Be a Leader that People Want to Follow – Invest in Talk!

Kevin P. Dincher

People say that talk is cheap, but it’s not.  Businesses spend a great deal on talk:  on communication systems so that employees can talk with one another, on meetings and strategy planning sessions, on getting customers to talk with them, on telling their stories at trade shows, and much more.

Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh invests heavily in talk.  The company’s renovation of Las Vegas’ old City Hall for its new offices includes the cost of making the building deliberately inconvenient—by creating collisions points that encourage people to connect with one another and talk.  For example, many of the original 19 entrances to the building will be closed off so that arriving and departing employees collide with one another through a central plaza, and restrooms will be located in the center of the building so that people from different departments collide with one another.  The design makes it more likely that people will connect with one another rather than being isolated and never seeing each other.   Hsieh says he envisions a culture where people talk and build relationships;   he believes that the best ideas and productivity occur serendipitously when employees engage in constant casual contact and conversation.  “We don’t really telecommute at Zappos,” says Hsieh.

We Don’t Really Telecommute?

That is a radical idea in today’s business environment—and it challenges the studies that say working from home makes some workers more productive.  It is also an idea that can get you a great deal of negative press.  Ask Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer.  The reaction to the memo ending telecommuting at Yahoo! was immediate and virulent.

Hsieh and Mayer, however, are two CEOs with roughly the same idea:  bringing people together creates a different creative energy that they both want to tap into.  But while Hsieh has been called an innovator, Mayer has been chastised for disrespecting her employees, blaming them for Yahoo!’s problems, and failing to support working parents.  Why the difference?  There are certainly many possible reasons—but one may be the differing levels of investment in talk.

Leading by Memo?

Hsieh has a pretty clear picture of what he wants Zappos to become—a community of workers that is integrated into the larger societal community—and  because he never tires of talking about this vision, everyone knows what he is about and where Zappos is going.  Therefore, when people hear “we don’t really telecommute” they aren’t particularly surprised.  It fits.  It may or may not be a good idea,  but people know that it fits.

As for Mayer, while Hsieh is constantly talking about a vision and how Zappos is going to get there, she wrote a memo.   Actually she didn’t write the memo.  HR did.  Mayer didn’t even tell people about this monumental change herself.  Whether eliminating telecommuting at Yahoo! is a good change or not, she didn’t invest in enough talking.   She needed to talk more about her vision for Yahoo! and how Yahoo! was going to get there.  Then whether they thought it was a good idea or not, they would know that eliminating telecommuting fit.

Actually, Mayer’s need for investing in talk is greater than Hsieh’s.   Zappos is a small (1500+ employees), growing and vibrant company whose culture already bears Hsieh’s stamp.  Yahoo! is a large (14,000 employees) company which is considered stodgy and lethargic in comparison to its competitors—and Mayer is trying to create a corporate culture that supports her vision and her strategy to rebuild the company. Anyone who tries to convince you that re-engineering a company’s culture is anything but difficult is doing you a disservice.   Mayer’s job is much harder than Hsieh’s—so she should be talking much more about her vision.

But the question is:  what is Mayer’s vision?  In her first six months as CEO Mayer made big changes—and not just by ending telecommuting.   As Dan Farber wrote for a recent CNET blog:

Six months into the job, Mayer has sprung for free food worldwide, ditched the BlackBerry, instituted weekly company update meetings, recruited ex-Googlers, revamped sales, launched flagship products including Yahoo Mail and Flickr, and signed deals with top content providers, such as NBC Sports and Wenner Media.

But Mayer’s most important job is to articulate a vision of what Yahoo can be beyond what she has described as giving “end users something valuable and delightful that makes them want to come to Yahoo every day.” That mission statement is not different from that offered by her many CEO predecessors at Yahoo.

Invest in Talk

A clear vision helps everyone understand why you are asking them to do something.   When people see for themselves what you’re trying to achieve, then the directives they are given tend to make more sense.  People may still not like those directives, but at least the directives make sense.  But in order for that to happen, you need to talk—and talk often.   Talk about the vision every chance you get.

