Five ways to tell better stories that win hearts, change minds & get results

storytellingThis review first ran in the April 14th edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Unleash the Power of Storytelling: Win Hearts, Change Minds, Get Results

By Rob Biesenbach

Eastlawn Media


A father and son are on vacation.

They’re walking on the beach when they find hundreds of stranded starfish baking in the sun.

The boy picks up a starfish and puts it back in the ocean.

The dad tells his son there are too many starfish to save. “We’ll be here forever,” says the dad.

“Relax dad,” says the boy. “I’m just saving one starfish so CEOs and motivational speakers can repeat this story over and over again whenever they need to drive home the point about how one person can make a difference. Now let’s go have breakfast.”

We all know that telling stories is better than inflicting death by PowerPoint on an audience. We’re hardwired for storytelling.

But don’t be lazy and recycle whatever comes up when you Google search “stories to inspire an audience.”

Skip the often-told starfish story and instead follow Rob Biesenbach’s advice for telling more compelling tales.

“A story is a character in pursuit of a goal in the face of some challenge or obstacle,” says Biesenbach.

To tell a great story that sticks with your audience, ask yourself five questions:

Is the character in your story real and relatable? We don’t care about processes and programs, says Biesenbach. We care about people. “Your character is the heart of the story. Bring your stories down to the human level. If a problem exists it must surely affect actual people.” Tell us about someone like us who’s in a similar situation and facing the same kind of challenge. Share a personal story or introduce us to one of your customers, clients, patients or students.

Is there sufficient conflict? If there’s no conflict, there’s no drama driving the narrative of your story. “Conflict arises from the tension between the character’s goal and the challenge facing her.”

Are the stakes high enough? Go big with the challenge. “For a story to work, there has to be something important at stake – a serious problem that cries out for action.”

Is there clear cause and effect? Tightly link the chain of events in your story. “Causality is more meaningful to us than mere coincidence.”

And is there an emotional core at the heart of your story? “Emotion fuels stories,” says Biesenbach. “When your audience feels something, they are more likely to do something.”

Once you’ve checked off these boxes, structure your story in three parts.

In the beginning, introduce us to your character.

In the middle of your story, set out your character’s challenge.

At the end of your story, bring things to a resolution.

“Think of your story as a Hollywood blockbuster. In the end, the enemy is vanquished, the boy gets the girl, justice is served. There’s a reason these movies are so popular: they give audiences what they want – a satisfactory conclusion.

“Your story should not be in the style of indie or art house cinema, where the characters don’t really change and problems go unresolved. The indie film may be truer to everyday life, but it’s not particularly satisfying for general audiences.”

Biesenbach’s written a practical guide to help anyone become a better, more focused storyteller. The stronger your stories, the better your odds of winning hearts, changing minds and getting results.

“Our stories help define who we are and what we stand for. They set us apart in a noisy, competitive world. And they help ensure we’re remembered. Don’t be intimated. Storytelling isn’t reserved for artists and poets and folksy cowboys huddled around the campfire.”

@jayrobb tells stories as director of communications for Mohawk College, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

Review – Creating Great Choices: A Leader’s Guide to Integrative Thinking by Jennifer Riel and Roger Martin

choicesThis review first ran in the Dec. 4 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Creating Great Choices: A Leader’s Guide to Integrative Thinking

By Jennifer Riel and Roger Martin

Harvard Business Review Press


Do yourself a favour.

Don’t tell a team to reach for consensus when they’re trying to solve a problem.

Yes, you’ll keep the peace. They’ll play nice and be polite to one another. The team won’t split into warring factions. Meetings won’t turn into cage matches. There will be no battle of the wills where the most persuasive, persistent and pushy railroad the rest of the team into choosing their preferred solution. No one will lose face or leave with bruised egos and lingering resentment.

But the team won’t deliver what you need. Reaching for consensus will leave you with an unholy mess of good, bad and ugly options stitched together into a weak compromise.

Instead of reaching for consensus, help the team build their integrative thinking skills. Show them how to hold opposing ideas in their minds and use the tension to create new and better choices.

“To produce better decisions, we need a better process,” say Jennifer Riel and Roger Martin, authors of Creating Great Choices and professors at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.

