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COVID-19’s stripping workplace culture back to its essence: strong leadership

cultureI used to think it was about the Canada Day celebration, family Christmas party, team-building retreat in cottage country and the millions of dollars donated each year to local groups and causes

But I now believe the secret sauce for this company’s standout culture was the senior executive team. Over the course of my career with five organizations, I’ve yet to see a more cohesive senior team in action.

There were no cliques, secret alliances or team of rivals. There was no backstabbing, grandstanding or gamesmanship. Not once in any one-on-one conversation did a senior executive ever gripe to me about a colleague.

Cohesion inspired confidence. Employees were confident in where the company was headed because we knew there were adults in the boardroom who weren’t acting like frat house bros or middle school tweens. The executive team took the company’s core value of respect and turned it into a personal virtue. How they treated one another set the standard for all the rest of us.

What you do and value most as a leader drives your organization’s culture, says Ben Horowitz, cofounder of a venture capital firm and tech start-up and author of What You Do is Who You Are: How To Create Your Business Culture.

“Who you are is not the values you list on the wall. It’s not what you say at an all-hands. It’s not your marketing campaign. It’s not even what you believe. It’s what you do. What you do is who you are.”

Leaders doing stupid, selfish and short-sighted things will turn your culture toxic.  Horowitz says there are a few telltale signs that your culture’s broken. The wrong people are quitting too often. You’re consistently failing at your top priorities. And an employee does something that’s truly shocking. “If someone behaves in a way you can’t believe, remember that your culture somehow made that acceptable.”

Horowitz also warns against tolerating four culture breakers: fault-finding heretics who are forever building and making the case that your organization’s run by morons; totally unreliable flakes; self-righteous prophets of rage and smart-bad jerks. “Consistently asinine behavior from an executive can cripple a company,” says Horowitz. “If one of your big dogs destroys communication on your staff, you need to send him to the pound.”

It’s tempting to tolerate culture breakers for their moments of brilliance and outsized contributions.  But again, what you do is who you are as an organization. Ignore misbehaviour and disloyalty at the top and it’ll run through your organization like a virus.

A great culture won’t automatically make your organization great. Culture won’t save a lousy or unwanted product or service. Horowitz says culture is like nutrition and training that gives an edge to already talented athletes.

“In the end, people who work for you won’t remember the press releases or the awards. They’ll lose track of the quarterly ups and downs. They may even grow hazy about the products. But they will never forget how it felt to work there, or he kind of people they became as a result.

“The company’s character and ethos will be the one thing they carry with them. It will be the glue that holds them together when things go wrong. It will be their guide to the tiny, daily decisions they make that add up to a sense of genuine purpose.”

The pandemic’s stripping workplace culture down to its essence, especially for organizations with remote teams. We’re reminded that it was never actually about dress down days, ice cream socials, barbecue lunches, pancake breakfasts and branded swag. It’s all about what your leaders do in public and behind closed doors.

This review first ran in the May 30 edition of The Hamilton Spectator. Jay Robb serves as communications manager in McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

The secret to being a great leader? Start by being an ambassador of other people’s awesomeness (review of Unleashed)

awesome 2This isn’t my first time being considered a non-essential employee.

I’ve worked with some great leaders during my tours of duty at a provincial association, hospital, steelmaker, college and university.

These all-star leaders didn’t want or honestly need much public relations help. It was the less-than-stellar leaders who kept us PR pros busy as an essential service.

The best leaders had zero interest in being the star of the show. If somehow pushed and cajoled into the spotlight, they’d sing the praises of the people they served. It was never about them and always about the mission.

There was also little point in telling employees they had a mission-driven leader at the helm. They already knew this to be true. Many had been on the receiving end of the leader’s passion for unlocking potential and bringing out the best in people.

Unleashed“Leadership, at its core, isn’t about you,” say Harvard Business professor Frances Frei and Leadership Consortium executive founder Anne Morriss.  “It’s about how effective you are at unleashing other people. Full stop. That’s it. That’s the secret.”

So how can leaders know if the secret’s still a mystery and they’re still labouring on the false assumption that it’s all about them? Frei and Morriss list 10 warning signs in their book Unleashed: The Unapologetic Leader’s Guide to Empowering Everyone Around You:

  1. What other people experience rarely occurs to you. “If you find yourself focused primarily on your own experience, then you’re still a healthy distance from the emotional Launchpad of leadership.”
  2. You don’t ask very many questions.
  3. The most interesting thing about other people is what they think of you. “If you can’t sustain genuine interest in the ideas of other people, including those ideas that have nothing to do with you, then you haven’t yet earned the right to lead.”
  4. You’re constantly updating a catalogue of your own weaknesses, limitations and imperfections. “A loud inner critic can be a major distraction from the practice of leadership.”
  5. Other people’s abilities bum you out. “When you’re in an effective leadership state, the strengths and potential of the people around you become your greatest assets.”
  6. You’re constantly in crisis.
  7. You’re pessimistic about the future. “Leadership is built on the assumption that tomorrow can be better than today.”
  8. Reality has become tedious. “It’s a red flag if it’s been awhile since you’ve felt a sense of wonder at the unlimited possibilities around you.
  9. Apathy and powerlessness are dominant emotions.
  10. You’re the star of your own show. “Those of us hungry for leadership will eventually change the channel.”

Frie and Morriss showcase strategies for chipping away at this list and making the pivot to becoming a more empowering and effective leader. You can start by becoming an OPA, or ambassador of other people’s awesomeness.

“Choose someone in whom you see some kind of talent, however big or small, and find a genuine way to let them know that you’ve noticed,” say Frie and Morriss. “You see what they’re capable of today and – this is for leadership bonus points – you see where this gift might take them tomorrow if they decide to share it more often. Start with a person close to you and work outward from there.”

Serving as an ambassador of other people’s awesomeness accomplishes two things. You’ll start to adopt a much-needed external leadership orientation and you’ll spread some unexpected joy at a time when we could all use an extra-strength dose.

Adopt this daily habit during the pandemic and you’ll start making yourself essential as a leader.

Jay Robb serves as communications manager for McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.