THE POWER OF APPRECIATION: A 3-part Blog Series – Part Two: More than the air we breathe

Part 2 – More than the air we breathe

“Trust is like the air we breathe. When it’s present, nobody really notices. But when it’s absent, everybody notices.”  —Warren Buffett

kayakWhen I first moved to Colorado I was enamored with all the outdoor activities that were possible and I promised myself I would try them all. A number of years ago, I decided that summer would be about learning to whitewater kayak. I had a friend who was a professional kayaker and he offered to take me and a friend out at a nearby creek that was mellow enough we could practice.

A few things to know about whitewater kayaking: Kayaks are small, very small – getting in is difficult and getting out seems nearly impossible. The water in Colorado is cold, like ice-cold – consider it was snow only a few hours ago and this makes sense. And whitewater kayaks tip over easily, very easily. After maybe 15 minutes of paddling, the bow of my kayak caught a little ripple and I learned how all three of those factors can induce immediate panic when you are upside down, underwater, half-way jammed into a plastic coffin. It probably only took a few seconds for me to extricate myself from the boat and resurface but it felt like minutes. And it made me realize how much I appreciated breathing.

All due respect to Mr. Buffet but I think it is more than just noticing the air – I mean I appreciated it. And it’s not just that way with trust or air, it seems to be a theme in most people’s lives. We only seem to appreciate the sun when it’s raining, we only appreciate the rain when everything starts to turn brown, we only appreciate programs and perks when they go away, and a saddening majority of the time we only truly appreciate great people after they have left.


Interestingly, the benefits of employees feeling valued and cared for extend far beyond getting good people to stay and perform well. People who feel valued at work report less stress (25% vs 56% of those who do not feel valued) and better overall psychological health (89% vs. 69%). Even more interesting in how feeling valued correlates to employees’ perception of their company and work culture:

 *percentage of respondents who agreed with the following statements Feel valued Do not feel valued Variance
Overall, I am satisfied with the growth and development opportunities offered by my employer 75% 10% -65%
I receive adequate monetary compensation for achievements and contributions at work 70% 17% -53%
Overall, I am satisfied with the recognition practices of my employer 75% 7% -68%
My employer regularly makes changes in response to employee feedback 56% 5% -51%

It’s not just about keeping good people; it’s about making good people better; it’s about improving how we feel about coming to work in the morning, and it’s about gaining a stronger sense of self and self-worth. If you want your company to be awesome, you need to start by being awesome. Want to feel more appreciated? Appreciate people more. Want something to change? Then you need to change what you do. Breathe deeply, appreciate it and use that breath to tell someone how much you value them.


Leadership Feedback – Are you asking the wrong people?

product-reviewsWho is the best judge of quality when it comes to a service or product provider, the company selling or the customer? When you look for a product do you just look at the marketing information or do you look at consumer reviews? Do you look at 3rd party expert data? Smart consumers always look at all of it. But when it comes to evaluating talent (especially leadership ability), the typical approach is from the top down, which ignores all the consumer data.

I’ve facilitated a countless number of what most people would call “soft-skills” classes; you know, the people stuff (those soft, squishy, emotional people.) From topics like listening, communicating expectations, providing feedback, coaching, mentoring, conflict resolution, supervisory skills, etc. And more than once, I have had someone say in class that they are “a great [insert skill I am teaching here].” This especially bristles me when it comes to these interpersonal skills because ultimately, it’s not in your authority to judge how good you are – it is up to the other person. The only person who gets to evaluate me as a good listener is the person I am listening to. So why then is “leadership ability” evaluated by the people above them? Shouldn’t the people being led be the authorities on that? After all, if no one is willing to follow you, how can you (or your boss) call you a good leader. You may be a good employee, sure, but being a good leader is only substantiated by those who choose to follow.

Process Triangle

Now, I am not advocating for a complete 180 and have your employees dow you performance reviews entirely and if you want to get a more complete view of someone’s leadership, doesn’t it make sense to get data that speaks to that? This is the whole purpose behind a 360-style review process. If you want know how you are doing influencing and interacting with you senior leaders in the company, ask them. If you want to know how you are as a teammate and collaborative colleague, ask your peers. If you want to know how you are doing as a leader, ask the people you are charged to lead. In fact, when trying to determine your location on a map, the process of using three reference points is called triangulation.

