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.

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“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?

Bad Culture is Like a Forest Fire

Bad culture is like a forest fire. It’s destructive, extremely expensive to fight and recover from, causes fear, anxiety, stress, and can stall or completely arrest the growth of the community. Bad cultures can destroy strategy, increase operating costs, cause stress, destroy trust, and ultimately cause a company to fail. But the parallels don’t stop there. If you talk with someone in the forest industry (as I have) about forest fires, they tend to take a big inhale before launching into the discussion primarily because they are so complex, dangerous, and (in some cases) fires are necessary. The same thing seems to happen when you ask an OD professional about culture and for many of the same reasons.

Abundance of Fuel Through Mismanagement

One of the most frightening things about forest fires in recent years is the abundance of fuel that is simply waiting to ignite which makes the fires grow more quickly, burn more intensely, and make them much more difficult to fight. Much of the abundance is due to mismanagement and misunderstandings of how forests renew themselves and self-sustain. The same can be said about organizations in the past 20-30 years.

In the 1980s there was a huge economic boom with the rise of the “Baby Boomer” generation. 75 million strong in the US and in terms of economic history the first generation that saw both genders contributing to the workforce. The 80s were an era of huge prosperity and saw the emergence and growth of YUPpies (Young Urban Professionals.) These new and budding managers grew up fast, worked their ways to the top in an era of prosperity and growth, and became titans of industry. And they still lead many of organizations today. But like the mismanagement of the forest, failure to focus on sustainable growth has lead to a scattered undergrowth of managers with fewer developed skills, I am talking about the leadership gap. While not consciously so, this proliferous cadre of under-skilled managers has created a bed of fuel that is susceptible to spreading bad culture quickly and with greater intensity.

Changes in Climate and Heat

Larger global factors play into this as well. With forest fires, global climate change in the past 20-30 years has created hotter and drier summers. 6 of the 10 hottest summers since 1950 have occurred in the last 8 years.

Organizationally we have seen huge climate shifts as well. Generation X gave the US only half the working population (25-30 million) of the Baby Boomers. And much like water is the lifeblood for an ecosystem, people are the lifeblood of an organization. With less water Our talent pool has very effectively dried up. This effectively spreads too many people under ill-equipped managers. The ability to mitigate sparks and fires as they pop up get harder causing them to become unmanageable much faster.

The pressure of growth and global expansion for companies is another climate factor. In the wake of the Dot.com era where successes were made overnight, results and achievements are desired much faster. It’s notable that the average lifespan of a company today is only 15 years compared to 67 years in 1920. That is the heat. The business climate today is faster and successes expected sooner than ever before. Organizations are hurriedly developed with little thought to sustainability further adding to the dangers of a cultural fire.

Creating Your Own Bad Weather

Another very startling and scary element to a forest fire, especially large fires, is its ability to create its own weather or micro-climate. In effect, a forest fire can grow so hot and so fast, it literally creates weather that feeds its growth. It can generate lightening-riddled thunderheads with no precipitation, huge amounts of wind, more heat, and increased dryness.

Organizations do this too. Whether individuals are aware of it or not, they can feed the culture that they so wish to change. Take for example how a spark (revenue downturn, product launch failure, catastrophe, tsunami, etc.) sets in motion a culture of fear. So to protect ourselves from that fear we create controls, measurements, attention to details, so controlling that people start hiding information for fear of failure or exposure. Transparency becomes opaque, results trump integrity, speaking up becomes perilous. As people feel less informed, more cynical, and less a part of the process they become more fearful of what they are unaware of…so they introduce more policies, more reviews, more measurements, and so on. The micro-climate starts to feed the culture.

Prevention v  Sustainability

Another element of forest mismanagement that is similar to organizational behavior is the short-term vs long-term policy. In the early 20th century a forest management strategy was enacted to stop forest fires as soon as possible. It was highly effective and average forest fire size saw its lowest levels in the 1950s-1980s. Then the long-term game showed up and 8 of the 9 largest fire seasons have occurred in the last 12 years. The undeniable fact is, forest fires play a necessary part of renewal and sustainability. And creating a policy that only focuses on the immediate term sets the stage for large-scale tragedy.

When organizations manage from quarter to quarter and make decisions based off short-term data or events rather than trends, bad things happen to culture. The climate and environment are built around policies that focus on protection not sustainability. The concern then becomes how manageable will a cultural fire be when (not if) a negative event (revenue shortfall, product failure, see above) occurs. These negative events, just like forest fires are impetus for renewal, a chance to learn, grow, and sustain. Viewed in a long-term sustainability perspective, these negative events can make company cultures stronger; viewed negatively as something that needs to avoided at all costs, sets the climate for a cultural forest fire.

