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Ryan’s Journal: Culture Wars

Thursday, January 26th, 2017


Culture can come from many sources, a CEO, fellow employees or perhaps a set of precepts that have been formalized for all to read. Regardless of the source culture acts as a zeitgeist to shape the actions of all who encounter it.

We can all recall companies or groups that have had great cultures, as well as some that make you want to run in the opposite direction.

Sometimes a culture change is all it takes to right a company or cause its demise. I think that is one reason you will see a sports team go from good to great. The players and staff may not have changed, but something did for them to pull out a win.

What happens though when a culture changes for the worst? Can we see it’s slow creep from the inside?

For me, whenever I have been in a period where I am actively job hunting I utilize glassdoor.com. It’s a great free resource to research companies based on posts from actual employees.

Do you want to know the salary range of a job? Go to Glassdoor. Is it fun to work there? Glassdoor. What type of questions will they ask when I interview? Glassdoor. I think you get the idea.

My favorite section has to do with reviews. You encounter the entire spectrum of feedback from those who say its the worst job ever to those singing its praises. What I have found is if there are enough reviews you can get a decent sample size to get an average.

Why do I bring this up? Because this website and others like it can help an employee determine the culture of a company before starting.

Once you’re in the role it can be tough to know if the culture has changed. I think it’s similar to the frog in hot water. It won’t leap out if you start with cold water. The same can be said of employees who have been around for a while. This site can give clarity.

Culture is a daily ritual that must be protected.

We all share in some part of the culture, so it’s up to the individual to be the best version of themselves daily.

I say all of this because I have seen from the inside the slow creep of culture decay and I realize it is something to be cherished and protected.

Image credit: Hiking Artist

Ryan’s Journal: Why Does Culture Matter?

Thursday, January 12th, 2017

http://www.fairwarning.com/For those of you who may have read my introduction I stated that my main question I want to always ask is ‘why’.

I learned this mostly through trial and error as I entered the workplace. I had the opportunity to see this inside of companies and organizations and better understand what made them succeed, or fail. The simple answer was and continues to be culture.

Why have some companies with all the talent in the world failed? Why do some people address hardships with a will to succeed rather than sit back and wallow? Why do those who have made it to the top of their profession continue to push themselves? I think it boils down to the mindset of the individual, who then influences the greater group.

I work within the MedTech industry, specifically within the cybersecurity sector. My company, FairWarning, looks at user behavior to determine who the bad actors are, so that you can have confidence that when you seek treatment your records will remain confidential.

You would expect that due to the fact that our mission is to determine who is stealing data and identify it our leadership would treat most people with suspicion. It is only natural, we see bad actors everyday! However, that could not be further from the truth.

I had an opportunity to speak with our leadership about why that is. How is it that the organization which only exists to prevent abuse and misuse of confidential materials can not have a negative outlook on life and people?

The answer surprised me. My company is privately owned by our CEO who founded it. He has the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps through hard work” mentality. He told me that his outlook on life stems from the fact that as an individual you can always make a choice to do the right thing moving forward.

A person always has the opportunity to start today with a clean slate moving forward. The expectation is that every day should be better than the last. Now this doesn’t mean there are no consequences for actions, but it does mean that there are no lost individuals. That at the root of it is the culture of my company and it influences every action I and my teammates make everyday.

Why does that one mindset impact the rest of the group?

Part of it, of course, is the fact that he started and led the company successfully. The other part though, which, in my opinion, matters more, is that he has remained consistent and transparent.

If he only applied that mindset to people selectively or didn’t live it himself then it would not truly be culture. It would be some mission statement that sounds great but has no impact.

As I continue exploring this topic I will speak to others about what influences their decisions and how they came to those conclusions.

Until next week continue asking and seeking.

Image credit: Marko / Zak

Golden Oldies: Customer Service Week 2016

Monday, October 10th, 2016

It’s amazing to me, but looking back at more than a decade of writing I find posts that still impress, with information that is as useful now as when it was written.

Golden Oldies is a collection of what I consider some of the best posts during that time.

In case you didn’t know, today is the start of Customer Service Week, focusing on “the importance of great customer experiences to the success of the organization and reinforce a customer-focused culture.” “Customer” typically refers to the people who buy your product, but they aren’t your only customers, especially if you’re a manager. That’s why today’s Golden Oldies includes two posts, with several links to additional, valuable information on the subject of customers and how to keep them. One new link seems worth including; it explains why, unlike other fields, the constant practice involved in active customer service can seriously reduce empathy — an absolute requirement of great customer service.

