A successful organization with a successful culture undoubtedly has effective leadership at the top. Without leadership, an organization will lack cohesion and drive. Members of that organization will move around randomly and bump into each other, potentially do the wrong things, or do things that are in not sync with each other, eventually leading to frustration and disillusionment. A well-led organization, on the other hand, has a clear sense of where it’s going, clarity of purpose, real drive to get there, and fired up troops who will do what it takes to succeed together.
Both leadership and management are critical skills for senior people in any organization. The skills are distinct but go together. Many people are stronger in one than the other. For example, personally I feel more naturally inclined to leadership, whereas I continually consciously work to improve my management skills.
Have a clear and compelling vision - The team can’t get anywhere if they don’t know where they are going. Organizations are always and only all about the people, and the only way that an organization can get anything of significance done is to rally the people in that organization around a shared vision of where they are going. Not only must the vision be clear and simple to understand, it must also be compelling. People should get out of bed in the morning excited about a day ahead of working on achieving that vision. A vision gives people a sense of purpose, that they are doing something that matters. Financial metrics are not a vision, they are simply the rewards of successfully fulfilling the purpose.
Communicate! - The troops won’t know what the vision is if you don’t communicate. So speak to them frequently, clearly, honestly, and in a confidence-inspiring way. Good communication is one of the foundational skills of any leader. Communication should be frequent and should repeat key themes often, but the mode of communication should be varied, engaging, and not trite, so that people don’t get bored with the message or feel beat over the head with it.
Create a shared sense of destiny - Everyone has to be in this together, including the leader. We all know that amazing feeling of being on a cohesive and committed team. A successful organization, no matter how big or small, should feel that way.
Know your stuff - You can’t bluff. A vision can be based on instincts born of your expertise, but if you are just making it up, people see right through it. A good vision and a good leader are credible.
Be Confident - You can’t expect others to be willing to walk through walls for the organization if you don’t personally fully believe in the vision and in the organization’s ability to achieve it. Others are inspired by a credible leader who shows confidence and commitment, despite the challenges.
Demonstrate execution - The road to success is usually long and hard. Many challenges deter people from continuing. People have faith when they are presented with a vision they can believe in and when they see tangible progress towards that vision, no matter how long the road ahead may be. Tell the team what we are doing next, do it, and then tell us what we did so we can all clearly see the progress and have faith that we will keep progressing.
Empathize - Acknowledge the challenges! Empathize with the pain that people in the organization may be going through. Don’t wallow in it, but recognize it, let people know that they are understood and their hard work and sacrifices are recognized and appreciated. Understanding and acknowledging the challenges is the first step to moving past them with confidence.
Be honest - Fundamentally, people want the truth, no matter how hard it may be. If you mislead people or sugar-coat the situation, you lose credibility. But keep in mind that you can tell the truth in a confidence-inspiring way or in a confidence-destroying way. Inspire confidence -- don’t fan fear. We all want to hear the truth, but in a way that gives us hope for the future.
I believe that Service is not simply a department or an activity, but that — more fundamentally — it is a cultural value. Firms that are delightful to work with have a service-oriented culture. This culture infuses everything they do and is embodied by every person in the company, no matter their role. It is at the heart of putting the customer first and having a primary goal of delighting the customer. We are all involved in Service. Sales, for instance, is a form of service. This is easily seen when you think that customers don't want to be sold something; instead, they want to buy things they value and enjoy. Sales is fundamentally to help the customer buy.
Care! To truly serve customers, you must truly care about them and care about doing a good job. Compassion and empathy for customers and pride of workmanship are both critical. Excellence is caring and cannot be achieved without it.
Be curious. Caring is half the battle. The other half is to know what to do in order to serve well. That comes from really understanding our customers, what their business is, what they care about, what their challenges, opportunities, hopes, and fears are. You need to be able to see the world through their eyes, and that can only happen if you are curious about customers and their business. You also need to thoroughly understand our own business and our products. Value is created only when you connect demand with supply, customer needs with your products and services, in the right way. And to do that, you need to be deeply curious about your business and products. You need to train yourself, ask questions, and listen.
Be confident. Meek service is not satisfying service. We all feel best when interacting with people we respect. Earning respect requires confidence. Sometimes we fall into the trap of thinking if we simply concede to all our customers’ demands, we will delight them more, but often the reverse is true: when we’re seen as pushovers, customers lose respect and we lose their loyalty rather than gain it. With meek behavior, we encourage them to mistreat us, and that’s not delightful for either side.
Remember which team you're on. You serve customers, but don’t make the mistake of thinking you are on their team. It is too easy to think that you can earn loyalty by simply siding with the customer and throwing your company under the bus. When I call any company's service desk to complain about something, I hate it when the rep just agrees with me and insinuates that their company is negligent but that’s not their fault. That infuriates me. I know that rep wasn't personally responsible. They don’t need to convince me of that. But I do want them to acknowledge my complaint in a professional way, and take responsibility on behalf of their firm.
