What if everyone gets an A?

What if everyone gets an A? Is it possible? What if every member of Congress and the new president and vice president were given an A? That means they start with a clean slate and have already earned the highest grade the public gives them.

The caveat: Within the first two weeks of taking office, each of them must write a public letter to the American people, published in the New York Times or the Washington Post, explaining what they did to deserve this grade. The letter must be dated a year from the date they took office and start with the words, “Dear American people, I got my A because….” It must be written in great detail. Each person must tell the story of what happened to them over the course of that year and what they did to achieve this grade.

In writing these letters, they must place themselves in the future and look back, reporting on all their accomplishments on behalf of the American people. They must include the milestones they attained during that year as if the accomplishments had already happened. Everything must be written in the past tense. The words “I hope”, “I intend”, “I plan” or “I will” must not appear. They should instead use: “I led”, I implemented”, “I influenced”, “I organized”, “I coordinated”, “I created’, etc.

The Art of Possibility - everyone gets an AThis is an exercise Boston Philharmonic Symphony Conductor Benjamin Zander describes in the book he co-authored with his wife, Rosamond Stone Zander, called The Art of Possibility. At the start of each semester of music instruction, he tells his students to write him a letter as described above, dated for a year hence. The results he describes are amazing and inspiring.

It appears that once we place ourselves in the future and write out what we have accomplished as though it already happened, we actually take the steps in the present to make that happen.

Our brains have already been wired to make it so. If everyone gets an A at the start, we subconsciously do the work to make it a reality.

Backwards to the Future

This is similar to an exercise we do with our clients when facilitating a strategic plan. We start by having them put themselves 1-to-3 years in the future and imagine what has already transpired in their business. What accomplishments they’ve made, how the organization has grown and changed, and what others are saying about their success. This becomes the vision for the future they want to create.

Next, we have them step into that same future time frame and consider the external changes that might have occurred by then. They look at how the world will have changed around them which includes changes in population, the competition, the ecological environment, political and regulatory changes, technology and innovation, their industry, and their customers. Again, they look at these as though they have already occurred at the end of that 1-to-3-year period, identifying future opportunities and threats that present themselves. Then they work backwards to set milestones to achieve and identify specific actions to take that will produce those future results.

These are powerful exercises which get our clients rooted in the future. They help them see possibilities they might not otherwise see if they began with a SWOT analysis and started solving today’s issues. Much like Zander’s students in The Art of Possibility, our clients start their planning by tricking their brains into assuming the future has already happened. This makes it possible for them to identify the specific steps they need to take to ensure those future possibilities actually take place. It also gets the entire team on the same page, focused on the same goals.

Granting an A can be a healing exercise – something this country needs after such a divisive election process. It creates a vision of partnership, teamwork and relatedness. If everyone gets an A, then everyone is equal in all ways.  It means we’ve all done our best; we’ve all behaved as the best persons we can be. According to Zander, the act of giving an A creates a sense of partnership.

Of course, every government leader must understand and embrace this process which is a huge culture change to their jobs. But it could happen!

So what if everyone gets an A? What if we gave every elected official an A the day they took office?

What if?

Cultural Awareness Often Overlooked

Cultural awareness is often overlookedCultural awareness is often overlooked despite the drive toward building a multi-racial workforce. The focus on culture often does not address ethnicity. More and more both organizational culture and ethnic culture are intertwined as companies hire more multicultural staff to better serve their communities. What happens too frequently is that little thought is given to how well employees of different ethnic backgrounds will assimilate into the largely Anglo, male dominated US organizational culture, or how well the existing predominantly Anglo staff will accept and/or work with these multicultural team members. How many companies provide cross-cultural training for their staffs rather than simply expecting the individuals to sink or swim on their own?

In the planning community, there’s a great deal of discussion about culture – but it refers to the organizational climate, the way employees are expected to behave in pursuing the organizational objectives.