And what if (here is something to think about) what if, your team got to choose their leader? Sure, the execs and bosses get a say in the final candidates but how powerful of a shift would it be to know that you are not only accountable to your boss in your effectiveness as a leader, but also the people you would be leading. How powerful would it be to know that your team voted you as their leader? We do it for public representation, why not for corporate representation as well? If you are constantly seeking feedback from your team then you probably know whether they would pick you or not…and if you are not getting feedback from your team, well, you probably know too.

159701686_winston-churchill-quote-9b-postcardsIt may not be perfect, but as Winston Churchill pointed out, “democracy is the worst form of government, except all the others that have been tried.” Help me understand how the modern corporate structure is unlike a political system? The purposes may seem different but in the end are we not servants to our customers? If you are a trying to be a leader, just who do you think your customers are? Doesn’t their voice matter?


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Dave Needham is a leadership coach, speaker, and President of PeakAlignment, Inc. He thrives on building awesome workplace cultures and leaders. Contact Dave Needham if you think your workplace could use more “awesome”.


To Lead, or Not to Lead, that is the question

A workplace interpretation of Hamlet‘s soliloquy:Royal-Mail-Stamps-RSC-Hamlet


William Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a tale of tragedy, incest, betrayal, and masquerade – so really, not that different than most people’s life at work. The good people seem to get snuffed, people get promoted simply because they are in good with or related to the boss, understood covenants between individuals are violated, and people pretend to be something they are not to get into a position of advantage. Is it any wonder then that the word “workplace” can summon a feeling of tragedy?

But hang on, before you think this is a negative spin on company existence, it’s not. This is about choice, empowerment, and self-determination. It’s easy to be a victim. The difficulty is realizing you are CHOOSING your situation. I’m not going to post the soliloquy. If you want to view it, take a look here. My aim is to take Hamlet’s quandary and apply it to that of the modern worker who is unhappy in his current situation and how it is a matter of choice whether we stay or go.

The Story

If you are not familiar with Hamlet, the short of it is this:  Hamlet is the young prince of Denmark whose father is killed. His uncle (the former King’s brother) takes the throne and marries Hamlet’s mother (the queen) mere months after Hamlet’s father’s death. Hamlet learns that his father was killed by his uncle and plunges into depression (the soliloquy is the turning point) and emerges angry and resolute to exact justice on the guilty party.  Hamlet pretends to be crazy as he maneuvers to expose the truth and kill his uncle. I’m not going to give away the rest of the story but to suffice to say, it doesn’t end well for pretty much all of the main characters.

Hopefully, our story has a better ending.

The Quandary

During Hamlet’s depression, he contemplates suicide. This is the crux of the “To Be or Not to be” soliloquy. And while hopefully no one reading this is contemplating suicide as a result of their unfortunate working situation, I am sure many of you have considered quitting at some point or another. Which often feels like the final of most final options. Unlike suicide however, we have a chance to continue on and perhaps lead even better lives.

“The undiscovered country….puzzles the will, and makes us rather bear those ills we have, than fly to others that we know not of”

There is comfort in the known. Even when what we know is uncomfortable. The human mind is a self-preservation engine and the blackness of the unknown holds danger that we fear what we cannot manage.

“Thus Conscience does make cowards of us all”

We instead choose to stay in a terrible situation that we know and have learned to “deal with” than explore the unknown. But that is the crux of the question of either being or not being, leading or not leading, thriving or not thriving, being courageous or not – every question has a choice. Even the most simple of closed ended questions has more than one answer – yes or no.

“And thus the Native hue of Resolution is sicklied o’er, with the pale cast of Thought, and enterprises of great pitch and moment, with this regard their Currents turn awry, and lose the name of Action…”

We think too much. Our natural sense of resolution and commitment, even in moments of great opportunity, are overturned by our negative thoughts that fill the void of the unknown with some undefeatable monster. These negative thoughts are not based in reason, but it is the emotional response to incomprehensibility that sours our resolve. In the moments of great opportunity, we fail to act because we cannot think through to the other side.

