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Opinion Editorials

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

Can we combat grind culture and injustice with a nap?

(OPINION EDITORIALS) A global pandemic and a climate of racial injustice may require fresh thinking and a new approach from what grind culture has taught us.

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Sleeping cat with plant, fighting grind culture.

Information is delivered to us at warp speed with access to television, radio, and the internet (and more specifically, social media). We are inundated with messages. Oftentimes they’re personalized by something that a friend or family shared. Other times we manage them for work, school, or just keeping up with news. Many entrepreneurs already wear many hats and burn the midnight oil.

During this global pandemic, COVID-19, we have also seen a rise in awareness and attention to social injustice and systemic racism. This is not a new concept, as we all know. But it did feel like the attention was advanced exponentially by the murder of George Floyd on Memorial Day 2020. Many people and entrepreneurs felt called to action (or at least experienced self-reflection). And yet they were working at all hours to evolve their businesses to survive. All of this happening simultaneously may have felt like a struggle while they tried to figure out exactly they can do.

There are some incredible thought leaders – and with limited time, it can be as simple as checking them out on Instagram. These public figures give ideas around what to be aware of and how to make sure you are leveling up your awareness.

Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, Director of the Center for Antiracist Research – he has been studying anti-racism and has several books and interviews that help give language to what has been happening in our country for centuries. His content also delves into why and how white people have believed they are more than people of color. Here is a great interview he did with Brené Brown on her Unlocking Us podcast.

Tamika Mallory – American activist and one of the leading organizers of the 2017 Women’s March. She has been fighting for justice to be brought upon the officers that killed Breonna Taylor on March 13. These are among other efforts around the country to push back on gun control, feminist issues, and the Black Lives Matter movement.

Brené Brown – research professor at the University of Houston and has spent the last two decades studying courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy. She has been listening and engaging on how racism and our shame intersect. She also speaks about how people can reflect on themselves and where they can take action to better our society. She has some antiracism resources on her website.

With all of this information and the change in our daily routines and work habits (or business adjustments), what is a fresh approach or possibly a new angle that you haven’t been able to consider?

There is one social channel against grind culture that may not be as well-known. At an initial glance, you may even perceive this place as a spoof Twitter and Instagram that is just telling you to take a nap. But hold on, it’s actually much smarter than that. The description says “We examine the liberating power of naps. We believe rest is a form of resistance and reparations. We install Nap Experiences. Founding in 2016.”

It might be a great time for you to check out The Nap Ministry, inspired by Tricia Hersey. White people are called to action, and people of color are expressly told to give time to taking care of themselves. Ultimately, it goes both ways – everyone needs the time to recharge and recuperate. But people of color especially are being told to value their rest more than the grind culture. Yes, you’re being told you need to manage your mental health and include self-care in your schedule.

Through The Nap Ministry, Tricia “examines rest as a form of resistance by curating safe spaces for the community to rest via Collective Napping Experiences, immersive workshops, and performance art installations.”

“In this incredibly rich offering, we speak with Tricia on the myths of grind culture, rest as resistance, and reclaiming our imaginative power through sleep. Capitalism and white supremacy have tricked us into believing that our self-worth is tied to our productivity. Tricia shares with us the revolutionary power of rest.” They have even explored embracing sleep as a political act.

Let this allow you to take a deep breath and sigh – it is a must that you take care of yourself to take care of your business as well as you customers and your community. And yes, keep your drive and desire to “get to work”. But not at your expense for the old grind culture narrative.

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Opinion Editorials

The actual reasons people choose to work at startups

(EDITORIAL) Startups have a lot going for them, environment, communication, visible growth. But why else would you work for one?

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Startups meeting led by Black woman.

Startups are perpetually viewed as the quintessential millennial paradise with all of the accompanying perks: Flexible hours, in-house table tennis, and long holidays. With this reputation so massively ingrained in the popular perception of startups, is it foolish to think that their employees actually care about the work that startup companies accomplish?

Well, yes and no.

The average startup has a few benefits that traditional business models can’t touch. These benefits often include things like open communication, a relaxed social hierarchy, and proximity to the startup’s mission. That last one is especially important: While larger businesses keep several degrees of separation between their employees and their end goals, startups put the stakes out in the open, allowing employees to find personal motivation to succeed.

When employees find themselves personally fulfilled by their work, that work reaps many of the benefits in the employee’s dedication, which in turn helps the startup propagate. Many aspiring startup employees know this and are eager to “find themselves” through their work.