Be proactive. The best service anticipates your needs and wants. With curiosity and caring, you are positioned to get ahead of your customers, see things through their eyes, and deliver on things they are likely to want before they even ask.
This is the fifth installment in my Culture series. Excellence is the model we strive for, Truth is the mirror that keeps us on course, Agility is how we get there. But we need something else. We need an engine to move us forward, regardless of the challenges we face along the way. That engine is confidence. Performance is impossible without confidence.
Know yourself. The dictum “Know thyself” (γνῶθι σεαυτόν) was apparently carved into the rock at the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, for the benefit of visitors who had come to consult the Oracle (priestess) there and hear her prophesies. Today we think of the word ‘prophesy' as meaning predicting the future, but in fact the origin of the word is the ‘spokesperson or advocate of the gods / God’. Prophesy is in fact the act of explaining the true state of the world through divine knowledge. In ancient wisdom: a person’s future is a function of their Fate and their Fate is a function of who they are, here and now. So a visit to the oracle was in fact a voyage of self discovery. To understand your future, understand yourself. To change your future, change yourself. Only through self-knowledge can we achieve true confidence. To trust the world around us, we must first trust ourselves.
Be prepared. It is natural to feel a lack of confidence if you don’t feel ready to tackle the challenge ahead. To change your future, you need to change yourself. If you lack the technical knowledge to do something, go learn it! Read up, ask others, take a course, experiment. If you are wary of meeting with a customer, make sure you understand their business and our offerings thoroughly. You create value when you connect the two. We fear what we do not understand. Thorough preparation is perhaps the single best thing you can do to improve your confidence heading into a situation. Have a plan, ask questions, study up, equip yourself! Curiosity builds confidence.
Practice! To learn a new sport you know you need to practice. When you first start to ski or skateboard, for instance, you wobble around. This is mostly due to a lack of confidence. I have seen people fall over when basically just standing on skis because they so fearful of the new environment. In the US Navy SEALs, instructors apparently routinely tell recruits: “You are capable of 20 times more than you think you are!” We literally hold ourselves back because we feel we cannot do something. Only when we push our own envelopes do we realize that we are in fact capable of 20X what we thought. Build experience to build confidence.
Have respect, not fear. There are many dangerous things and situations in the world, an encounter with which might lead to an unacceptable outcome. Fear is the instinctual tool we have to manage the risk of danger. Fear generally drives us to fight or flee. But fear has negative side effects: shaky hands, weak knees, upset stomach, chills. Worst of all, it can cause paralysis (the proverbial 'deer in the headlights'). To avert this, replace fear with respect. Have deep respect for risk. Understand it, manage it, and don't take it lightly. But do not let it manage you.
Be proud, not prideful. True confidence is not puffery. It is not boastful. We all know people who project
a very confident demeanor yet they clearly feel just the opposite, compensating for an actual lack of inner confidence. True confidence comes from within, and it is very hard to act with real confidence externally if you lack confidence internally. As humans we all need positive feedback, and part of our partnership with each other is to help celebrate the success of others. But we should all be driven fundamentally by being proud of our accomplishments within ourselves. If we are dependent on the accolades of others, that is being prideful and is not confidence.
When in doubt, do something. "The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing." (Walt Disney). It is generally advisable to have a solid plan for success for starting out, but sometimes things are not clear up front and you risk running into analysis paralysis. Sometimes it is easier to just get going and make a course correction as you start to see the lay of the land more clearly. If you manage your risk by taking an agile approach, then you can have confidence that a course correction will not be very costly. That experimentation is the heart of innovation.
This is the fourth installment in my Culture series. Agility is how we get things done effectively and efficiently. It is the best way for us to reach Excellence and relies on our focus on Truth. It enables performance.
Break work into small batches. The utter core of agility is to break tasks down into small batches, in fact into the smallest viable unit, and get that batch done 100%, review, learn, adjust plans if necessary, and then move on to the next small batch. This simple approach allows us to dramatically lower the risk of projects -- improving both quality and time to market -- by giving us continuous opportunity to learn and adjust along the way. “Big bang” projects, where you toil for a long period of time before having anything to show for it, are almost destined to fail. The ‘small batch’ approach is the heart of the Lean movement, which is just another way way of looking at Agile. Not only do you want to keep each batch small, but you should strive for utmost simplicity in the whole project. That is how you move fast and light.
Be Antifragile. Agility is by its nature Antifragile. The continuous Agile process of learning from the past, taking in new inputs from the present, being able and willing to change course, and back up when you’re headed down the road, is the heart of why biological systems can resist entropy and in fact grow strong in the face of adversity. Agility / antifragility naturally give you optionality, which is a powerful form of leverage.