“One key step in doing that is to explicitly consider opposing solutions, exploring deeply divergent possibilities for solving the problem. This approach is about challenging the notion that there is a single right answer. It is also about using conflict purposefully, thereby enriching our understanding of the problem and expanding the possibilities for its resolution.”

According to Riel and Martin, integrative thinking isn’t an innate skill. It can be learned by following three core principles at the heart of better decision-making: metarecognition, empathy and creativity.

“With these three components as the base ingredients for an effective approach to decision-making, you can lay the groundwork for a new way to think and work your way through difficult problems of almost any type,” say Riel and Martin.

Much of our thinking is automatic, implicit and abstract.  Metarecognition is the ability to be self-aware of how we think, draw conclusions and make decisions. “This means understanding why and how we believe what we believe. It means being clear not only about our conclusions and our actions but also about the data and reasoning that support them.”

Empathy is the ability to more deeply understand and better appreciate how others see the world. “It is the act of experiencing things as if we were in another person’s shoes. It’s about genuinely seeking to understand who another person is, what she thinks and how she feels.”

Creativity is about seeking the new and embracing the unique. It’s the imaginative spark that leads us to imagine something beyond existing options. “When we’re confronted with a difficult decision, most of us understand that it is our job to pick the right answer from among the options. In contrast, a richer decision-making process reframes our job: it isn’t to choose an option, but to create a better answer that effectively solves the problem.”

Creating Great Choices is the practical user guide to The Opposable Mind, Martin’s earlier book on integrative thinking. You’ll find exercises and templates to help you and your team look past least-worst options and instead reach for better solutions.

@jayrobb serves as director of communications for Mohawk College, lives and Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

Review: The Inspiration Code – How The Best Leaders Energize People Every Day by Kristi Hedges

inspiration codeThis review first ran in the Sept. 11 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

The Inspiration Code: How The Best Leaders Energize People Every Day

By Kristi Hedges

American Management Association


We won’t find inspiration in a corporate video where our leader seems to have been kidnapped to an undisclosed location and forced to read a list of demands while in a state of severe sleep deprivation.

Equally uninspiring is the mandatory and tightly scripted all-staff town hall where our leader inflicts death by PowerPoint with ruthless efficiency and then dares anyone to ask a question.

What will inspire us to work harder and do better is a leader who knows how to have conversations that count.

“If we want to have inspired companies, then we need inspirational leaders,” says Kristi Hedges, leadership coach and author of The Inspiration Code. “And that involves being the kind of leader who communicates in a way that creates the conditions for inspiration in others. It’s about making the right connection and letting the inspiration take off from there.”

Leaders create these conditions by being present, personal, passionate and purposeful in their conversations.

A leader’s present when she’s focused on the person in front of her. She’s not distracted or visibly stressed. She listens more than she talks. She gives the impression that there’s no one else she’d rather be with and nowhere else she’s rather be. “For leaders, presence is a blinking red light that signifies importance. Being fully present at key times has a motivational impact. When a leader actually pays real attention to us, it feels great. We feel special. The capacity to inspire is heightened.”

Authenticity also plays a key role in building connections. “Your listener looks to you first to see how much you care and this is what shapes how much he will care,” says Hedges. “If you want to move behavior or shape thinking, you need to get personal and stay personal. We’re not inspired by fakes, frauds, blowhards, blusterers or even those who play it too close to the vest. We need to see the real deal.”

Along with being present and getting personal, leaders need to be passionate if they want an inspired effort from us. “People who are passionate enthusiasts for what they do create passion in others. Passion is optimistic, exciting, bold and captivating. Passion has a fiery drive to it, propelling forward momentum. People with passion show conviction. We know where they stand. They get things done.”

And finally, inspiring leaders have purposeful conversations. We need to be reminded that our day-to-day work contributes to the continued success of our organization.  “When we feel as though we’re running in circles, or spiraling downward, work is somewhere between boring and soul crushing. We’re counting the hours (or if nearing retirement, years) until we’re free.”

What a leader does will be as important as what they say. Hedges says a leader must show and model what it means to be a purpose-driven leader and live a purpose-driven life. “If others can’t see the purpose that ignites you, then they won’t likely be convinced that you can inspire anyone else. When it comes to purpose, you’ve got to wear it to share it.”

As Hedges reminds us, no one goes home after work and says they had a great day because they were influenced. Bull all of us would love to say that we were inspired.

