Jamie Notter

Consulting: Targeted projects to strengthen your culture and improve performance.

Speaking: Keynotes and concurrent sessions on social business, conflict, and generations.

Writing: Two books (Humanize and Generational Diversity) and an industry-recognized leadership blog (see below).

After my keynote last year for Sitrion’s client conference, I sat down with Daniel Kraft, their super-smart CEO, and chatted about culture and human organizations. Check it out; it’s about 6 minutes long (if you can’t see the video below, then click here to view it):

Cracking the Culture Code: Blogging

This is a guest post from Eric Lanke, the CEO of the National Fluid Power Association. This is the fifth in a series of posts he’s writing about how he, as a CEO, is building and sustaining an intentional culture in his organization, a national trade association. His first four posts were on: (1) The use of very specific language in the office to help ensure staff are focused on the needs of actual members; (2) how professional education in the industry or profession your association represents can help association staff develop a greater understanding and appreciation for the world of your members (3) Outsourcing tasks–like meeting planning–that get too much in the way of your staff people engaging with your members; and (4) Bringing people with industry experience into their office and into their staff-level planning processes.

blogalotA fifth way that I’m trying to build and sustain an intentional culture in my organization–one that actively seeks to understand the world of our members–is by shifting our association news function away from reporting and towards blogging, and by giving everyone in the organization responsibility for doing it.

Maybe your association is a lot like mine. The news that you send out to your members is written by a small handful of people, it’s written in a passive, disembodied voice, and only trumpets an accomplishment or tries to sell something. You know what I mean. “The XYZ Association is proud to announce…” or “Registration is now open for…” or “Special discount offered for members who respond in the next…” It’s cold, impersonal and creates and perpetuates a mercantile relationship between your members and their association.

As a member of several associations myself, I much prefer an association news stream that talks to me like a colleague and gives me updates on the good work (and sometimes risky experiments) that the association is doing to advance its mission and the industry it represents. The people closest to those projects should be reporting on them, not just describing the work they are doing, but the reasons certain decisions are made, and how they tie back to something that is of value to the members.

Blogging is a much better platform for this kind of communication. Using the traditional method, a staff person may work an entire year on launching a new product or service, and say nothing about it to the members until it’s ready to be sold to them. With blogging, the staff person can share information about the developing program throughout that year–its impetus, its initial framework, challenges it encounters along the way–all of it inviting and encouraging feedback that can be used to make it more attractive to members when it’s ready to launch.

This kind of change isn’t easy. Your staff members may not be familiar with blogging and the looser, more personal communication style that comes with it. They may hesitate when it comes to sharing “inside” information with the members–thinking that they won’t be interested in it or that it is too risky to share what hasn’t been 100% determined or successful. Or they may be uncomfortable writing in their own voice, fearful that they will look uninformed or unprofessional in front of the members.

What is not fully appreciated is the idea that this kind of personal, exploratory approach is much more likely to engage the interested member in the work of the association. That by writing about what the individual people in the association are trying to do–not just about what the monolithic association has accomplished–there will be otherwise unavailable opportunities for dialogue and discussion with the members about what their needs are and what really matters to them.

Is there a staff person in your association that wouldn’t benefit from that kind of insight and understanding?

selieselfieWhen you are interviewing people for an open position at your organization, and you ask the candidate if they have any questions for you, I’ll bet that more often than not you get something along the lines of “So what is the culture like here?” And when you give them an answer, how confident are you that what you are saying is accurate? Is your understanding of your culture the same as people who are in different departments, or at different levels (either higher or lower) than you in the hierarchy? Or even worse: are you spouting the company line even though you know the REAL culture isn’t even close to what the inspirational posters on the wall are promising?

Everyone says that culture is important, yet very few organizations actually understand their own culture. Don’t get me wrong–every organization HAS a culture, but few can clearly articulate what it is and, more importantly, why it is important to the success of the organization. Culture is complex. It looks different from different angles, it shifts and morphs as people come and go and business environments change, and it affects results in ways that don’t always have a visible, cause-effect relationship.

When we do a culture assessment with clients, it has two components. The first is a quantitative assessment completed by all staff that gives you a snapshot measurement of where your culture stands along four, critical areas: distribution of power, openness, working together, and growth and innovation. By collecting data from everyone, you usually end up with a clearer picture of “what is.” The second component is a success drivers assessment, which is completed through individual interviews with key staff. This qualitative assessment starts to fill in the “what could be” and “what should be” parts of the equation. It is only by connecting the qualitative and quantitative assessments that you get a clear understanding of both the WHAT and the WHY of your culture. When you understand both of those aspects, then it becomes much easier to figure out what needs to change internally to strengthen and focus your culture in the right areas.