Try stuff out. When you have a small batch mentality, it is easy to try stuff out. Each ‘try’ is of limited cost and risk, and the payoff is innovation. Making lots of small controlled experiments, perhaps in parallel with multiple teams, if that’s feasible, and then having the discipline to choose the best option and walk away from the others, is how real innovation takes place and shows the critical link between innovative thinking and agile execution.
Think like a startup. Sometimes the blank canvas can be the biggest impediment to getting started. Constraint & necessity are the mothers of invention. Need drives innovation drives creative thinking, not the other way around. So embrace the constraints and challenges that confront you — they may be the catalyst you require to do something extraordinary. And don’t waste resources. In a startup, you are highly constrained by many things, but most obviously by money to invest. You have to be frugal. It’s not different in a large company: having lots of money does not mean having unlimited money, and you still have to prioritize and make wise choices about where to place your bets. Put in the effort to not waste money on the little things so that we have more to put against the stuff that matters.
Be Scrappy. Leverage what you have. Don’t reinvent the wheel. Stand on the shoulders of giants. Progress in the world is largely incremental (even when it takes an unexpected direction) and builds on what came before. Likewise, tap into the collective intelligence, creativity, and experience of those around you to help accelerate your efforts and get that critical feedback before your next iteration. That’s the power of partnership.
>> Culture, part 5: Confidence
Part 3 in my Culture series. If Truth is our Mirror, then Excellence is our Model.
Care! Quality is caring. As Robert Pirsig says in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: Quality is “a feeling of identification with what one’s doing.” There is no duality between who one is and what one does. There is truly no other way to achieve excellence than to care, personally and deeply, about what you are doing. And caring forms the foundation of trust.
Delight the customer. To achieve excellence, you must know what that excellence means. In business, that is to delight your customers. If our customers are truly delighted, that is your excellence. And this is the foundation of your partnership with them.
Pay attention. Excellence is about the big picture, but it is also about getting all the details right. When you step into a beautiful hotel, you can instantly distinguish it from a middle of the road hotel by the attention to detail that pervades every aspect of decor, comfort, and service. It is a holistic experience.
Be committed. Don’t settle. Keep pushing. Excellence is really hard work. Michelangelo said, "If people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery, it would not seem so wonderful at all.” The difference between excellence and mediocrity is often how unwilling someone is to settle for the quick and easy road.
Be agile. An unfinished thing cannot be excellent. Excellence comes into being when a customer is delighted. So, while we always strive for the utmost quality, remember that done is better than perfect. Finding that balance is an art in itself. Break work into small excellent batches and get one completely done and delivered before working on the next.
Be creative. Delighting someone often includes going beyond expectations and pleasantly surprising them. Bring the unexpected into your excellence. Understand thoroughly what delights the customer, but then also go one step beyond. That is the heart of innovation.
Invest in yourself. To do excellent things, you must be excellent yourself. This of course applies to your attitude, but also more concrete things like your skills and your ability to get stuff done. Harness your curiosity to learn new things every day. Keep your skills on the leading edge and figure out how to bring them to the service of excellence. Get rest, eat well, get exercise, take long walks, meditate in some way, strive to keep your day from being chopped up by meetings and other distraction so you have big blocks of time to get into flow. This is fundamental to your own performance.
Invest in your people. Same as above applies to the people you manage. Help them stay on top of their game and give them the right environment in which to practice excellence.
Have fun. Excellence is hard but should feel incredibly rewarding and enjoyable. If you are frustrated, that will show in your work. Turn frustration into inspiration to do something about it, but truly enjoy every moment that you practice excellence.
>> Culture, part 4: Agility
Second post in my Culture series, which lays out a small collection of ways of being related to the cultural theme of Truth.
Be open. Put your cards on the table. Let people know what you are doing. Invite more eyes on your projects and plans and accept the feedback of others. It is how we become better. Given uncompromisingly sincere feedback to others, including your superiors, and invite open honest feedback on yourself, no matter uncomfortable. That is how we become better. Truth is our mirror. Being open is fundamental to trust, given and earned.
Be curious. Relentless curiosity it fundamental to your ability to get to the truth. What do our customers do? What do they want? What delights them? What do our products and services do? Why are they valuable? How can I connect the dots? How does this work? Why do we do things this way? What if we did them differently? What if we did them really differently? Would that be better or worse? This looks better, but I am not sure — can I try it out easily and become certain one way or another? Curiosity fuels innovation.
Listen. What are people telling you? What are they really telling you? What do they mean? Listening to and hearing our customers is vital to our ability to succeed. Likewise, listening to and hearing our colleagues is vital to our ability to collaborate. Listening is fundamental to the idea of partnership.