Hedges shows leaders how to improve the odds of that happening with proven strategies for  being more present, personal, passionate and purposeful in their conversations.

@jayrobb serves as director of communications at Mohawk College, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

Review: The Power of Positive Leadership by Jon Gordon

powerThis review first ran in the June 5th edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

The Power of Positive Leadership

By Jon Gordon



Average organizations have mission statements.

Great organizations have people who are on a mission.

The difference comes down to culture and positive leaders.

“Your most important job as a leader is to drive the culture,” says Jon Gordon, author of The Power of Positive Leadership and a consultant to Fortune 500 companies. Building a culture is not a job you delegate.

“You must create a positive culture that energizes and encourages people, fosters connected relationships and great teamwork, empowers and enables people to do their best work.”

You build a great culture by answering two questions.

What do we stand for?

What do we want to be known for?

Your actions will answer both questions. What you do will matter far more than what you say in memos, meetings and speeches.

“As a positive leader, you can’t just show the way and talk about the way. You must also lead the way. If you don’t set the example and live the values – if you aren’t on a mission – your culture won’t come to life,” says Gordon.

Positive leaders build positive cultures and organizations loaded with people on a mission.

They also do eight other things that transform average organizations into great places to work.

They create and share a positive vision for a brighter and better future that keeps everyone moving in the right direction.

They lead with optimism, positivity and belief.

Positive leaders confront, transform and remove negativity. “One of the biggest mistakes leaders make is that they ignore the negativity within their team and organization. They allow it to breed and grow and it eventually sabotages the team and organization.”

They create united and connected teams. “Unity is the difference between a great team and an average team.”

They build strong relationships. “People follow the leader first and their vision second. What you say is important but who you are is even more important.” Invest in relationships, bring out the best in others, coach, encourage, serve, care and be someone that others can trust.

Positive leaders pursue excellence. “They are always looking for ways to transform what is into what could be,” says Gordon.

They lead with purpose. “Purpose is why you wake up and want to transform your team and organization and change the world.”

And they have grit. “Positive leaders find a way to navigate the roadblocks or run through them to move closer to their vision and goal.”

Gordon shows how even the most pessimistic among us can become a more positive person and effective leader.

He confesses to once being a fearful, negative, stressed-out and miserable husband and father. An ultimatum from his wife forced Gordon to change his ways.

“When I was young my dad struggled with himself,” Gordon’s daughter wrote in her college admission essay. “But over the years, I watched my dad work to become a more positive person. Then he started writing and speaking about it and sharing his message with others. I saw people change for the better and I know that if he can change, and they can change, the world can change.”

Would the people you lead and live with say the same thing?

@jayrobb lives in Hamilton and serves as director of communications for Mohawk College.


Review: Why Are There Snowblowers in Miami? Transform Your Business Using the Five Principles of Engagement


This review was first published in the Dec. 4 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Why Are There Snowblowers in Miami? Transform Your Business Using The Five Principles of Engagement

By Steven Goldstein

Greenleaf Book Group Press


If I was president of the Niagara Health System, I’d invite Edna out for lunch.

Edna was the best of a pretty remarkable group of nurses and health professionals who looked after my mom last week at the St. Catharines General Hospital.

Edna didn’t just provide exemplary care. She genuinely cared about my mom and provided real comfort to our family. While her Sunday shift ended at 7 p.m., Edna stuck around until my mom got out of surgery nearly two hours later. They were still talking when my brother-in-law and I called it a night.

And although she was caring for other patients on the ward three days later, Edna dropped by to offer some last minute encouragement as my mom headed home.

So if I was a senior executive wanting to make a great hospital even better for patients and families, I’d go to the frontlines and look to standout staff like Edna for ideas on what to start, stop and continue doing.

“Interacting with employees and customers on a regular basis is the key to success,” says Steven Goldstein, past chairman and CEO of American Express Bank and author of Why Are There Snowblowers in Miami?

“The answer to unleashing the power of your team – and to delighting your customers – lies outside the conference room. It is astounding how much valuable information can be obtained by simply talking to the people who really know the everyday inner workings of the company.”

Goldstein did exactly that while working for American Express in the United Kingdom and Ireland. That’s where he met John, a window washer who was ignored by every other executive in the building. Goldstein turned an impromptu 45-minute conversation with John into regular coffee breaks and end-of-day pints at a pub.