Read other Golden Oldies here.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/angelaarcher/5166009978/Who is Your Customer?

Customer service is a major topic these days (more on that tomorrow); as is employee retention, but do they really have anything in common?


Every manager, from team leader to CEO, is also a customer service manager, because your people are your customers.

That’s right, customers.

More accurately, that makes you an ESM—employee service manager.

Why do you service your people? To

  • help them achieve their full potential;
  • assure high productivity;
  • lower turnover; and
  • create an environment that’s a talent magnet.

How do you service your people? By

  • cultivating the kind of MAP (mindset, attitude, philosophy™) that truly values people and understands how important it is to manifest that;
  • offering high-grade professional challenges to all your people and making sure that they have the resources and all the information necessary to achieve success;
  • fostering fairness so that people know they are evaluated on their merits and favoritism plays no part; and
  • always walking your talk and living up to your commitments.

What’s in it for you?

  • Better reviews, promotions and raises;
  • increased professional development;
  • less turnover and easier staffing; and
  • what goes around comes around—everything that you give your people will come back to you ten-fold!

Flickr image credit: Angela Archer

https://www.flickr.com/photos/jurvetson/6467405231Employee Retention: Not Rocket Science

Yesterday we looked at how a new IBM analytics tool that analyzes tweets found that customer loyalty was severely impacted by employee turnover.

A decade ago research by Frederick Reichheld found that a 5% improvement in employee retention translated to a 25%-100% gain in earnings.

Deloitte recently released its annual survey, which seems to back up the need for improved retention.

2015 Global Human Capital Trends report, their annual comprehensive study of HR, leadership, and talent challenges, the top ten talent challenges reported for 2015 are: culture and engagement, leadership, learning and development, reinventing HR, workforce on demand, performance management, HR and people analytics, simplification of work, machines as talent, and people data everywhere.

The first three are nothing new; the terms have changed over the years, although not the meaning behind them or their ranking as top concerns.

In a major employee retention push, companies are turning to algorithms and analytics to mine a raft of data, identify which employees are most likely to leave and then try to change their minds.

But some things never seem to change and until they do companies won’t make much headway.

At Credit Suisse, managers’ performance and team size turn out to be surprisingly powerful influences (emphasis added –ed.), with a spike in attrition among employees working on large teams with low-rated managers.

With decades of research saying the same thing, it makes one wonder why the finding was “surprising.”

In fact, nothing will change until companies, bosses and the media stop being surprised every time a survey shows that talent acquisition and retention is most influenced by

  • the culture in which they work;
  • the bosses for whom they work;
  • the work itself; and
  • the difference they can make.

Gee, maybe it really is rocket science.

Image credit: Steve Jurvetson

Golden Oldies: Ducks In A Row: Cultural Support

Monday, August 15th, 2016

It’s amazing to me, but looking back on more than a decade of writing I find posts that still impress, with information that is as useful now as when it was written. Golden Oldies is a collection of what I consider some of the best posts during that time.

For decades, ‘culture’ didn’t get much respect. Many managers considered it ephemeral; smoke and mirrors served up by consultants focused more on their bottom line than their client’s. Today, the critical importance of company culture is a generally accepted management subject. However, creating a great culture isn’t enough; it needs a solid infrastructure to sustain it and keep it flexible as the company grows. That said, the most important action any boss takes is found in the final sentence of this post. Read other Golden Oldies here.

ducks_in_a_rowWhen you build an edifice that you want to withstand the stresses of everyday living as well as crisis and catastrophe it’s important to include structural supports in the design.

The same is true for corporate culture and I call them “infrastructure building blocks” or IBBs.

There are three categories of IBBs—philosophy, attitude/style, and policy. There are many things that can be included, but here is a list of the most basic ones, some are fairly self-explanatory, others include commentary and links where possible.

The philosophy category includes

  • Fairness: pay parity, merit promotions, egalitarian policies,
  • Open communications: not a technology function, but a part of MAP.
  • Business 101: basic information to reduce/eliminate naiveté, fuzzy or rose-colored views of the company’s business.
  • No surprises
  • Pragmatism

The attitude/style category includes:

  • Manager vigilance: a constant awareness of what is going on and a willingness to deal with the reality of it immediately.
  • Management-by-walking-around

The policy category is the concrete expression of the Philosophy and Attitude/Style IBBs. Just as the Preamble to the Constitution delineates the doctrines underlying it, each Policy IBB supports one or more of the IBBs described above.