Perhaps the Anglo/American approach to pursuing these objectives doesn’t mesh with the ethnic culture of some of the staff. It may be a subtle refusal to act a certain way, to ask questions in a meeting, or to share opinions. Performance may lag because the individual doesn’t have enough information to do the work or thinks there’s a better way, but his or her culture dictates that it isn’t appropriate to question a superior. Rather than assume the individual is disinterested or incapable of performing the tasks assigned to them, the manager should take time to meet one-on-one and ask questions. This will help get to the root of the issue at hand.

Some people are able to overcome their personal cultural attitudes and adapt to the culture of the predominant group. Over time, their very ethnicity becomes less an issue as they develop a persona that transcends all ethnic groups. They become role models for the rest of us. Examples include:

Oprah Winfrey, while a role model for African Americans is also a role model for all women.
U.S. Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, the first Mexican-American woman to be elected to the U.S. Congress, is a role model for Hispanic women proving they, too, can achieve greatness.
Cheech Marin and Sara Ramirez, while representing the Latino community, also break the boundaries of their ethnicity on screen and in television.
Ricky Martin and Christina Aguilera have successfully broken across cultural boundaries.

And leadership in US government is becoming increasingly multicultural. Condoleezza Rice, as Secretary of State to the George W. Bush presidency, was the highest ranking African American woman in US government. And most recently, we have had an African American president and first lady in the White House. First Lady Michelle Obama, in particular, is a role model for not only African American women but for young women in general.

More and more television programs feature multi-racial families, as well as multi-racial casts. This has helped to bring cultural awareness into American households. From Latinos to African Americans to Asians, we are seeing them interact with one another both on the job and off. Over time this begins to color viewer attitudes towards ethnic differences, both in positive and  negative ways.

Does anyone remember the 1967 movie “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner” starring Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Sidney Poitier and Katharine Houghton? Remember how controversial that movie was showing an interracial couple (Sidney Poitier and Katharine Houghton)? Now we don’t even blink at the concept. We see Asian/Anglo couples (Hawaii 50) Latino/African American relationships (Rosewood), and other interracial combinations on television and it just seems normal. Even television ads reflect this cultural awareness, not only in the actors but also in the language and dress used.

Despite these examples, some still find it difficult to adjust. Instead of building bridges across ethnic lines, they alienate not only the Anglo community but also their own culture. They flaunt their Latino or  Black or Middle Eastern culture, with an attitude and language that are off-putting, using their ethnicity as an excuse for bad behavior, rudeness, and inappropriate social graces. What’s worse, they aren’t coached about how their behavior affects their co-workers. It is detrimental to not only themselves and their career mobility, but to the cultural group they represent. Their behavior reflects poorly on their ability to become part of the team in which they work because they alienate their team members.

A lack of cultural awareness or consideration on the part of leadership, and inertia to address a real internal as well as external employee problem, can destroy the very goal the company is trying to accomplish. As we frequently hear, “culture eats strategy for lunch,” and in this case it’s ethnic culture affecting employee attitudes and behavior.

Here is an 8-step process for developing a rich, multicultural workforce that works together as a team instead of in factions working against one another:

Step 1   Smart Start Planning. First, determine the future vision of what the workforce should be. This starts at the executive leadership level and includes key stakeholders throughout the organization who can influence the success or failure of the “people management plan”. This will result in an inspirational statement describing where the organization wishes to be positioned to maximize its people as a competitive advantage. This also includes a description of the respective roles of senior management, line management, employees, and the Human Resources function in contributing to organizational success.

Step 2  Key Success Measures. Identify the high-level quantifiable outcome measures (key people success measures) that will be used to measure employee success in adding value to customers, shareholders, and the community. Include measures that take into account multicultural issues that must be addressed throughout the organization.

