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The secret to a high-performance culture

(EDITORIAL) The secret to high-performance culture has nothing to do with having beer in the fridge at work. Let’s discuss…

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Good to great

I can’t believe it’s been more than fifteen years since Jim Collins’ book, Good to Great was released. I liked that book a lot, and I wasn’t the only one. It was a perennial best-seller and lauded as one of the best business culture books around.

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The seven characteristics of great companies (level 5 leadership, the hedgehog concept, etc.) seemed like a great guide for all of us.

But is it really helping us to become great?

I’m not encouraged by the fact that two of the “great” case studies are now either out of business (Circuit City) or in some deep trouble (Wells Fargo).

In Collins’ defense, he never promised those companies they would always be great.

Either way, can we honestly say that the wisdom in this book has helped a significant number of today’s companies make the leap from good to great? I assume there are some out there, but I think if it were a significant trend, it would be more obvious to all of us.

This is frustrating

We were promised some research-based insights that were going to lead our organizations to greatness.

Yet when we tried to implement that, we generally ended up with organizations that continued to plod along the same trajectory they were on before.

We made some improvements, for sure, but we failed to create truly high-performance cultures.

And I think I know why.

The body of research behind books like Good to Great is certainly well intended, and I do believe it can generate some insights that could genuinely help you improve your company, but it misses one of the most important truths I’ve discovered about culture in my two decades of consulting with organizations:

all great cultures start on the inside—not with the external ideas.

The external ideas do matter, and studying great organizations can teach us a lot, but the work of culture is always going to be about building and growing, not copying.

Define your culture

And that means you can’t make your culture better until you know what it is. You can’t create a Jim-Collins-approved culture that excels at confronting the brutal facts, for example, until you know how your people already experience your culture when it comes to things like speaking the truth, sharing information across department lines, articulating strategic imperatives, and even letting people be their whole selves at work.

Are the two related?

These cultural themes may seem disconnected from your quest to move from good to great, but simply declaring to your people that you want your new culture to be brutally honest—when they are already uncomfortable sharing even a little bit of their personal identity in the workplace, or they already notice that people refuse to say anything controversial when a leader is in the room—is going to be a huge disconnect.

Your people already know what your culture is.

They experience it every day. And when you set out to create a new awesome culture that is fundamentally disconnected from their experience, then the change will not make sense to them, and you will see resistance.

I am told frequently that it is natural for people to resist change, but I don’t believe that’s entirely true.

People don’t resist change—they resist change that doesn’t make sense to them.

Where you are, not where you want to be

So if you want to make the leap from good to great and create a high-performance culture, you won’t get very far unless you design that effort with your current culture as the starting point. Here’s what that looks like.

I worked recently with a small nonprofit that was doing good work, but had become a little slow.

They were creating important products and services that advanced their mission, but they were bringing them to market just a little too late.

To solve that problem, they started by digging into their current culture. We worked together to map out 64 distinct culture building blocks within 8 culture markers—measuring things like agility, growth, inclusion, transparency and innovation.

This wasn’t about evaluating their culture as good or bad (which is what most culture assessments do, benchmark you against some abstract model).

Instead, this work focused on accurately describing their current state. It placed each culture building block on a continuum, ranging from traditionalist, to contemporary, to futurist. In other words, how close are they to traditional management practices, versus the “future of work” leadership and management practices that cutting-edge companies are inventing today.

Transparency

When they saw the scan of their workplace culture, they noticed something interesting in the data. Several of the building blocks related to transparency were outliers, scoring closer to the traditional end of the spectrum compared to the rest of their culture.

In other words, their people felt like the quantity of information being shared internally was limited, particularly when it had to cross silo lines (in traditionalist cultures, information is guarded, and silos focus internally first).

But if you’re thinking to yourself that the solution for this group is obviously to become more futurist and start sharing more information in order to get faster, then you’re falling into that same, benchmark-based, good-to-great trap that we’ve all been falling into for the last twenty years.

And they knew that they actually did a great job sharing information – that was a cultural value for them that had historical significance.

So what was this data telling them?

