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).

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.

Trust Will Be Broken

brokentrustYou may not want to hear about this, but it is an absolute fact that sometimes you will trust people, and they will let you down. It has to happen. If it didn’t happen, then trust would not really be an issue. As I heard someone say once, if you caught a fish every time, they would call it catching, not fishing, now wouldn’t they? Having trust violated is hard. Because for trust to really be violated, it has to have been sustained for a while. In other words, you trust someone to be competent or to protect your interests, and for a while they are doing just that–it feels great. And then comes the day when they let you down. Not so great.

As leaders, you need to prepare yourselves for this eventuality, because by definition, it’s going to catch you off guard. This person, or department, or unit, or organization, will obviously have been doing great (hence the trust), and then you come into the office one day to discover that they completely let you down. Get ready for the emotional reaction you will have. Get ready to be pissed off. Let that all work through you, and resist the temptation to email them at that particular moment. You’re not going to figure a way out of this at the precise moment when you’re most angry.

And depending on the relationship you have with the other person or group, prepare for the “I’m sure this was just a one-time thing and let’s just overlook it” reaction. When you’re close, it’s easy to write off the trust violation and focus on the history of goodwill. Let that work through you as well, because it can be equally misguiding. Ignoring a serious violation of trust never works out in the long run.

What you need is a new relationship. You’re not restarting from scratch, but a lot of how you work together is now being rewritten. It may not feel fair, or the way you want it, but the reality is in order to rebuild trust, you lower the bar a bit. You ratchet down the kinds of risks you are willing to take with the other party. Maybe they need to report things to you more often, or get approvals on decisions they used to make themselves. It’s going to be extra work, on both parts. It will slow things down. But if it’s a relationship worth keeping (and most are), then you’ll do this work to build it back up.

Trust is a beautiful thing because it allows you to let go of your worry about certain outcomes. When it’s really working, it allows you to take some things (and some people and groups) for granted–but in a good way. This is how trust enables speed. So to get back to this state after trust has been violated, you have to go back to the stage where people are NOT taken for granted. Where the building of trust is intentional and visible. This is the work of building trust–showing each other in small and tangible ways that you can trust each other. It will feel odd if this relationship was very high in trust before. But that’s the work of building trust, and there isn’t a shortcut. You bring the relationship back into focus for a period of time. You get clarity on both sides about what trust is and why it matters. And soon you’ll be back to where you were.

Stay centered. Clearly express the impact of the trust violation to the other party, and  then equally clearly express your intention to rebuild the trust. Then do the work of rebuilding trust.


oldboatI was in Chicago this week doing a site visit at a company that we may end up including as a case study in our upcoming book. Like all the companies we are investigating, this one ended up on my radar screen because I heard about how strong their culture was. They even redesigned their office space to be consistent with what their culture values internally (and their space is pretty cool). In interviewing some of the employees, though, I noticed a running theme in their comments that was echoed in what I heard at some of the other companies we have been investigating: the employees at these organizations admitted that they had trouble imagining going back to the “old way” of working.

And by “old way” of working, they were referring to the way nearly every organization is managed in today’s environment. Traditional hierarchies, dress codes, cubicles, micromanagers, lack of freedom, tolerating mediocre performance, inability to change. There is a long list of things that the employees at these organizations are simply no longer willing to tolerate, now that they have experienced what it’s like on the other side. In several of the organizations I’m researching, some employees felt the need to explore other options and work at other organizations, only to find themselves coming back to the original company. That’s how strong the cultures are at these organizations. They are like magnets, attracting the best employees. When you find the people who are the right fit for that culture, it becomes almost irresistible to them.

So which company are you? The one these people can’t imagine going back to, or the ones they wouldn’t dream of leaving?

(And if you know of some companies where the people wouldn’t dream of leaving, please let me know and I’ll check them out for the book!)

Supporting Innovation

supportiveGuest post, by Amanda Kaiser

If you want a thriving organization you need to innovate. If you want to innovate you have to have a culture that supports it.

In a recent discussion on ASAE’s online community Collaborate contributors talked about association innovation, and, interestingly, much of the conversation revolved around organizational culture. Innovation within an organization requires a culture that champions innovators. 

Create an environment for innovation

Innovating means taking on a responsibility, often a heavy one. For the innovator-type their motivation to innovate can outweigh the pressure to support the status quo… up to a point. This means organizations have to identify and hire staff who will naturally take on innovative projects and they need to provide the right environment for these innovators need to create.

The organizations that do this right understand that innovation doesn’t happen overnight. They understand that the path to innovation is a lot like scientific experimentation, not everything works. They also understand that innovators can’t do their best work when they are buried under piles of administrative work. They need space and time to think. As Patrick Vulgamore, Manager of Governance for the Society of Hospital Medicine says, “give them breathing room, good things will naturally happen.”

Secure support from the top to innovate

Have you ever gotten really excited by an idea and then had it quickly shot down? When this happens too often it becomes hard to champion more ideas. Support from leadership is critical to make sure good ideas continue to move forward. But this is very difficult to do. Seth Godin says in his book The Icarus Deception, “Competent people enjoy being competent. Once you are good at something changing what you do or moving to a new way of doing it can be stressful because it will make you momentarily incompetent.”