“I learned more in my first meeting with John than I could have ever learned reviewing reports or even talking to my team. He was extremely perceptive about what was going on in the business.”

So why aren’t leaders routinely connecting with frontline staff? Goldstein says it’s more a matter of will than skill. Yes, all senior executives are extremely busy with meetings. Some are introverts who aren’t blessed with the gift of gab. Others are insecure and believe they should already have all the answers. And more than a few leaders have developed over-inflated egos and take themselves a little too seriously.

Goldstein encourages senior executives to park their egos and venture alone and unannounced to the frontlines.  Don’t bring along an entourage or send in an advance team to stage manage a royal visit.

Take notes so the people you’re talking with know that you’re sincere and serious about their ideas and opinions. Report back to your team and make sure follow-up items are implemented.

“The best way to convince people that you are listening is for them to see clear changes resulting from their feedback. They will connect the dots.”

Be yourself and be natural in your conversations. Avoid being stiff, officious or contrived.

“Most important, have fun and enjoy this,” says Goldstein. “It is really great to get to know the people in your organization, especially the ones who really care about their customers and their jobs. Visit people and talk to them; make this a priority.”

Connecting with employees and customers is one of Goldstein’s five principles of engagement.  You also need to start looking at your organization with an outsider’s perspective, focus everyone’s attention on just two or three key metrics, be transparent with information and instill a bias for action. “Whatever speed you are going is too slow. Companies cannot assume they have endless time to evaluate, plan and launch new initiatives.”

When you have a highly engaged workforce, you don’t wind up doing dumb things like selling snowblowers at a Sears store in Miami. It’s one of many personal stories Goldstein tells from his 35-year career dedicated to helping leaders cure organizational dysfunction.

@jayrobb serves as director of communications for Mohawk College, lives in Hamilton, has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999 and is grateful to the health care team at St. Catharines General Hospital.

Review: If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Happy by Raj Raghunathan

if-youre-so-smart-why-arent-you-happy-0This review first ran in the Nov. 7 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

 If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Happy?

By Raj Raghunathan

Portfolio / Penguin


A Bay Street investment banker from Ancaster is on vacation.

The banker is sitting on a dock and drinking a Modelo.

She offers a beer to a local fisherman and strikes up a conversation.

The banker quickly realizes the fisherman is wicked smart.

“You should consider working on Bay Street,” says the banker.

The fisherman asks why he’d want to work on Bay Street.

“Because you could make a fortune,” says the banker.

The fisherman asks what he would do with his fortune.

“You could retire early and enjoy the good life,” says the banker. “With enough money, you could even move to Mexico, settle down in a small village and spend your days fishing.”

And that’s when the banker realizes the fisherman is even smarter than she first thought.

Raj Raghunathan, author of If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Happy, tells a version of this story to his business students at the University of Texas and the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad.  He says the story underscores how easy it is for us to fall prey to the happiness paradox and confuse career success with life success.

“Although happiness is a very important goal for most people, they also seem to devalue it as they go about their lives,” says Raghunanthan. “People seem to routinely sacrifice happiness for the sake of other goals.”

Raghunanthan didn’t want his students to make the same mistake.

“I wasn’t sure that I was helping my students lead happier, more fulfilling lives.  If our education system doesn’t ultimately lead to a better quality of life for all concerned, how good is it? I doubted that my courses – or for that matter most courses offered at business schools – were helping students lead happier and more fulfilling lives, and this troubled me.”

So Raghunanthan created a course that takes a scientific look at the determinants of happiness.  He put his oversubscribed course online and also turned it into a book.

He’s identified seven deadly happiness sins and seven corresponding habits of the highly happy.

“The things that lead to happiness and fulfilment are the things that make us not just better – more kind and compassionate – but also more successful. The recipe for happiness is a win-win-win recipe.”

According to Raghunanthan, lots of smart and successful people tend to botch the recipe and willingly or unwittingly sacrifice our happiness for other goals like money, fame and status.

Some of us make that sacrifice because don’t have a clear or concrete idea of what it means to be happy. “We tend to devalue things when they are abstract, ambiguous or otherwise difficult to understand.”

Others of us have deeply held negative beliefs about happiness. We worry it will make us lazy since the only time we’re truly happy is when we’re on vacation, sitting on a dock and doing nothing.