Decision-making

The culture scan had also uncovered an internal pattern around decision-making that connected to their transparency scores. In their historical desire to not withhold information from each other, they had developed a pattern of including many different people and groups in the organization in just about every decision that was made.

And with more people included in the decision-making process, it is inevitable that some of them felt like they didn’t have enough information (hence the traditional-leaning scores).

But the problem wasn’t a lack of information—the problem was in their ability to move quickly on decisions with so many cooks in the kitchen, each of whom was asking for more and more information about issues that were probably not central to their work in the first place. As they uncovered these insights, they developed a clear new priority for their culture:

Everyone has a voice, but not everyone decides.

They started to map out decisions using the RACI model (Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, Informed), in order to clarify decision-making roles internally. For some people, that meant they were getting LESS information.

If they were only being “consulted” on the decision, they would probably hear about it more toward the end of the process.

Those in the “informed” role wouldn’t hear about it until after the decision had been made.

In this case, the association was able to unlock speed NOT by putting more information into everyone’s hands, but by putting less out there but in the right hands.

And streamlining the decision-making process so everyone had clarity about why they were being included or not included.

Chase what you want

They are now well on their way to a faster, high-performance culture, but they are doing it on their own terms, and incorporating the historical/traditional values that still matter to them. They are getting strong buy-in internally because the cultural shift (a) ties directly to how their people already experience their culture, and (b) helps them meet member needs better.

This story is just one aspect of their current culture shift, of course, and they have more work to do before we could call this a good-to-great leap.

But by tying their efforts to a more nuanced understanding of their existing culture, and in some cases even moving in the opposite direction from what the management experts cite as “best practices,” they are moving towards a high-performance culture customized to what drives their success – not anyone else’s.

#GoodToGreat

Maddie Grant is author of Humanize and When Millennials Take Over, and is Founding Partner at WorkXO, a culture startup that helps forward thinking leaders in growth oriented organizations activate their workplace culture to attract the right talent, increase engagement, and unleash human potential through the Workplace Genome™ Project.

Opinion Editorials

The strong case for Texas being technology’s next frontier

(EDITORIAL) Everyone loves Tacos and tech in Austin, but Texas has far more to offer – here’s how the various cities will create the next mecca for the tech world.

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texas capitol ceiling

Despite what the movies have told you, Texas is not the place you think it is. Sure, we’ve got cowboys, brisket, and a lot of BBQ, but the Lone Star State is much, much more than clichés. Over the last few decades, Texas has been gaining steam as one of the premier places to live in the country.

While yes, people love a good chicken fried steak or are always looking for an excuse to sneak over to their favorite grocery store, HEB, Texans aren’t sitting idly by when it comes to tech – they’re grabbing the industry by the horns.

Thanks to the state’s business-friendly tax breaks, a year-round predominantly warm weather climate, and a strong state culture, the popularity of Texas makes a lot of sense: Houston, which was once considered a third tier city is about to overthrow Chicago as the third largest in the nation, while also being lauded as our most diverse city.

Let’s repeat it, for all the people in the back: Houston, Texas is more diverse than Los Angeles, or New York.

Affordable neighborhoods are popping up across Houston, which are attracting immigrants from every culture looking for their slice of the American Dream. Houston is seeing explosive growth and a cultural shift away from being a town built on strictly fossil fuels, but now, startups, tech, and umbrella industries are finding their niche in the state’s biggest urban area. Only New York is home to more public companies.

Houston’s medical sector ranks with some of the top care in the world. And with those elite doctors, come the innovative pharmaceutical and medical companies, and the tech that supports them.

When you look at the top twenty metro areas to live right now in the country, four of those cities are in Texas. While some of those reasons are affordability and the signature Texas heat, the state is seeing new residents thanks also to a healthy job market. Since 2010, Texas has added 12.6% more residents, double lapping California’s growth of 6.1%.

Texas’ workforce is bigger than 46 states in the union total population and has doubled in job growth, productivity, and new deals are being struck daily. Texas’ impact on the tech sector is indisputable: Texas has exported more technology than California, again.