Policy IBBs should be reasonably broad—macro rather than micro—since they support a flexible process, not ossified bureaucracy. They are your most potent infrastructure—the most tangible and, therefore, the hardest to corrupt or ignore, but also the most dangerous, because they can turn into bureaucracy in the blink of an eye if you’re not careful.

  • Business Mission Statement (BMS)
  • Cultural Mission Statement (CMS)
  • Dual Mission Statement (DMS)
  • Open-door
  • Management by Box: actually a way to set your people free
  • Dual Ladder Career Path: a series of hands-on positions that equate straight across the board with management positions.
  • Hiring process: transparent and painless and easy to use for both candidates and hiring managers.
  • Stock bonus plan (or similar)
  • Sales incentives
  • Reviews: Done correctly, they encourage personal growth, make negative behavior much harder to conceal and can even act as a screening tool during interviews.
  • Surveys: useful for discovering problems, attitudes, product directions, company standing, etc. as perceived by employees and selected outsiders.

One caveat when implementing these and other approaches: lead by example; both managers and workers will do as you do, not as you say.

Image credit: flickr

Golden Oldies: Ducks in a Row: The Seeds You Plant

Monday, July 18th, 2016

It’s amazing to me, but looking back over more than a decade of writing I find posts that still impress, with information that is as useful now as when it was written. Golden Oldies is a collection of what I consider some of the best posts during that time.

This one reminds us that there are as many cultures as there are bosses/managers/supervisors/team leaders in the company. All existing, for better or worse, under the umbrella of the company’s official culture. Read other Golden Oldies here

“That culture is like the air we breathe or the water that fish swim in. It has the potential, for better or worse, to affect everybody in the same way.” –Dr. Linda H. Pololi, a senior scientist at Brandeis University

http://www.flickr.com/photos/infomatique/2544951056/Dr. Pololi was talking about the culture in academic medicine negatively affecting men as well as women, although the women’s situation has a higher profile.

While the information in the article is interesting, as well as unexpected in part, it’s her comment at the end on which I want to focus.

As a manager you set the culture of your own group; it may closely resemble your company’s culture or may be wildly divergent.

The divergence is not always a bad thing—many managers have created great cultures in the midst of toxic ones.

By the same token, toxic mini cultures have been propagated within good company cultures by managers who believe that approach is the best way to manage.

Companies are much like gardens and the cultures within its main culture are what grow therein.

If you equate good culture to flowers and bad culture to weeds the problem becomes obvious.

Flowers are fragile and require more thought, attention and cultivation for them to spread.

However, with no effort on the part of the gardener, weeds spread quickly and if ignored will take over the garden.

There is an anonymous poem that I do my best to emulate throughout my life,

Your mind is a garden,
Your thoughts are the seeds,
You can grow flowers or
You can grow weeds.

With a bit of tweaking you can use it for your company,

Your company is a garden,
Your cultures are seeds,
You can grow flowers or
You can grow weeds.

It’s always a choice, but this choice will affect your employees, customers, vendors and investors.

Be sure to choose consciously, wisely and well.

Flickr image credit: William Murphy

Golden Oldies: Ducks In A Row: Culture Creation

Monday, April 25th, 2016

It’s amazing to me, but looking back over the last decade of writing I find posts that still impress, with information that is as useful now as when it was written. Golden Oldies is a collection of what I consider some of the best posts during that time.

Last Monday we looked at both an oldie and current info showing that all generations want pretty much the same things from work. What has changed is the patience factor in getting some of them. There’s also no question that the the intangibles need to be part of the culture and embedded deeply in the company’s DNA. The one thing I would add to Read other Golden Oldies here.

ducks_in_a_rowA Hollister poll of 1000 people, employed and unemployed, in Massachusetts last summer asked them what factors contributed the most to their job satisfaction; the majority of responses in order were

  •     Company Culture;
  •     Opportunities for Growth;
  •     Employee Appreciation;
  •     Work/Life Balance;
  •     A good Benefits Package; and
  •     Competitive salary/pay.

Notice that pay is dead last.

As I’ve always said, “The person who joins for money will leave for more money.”

The interesting thing about this is that numbers two through four are all parts of number one, good culture. Even benefits are a function of the culture, since they reflect the company’s attitude towards its people.

Still more interesting is that the top three are totally free—they cost the company no money—rather, they are a reflection of the corporate and/or manager’s MAP. Even number four is more about management attitude than dollars and any dollars that are spent typically offer substantial ROI.

There are tons of words that you’ll hear are important in creating a good culture, but I believe that it’s a function of two basics, one a belief and the other an action resulting from it.

