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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

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

What Musk’s tweets say about toxicity of modern work culture

(EDITORIAL) Musk is an inspiring figure, but his recent tweets speak volumes of what’s wrong with work culture, especially in tech.

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Oh, Elon. Haven’t you learned yet? No? Your beautiful, sweet, brilliant mind. I don’t know whether you need a hug or a stern talking to — maybe both — after your crazy, erratic tweets, but Elon Musk’s Crazy Tweet of the Week™ shows a huge problem growing in the tech industry and modern work culture.

In case if you missed it, here’s what went down:

1. On Sunday, the WSJ wrote that Tesla is the “hot spot” of young job seekers and engineers, in spite of or even because of Musk.

2. Par for the course, Musk responded on Twitter with the following comments:

3. Twitter exploded with replies such as these:

If anything, this opens a discussion on a toxic tech — and honestly, American — work culture. But we’ve written about that. It seems like we’re slowly learning that 40 hour workweeks are often okay, and here’s why:

Elon isn’t normal and we shouldn’t compare ourselves.

The thing is, Musk does get more done in the average workweek than a normal person. But this is because he’s brilliant and has figured out ways to beat the system, and he has a million different ideas that other people are implementing. Elon shouldn’t compare himself to the average person, because, well, he isn’t. It’s clear he’s brilliant (and knows it), so we shouldn’t compare ourselves to him, either.

Something we can take from him: learning to automate the remedial tasks and spending our time to maximize efficiency and not waste time. And for the average person, that probably means getting a good night’s sleep or eating well (that means not just drinking Soylent. Looking at you, developers!) so you can actually be effective the next day at work or with your loved ones.

Improve your efficiency.

Are there productivity tools that you haven’t been using that you can? Are you tracking your time and how you’re spending it? If you’re an entrepreneur, or better yet, solopreneur, are there small tasks that take a lot of time that you can do better, faster, stronger? If you need some ideas, check out the years of tips accumulated here on AG.

Elon knows where his strengths don’t lie, and he has a lot of people doing those jobs. So take some of the things he does, but take it with a grain of salt. But unlike Musk, treat your employees well, don’t burn them out, and empower them to do the tasks you don’t do as well.

Most “average” humans have normal responsibilities: families, maintaining a healthy lifestyle (this means sleeping well, eating well, and exercising), and maintaining balance with other interests that make us better employees, bosses, and entrepreneurs. Remember: you’re a human being, not just a worker bee. Don’t let Elon’s Tweetstorms lead you astray.

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Opinion Editorials

How to crush your next remote job interview

(OPINION EDITORIAL) Working remotely is becoming more and more popular. Learn how to excel during a remote job interview.

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how to dress for interviews interview

As the career landscape continues to change, so does the way in which we interview. With an increase in remote workers, there is also an increase in video interviews.

What immediately comes to mind for me was three years ago when I had a video interview with the fabulous COO of The American Genius. Since the company is based out of Austin, and I’m in Chicago, we had a video chat to see if I’d be a good fit for the company.

While it took some of the pressure off being able to be in my own home for the interview, there was definitely the con of…being in my own home for the interview. Fear of any noise or interruption posed as a slight distraction.

Like an in person interview, there are some pressures that go along with a video interview. The main one being that you need to sell yourself as an extremely responsible individual who can handle the freedoms and rigors of remote work.

Employers are looking for accountability in their remote workers. You must be able to execute your tasks in with a heightened amount of self-discipline.

This can be done through use of time trackers and proactive reporting. Keeping track of each task you do, and the time spent doing it, will provide something tangible for your employer. Be sure to explain during the interview that this is something you will provide to the employer.

Next, because there is a change in environment, and arguably a change in responsibility level, the questions asked during the interview may be different from your standard interview.

A few questions that may pop up to keep in mind: what hours will you be working? What is your remote experience like? Is this something you’re seeking for supplemental work, or trying to do full-time? What is your home workspace like? What tools do you use to keep yourself on task? What is your preferred method of payment?

In turn, there are some questions you should be prepared to ask, as in any other interview. For example: What would a typical day look like if we were working together in-house? Do you offer advancement opportunities? How many of your team members work remotely and how do we all stay in contact?

Working remotely can be a whole different beast in terms of proving yourself to your employer. Having yourself fully prepared for an interview can help start you off on the right foot.

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