Watch out for blind spots. We all have them, and they trip us up. Our biases make us see the truth differently than what it really is. Be aware of those blind spots, seek feedback from others to help you identify them, and challenge yourself to make sure you do not fall into them. And remember that other people have blind spots too — you have to watch out for their blind spots as much as your own or you might both be drawn down the wrong path.
Look up and down. Like many things in life, problems and ideas have multiple layers to them. We tend to come into initial contact with a problem or idea at some random layer. We need to dig down to the root causes and up to the big picture to really get a full view and appreciation for what we are dealing with.
Look around. Engage in lateral thinking and look for related problems and ideas. Are they connected to the one you are looking at? Is there a bigger picture here? Do they inspire innovative thinking? How does your truth relate to the truth of those around you? Are you playing a 'broken squares game'?
Think clearly. We need analytics as well as data! Use your brain to reason things through. Challenge yourself relentlessly to make sure you are truly following logic and sense. Assume the opposite of what you think and see where that leads -- do you get an inconsistent result when you do that? Don't speculate -- find out!
Be persistent. Don’t give up! The truth is really hard to get at, much harder than most people realize. But once you are there, things become light and easy. Be relentless in your pursuit of what is true. Don’t accept what you hear at face value. Probe deeply, constructively challenge yourself and others, including authority. Persistently pursuing the truth is critical to your and our performance.
>> Culture, part 3: Excellence
There is a construct of human experience that I have long been aware of. I call it "the Model and the Mirror".
The Model is an ideal that we wish to emulate, who we want to be, how we want to act. And of course the Mirror is the reflection of who we are today, how we act right now. These two concepts work together to guide us on the path to where we need to go. I see this construct all around me, in a variety of guises.
Never forget we have blind spots, constantly be on guard for them, and make sure to catch a glance of yourself in the Mirror from time to time to help you find and overcome them.
I strongly believe that we should all treat each other with trust and respect by being open about plans and motivations. You and I should be united in common purpose by sharing a single agenda: doing whatever we can to best serve our customers and therefore our business.
If you disagree with me about how to best serve our business, OK, we can argue about that until we reach
a common conclusion. But if one of us has a different agenda, then we are no longer working together to serve our customers and therefore the company. We are engaging in politics, and politics is corrosive and destructive.
It's not easy to be open and honest all the time. There is a real need for nuance and finesse in communication: you can speak the truth in a way that builds confidence or a way that destroys confidence. But fundamentally we should all be striving towards the truth and doing our personal best to put it on the table.
Say what you feel and do what you say.
In my opinion, the top three factors driving company success are:
1. Right People
2. Right Culture
3. Right Mission
in that order. The right people are the foundation of anything. It is always all about the people. Right people can operate well within a range of cultures. Great culture + wrong people doesn't work. Right people plus right culture, and I think you can do anything. Put the right mission on top of that and you are set up for maximum success.
So culture really matters. But what is culture anyway? The term was apparently first used by Cicero in the phrase 'cultura animi' meaning the 'cultivation of the soul'. Cultivation here is very much in the agricultural sense — it is all about growth. Culture is fundamentally about getting better over time, and the right culture is the fertile soil in which the right people succeed and prosper.
That ‘soil’ is the set of values and ambitions we have that we believe will make us better, that will allow us to grow and prosper. These beliefs, values, and ambitions guide our behaviors which in turn produce the successful outcomes we strive towards.
In short, culture is a shared way of being for a group of people that allows them to grow and succeed. The shared aspect of culture is central to it. It’s not a culture if one person in a group has one set of values and ambitions and the person next to them has a completely different set. Humans beings are at our best when we work together. We defend better, we hunt better, we build better, we educate better. Collaboration is in our very nature. But to do it effectively, we must be in sync with one another, and our shared culture is the best tool we have to ensure that we are in sync and working towards common purpose.
So what is that ambition we strive for? At the highest level, I believe people want to win. That is our driver. Now, different people will have a very wide range of views on what ‘winning’ means to them in their lives overall. But in a corporate setting, I would suggest there is probably a more cohesive view on what winning is: creating and delivering products and services for our industry better than anyone else, in turn delighting customers more than anyone else, and in turn being appropriately recognized and rewarded for that accomplishment. And we probably all want to feel that we are growing as individuals, feel proud that we treat other people decently, that we are making the world a better place, and having fun (enjoying what we do and the time we spend at work). So our culture should be the fertile soil that allows us to attain that form of winning.
Stay tuned for a series of posts in this blog to summarize a few core cultural themes plus some specifics about what I mean by each, with the goal (as always) of trying to incite some discussion and debate among all of you who read it...
Culture, part 2: Truth
Culture, part 3: Excellence
Culture, part 4: Agility
Culture, part 5: Confidence
Culture, part 6: Service
Culture, part 7: Leadership
Culture, part 8: Passion
Culture, part 9: Collegiality
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