And while Hamlet’s story has a tragic ending, he CHOSE not to kill himself and instead endeavored in an even larger attempt to right those things that were wronged. He CHOSE a difficult path with just as much uncertainty. So even when we think we have only two options, sometimes there is a third or fourth.

It takes courage to do something more than just endure. So if you have been to the edge of quitting and chosen time and time again to stay, are you at least choosing to change something? If you have already contemplated quitting, then facing the unknown has been close to your doorstep. Courage is not about blindly stepping into a dangerous situation, it is about trusting yourself to explore the unknown. Optimism is not believing that everything will turn out great regardless of how you interact in the world, it is about knowing that you have a choice in how you interact with the world and you choose to make things as good as you can for you.

Everything we encounter in any given day is a choice. Do you chose to be a player in your own life or a pawn? Do you chose to trust yourself and explore the unknown? Do you choose to make things as good as you can? Do you choose to lead, or not to lead? That is the question.

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Dave Needham is a leadership coach, speaker, and President of PeakAlignment, Inc. He thrives on building awesome workplace cultures and leaders. Contact Dave Needham if you think your workplace could use more “awesome”.

When the catalyst gets quiet

CatalystIn chemical and physical terms, a catalyst is something that initiates or accelerates a change in a system or reaction without being changed itself. In human terms it really isn’t that much different. Catalysts cause and speed change. If you want change or need a recognized change to happen faster, seek a human catalyst.

The only time catalysts become quiet or do nothing is either when the system has reached a place of balance and equilibrium or when the system is not ready for change. From a chemical or physical perspective in those scenarios catalysts are inert, in that they just kind of hang out and do nothing until the system either changes or dissolves into oblivion. In other words, they are irrelevant. In business, however, systems are rarely at a complete balance or equilibrium. But unlike chemical or physical reaction, the people in an organization have a threshold for change. So even when change is necessary, people are hesitant to engage in it due simply to fatigue or stress. It’s just not ready for more change.

Humans, unlike their chemical counterparts, are meaning seeking beings, and catalysts are no exception. In fact, they may be the exaggeration of this principle. People do not like being irrelevant. Human catalysts seek change. It is their purpose, their reason for being – to cause or speed change. When an organization is either tired or not ready for more change, the catalyst becomes irrelevant. A fundamental need of most human beings is to feel as though they matter, that they are relevant. It is this drive that creates either two scenarios for a human catalyst: they either cause disruption so as to create a necessary change that makes them relevant, or they seek another system that IS ready for change.

When the catalyst gets louder, they are trying to create the need for change. When they get quiet, they are likely looking for a new system. Human catalysts are hugely important in organizations  as they can facilitate and accelerate changes that are necessary and welcomed.  Without a tempered approach and a great deal of patience, catalysts can also be disruptive when the organization isn’t quite ready for change. And while creating noise may give them a sense of purpose for a while, the organization will typically cast them off if they become too loud. When human catalysts get quiet, however, you should probably know they are looking to leave.

Ask PeakAlignment, Inc to help

from Organizational analysis to Leadership coaching to Talent development, PeakAlignment can help remove the roadblocks to peak performance.

Contact me and let me help make your organization more awesome!

“It’s not personal, it’s business…”

I hate those words. It’s like nails on a chalkboard to me (or squeaky balloon noises for my wife).

I get it, we work in a business and we need to make decisions that support what the business needs. So tell me the business needs behind it, don’t hide behind the ruse. I’m not stupid, I get it. But to think that what you are about to tell a PERSON is not personal is asinine. And I understand that saying this helps you disconnect from the human aspect of the decision you are making…I just don’t care. You can’t tell me that hunting is unethical as you buy your steak from the supermarket…or leather boots from the shoe store.

Here is a shift, be personal. And by that, I don’t mean attack my character. I mean be a PERSON first. Yes, this decision was hard and in the end, after considering the needs of the organization and the people involved, the long-term benefits of this decision seem to outweigh the others.

Giving bad news is hard. Ending someone’s employment is hard (why do you think we have so many euphemisms for it.) But have some compassion and make it easier for the person receiving it, not the person giving it. You still have your job, I don’t care if you feel bad that you just fired me; I have to go home and tell my significant other, family, or friends that I now have the most shameful of professional monikers – unemployed.

So before you say “it’s not personal, it’s business” recognize that the only person you are helping is you.