Nevertheless, the allure of your average startup doesn’t always come from the opportunity to work on “something that matters.”

Tiffany Philippou touches on this concept by pointing out that “People come to work for you because they need money to live… [s]tartups actually offer pretty decent salaries these days.”

It’s true that many employees in their early to late twenties will likely take any available job, so assuming that your startup’s 25-and-under employee base is as committed to finding new uses for plastic as you are may be a bit naïve—indeed, this is a notion that holds true for any business, regardless of size or persuasion.

However, startup experience can color a young employee’s perception of their own self-worth. This allows them to pursue more personally tailored employment opportunities down the road—and that’s not a bad legacy to have.

Additionally, startups often offer—and even encourage—a level of personal connection and interactivity that employees simply won’t find in larger, more established workplaces. That isn’t symptomatic of startups being too laid-back or operating under loosely defined parameters. Instead, it’s a clue that work environments that facilitate personalities rather than rote productivity may stand to get more out of their employees.

Finally, your average startup has a limited number of spots, each of which has a clearly defined role and a possibility for massive growth. An employee of a startup doesn’t typically have to question their purpose in the company—it’s laid out for them; who are we to question their dedication to fulfilling it?

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Opinion Editorials

How Peloton has developed a cult-following

(OPINION EDITORIALS) How has Peloton gotten so popular? Turns out there are some clear takeaways from the bike company’s wildly successful model.

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Man riding Peloton bike with instructor pointing encouragingly during workout.

Peloton is certainly not the first company to gain a cult-like following–in the past we’ve talked about other brands with similar levels of devotion, like Crossfit and Yeti. Now, full disclosure: I’m not an exercise buff, so while I’d vaguely heard of Peloton–a company that sells stationary bikes–I had no idea it was such a big deal.

I mean, it’s not really surprising that an at-home bike that offers the option for cycling classes has grown so much during the pandemic era (a sales growth of 172% to be exact). But Peloton has been highly popular within its fanbase for years now. So, what gives? A few factors, actually.

Vertical Integration

If your company really wants to guarantee the vision and quality you’re aiming for, one of the best ways to enact it is through vertical integration, where a company owns or controls more than one part of its supply chain. Take Netflix, for example, which not only distributes media, but creates original media. Vertical integration lets companies bypass areas that are otherwise left to chance with third-party suppliers.

Peloton uses vertical integration–everything from the bike to its Wi-Fi connected tablet to the classes taught are created by Peloton. Although this may have made the bike more expensive than other at-home exercise bikes, it has also allowed Peloton to create higher quality products. And it’s worked. Many people who start on a Peloton bike comment on how the machine itself is well-built.

Takeaway: Are there any parts of your business process that you can improve in-house, rather than outsourcing?

Going Live

But with people also shelling out $40 a month for access to the training regimen Peloton provides, there’s more going on than simply high-quality craftsmanship.

Hey, plenty of cults have charismatic leaders, and Peloton is no exception. Okay, joking about the cult leader part, but really, people love their trainers. Just listen to this blogger chat about some of her favorites; people are connecting with this very human element of training. So much so that many people face blowback when suggesting they might like training without the trainers!

The trainers are only part of this puzzle though–attending live classes is a large draw. Well, as live as something can be when streamed into your house. Still, with classmate usernames and stats available while you ride, and teachers able to respond in real time to your “class,” this can simulate an in-person class without the struggle of a commute.

Takeaway: People want to see the human side of a business! Are there any ways your company could go live and provide that connection?

Getting Competitive

Pandemic aside, you can get a decent bike and workout class at an actual gym. But the folks at Peloton have one other major trick up their sleeve: Competition. Whether you’re attending a live session or catching up on a pre-recorded ride, you’re constantly competing against each other and your own records.

These leaderboards provide a constant stream of goals while you’re working out. Small accomplishments like these can help boost your dopamine, which can be the burst of good feeling you need while your legs are burning mid-workout. With this in mind, it’s no wonder why Peloton fans might be into it.

Takeaway: Is there a way to cater to your audience’s competitive side?

Conclusion

At the end of the day, of course, Peloton also has the advantage of taking a unique idea (live-streamed cycle classes built into your at-home bike) and doing it first. Plus, they just happened to be poised to succeed during a quarantine. But that doesn’t mean you can’t learn from what Peloton is doing right to build your own community of fanatics. There are plenty of people out there just waiting to get excited about a brand like yours!

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