Think back to what you say to your candidates about your culture. Is it deeply accurate? If not, then start the conversations internally to get the clarity you need. The more accurate you are in the answer to that question, the better the odds that the hiring decision will be the right one, both for you and the candidate.

The Importance of Community

communitycafe“Community” is a big word in my circles, particularly in this day and age of online communities. There seem to be a lot of people in organizations who fret about their need to “build” community for their members or customers, and for large companies this extends to employee communities as well. And while there is nothing particularly wrong with those efforts, they are focused mainly on creating an online space that captures people’s attention and provides opportunities for people to be valuable to each other. That’s cool.

But when I think of a community, as in the community where I live, I think of different things. I think of broader protection and safety. I think of paying taxes that pay for schools that my children don’t go to, because we need to be educating our people in order to get better. I think of people who are free to come and go, but choose to stay here because they like being a part of the community. I think of things like citizenship, and what that really means. Those ideas are very weakly connected to our organizations, if at all.

Community is not infused into business, and it should be. We design everything around value exchange, and that certainly works, but it leaves a lot of potential unrealized. Granted, even in our living communities, we could probably use some remedial instructions in our community skills, but the organizations I have been studying that are doing amazing things with super strong cultures seem to have figured it out. The future of business has community at the heart of it all.


yourefiredNote that the title says “easier,” not “easy.” It’s rarely easy to fire people. In most cases the person that needs to go is a good person, and probably does a decent job–just not the job you need right now in this particular context. And most of us don’t feel good about letting people go, because we know they need income to feed themselves and their families, so it feels like our actions could, in theory, put their lives at risk. That never feels good.

So how do you make it easier? Get clear on your culture, particularly making the connection between what’s valued inside your culture and how that ties directly to the success of the enterprise. This is a common missing link. Some cultures may work hard to identify core values, but since they don’t usually connect in a visible way to what makes the organization successful, you can’t use it for holding people accountable.

But when the culture is clear, letting people go can get easier. Let’s say you have someone on staff who’s been there a while. He has done a good job the whole time he has been there, but lately it seems that his productivity doesn’t match many of your newer hires. He’s not adapting to new technology well, and you’ve noticed many of your processes now have “work-arounds” based on this guy (or several people in his category). On the other hand, he’s been very loyal. Like all of you who have been there a while, he took the pay cut during those lean years and never let down on his effort. The newer staff complain about him–he’s dead weight they say, slowing us all down. The older staff may defend him–he stood by us, so we should stand by him. What to do?!

Use your culture as a guide. You culture should be clear on what’s valued internally and how that drives success. Exactly how is this person slowing things down, and (more importantly) what level of speed is required for a thriving enterprise? How important is that speed? If it’s critical, then you should have already made clear in your culture that speed is a high priority, and you might even give up some control in order to get more speed. You might have made it clear how strategically important it is to be skilled in the latest technology, since that’s what your most valuable customers are using. Now you can have a clear conversation with this person that the way he’s doing his work is not a match for this culture, and it’s time to help him find employment elsewhere.

Then again, maybe your success actually hinges more on the quality of the work that he’s doing, rather than the speed. Maybe the new hires need some coaching around the fact that the slower speed of that guy (which looks like lower productivity) actually doesn’t hinder results since the quality of his output is so stellar. Your culture values that level of quality so much, it’s worth it to institute some work-arounds.

But it is the cultural clarity (connecting what’s valued to what drives success) that makes it easier. Take the time to get clear on that and build that clarity into your internal processes, and you might find that many different “difficult” jobs internally become a whole lot easier.


519vZXD+VnLThis week’s Friday quote comes from The Alliance, a book written by Reid Hoffman, a co-founder of LinkedIn (and Ben Casnocha and Chris Yeh). The book builds off of an HBR article that I wrote about last year, where Hoffman talks about creating “Tours of Duty” for employees, where the employee and employer develop a plan that benefits them both. The quote today points out that the tour of duty concept gives the same attention to everybody else that used to be reserved only for “stars” in the organization (page 42):

Companies have long devoted resources to crafting personalized roles and career paths for their stars. Companies such as General Electric rotate promising young executives through a series of assignments to help them gain experience in different functions and markets.

Yet it is possible–indeed, necessary–to extend this personalized approach to all employees using the tour of duty framework. As the world becomes less stable, you can’t just rely on a few stars at the top to provide the necessary adaptability. 


easyOne of the hallmarks of technology and software design is the focus on user and user experience. As I pointed out last month, organizations typically do not consider their internal users (i.e., employees) when they design the organization and its culture, but they probably should.

