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).

The Power of Stickiness

stickytapeIn every blog related to business or leadership, you’re going to find buzzwords, and mine is no exception. Culture, engagement, ownership–and even the very basics of leadership, change, and management–are all words that start to lose their meaning the more we talk about them. It’s like saying a word over and over again, until it doesn’t even sound like a real word any more.

Lately I’ve been thinking, reading, and writing about engagement (both customer/member AND employee) and strong organizational cultures. These ideas seem to have hit the saturation point, in the blogosphere anyway, because many are now so sick of the terms that they try to invent new ones (remember when we tried to do that with strategic planning?).

Anyway, I feel like in the conversation we’re missing an important concept: the idea of stickiness. We miss it because it’s hard to describe, but when I think about engagement from a customer/member context, for me it boils down to someone whose affiliation with the company or membership organization in question is so close that they become “sticky.” It simply becomes easier for me to pull the trigger when it comes to opening an email, buying a product, or recommending to a friend when this stickiness is present. I always have lots of options, but the ones with more “stickiness” get my attention and action.

Even employee engagement can be understood at least partially in this way. A main difference between employees who are more engaged than others is the way they give their discretionary effort, rather than just doing the minimum. That’s being sticky. If your culture doesn’t generate that stickiness among employees, then the opportunities to give discretionary effort sort of bounce off of people. They just do what’s in their job description, or worse: they get in the way of others doing their job.

I think a lot of efforts to improve engagement (on both sides) clarify what more sticky looks like, but do not fully understand what created the stickiness in the first place. That is, we see employees giving discretionary effort, and we notice that they are happy and like their flexible schedules, so we try to offer flexible schedules to more people. But the truth is, we don’t know that flexible schedules is really what created the stickiness in the first place. It might be, frankly, but we don’t take the time to know that.

It may not be easy to really know what causes the stickiness. But the insight you gain from figuring that out will have a tremendous ROI.

realityThere is a down side to this wonderful human brain that we all have in our heads, and that is that sometimes we can spend too much of our time living up there in our heads, and not down here in reality. This is particularly true when you face a challenge–a significant conflict with someone, a rough spot at work, an illness in you or a family member. When we hit these challenges, our brains naturally focus on solutions. This is fine, except that it often means that our heads will be spinning for some time around the way things should be, and the ways the other party should change his or her behavior, or how the market should respond to your product offering, or the solutions the doctor should be able to provide you.

There’s nothing wrong with thinking about these things. In fact, in most of the situations, getting clear about the ideal, and understanding WHY things “should” be that way is a critical piece to problem solving. But I’m warning you: staying in that land of should is actually pretty comfortable, and you will be tempted (maybe without even realizing it) to stay in that world and not confront what IS, rather than only what should be.

Spend equal time confronting what is. What IS your behavior and the other party’s behavior in this conflict situation? That is your starting point, even if it is upsetting that you have to start at that place. What IS the market’s response to your product? What marketing did you do, how many views were there, what feedback did people actually provide–dig into the reality of what happened, rather than focusing only on the end result.

The best leaders I’ve ever been around have all done this with ease. It requires some emotional intelligence (managing your negative reaction to the “what is”), but the ability to see the truth of the current situation clearly and dispassionately (you can save the passion for the “should be”) can inspire people to move into that somewhat scary place with you. And that’s where we all need to be to solve the really important challenges we face.

rulesoftheinnAll groups have norms–expectations about how the group does things. For formalized teams or Boards or Committees, once the group has been in existence for a while, the group norms become unspoken. Everyone knows them or can observe them fairly easily and learn to play by the rules.

Until you get someone who doesn’t. And then it can be a big problem, because when you try to negotiate with that person, you often start from a position of “Why is this person violating the rules so egregiously?” The problem is, they never understood the rules like you do. We each see the world differently and bring different backgrounds to the same situations, so we will interpret them differently.

Which is why you need to talk about the rules and expectations, particularly as new people enter the group. And to be honest, even after you say what the culture of your group is out loud, people will still end up understanding it differently. But when they do, you at least have something to point back to when you confront that person on violating the norms. It will serve as an opportunity to have a clarifying conversation about expectations and what really works in this group, as opposed to a personal conflict where one person is being blamed for doing things wrong.

choiceexitHaving spent a fair amount of time over the last few months with CEOs in organizations with amazing cultures, I’ve been thinking about the role of the CEO. I’ve written about this before. It sort of bugs me that the CEOs have so much sway over culture, but they do. It’s not that other employees can’t shape the culture–they absolutely can. It’s just that they frequently choose not to, and thus cede that power over to the CEOs.

A lot of CEOs see this and subsequently put culture on their radar, at least long enough to develop a core values statement and maybe invest in some happy hours. But more often than not it ends up occupying just a small piece of their attention. It’s not that they don’t believe in the power of a strong culture or those values that you all came up with, but they never make it central to what they do.

I think they need to. This is just a hypothesis, so if you have a different experience, please share it with me. But I think employees can smell a partial commitment to culture a mile away. Even if you say it with conviction, unless it becomes your central focus, it ends up fading away, and at that point, the employees then get to choose which parts of your behavior define the culture at the organization.

So I urge CEOs to make a choice. Get clear on what you want your culture to be, and then make that your job. It’s not your only job, of course, but it has to be so central to who you are as a leader that there can be no question about what the culture in your organization is. That’s what I am seeing in the CEOs who are leading these spectacularly successful companies with strong cultures. If you choose not to do this (which is your prerogative), then understand that you are punting on the job of setting culture (despite your new values statement) and giving it back to the group of people who would rather you set the culture in the first place. Make your choice, because not choosing is basically making that second choice, and I just don’t think that’s the path to becoming an employer of choice.

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.

Update: If you want to do an individual assessment of your own culture and then have a quick conversation with me about it, we have created a product on our website for that.

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.