Superman needs Kryptonite

If kryptonite didn’t exist, would you cheer for Superman? If action heros never get scratched, would you root for them? If leaders never admit mistakes, would you follow them?

We all know that perfection is an asymptote – something we approach but never reach. Why then, is perfection or being infallible so revered by people in power? If you interviewed me and asked what I feel my greatest weakness was and I said “nothing”, you’d call “bullshit” and move to the next candidate. And rightfully so. To avoid claiming your errors or pointing fingers to make sure the blame does not land on you is a sign of fear, not perfection. It’s also a sign of low self-awareness and accountability.

People are inspired by Superman BECAUSE he has a weakness. There would be no point in cheering for a foregone conclusion. People do not follow perfect leaders, they are not inspired by people who hide their mistakes. People are inspired by those who dare great things, fall, and get back up. We are inspired by resilience, grit, perseverance, and those who chose to get up one more time and push on. We cheer for the boxer who gets knocked down and gets back up at the count of 8, we cheer for the little guy who was beaten 9 times but comes back to win the 10th, we cheer for “Rudy“, the “Gipper”, and we follow those who show us that life is hard, you do not have to be perfect to be great, you just have to keep getting up more often than everyone else.

The world is changed by the people who keep getting up. Sure, you need to be good at what you do, but before you try to be perfect, be inspiring.


Dealing with Culture Fires

In my previous post, “Bad Culture is Like a Forest Fire” I talked about many of the destructive and behavioral similarities between the two. Now like any forest fire some culture fires are left to burn, some are put out quickly, and some are left to smolder for years, but ultimately, everyone has an interest in them being extinguished eventually. There are two questions here: 1) How do you put out a fire once it starts?; and, 2) How do you prevent a fire in the first place?

Let’s tackle the harder issue first…how can you put out a culture fire?

First, let me identify some of the challenges people and organizations face when dealing with culture fires. The first issue is cognitive – people need to realize the need and logical reasons for change. The second issue is resource allocation – to fight a “fire” resources will need to be moved from one aspect of a company to the front lines. The challenge here is often the “line of sight” to change. For example, it is very easy to see and measure the progress of creating a new product; it is harder to see and measure a cultural change. So many times, resources are not allocated for long. Tip: find your leading metrics and your milestones (like attrition, employee engagement scores, employee referrals, etc.) Once you know how to track your progress and you have a baseline set, it’s time to start fighting the fire.


Scenario #1: The fire is blazing hot and destroying the company

The first method for fighting a big blaze is dropping a group of outside resources into the fire to fight it. Wildfire crews across the continent tasked with fighting large forest blazes are known as “hotshot” crews. They are usually very skilled, have high stamina, and are placed with awesome resources and strategy to help them fight the fires. In the business world, these turn into consultants. These cultural interventions are usually quick, intensely fought by a coordinated group of people who have great control over the resources and strategy, very costly, and provide little in terms of reparation or sustainability. They are simply there to put out the fire. Large consulting groups are often hired for large culture fires and many are seen setting up “camp” in client offices and are often given priority in meetings. They are brief (usually less than 6 months) and they are expensive. For that reason, it is a rare occasion that a company will engage such “hotshot crews.” The ones that do are typically pressured by a board of directors or shareholders.

When you reach this point, the solution is rarely elegant, rarely cheap, and rarely has a fully positive outcome. It scars the landscape, sometimes irreparably. If noting else, the “erosion” a destabilization of the organization’s foundation can last for a good year or two before things start to regrow.

Springs wildfire rages

The second and probably most common but least effective method is using an internal position to fight the culture fire. Sometimes this method is a small group of employees or team being tasked with cultural change. And while this group is usually very dedicated and in many respects, adequately trained, when a fire reaches a certain magnitude, this cadre of culture evangelists just doesn’t have the resources or necessary influence. Imagine a group of homeowners with garden hoses against a large fire. While this solution is inexpensive, it is rarely effective against large culture problems – they just do not have the resources, influence, or objective authority to do what is truly necessary to put of the fire. While internal fire-fighters may slow the advance of bad culture in some cases. It is usually exhausting and the people tasked with cultural change often “retire” while the fire is still destroying other parts of the company.