Step 3  Best Practices Assessment.  Evaluate the organization against the “Six People Edge Best Practices”, developed by the Haines Centre for Strategic Planning. Based on extensive research and consulting experience, these Six Best Practice areas are:

  • Acquiring the desired workforce
  •  Engaging the workforce
  • Organizing high performance teams
  • Creating a learning organization
  • Facilitating cultural change
  • Collaborating with stakeholders

Step 4  Strategy Development. Develop core “people management strategies” that are aligned to the direct business needs of the organization’s delivery system, and attuned to developing people’s hearts and minds in support of serving the customer. Both the alignment and attunement strategies should relate closely and support the core strategies of the organization’s overall Strategic Plan. They should also articulate the company’s strategies for developing their multicultural talent, helping them adapt to the organization’s corporate culture, and celebrating its multicultural environment.

Step 5  3-Year Planning. This involves development of actions that outline the key activities for the next three years in support of the core strategies. A three-year lay-out of all needed actions and programs is conducted. Then, these activities are focused down to the top three to four priority “must do” actions for the next year. This leads to the development of a one-year operational plan and budget for each major department. Again, these actions should articulate how each department is addressing multicultural aspects to build and support high performing teams.

Step 6  Plan to Implement. A one-year Implementation Plan is developed here, with the steps, processes, and structures required for successful implementation. This includes how the plan will be communicated and how the change process will be managed and coordinated. The key element is regular follow-up by the Executive/Employee/Leadership Development Boards which are established to ensure a successful implementation throughout the organization. Implementation is everyone’s job, not just the HR department.

Step 7  Implementation. This is the point of actual implementation, change management, completion of tasks and priorities, and periods of adjusting actions as needed during the year. It also involves managing the change process, measuring progress against the key people success measures, and celebrating achievements along the way.

Step 8  Annual Review and Update. The plan must be formally reviewed and updated on an annual basis. The key is to review the entire plan and update the annual priorities, taking into account ongoing changes in the business direction, the environment, and stakeholder expectations. Achievements are recognized and celebrated. Strategies are reviewed, and the three-year plan is updated.

They key to developing high performance teams is to include them in the planning and implementation process. Develop a strength in educating the entire workforce about multicultural differences and similarities. Celebrate the uniqueness of the cultures within the organization’s workforce and highlight them regularly. Make a conscious effort to put multicultural teams together to address organization-wide issues. Team them with a coach experienced in handling multicultural teams so issues can be addressed as they arise. This empowers the employees to see how they contribute to the success of the organization while learning about the similarities and differences of their ethnic counterparts.

Too often organizations forget about including specific ways to address, educate and include the multicultural backgrounds of their workforce, focusing instead on organizational design and workflow. Yet these multicultural backgrounds and experiences influence individual behavior within the organization and the way work gets done. Not recognizing and planning for this can result in misunderstandings, miscommunications, and divisive work environments instead of empowered, goal-oriented teamwork.

Shaping the overall organizational culture to sustain a competitive advantage is a key Best Practice leverage point, and is the job of leadership throughout the organization.

Contact us if you have questions about this. We look forward to your comments.

Feedback Moments can Lead to Root Cause Solutions

One of the things we talk about in our practice is the importance of accepting, and in fact, seeking out feedback, both positive and negative. Without feedback, you have no idea of how your project, idea, or behavior is impacting others. Feedback is also an important part of your strategic plan, for without it, you don’t know if you’re progressing down the right paths to achieve your future desired outcomes.

What Got You Here Won't Get You There by Marshall GoldsmithMarshall Goldsmith, in his book, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, talks about looking for feedback moments as a method for improving your personal behavior. Here are some of the ways he suggests to get feedback by paying close attention to how others react to you both verbally and physically.

1. Make a list of people’s casual remarks about you. For one day, write down all the comments you hear people make about you, both positive and negative. At the day, review the list to see if there are areas you need to address. Do this for a week, both at work and at home and see if there is a pattern that you need to change.

2. Turn the sound off. When you enter a meeting, observe everyone as though you couldn’t hear them. What are they doing? Where are they sitting relative to you? Do they make eye contact with you? Look for the subtle behaviors that might be obscured by their voices. Get to meetings early so you can see where people sit and how they acknowledge you when they enter the room. This will give you important feedback about what they think of you and areas where you may need to improve your interpersonal skills.