Learning from Science (and our mistakes)

Over the past decade, fire management policy has taken a radical turn in strategy and focus. Small fires that pose little or no threat to human life or large structural loss are regarded as part of the natural cycle and allowed to occur within manageable limits. In areas where there are large amounts of fuel and dead trees, forest manicuring and mitigation is occurring, and long-term sustainability has become the focus.

Organizational science has evolved as well. Glimmers of these evolved strategies have proven successful. Google and Apple (two companies wildly lauded for their positive culture and huge business successes) do things that run counter to short-term protectionist policy. They embrace failure, see them as a part of organizational sustainability and create shelters for people who voice concerns, try new things and make mistakes. And while Wall Street blood pressures may raise and fall with each day, the small and sometimes even large-scale negative events do not produce knee-jerk measures from these cultural and global leaders. In essence, these companies have chosen very intently to NOT feed the fires and have created climates that allow the smaller “fires” to burn when it serves the greater good. This is not to say the smaller “fires” are not monitored and extinguished when they become a greater threat, but they are not instantly tamped out at the first sign of smoke.

Creating Healthier Forests

You can “clean” your organizational environment much in the same way a forest ecosystems is manicured. Part of the strategy is creating healthier “emergents.” Provide your new and burgeoning leaders and talent with the training they need to create trust, remove fear, and increase reasonable risk taking. Either coach existing leaders to be healthier contributors to the environment or remove them from your organization. Step 1 is about building a safe environment by removing the fuel before it ignites.

Step 2 is about climate control. Encourage policies that protect risk takers, people who question, and endeavors that tried mightily but failed. Focus on long-term sustainability rather than quarterly forecasts. Be honest and transparent when people make errors, we learn from them, and move on. Show people mistakes happen and it is safe for them to try new things. Focus on the growth and health sustainability of the organization not the prevention of negative events. Less control, more observation. Learn from organizational science and create climates and environments where people and projects that fail are regarded as a part of the renewal process instead of something that needs to be prevented, controlled, and overly managed.

And should a large cultural forest fire spring up, don’t feed it with fear, protective measures, and reactive policy making. Face it, fight it (bring in the air support and “hotshots” if you need to), then recover. (more on how to fight cultural fires in my next post!)

Are You Coaching or Do You Just Not Trust Me?

There is a fine line between coaching and making someone feel they are un-trusted to do their jobs. This is especially true in situational coaching where you provide guidance beforehand. The key is who initiates.

The challenge as a manager is often the confusion the feedback loop and coaching messages can send. Largely, the message we receive about feedback is it most effective when it is continuous and ongoing. So often the interpretation is we should give feedback all the time, which is an over simplification.

Coaching is more about the style in which you provide feedback. Essentially it means giving for a very focused improvement a narrowing observation and questions or suggestions that work toward that end. Giving feedback is very broad, but coaching feedback is typically very specific. Which is why there are different types of coaches out there (life coach, batting coach, swimming coach, executive coach, etc.)

Do people need and want feedback? Most certainly. Do people want advice? Not particularly. And when you give it before they take action, you’re giving advice, not feedback – especially if they did not ask you.

I’ll tell you my personal concern and how I internalize advice or “feedback before the fact.” When someone gives me feedback or advice before I do something or without me asking, the assumption I feel they are making is I either do not have the capacity to do it correctly or am not intelligent enough to execute that which I am about to do. Either way, I infer you think I am stupid. Not many people respond well to being called or thought of as stupid. In any event, it makes me feel un-trusted to do a quality job.

And you know what, I may still screw up. In which case, I may welcome and ask for your feedback on how to improve. Assuming I will screw up before I even attempt it is just one way you are telling me – you just don’t trust me.

The Accidental Leader

A recent article I read keyed me into the problem that plagues most all organizations I’ve worked with. The problem is not that you haven’t been developing your leaders up to that point, the problem is you think your start developing them when you implement a training or coaching program. WRONG. Developing an employee, ANY employee, starts the moment you hire them…and perhaps even before.

Each of us is in the process of development. We are constantly becoming. As a result of our experiences, observations, and personal preferences, we are now the person we see in the mirror. Therefore, whether you are being intentional about it or not, your organization is developing your employees. Maybe just not in the direction you need or want.