One large aspect of why these brave souls could fail is the inability or unwillingness to remove large, old, unhealthy trees (well established senior-level individuals who are either contributing to the problems or resisting positive change.)  If you are a cultural change Manager and some of the people who are throwing gasoline on the fire live at higher levels than you (Director, VP, and up) you simply do not have the ability to affect change. You’re best bet is to protect your little patch of land and keep the fire from burning down your own house…saving the company or your neighbors’ houses becomes a battle you just can’t win. I have yet to see or hear about a substantial cultural change that has been successful from the inside (unless this person reports to the board of directors).  If you know of one, let me know.

Scenario #2: the forest is dry but no fire

This is the norm for many companies. It can occur at any stage of maturity, sometimes companies are well established and sometimes they are younger. In either case, cultural management has taken a backseat to everything else in the company. There is an assumption that if you don’t see smoke, then all is well. At this point, you don’t need “firefighters”; at least not to put out a fire. However, where they can come in handy is to identify your areas of greatest risk or where the start of a cultural problems could be likely or could be very hard to fight if it did start.

Here is where internal cultural managers have a chance to do some good. This is the land of management and leadership training. Where you are doing everything to help prevent the start of a fire. Teaching expectation setting, feedback, and basic leadership skills. Encouraging transparency, dialogue, and healthy conflict. The goal of which is to help the organization keep an eye on its own backyard, contain the little problems, and put them out quickly. The message being “only You, can prevent culture fires.”

And at this point, it’s true. The company is usually too big at this point for a select group of people to handle all the issues that pop up, so you do your best to give a variety of people basic skills to handle them with little support.

Scenario #3: no fire, healthy forest

This is the utopia that most people dream of. And many people think unattainable. But there are companies out there that do this very well. It may seem as though it can happen naturally but nearly every great company culture exists because of clear focus on cultural health. Think of Zappos, Google, Boston Consulting Group, and other top companies to work for. These companies built their reputations as great places to work with a clear and executive focus on culture. Some companies, like Google, have even created positions to that report directly to the CEO called “Chief Culture Officer”. Their job is to watch for the insidious creep of “inappropriate behavior or inhibition of change” that Kotter & Heskett say can form over a number of years, eventually resulting in a bad culture – a forest just waiting for a spark.

Being “healthy” is not the same as “not sick.”

When a culture is dry and ready for a spark, it may not have a fire burning yet, but I would not call it “healthy.” Healthy cultures, healthy forests, and healthy people are all dedicated in some way to staying fit. Organizational health is not an accident. And health or lack thereof can happen at any point in a companies lifespan, just like people. I’ve seen many 60 year olds that are in better shape than 20-somethings. Which means bad habits, bad management, and bad planning can create an unhealthy company culture at any point.

Rebuilding health.

The first step to any change is awareness. If you are not aware or willing to see that your culture is unhealthy, improvement will never come. The next biggest hurdle is for senior leadership (and it is a big one.)  Once they recognize that the organization they lead has an unhealthy culture, they then have to admit that they are large contributors to its current state. It takes a great deal of humility for leaders to admit they are part of the problem and show a dedication to change, not just in words, but in action.

So if you notice your forest is burning ask yourself, do you really have the right kind of resources engaged to fight it or do you have a bunch of people with garden hoses simply defending their own space? If you don’t have a fire but want to protect the organization from going up at the first spark, are you focused on maintaining the health of your culture? Are you identifying your danger spots and fixing them or do you just have your fingers crossed and hoping for rain? If your culture is healthy, who is keeping it that way, are the checks an balances built into the culture? Do you have a person whose job is to manager the culture and ensure organizational health and sustainability? How do you know that healthy culture will still be there in 2 years, 5 years?

Health is not an accident

Healthy cultures are not accidents. And though some may think it too “touchy feely” to be relevant or warrant attention. Research from Kotter & Heskett, Daniel Goleman, Stephen M. R. Covey, and many others demonstrate that companies with healthy culture vastly outperform those with unhealthy ones. Every company is in business to generate revenue. How much of that are you spending simply trying to put out all the fires when they pop up. Wouldn’t it be better if your organization was better at planting and managing a better forest? Who job is that? After all, if you’re not focusing on your organizations health, who is?