We worry that prioritizing happiness will make us selfish although the research shows exactly the opposite happens.

And we lose sight of the ultimate goal of leading a happier, more fulfilled life and instead focus all our time and attention on pursuing the means to achieving that goal.  “People can get so caught up chasing money that they forget all about why they wanted the money in the first place.”

Along with explaining the seven sins and habits, Raghunanthan offers seven happiness exercises that make a strong case for why we need to smarten up and change our ways.

As Raghunanthan asks at the end of his book, “if you aren’t happy, how smart are you really?”.

Jay Robb serves as director of communications at Mohawk College,  lives in Hamillton, Ontario and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999. He would happily move to a villa in southern Mexico.

Review – Joel Kotkin’s The Human City: Urbanism For The Rest of Us

human-city-1This review first ran in the Sept. 12 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

The Human City: Urbanism for the Rest of Us

By Joel Kotkin



“Sprawl is caused by affluence and population growth, and which of these exactly, do we propose to inhibit?”

George Easterbrook, contributing editor of The Atlantic and Washington Monthly, posed the question that’s worth debating here in Hamilton.

Joel Kotkin would make the argument that we need densification downtown plus dispersion on our suburban edges if we want continued economic growth in Steeltown. He’d also tell us that reports of suburbia’s death have been greatly exaggerated.

Kotkin is a presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University, executive director of the Center for Opportunity Urbanism and author of The Human City.

As churches, vacant lots and parking lots get turned into condos downtown, we’re banking on high-earning and free-spending young professionals moving in. Many will eventually want to start a family. That’ll be tough to do in a one-bedroom, 800 square-foot glass box 20-storeys above James St. North.

So one of three things will happen.

Young professionals will move out of their condos and into affordable single family homes with backyards, front porches and driveways in middle-class, family-friendly and congestion-free suburban neighbourhoods.

A shortage of homes for growing families will young professionals out of Hamilton and into smaller, surrounding communities where they can buy more house for less money.

Or they’ll postpone or cancel plans to have kids because it’s unaffordable and there’s nowhere to go to raise a family.

While the second option is bad, the third choice is even worse.

“Cities with few children and families will prove fundamentally unsustainable, deprived of a base from which they can draw new workers and consumers, as well as critical sources of both parental motivation and youthful innovation,” says Kotkin.

San Francisco’s a cautionary tale. There are now 80,000 more dogs than kids and the urban core has the highest percentage of households without children of any major U.S. city.

“Successful urban areas will be those that provide not only the vibrant districts that attract the young but also those, usually less dense, places that can help preserve the family’s place.”

For many families, those less dense places will be out in the ‘burbs.

“In reality, for most residents of cities, life is not about engaging the urban ‘entertainment machine’ or enjoying the most spectacular views from a high-rise tower,” says Kotkin. “To them, the goal is to achieve residence in a small home in a modest neighbourhood, whether in a suburb or in the city, where children can be raised and also where, of increasing importance, seniors can grow old amid familiar places and faces.”

That goal gets harder to reach as restrictions get put on suburban development. Urban policy should be about choices and not government edicts, says Kotkin.  “The notion that development be ‘steered’ into ever-denser pockets violates the wishes of the vast majority. These attitudes reflect a remarkable degree of disrespect and even contempt toward the choices people make. If people move to the periphery, it is not because they are deluded or persuaded by advertising but because they perceive that is where their quality of life is higher…The attempt to reduce the space and privacy enjoyed by households is not progressive but fundamentally regressive.”

Kotkin sees cities as more than the dense and crowded places envisioned by planners, downtown developers and urbanists.

“To some advocates, these are the only places that matter because they express ‘superior’ urban virtues pertaining to environmental or cultural values. Their notion of improving cities is less about luring people there with amenities that appeal to families and more about shoving development into dense transit nodes, increasing the ‘sustainability’ and profitability of their developments…Planners, politicians and pundits often wax poetic about these massive new building projects and soaring residences made up of hundreds of tiny stacked units, but there’s just one problem with this brave new condensed world: most people, including many inner-city residents, aren’t crazy about it.’

Kotkin’s unlikely to be invited to deliver the summit keynote speech to a banquet hall full of Hamilton urbanists. Yet he makes a convincing case for why doubling down on densification while restricting dispersion in suburbia is a bad idea if we want our city to be the best place to raise a child.