Deep in the heart

Startup culture is alive and well in Austin, but while some of our startups are finally beginning to draw VC attention away from Silicon Valley, we know how to slug it out in the land of the bootstrapped beginnings. If your company can thrive in Austin, with so many talented people, and a lot of great ideas, you can make it anywhere (sorry New York, for stealing your platitude).

Austin is still a developing story. As enterprises are opening offices in the capital city, this is helping VCs along the coasts see Austin’s potential as a hub of ideas. The city is still behind the bay area for risk-taking ventures, but given the current climate of investors, there’s a sea change happening.

Giants like Apple, Atlassian, Oracle, Dell, Amazon, Samsung, Facebook, and Google are all occupying space in buildings across the Austin skyline. Enterprise companies are investing heavily into the Austin market, and there are zero signs of a slow down. If you need further proof, just look at the traffic on any of the city’s major highways during rush hour.

Dallas is making a hard play at attracting the top-tiered companies as well. When Amazon head honcho Jeff Bezos announced put out a call for bids for Amazon’s HQ2, many cities made a play for the site, but now that the final cities have been chosen, both Austin and Dallas both stand to score the shopping monolith.

Oculus, TopGolf, and startups like Veryable, Dead Soxy, and Artist Uprising are attracting some of the brightest minds to the Dallas/Fort Worth metro area.

South Texas joins the party

San Antonio is quietly building a case for a burgeoning tech scene, too. It’s not quite there yet on the enterprise or startup level, but the city is widely known for one thing – cybersecurity. Outside of Washington D.C., San Antonio is known as “Cyber Security City USA” to folks in the black hat scene.

San Antonio logged the most substantial growth of all of the Texas cities, adding over 250,000 new residents in 2017 alone. Thanks to a robust military presence, San Antonio is quietly attracting more and more security-minded firms, a feat that’s unique in comparison to what the rest of the state is offering. Military-friendly banking institution USAA is headquartered in San Antonio, as is grocery chain HEB, and Whataburger, with all three companies investing heavily into user experience and mobile applications (aka technology).

If Amazon decides on HQ2 in either Dallas or Austin, that will signal a 200,000+ person addition to the state’s population and economy. That’s a lifetime investment into either city, wherever Bezos, and his board chooses. Coupling that possibility with the already strong presence of Southwest Airlines, Texas Instruments, and just about every major gas corporation, it’s easy to see why these moves are a huge deal. For the latter, it’s also important to note that every sector is bolstering their websites, their social media footprint, everything that can be done on a laptop is happening – one new job at a time.

As the tech scene develops and changes from a strong west coast-driven model, Texas is benefiting from the change. Many Californians are moving to Texas, which is an article to itself, but one thing remains: the Texas economy has never been stronger, and it’s only improving. The story of tech in Texas is a continual work in progress.

We’re not going to overtake California next year, but we’re making a stand, and people are noticing. If the current economic growth is an indicator, the famous Dairy Queen saying is potent with it’s accuracy: “That’s What I Like About Texas.”

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Opinion Editorials

How to turn your complaint mindset into constructive actions

(EDITORIAL) Everybody knows someone who complains too much. While being open is important for mental health, constant bellyaching is not.

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complaint mindset

Everybody knows someone who complains too much. While being open is important for mental health, constant bellyaching is not, so here are a few tips on turning your complaints into constructive actions.

It’s important to understand the difference between “complaining” and “addressing.” Talking about problems which mandate discussion, bringing up issues slated to cause larger issues down the line, and letting your boss know that you have the sniffles all fall into the latter category due to necessity; complaining is volitional, self-serving, and completely unnecessary in most contexts.

Complaining also puts you in an excessively bad mood, which may prevent you from acknowledging all the reasons you have not to complain.

Another point to keep in mind is that complaining occasionally (and briefly) isn’t usually cause for ostracization. Constant or extensive complaining, however, can lead others to view you as a largely negative, self-centered person — you know, the kind of person literally no one actively seeks out — which is why you should focus more on redirecting that negative energy rather than using it to remind your barista why they gave up their dream of becoming a therapist.

