efficiently and with less waste.

They collaborate better with colleagues, and they have more resilience for challenges.

And, perhaps most importantly, they consistently give more love to customers. 

This is what I call an Energy-Based Operating System (ebOS). Most of today’s organizational operating systems have to extract energy from people to make the system function, leaving people drained and exhausted — and not doing anything close to their best work. An Energy-Based OS, on the other hand, gives people energy. This uplifts everyone into a virtuous cycle, helping each person consistently and sustainably do the best work of their lives. (If you want to learn more about an ebOS, watch my TEDx.)

And at the end of the day, doesn’t this sound exactly like the kind of “culture” you want?

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The original version of this article appeared in Culturati Magazine on Aug 9, 2019

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