“No field of study – technical or in the humanities – thrives when only one side or perspective is allowed free reign and granted a dispensation from criticism. The question of the future of cities is too important to be hemmed in by dogma and should instead invite vigorous debate and discussion.”

Jay Robb serves as director of communications for Mohawk College, lives in Hamilton and reviews business books for the Hamilton Spectator.



Review: Born for This – How to Find the Work You Were Meant to Do by Chris Guillebeau

born for thisThis review first ran in the April 25th edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Born For This: How to Find The Work You Were Meant to Do

By Chris Guillebeau

Crown Business


One in 28,633,528.

Those are your odds for hitting this Friday’s LOTTO MAX jackpot according to the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Commission.

To put that in perspective, you have about a one in a million chance of getting hit by lightning.

So you need a Plan B if you’re banking on lottery winnings as your retirement plan.

Lucky for us, there’s another lottery with far better odds. And when you hit this jackpot, you wind up rich and happy.

It’s the career lottery and Chris Guillebeau knows how to score the winning ticket.

“Winning a gazillion dollars in the lottery would be nice, but finding what you were meant to do is far more important,” says Guillebeau, author of Born for This and creator of the World Domination Summit.

“Most of us want a balanced life full of work that brings happiness and prosperity. We want to do something we enjoy. We want to put our skills to good use. And ideally, we don’t want to face a false choice between love or money – we’d like to do what we love and be well-compensated for it.”

Congratulations if you’ve already hit the career jackpot. If you’re still figuring it out or lost your way, Guillebeau can lend a hand.

The 100 Person Project is worth considering whether you’re an employee or entrepreneur.

List five problems that you’ve solved for co-workers, friends and family. When people need your help, what do they ask for? What can you do that others struggle with?

Now offer to solve those same problems for 100 people.

Offer a free, no-obligation 15-minute consultation by phone or Skype.

Start with people you know and trust. Referrals and online offers will get you the rest of the way.

Call people at the appointed time, stay on topic and stick to allotted time.

After your consultation, follow up with a thank-you and a recap of what you talked about.

The 100 Person Project will show you what you do best, enjoy most and reveal whether there’s good money to be made.

“The whole point is learning what you’re good at that other people want to pay for,” says Guillebeau. “This is hugely important.”

If there are few takers for what you’re offering for free, try again with a different solution.  If there’s keen interest, build your career around solving that problem.

Here’s another suggestion. Ask people what they do for a living. Their answers will tell you if they’ve hit the career jackpot or if they’ve settled for a soul-crushing job or a hobby that doesn’t pay the bills. Now ask how they got there. How did they discover what they born to do? Learn from their experiences.

Guillebeau offers practical advice on how to win the career lottery. Take the money you’d blow on LOTTO MAX tickets and buy his book instead. You’ll learn how to hit the jackpot on a lottery with far better odds of winding up happy and wealthy.



Review: Smarter Faster Better – The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg

smarter faster betterThis review first ran in the April 28 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business

By Charles Duhigg

Doubleday Canada


Your dream team gives you nightmares.

You recruited your best and brightest employees to work on a mission critical project.

You assumed the whole would be greater than the sum of its parts.

But the parts aren’t fitting together and you’re running out of runway.

Google searched and found the key to building better teams. The company spent two years surveying employees, studying 180 teams, collecting tens of thousands of pieces of data and building dozens of software programs to run the numbers and analyze trends.

“The biggest thing you should take away from this work is that how teams work matters, in a lot of ways, more than who is on them,” says Laszlo Bock, head of Google’s People Operations department. “We think we need superstars. But that’s not what our research found. You can take a team of average performers, and if you teach them to interact the right way, they’ll do things no superstar could ever accomplish.”

Teams interact the right way when they feel psychologically safe. When they feel safe, teams don’t shy away from having the honest conversations and tough debates that lead to better decisions. There’s no fear of reprisals or retribution and team members can be counted on to look out for one another.

“Teams succeed when everyone feels like they can speak up and when members show they are sensitive to how one another feels,” says Charles Duhigg, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter with the New York Times and author of Smarter Faster Better.

Team leaders set the tone. If you want a productive team, resist the urge to interrupt and interject. Summarize what’s being said to prove you’re listening.  Be good at reading emotions and knowing when someone feels frustrated, upset or left out. Be quick to resolve team conflicts. And make sure everyone speaks at least once before bringing a meeting to a close.