Early technology design was not so user-friendly. We had clunky systems with really thick manuals. The designers did things the way it made sense to them, and the users had to figure it out. Today the standard has shifted. It must be easy for the user. If you have the choice between making it easier for the user or making it easier on the designer or the tech company, you always choose to make it easier for the user.

Companies that embrace the digital mindset feel the same way when it comes to their employees. Put a different way, if you have to choose between making it harder for the employee or harder on the company (and its senior managers), then you choose to make it harder on the company.

Not a lot of organizations choose this path. Those that do tend to have an easier time attracting the best talent, and don’t seem to be suffering at the bottom line either.

middleCasinos have always taken care of their high rollers. They watch them closely, so if they have a bad night on the casino floor they can immediately do something like comp their room or give them free tickets to a show. But with technology, the management can no do that for a much larger portion of their customers. Suddenly people who do not spend as much money in the casino are getting the royal treatment. As the CEO of Ceasar’s entertainment said, “You can’t just fail to service the tens of millions of people that constitute the middle of the market.”

And that middle of the market is coming to expect it now. We get customized recommendations and coupons right when we need them. The digital age has leveled the playing field.

So is that true inside your organization? First, have you figured out a way to serve the middle swath or your customers, or are you still disproportionately focused on the high end? And second, what about your employees? Are you focused on the stars? Are they the only ones who get performance reviews that actually focus on growth and development? This is traditionally how it’s been done, but in the next few years this is going to shift radically. The time to learn how to serve the middle is now.

halffullWhen Humanize came out three years ago, I came to an epiphany of sorts. I realized that when it comes to management and leadership in organizations, we really have no idea what we’re doing. We are trying hard, but fundamentally for the last hundred years we have been making it up as we go along. We convince ourselves that we have developed “best practices,” but I still think that our organizations continue to thrive and be profitable IN SPITE of our management, more than because of it. And with Gallup’s annual employee engagement survey depressing us every year, it’s time we took a harder look at management.

All that being said, however, I remain very optimistic about the future. In writing our next book, Maddie and I have been studying organizations from very different industries, all of whom have very different cultures, but they all created amazing workplaces that their employees flat-out love. The largest one we’re looking at even has an employee engagement rate of 93% (the average from the Gallup poll is about 30%). And they all also knock it out of the park when it comes to their performance metrics and bottom line results.

Management is changing. What it means to both run and organization and work in an organization is changing. The changes are big, and from what we’ve been seeing in our research, they mean good things for the future.

headsmackI am not going to link to the post, because it’s just so awful, but here is some of the advice that a Baby Boomer author (who describes herself as a “Millennial Whisperer”) gives to Millennials on working with Boomer bosses:

Do it their way before you fix it. Millennials must do it the boomer’s way, and make sure you’ve got that down first. THEN you can suggest changes, but only by going step by step over everything to “show respect” for “their” process.

Ask for unsaid specifics. This one’s my favorite. Basically, if a Boomer manager says the deadline is tomorrow, it is up to YOU to clarify that he or she actually means 10am tomorrow as opposed to close of business. Great. Millennials need to be mind readers.

“Draft” doesn’t actually mean “Draft.” Yay, more mind reading! Direct quote from the post: “To a Boomer, “draft” means ready for distribution in case they can’t look at it.” So “send me a draft” apparently means something along the lines of “write up a final version, and depending on my whim, I may ask you go to back and do tons of edits, which means you wasted your time perfecting the “draft,” or I may just send it along as a finished product.” Lovely.

A little old-style respect goes a long way. Basically, we (Boomers and Xers) like hierarchy, so don’t rock the boat. From the post: “So just blurting out your thoughts about the office or the industry to your boss’s boss’s boss may just result in a deer-in-the-headlights response that doesn’t yield the result you intend.” Hmmm. So get back in line. When we want your ideas, we’ll tell you what they are.

I sincerely hope that the views of that author are not widely representative of the views of Baby Boomers. If your organization thinks in these ways, you’ve got problems. And that’s not because Boomers are wrong and Millennials are right. It’s because there is some serious dysfunction in the views expressed above. That a manager should give vague deadlines and make direct reports do the clarifying is a flat-out bad idea. It’s inefficient and breeds inconsistency. That processes are “owned” by their creators which means changing them should be hard and require tiptoeing is guaranteeing you’ll be slow, which is a questionable strategy in today’s economy. And the “don’t speak your mind unless we have prepared ourselves to hear you” advice? Yeah, no wonder employee engagement is only at 30%.

Generational differences are important, and unfortunately articles like the one I’m pointing to here end up as distracting–providing evidence that this generational stuff is bunk. Try to see past articles like this. Look for the ones that illuminate knowledge of generational differences in order to help the whole system learn and grow, and dismiss the ones that put one generation over the other and demand compliance.