Belief: People are intelligent, motivated, and they genuinely want to support their company in achieving its objectives. When people know more about their job, company, industry, and how they interact, they perform their own duties better and more productively because they understand the objectives and care about the results.

Action: People are most productive when they have all the information needed to do their job efficiently. This means that all managers, from CEO down, have both the ability and willingness to produce appropriately clear communications as to where the company is going, how it’s going to get there, what’s expected of them and how it all fits together and then disburse it accurately and completely so people can do their work in a timely manner.

If you believe that

  • a key ingredient for success is a culture that recognizes employees as its most valuable (and least replaceable) asset and
  • that people are required to act with initiative and their performance is directly impacted by the quality and quantity of the information they receive
  • then you’ll understand that people seriously resent communication failures that cause them to perform unnecessary, incorrect or wasted work.

Technically, communications is an IBB (infrastructure building block) and we’ll be talking more about them later.

If I was writing this today the one thing I would add is a sense of mission; a belief, based in reality, that what they are doing has a great purpose/meaning than just generating revenue.

Flickr image credit: zedbee

Ducks in a Row: Wally Bock Reviews “Winning Well”

Tuesday, April 19th, 2016

https://www.flickr.com/photos/44412176@N05/4197328040/A couple of years ago, in a post citing Robert Sutton’s comments on scaling, I said,

A company isn’t an entity at all. It’s a group of people all moving in the same direction, united in a shared vision and their efforts to reach a common goal. (…)Yes, it’s the people. It has always been the people all the way back to our hunter ancestors.

And it will always be the people.

Years before that I wrote about creating a Good Culture in a Toxic Environment.

My e-buddy Wally Bock says bosses need to have a duel focus to be truly successful.

One is to accomplish the mission, make your numbers in business. The other is to care for your people, keep them safe and help them grow.

To that end, I thought I’d share Wally’s review of a book offering guidance on carrying them out.

Winning-WellBook Review: Winning Well

Several years ago at a party, I was approached by a young man who had just assumed his first management job. His name was Carl and he had a simple question: “Is there any company I can go to where I don’t have to choose between getting good results and treating people right?”

I answered Carl’s question with one of my own: “Why not stay where you are and do the job right?” I told him what I learned in the Marines, that you really have two jobs. One is to accomplish the mission, make your numbers in business. The other is to care for your people, keep them safe and help them grow.

It can be done. There are managers all over the world doing it every day. Carl and I talked some more. I tried to give him the basics of doing it right. If we were having that conversation today, I’d suggest that Carl read Winning Well.

An Overview of Winning Well

The promise of the book is in the full title: Winning Well: A Manager’s Guide to Getting Results–Without Losing Your Soul. Karin Hurt and David Dye have written a book that goes way beyond my discussion with Carl. Here’s the premise of the book, taken from chapter one.

“Winning Well means that you sustain excellent performance over time, because you refuse to succumb to harsh, stress-inducing shortcuts that temporarily scare people into ‘performing.’ You need energized, motivated people all working together. Your strategy is only as strong as the ability of your people to execute at the front line, and if they’re too scared or tired to think, they won’t. You can have all the great plans, six sigma quality programs, and brilliant competitive positioning in the universe, but if the human beings doing the real work lack the competence, confidence, and creativity to pull it off, you’re finished.”

The book is divided into four sections. The first covers the basics of Winning Well. Section two is about accomplishing the mission, getting the job done. Section three is about caring for the people, covering how you “Motivate, Energize, and Inspire Your Team.” The fourth and final section is practical advice for getting started, even if your boss doesn’t care about your soul or your team doesn’t care about the work or each other.

Who Should Not Read Winning Well

There are people who believe that all of this caring for the people stuff is nonsense. If that’s you, don’t even bother to pick up Winning Well. Wait until you think there might be something to the caring part of being a manager, then, when you’re looking for the “how to do it” part, buy the book and read it.

Who Should Read Winning Well

You should read Winning Well if you want practical advice for the real problems of getting results without losing your soul. Here are three kinds of people who can benefit from this book.

If you’re a working manager

If you’re a working manager and you want to learn the how’s of Winning Well, you can use this book in two ways. Read it straight through, making notes as you go. Then create an action plan for becoming the manager you want to be. There’s plenty of help in the book and online.

You can also read individual chapters to help you with a thorny issue at work. Dip into the book, get some just-in-time learning, and meet the specific challenge you’re facing today.

If you are a leader of managers

You’ll get a lot from this book and it’s also a great book to share with your managers. Winning Well is about rich, long term success. This would be a great book to stimulate discussion at team meetings or for a book club.