Complaining stems from two main sources: the need to be validated—for example, for others to know what you’re going through—and the need to be comforted. Addressing a chronic complaint mindset, then, is largely about validating and comforting yourself. This is a simple solution which nevertheless can take years to manifest properly, but you can start by doing a couple of things differently.

“Focus on the positive” is perhaps the hokiest advice you’ll get from anyone, but it works. In virtually any situation, you can find a positive aspect—be it an eventual outcome or an auxiliary side-effect—on which you can concentrate. Think about the positive enough, and you’ll talk yourself out of complaining before you’ve even started.

It’s also good to remember that no one, no matter how much they care about you, can handle constant negativity. If you find yourself constantly hitting people with bad news or tragic personal updates, try mixing up the dialogue with some positive stuff. That’s not to say that you can’t be honest with people—friends, family, and colleagues all deserve to know what’s going on in your life—but make sure that you aren’t oversaturating your listeners with sadness.

Lastly, keep your complaining off of social media. It’s all too easy to post a long Facebook rant about being served cold pizza (no one likes cold pizza on day one), but this just results in your loding a complaint reaching a larger number of people than vocalization ever could. If you have to complain about something in earnest, avoid doing it anywhere on the Internet—your future self will thank you.

Being honest about how you feel is never a bad thing, but constant negativity will bring down you and everyone around you. If you can avoid a complaint mindset as a general rule, you’ll one day find that you have significantly less to complain about.

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Opinion Editorials

How to encourage your childrens’ entrepreneurship

(EDITORIAL) To encourage entrepreneurship for our children, we focus on providing them with direct evidence that they can do and be anything they want (excepting the six year old, who currently wants to be a cat).

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children and entrepreneurship

When I walk in the door most days, the routine’s predictable. Drop my briefcase, check the mail, and by this point I’ve received an invitation to go to my daughters’ store. What’s for sale invariably changes from day-to-day — sometimes it’s a pet store, or a bespoke clothier, or a coffee shop — but I’m always amazed at the level of thinking about multiple aspects of business ownership that they put into their play.

For example, I’m typically offered coupons and combination deals on whatever my purchases might be, which means that we get to have rich conversations about the purpose of such incentives and how they affect both customer perception of their brand and their profit margin.

Now, as they’re both under ten years old, many of these conversations don’t cause their games to stop for an introductory economics lesson, but I want them to keep these discussions in mind as their play expands. The world in which they’re growing up is a very different place from that which their parents did, and the possibilities they can embrace literally did not exist a generation ago.

So, too, the challenges that they’ll face. While the number of career fields and the jobs within them that are fully accessible to women are growing exponentially, the globalization of the economy and the shift towards a gig workforce means that they’ll have to compete against not only the remnants of outdated gender expectations, but also considerably larger numbers of people to do so, and with less stability in their career paths once they arrive.

To encourage the entrepreneurial spirit within our girls we, like many parents, focus on providing them with direct evidence that they can do and be anything they want (excepting the six year old, who currently wants to be a cat).

It’s been well said that what one can see, one can be. A 2012 MIT report found that in Indian villages where women held positions of responsibility and authority in local government, levels of aspiration and access to education rose by 25 percent and 4 percent, respectively. The amount of hours they had to devote to completing domestic chores dropped by nearly 25 percent.

It’s important to us to have our daughters see successful women in all walks of life to let them know that they are limited only in their passions and imagination, and should never settle for anything that they don’t want.

It’s also important for us to show them examples of young entrepreneurship whenever possible as well. In a 2015 analysis of Federal Reserve Bank data, the Wall Street Journal found that the percentage of adults under the age of 30 who had ownership stakes in private companies had fallen 70 per cent over the past 24 years. This illustrates the myth of the swashbuckling 20-something entrepreneur, along with the underlying challenges to business ownership.

By being realists about the challenges as well as idealistic about the possibilities, we want to keep alive the spirit that makes them excited to open a combination fish store and haberdashery in their playroom today, with the anticipation of changing the world through their professional passions tomorrow.

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