3. Complete the sentence. Pick one area where you want to improve; then list the positive benefits you’ll get by improving in that area. This method will help you get at the root cause of the behavior you want to change. The first few sentences will be more corporately focused or correct, but by the time you get to the fifth or sixth sentence, you’ll start to get at the heart of the issue. Keep doing this until you have no more sentences to complete.

Getting at the root cause of a problem

This last exercise is an excellent one to do with a team when problem-solving an issue. Go around the room and have each person complete the sentence, writing each one down on a flip chart. Continue doing so until everyone runs out of sentences to complete. Then review the sentences and see if there is a pattern or theme that is actually the root cause of the problem.

Once you’ve identified the root cause, you can begin to work on resolving the problem by asking, so it this is the root cause, what do we need to do to change it? Ask each person for ideas and write them on a white board or flip chart. Prioritize the answers in terms of 1) what can be done immediately, 2) what can be done in the next 3-6 months, and 3) what can be done in a year. If there are costs associated with the solutions the team has chosen, identify them, or assign someone to research what the costs will be.

Focus first on what can be done immediately; identify specific tasks for each solution, and assign a person to lead each one. Once the most pressing solutions are completed, focus on the next list of those that will take 3-6 months to complete, and so.

This way you have identified the root cause of a problem, the solutions to resolve it, and taken action to create change.

Millennials Driving New Management Styles

By Jeri Denniston, Chief Marketing Strategist, Denner Group International

Takeaways: Millennials are driving new trends in management and productive work space. Companies are downsizing into open space environments and flexible work schedules enabling staff to work from anywhere at any time in collaborative, bee hive types of space.

Much has been written lately about the trends in management style and office space. This is being driven by the new young turks, the Millennials, who are moving into management positions.

For them, the old management styles of top-down leadership or management by objectives just don’t ring true. Instead, they want to get to know their team members, become friends, and learn what motivates them. This is an entirely new style of leadership that requires active listening and asking questions.

The result is a model called, Holacracy, where clear communications, incentives and accountability are key components to keeping staff motivated and engaged. See the article, How Medium is Building a New Kind of Company, which was published in firstround.com. Rather than a hierarchy of workers, the organization is built around a hierarchy of work that needs to be achieved.

Unlike their predecessors, the Millennial generation is all about collaboration, not building “turf kingdoms”. Consequently, many don’t have private offices, but prefer to be out in the main room at a desk with their teams. In fact, many teams are fluid, forming and re-forming around projects rather than departments. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t even have an office. He and other senior execs sit with everyone else, although they do have private conference rooms assigned for their use when needed.

So what are the implications?

Traditional office spaces are being converted into open spaces where everyone has a desk with or without any dividers. Some have half cubicles separating the desks; others place people side by side and across from one another. While the workers like this kind of environment because it’s more casual and family-like, research is showing that productivity has declined due to distractions and noise. In order to concentrate, workers check out time in private offices or conference rooms and use sound-cancelling headphones.

Open offices - Miamishared.com. See this photo gallery of office space designs from Miamishared.com

Open offices – Miamishared.com See this photo gallery of office space designs from Miamishared.com

The result is that many companies are reducing their office space requirements. Open areas require fewer build outs and less square footage. Additionally, companies have moved to flexible work programs allowing staff to work from anywhere at any time. So they may rent desks at open space places called “bee hives” for use when their workers need to go into an office to work vs. working from home or elsewhere. These shared work spaces appeal to the ever mobile Millennials and to start-ups, giving them access to other professionals with whom to network.

In her article in Forbes, Open Spaces are Here to Stay. Now How Do We Get Any Work Done?,  Barbara T Armstrong cites the many implications these trends are having on furniture design, as well as workplace design specialists. Time will tell how successful these new environments are for engendering productivity.

Innovation Comes from Collective Creativity

By Jeri Denniston, Chief Marketing Strategist, Denner Group International

Takeaways: Innovation is about unleashing the creativity at the bottom to encourage truly innovative ideas and solutions. Rethink leadership roles as those of connectors, social architects and aggregators of ideas. Act your way to the future rather than plan.