If you think you might want to be a manager

If you’re considering becoming a manager, Winning Well can help you in two ways. You’ll learn how you can be the kind of boss who gets results and builds relationships. As a bonus, the many stories and examples will give you insight into what a manager’s job is all about.

Bottom Line

If you’re a manager who wants to get great results and still have a good relationship with your people, or if you want to become that kind of manager, Winning Well will give you the insight, information, and inspiration to achieve those goals.

You can find out more about this book and how it got written by reading The Story of Winning Well on my writing site.

Post and image credit: Wally Bock; Duck image credit: gorfor

Marvin Ellison’s Winning Way

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2016

http://www.blackpast.org/aah/ellison-marvin-1966The following points are from a profile of Marvin Ellison, CEO of JC Penney and author of its successful turnaround strategy.

He is also the guy credited with Home Depot’s turnaround after Bob Nardelli’s  disastrous run as CEO.

Ellison’s attitude and approach is the 180 degree opposite of Nardelli’s imperial, top down, command and control management style.

I was at Home Depot last weekend and in conversation with two employees who were solving a problem for me, which they did brilliantly.

I mentioned how different shopping there was now compared to during Nardelli’s reign. It turned out they had both worked at HD during that time and a couple of the stories they told were beyond belief.

If you think I’m exaggerating, or are too young to remember him, note that Nardelli is number 17 on Portfolio’s Worst American CEOs of All Time.

How different is Ellison?

The following four Ellison quotes clearly illustrate his approach.

Beyond explaining his leadership skill the quotes are solid cornerstones on which to build your own approach.

“I’m trying to understand the culture and customer. In retail, understanding those two things is essential.”

“…listening to people about what we need to do;”

“There will be change, but not for the sake of change.”

“There’s nothing more instructive than asking store employees for their opinions. I have no problem doing it.”

Hat tip to Wally Bock for pointing me to this article.

Image credit: BlackPast.org

Ducks in a Row: Culture Made Easy

Tuesday, October 6th, 2015


I hear a lot form bosses who want to build good culture, but are frustrated because of an excess of how-to information — much of it contradictory.

By popular request here are the only two things you  need to know to build an effective culture — everything else flows from them.

First, you have to believe the basic premise.

  1. People are intelligent, motivated and want to help their company/boss succeed.

Second, you need to back that belief up with appropriate action.

  1. Provide your people with all the information needed to understand how to perform their work as correctly, completely and efficiently as possible.

Culture frames workplace relationships and, like any relationship, it’s about open communications.

Sharing information is a sign of trust and encourages people to become more involved.

When people know about their job/company/industry and how they all interact, they will perform their own duties better and more productively — because they understand what’s going on they are encouraged to take more ownership and care.

Valuing people and open communications are the bedrock of a great culture and a boss people want to work for.

Bottom line, what to do is simple.

Doing it takes discipline.

Flickr image credit: Mike M

If the Shoe Fits: Hiring Starts With the Basics

Friday, April 10th, 2015

A Friday series exploring Startups and the people who make them go. Read all If the Shoe Fits posts here

5726760809_bf0bf0f558_mWay back in 2006 I described the difference between process and bureaucracy.

I was reminded of it by a phone call from “Kev” asking for assistance because they were having trouble hiring.

He said they had no trouble attracting excellent candidates who seemed excited about the product and work, but they couldn’t seem to close them.

I asked two questions,

  1. How would you describe your company’s culture and its core values?
  2. What is your hiring process?

Kev described the culture in terms of working hard, a really fun atmosphere (foosball table, bubble machine, Friday beer bust, etc.) an “awesome product” and “incredible people.”

He said whoever was available sat in on the interview along with him and everyone had a say in whether an offer was made. They didn’t have a formal process, because they were a startup, but planned to put something in place when they started to scale.

I explained to Kev that what he described wasn’t really a culture; that real culture is based on inviolate values.

Moreover, processes created outside or in ignorance of existing culture won’t work. It’s that simple.

That’s because the culture is anchored by and tied to the founder’s values and MAP.

For example, startups/high growth companies are often hotbeds of raging egos. If the culture is tolerant of that then the level of open communications that form the basis of great culture leading to good process is impossible.

Further, process created without a solid cultural basis will quickly turn to bureaucracy — which will slow growth while accelerating turnover.

For more information read If the Shoe Fits: Culture is Numero Uno

Join me next Thursday for a look at how to create a successful hiring process.

Image credit: HikingArtist

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