“There are always good reasons for choosing behaviors that undermine psychological safety,” says Duhigg. “It is often more efficient to cut off debate, to make a quick decision, to listen to whoever knows the most and ask others to hold their tongues. But a team will become an amplification of its internal culture, for better or worse. Study after study shows that while psychological safety might be less efficient in the short run, it’s more productive over time.”

Along with showing how to build better teams, Duhigg looks at how we can be smarter and more productive when it comes to motivation, innovation, focus, goal setting, managing others, making decisions and absorbing data.

“Connecting these eight ideas is a powerful underlying principle,” says Duhigg, who tells dozens of stories that explain the latest in neuroscience, psychology and behavioral economics. “Productivity isn’t about working more or sweating harder. It’s not simply a product of spending longer hours at your desk or making bigger sacrifices.

“Productivity is about making certain choices in certain ways. The way we choose to see ourselves and frame daily decisions; the stories we tell ourselves, and the easy goals we ignore; the sense of community we build among teammates; the creative cultures we establish as leaders. These are the things that separate the merely busy from the genuinely productive.”

If you’re bringing people together to work on a project, save yourself some nightmares. Have everyone read and discuss Duhigg’s chapter on teamwork as their first assignment.

@jayrobb lives in Hamilton and serves as the Director of Communications for Mohawk College.


Review: Work Rules! by Laszlo Bock

work rulesThis review first ran in the Jan. 4th edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Work Rules: Insights From Inside Google That Will Transform How You Live and Lead

By Laszlo Bock

Hachette Book Group


Hoping to hire some all-star talent in 2016?

Be prepared to spend some serious money on recruitment.

And where will you come up with the cash to find and sign the best and brightest?

Google’s senior vice president of People Operations recommends raiding your training and development budget.

“The presence of a huge training budget is not evidence that you’re investing in your people,” says VP Laszlo Bock, author of Work Rules. “It’s evidence that you failed to hire the right people to begin with. Refocusing your resources on hiring better will have a higher return than almost any training program you can develop.”

Google front-loads its investment in people, says Bock. “The majority of our time and money spent on people is invested in attracting, assessing and cultivating new hires. If we are better able to select people up front, that means we have less work to do with them once they are hired.”

Google pays bonuses to employees who make successful referrals.  “In the early days and for many years, our best source of candidates was referrals from existing employees.” While the bonuses are generous, it turns out employees refer friends and colleagues for intrinsic reasons. They love their work and want others to experience it too.

Google also runs its own search firm. Staff who once spent their days screening resumes and scheduling interviews now proactively search for candidates. Google recognized that the best people aren’t looking for you or a new job. You need to find them.

“Hundreds of brilliant recruiters find and cultivate these individuals over time – sometimes over years,” says Bock. “Our in-house search firm finds more than half of our hires each year, at a cost far lower than using outside firms, with deeper insight into the market, and while providing candidates with a warmer, more intimate experience.”

Once you land your all-stars, be prepared to pay unfairly. Make compensation commensurate with contributions. “Your best people are better than you think, and worth more than you pay them,” says Bock. “If your best performer is generating 10 times as much impact as an average performer, they shouldn’t necessarily get 10 times the reward but I’d wager they should get at least five times the reward.”

Also enlist your high performers to train your low performers. “I promise you that in your organization there are people who are expert on every facet of what you do, or at least expert enough that they can teach others.”

Bock says your in-house trainers will understand your company and your customers better than any consultant or academic.  “It is generally far better to learn from people who are doing the work today, who can answer deeper questions and draw on current, real-life examples.  They understand your context better, they are always available to provide immediate feedback and they are mostly free.”

Free is a recurring theme in Bock’s playbook for building better organizations. The majority of Google’s people programs cost the company next to nothing or nothing at all. These programs have helped Google earn more than 100 awards as a top employer. FORTUNE magazine has named Google the best company to work for in the U.S. a record five times.

“The secrets of Google’s people success can be replicated in organizations large and small, by individuals and CEOs,” says Bock. “Not every company will be able to duplicate perks like free meals, but everyone can duplicate what makes Google great.”

And that greatness can help your organization recruit an unfair share of top talent in 2016.