Linda Hill, Management Professor at Harvard Business School, shared a TED Talk based on her book, Collective Genius: The Art and Practice of Leading Innovation. Over nearly 10 years she and three colleagues observed innovative leaders up close in several countries to determine what it is that made their companies innovative. The bottom line, she said, is that we need to unlearn what we’ve been taught about leadership.

 Invert the organizational pyramid

Innovative leadership is not about creating a vision and getting your staff to implement it. It is about managing collective creativity, amplifying conflict and discourse without unleashing chaos. You have to turn the organizational structure on its head and unleash the creative genius from the bottom up.

Innovation, said Hill, is about creating a space for three capabilities:
Creative abrasion
Creative agility
Creative resolution

Creative abrasion is about having heated, constructive arguments to create a portfolio of ideas. People learn how to actively listen and also how to strongly advocate for their position. Innovation rarely occurs unless you have both diversity and conflict.

Creative agility is about continuously testing and refining your portfolio of ideas. Instead of creating a strategic plan and implementing it, you “act your way to the future” through discovery-driven learning. This includes design thinking where the focus is on running a series of experiments, not a series of pilots. Test and refine. Test and refine.

Creative resolution is decision-making that combines opposable ideas to reconfigure in new combinations that produce useful solutions. It is patient, inclusive decision-making that allows for “both/and” solutions to arise, not just “either/or”.

Innovative organizations like Google and Pixar allow talented people to play out their passions by having multiple experiments running in tandem. Teams form and re-form as needed and everyone has access to the leaders at the top.

“Leadership is the secret sauce”, she says. Leading innovation is about creating the space where people are willing and able to do the hard work of innovative problem-solving. It’s about building a sense of community – a world to which people want to belong – and building those three capabilities described above.

What can we do to make sure all the small voices, the disrupters in the organization, are heard?

As Google has done under Bill Gate, you nurture the bottom up. Be the social architect that encourages discourse, differing viewpoints and multiple ideas, no matter how far-fetched. Bestow credit in as broadly as possible. Pixar, for example, includes the list of babies born during a film’s production in the credits at the end of each film.

Bill Gates encourages people to co-create with him while preventing them from degenerating into chaos. His role, according to Hill, is to be the human glue, a connector, an aggregator of viewpoints.

As innovative leaders we need to redefine our leadership role – not by title, but by function: role model, coach, nurturer. We need to hire people who argue with us, not those who agree with our viewpoints.

Instead of providing all the answers or solutions, leaders must “see the young sparks at the bottom as the source of innovation. Transfer the growth to the bottom. Unleash the power of the many by releasing the stronghold of the few,” says Hill.

If only the multi-state bank and the newspaper I worked for earlier in my career had done this. I recall my first month of training at the bank. I was sent out to a branch office to study how it operated and produce a report. One of my suggestions was to increase the salary of the tellers since they were the first line of contact with the customers and they frequently were responsible for million dollar cash drawers. Yet they received the lowest salaries and had no voice in the way the branch should work with customers.

At the newspaper, I frequently offered ideas which were squashed because that “wasn’t the way we do things around here”, or they jeopardized the power of the few. Never mind that the old ways weren’t working any more. I tried to implement innovative leadership techniques among my own small staff, but that was hard to do when no other departments, let alone other managers in my department, were doing anything similar.

What a breath of fresh air to hear Linda Hill talk about how really innovative companies turn the pyramid on its head! Give your staff at the bottom the opportunity to rethink their jobs, to offer solutions to everyday problems they face, and as Hill says, “create the space where everyone’s slices of genius can be unleashed and turned into collective genius”.

Watch the TED Talk. Buy her book. Change your thinking about leadership.

Employee Engagement Still Needed

Jeri Denniston, Chief Marketing Strategist, Denner Group International

Takeways: Employee engagement is still lacking in organizations. Job satisfaction numbers have not changed much since 2010. More than 85% are actively disengaged and have no passion for their jobs.