Championing a new idea is difficult indeed. Agreeing to try the untested is threatening. But even though it is hard for leaders to champion innovation, ideas and their creators, it is necessary.

If you want more innovations for your organization you will need to change your culture. Many organizations are getting geared up to explore innovation because as General Shinseki, former chief of staff for the US Army, famously said, “If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less.”

Amanda Kaiser writes the marketing blog SmoothThePath

Humanize Worksheets

Screen shot 2012-03-20 at 10.49.41 AMI find it hard to believe that it was three years ago this month that Humanize was released. As a companion piece to the book, we created four different worksheets–one each for the four human elements covered in chapters six through nine (open, trustworthy, generative, and courageous). The worksheets have a quick quantitative assessment, plus questions and exercises you can do with people in your organization to start the conversations needed to move in these directions. There’s even an action planning template. One of our pieces of advice from the book: whatever you do, do something. One foot in front of the other.

We now have those worksheets available on the Culture That Works LLC website, so check them out. We’ve been adding resources to the site. You can now also download the free White Papers I’ve written from the site as well.

When Is Fear a Good Thing? (Friday Quote)

scaredThis week’s Friday quote comes from one of the participants in a session I did last week about organizational culture. It was an extended version of my “Organizational Culture in the 21st Century” keynote/workshop, and in this session I was able to talk about organizations that are embracing concepts that move away from traditional leadership (decentralization, transparency, experimentation, etc.), but I also had time to get people reflecting about their own cultures and how ready or able they were to move toward these ideas. At the end, one person came up to me and gave me what I think was a really nice compliment:

Wow. You scared the sh!t out of me!

While fear and leadership generally don’t mix, the one place it works is when it wakes you up. Fear can sometimes get you focused, and as you look at things more urgently, you can discover that what you thought was working, really isn’t. And as long as you don’t let the fear paralyze you, it can actually help get you moving towards making things better.

Are We Really Fooled by “Branding?”

brandI’ve always had a problem with branding. All this talk of a “brand promise” and a “relationship” the company has with me never resonated with me as a consumer, which is then all tied into advertisements–you know, those things that get in the way of me watching what I want to watch. The whole thing just rubs me the wrong way. If feels like we left the marketing people alone for too long, and they started actually believing Don Draper, and suddenly everything is about the brand promise, and the actual product doesn’t seem to matter, even though that’s what I really care about.

Of course, I do understand that marketing and sales are not all about logic and product features. I heard a very good speaker on branding show how certain brands connect to deep, gut feelings that we have, even before they talk about product details. Nike, for instance, almost always has certain elements in its commercials, connecting to an athlete who sees him or herself as someone who gets up early, puts in more effort, always experiences pain and that moment they want to quit, but decides to keep going and in the end, of course, emerges victorious.

I get it. I am an athlete, and those ads do actually connect to me. I have those feelings, and being an athlete (even though I don’t compete with anyone but myself) is important to me. Congratulations, Nike branding people, you triggered those feelings that the ads were designed to trigger.

But there’s one more detail: Nikes don’t fit my feet. They never have. I tried them when I was in high school, and I hated running in them. I ran in Adidas for years, and now I’m with Asics. They are comfortable, and I don’t get injured when I run in them. Done.

The speaker also showed ads for BMW and Grey Goose–neither of which were REALLY about the product, and more about middle-aged guys living the good life and being attractive to hot women. I get it. Those ads connect to those feelings that middle-aged guys have, and it’s sub-conscious really. No one literally thinks that drinking Grey Goose is directly connected to owning a yacht in the caribbean and having a swimsuit-model girlfriend. But it connects to something deep inside you, so the next thing you know, you find yourself at the bar ordering Grey Goose, perhaps even remembering their tag line: The world’s best tasting vodka. Another victory for the brand people.

Except that Grey Goose doesn’t taste that good. It did win one taste test, but lost two others to Smirnoff. How do I know this? The internet, of course. And this gets us down to the important lesson here (sorry for taking so long): Connecting with my basic desires as a brand may matter, but now we all have access to the truth, I think the truth matters just a bit more.

Your branding efforts may get you in the game, but if your product or service is lacking, you’ll be quickly booted out. Now, this may not be true with vodka and some other products. Vodka, after all, is just a couple of steps removed from rubbing alcohol, and serves a purpose that is not really related to taste anyway, so perhaps the rules are different in that game. But if you make a running shoe, it better give people lots of pain-free miles (which I’m sure Nike does for lots of people, just not me, but that’s my feet’s fault, not Nike’s). If you make a performance automobile, it better corner like it’s on rails and give the driver a feel for the road (which BMW does, or did a few years ago anyway; I can’t afford them any more).

And if you are a nonprofit association who was listening to the branding guy talk about the three deep desires that conference attendees consistently talk about (tenacity, self-doubt, and risk taking), then I beg of you to be careful about what you do with that advice. If you double down on your branding efforts, and start attracting more attendees because you successfully connected to these three areas, please make sure that your conference actually delivers. Don’t tap into my desire to take risks or wake up my tenacity, and then offer me the same 101 content I got last year.  Don’t scare me by implying I might be falling behind my professional colleagues if I miss this great event, and then bring in a keynote speaker whose book is 10 years old.

I don’t want your brand promise. I want your reality. So please make it good.