Employees at workIn 2010 I published an article (Employee Satisfaction a Critical Component of Success) about how employee satisfaction is directly tied to productivity and organizational success. The research then stated that the majority of workers are actively disengaged from their work, and only 25% felt a strong attachment to their employer.

Recently, I read an article written by Eric Siu of the Globe and Mail in Canada, “How to Ïncrease Employee Satisfaction for the Long Haul,” and it states that “a Gallup report demonstrates that 63 percent of employees are ‘not engaged’ in their jobs. This essentially means that 87% have no passion for their jobs,” he says.

It looks as though little has changed in five years, and my article is still relevant.

Siu’s article goes on to state that many factors contribute to employee satisfaction, and that employees are most satisfied when their four core needs are met: physical, emotional, mental and spiritual.

I addressed these in my article, too, focusing on elements from Matthew Kelly’s book, The Dream Manager and using the Haines Centre’s Systems Thinking Approach to help employees create a plan to accomplish their dreams. In Kelly’s book, he demonstrates how helping employees achieve their inner most dreams actually has a positive impact on their work. Whether the dream is to own a house or participate in the New York Marathon, he cites examples of company successes when they helped employees achieve their personal dreams.

The book impressed me enough to create a special planning model and Employee Satisfaction Assessment which are described in my article. Having read Eric Siu’s article, I see that it still has relevance today. You can download my article from our website to delve further into this issue. Matthew Kelly’s book is also available through our Amazon bookstore, also on our website.

After you read the article, please let me know your thoughts. Connect with me on LinkedIn if we aren’t already connected. Just let me know in the message that you’re following up about the Employee Satisfaction article. Or send me a message through LinkedIn. I look forward to hearing your thoughts!

Social Media a Productivity Killer

By Jeri Denniston, Chief Marketing Strategist, Denner Group International

A friend shared a link to a survey about workplace productivity killers, posted on The Employer Handbook, published by Eric B. Meyer, Esquire. The survey pointed out that web surfing and social media were considered two of the top culprits after cell phones and texting and gossip.

This kind of snapshot view is limiting in my estimation and can be misinterpreted. Social media isn’t the root cause of lack of employee productivity. Yes, some employees do dumb things that waste time. I would say those that do probably work in an environment or a job where they have few personal freedoms or little flexibility. Or they’re under-utilized or simply in the wrong job and bored.

So much of it depends on the company culture and the company size. Early in my career, when I joined a target marketing technology company, they had 70+ employees and were housed in a 2 story building in an Encinitas, CA office park. The downstairs was mostly empty and the employees used it to toss basketballs and footballs back and forth to relax. Many rode their bikes to work and into the building. That was just outside my office. Upper management was fine with that because the company was growing at 30% a year and there was plenty of work for everyone. That changed as the company continued to grow, and the empty spaces became offices and cubicles. Then, as the company was being sold to a large credit bureau over a 3-year period, the culture changed from a fun,  flexible work environment with a shared vision, to a strict, highly structured, and back-stabbing climate. The workplace culture changed from trust and collaboration to suspicion and fear of job-loss. Revenues decreased and layoffs started as the company spiraled downward, eventually to be sold off and folded into what is today Nielsen Claritas.

Infusionsoft – a good example of positive company culture

Infusionsoft’s offices in Chandler have an indoor football field (check out the pics on Google), basketball hoops, a weight room, a cereal bar (over 100 brands), and a special coffee room. They encourage employees to work off stress playing football and other games. Instead of a cafeteria, the lunch area includes a cereal bar (over 100 brands) and a coffee room.  It’s a very cool workspace which now houses nearly 450 employees. The culture is inclusive and built on trust. So, are the employees unproductive when they play football? Are they unproductive when they tweet and post on Facebook and LinkedIn? I don’t think so, since the company continues to grow, improve its product line, and deliver excellent customer service.

So when I see surveys like the one my friend shared, I view them as superficial. There’s a larger story behind them. I would be interested to learn your thoughts on this.