Of course, it is also important to “walk the talk.”  Talk may not be cheap, but actions do speak louder than words.  What you do is more important and believable than what you say.  Lead by example, not by memo.

Let’s talk, Ms. Mayer.  It won’t be cheap—but it will be worth the investment.

Kevin Dincher is an organization development consultant, professional development coach and educator with 30 years of experience that includes not only OD consulting but also work in adult education,  counseling psychology and crisis management, program and operations management, and human resources.

LinkedIn: Kevin Dincher


Re-engineering Your Company’s Culture? All You Need to Do …

Kevin P. Dincher

For some time now corporate culture has been a hot topic among business executives and management consultants.  More and more, managers are coming to the recognition that organizations are actually made up of people and relationships rather than just structures and processes—and discovering that they are really managing a culture with its own values, beliefs, expectations, behavioral ground rules and power structures.  Companies like Southwest Airlines and Zappos are seen as models for the advantages that building a healthy, vibrant culture can give to a brand:  these are businesses that attract and retain the best talent, effectively translate their values to their products and services, and clearly show their customers what they are really all about.  It is understandable that other businesses want to emulate their success—and since their culture plays a critical role in that success, it is just as understandable that business owners and executives want to know how to change their own corporate cultures to gain similar competitive advantages.

If you google corporate culture or organizational culture, you will pull up what seems like an endless list of articles and blogs on how to change your company’s culture.  There are two things that many of these articles and blogs have in common.  The first is they assure you that trying to change an existing corporate culture is extremely difficult.  Article after article, blog after blog, the gurus and consultants tell you that re-engineering your company’s culture, although not impossible, will probably be the most difficult change effort you will ever undertake.  That is not at all promising when you consider that it has become axiomatic that overall something like 7 out of 10 formal change efforts initiated by organization are considered failures.

The second thing that many of these how-to blogs and articles have in common is this:  after affirming how incredibly difficult it is to change an existing corporate culture, the authors go on to offer a sleek 4- or 5-step process for changing your culture that creates the impression that perhaps re-engineering your culture may not be so difficult after all.  I read one blog recently that talked about how difficult re-engineering culture is—and then had the temerity to say that to change a culture “all we need to do is two simple things.”

Anyone who tries to convince you that re-engineering your company’s culture is anything but difficult or who seems to be presenting an easy process for changing your culture is doing you a disservice.

Culture is an intricate system of values, beliefs, behavioral norms and power structures that have developed over time and have become institutionalize. 

Many elements of your culture develop over time through lived experience within your company.  What actually succeeds historically (rather than just what the formal documents say) gets institutionalized and become “the way we do things.”  Individual and group interactions, tribal knowledge, social pressure and reprisals, how conflicts are resolved, how decisions are actually made, engagements with clients and customers – all these events and interactions along with much more teach your employees unconsciously and unintentionally what to think and how to act in your company.

Don’t underestimate culture.

Don’t underestimate how powerful your culture is.  It drives the way that people and groups interact with each other, with clients and with stakeholders more powerfully than your formal policies and procedures.

Don’t underestimate how deeply rooted and pervasive your culture is.  Culture is your corporate DNA—it is your company’s core characteristics, your true identity.  And all members of your organization live by it.  Regardless of what you do in your onboarding process, your employees will teach new members “the way we do things” –this is how we see things, this is the way we think about things, and this is the way we act here.

Don’t underestimate how complex your culture is.  Not only does it develop unconsciously in a myriad of complex interactions and pervade your company, it also exists in subcultures throughout your company.  Your sales, marketing, engineering and administrative groups will all share a common culture—but they will also each have their own variations, their own behavioral quirks and interactions which affect the whole system to some extent .

Why try to change your company’s culture? 

 While changing your culture is not simple, the reason for considering whether or not to change your culture is:  culture affects productivity, performance—and profits.

Unlike more tangible aspects of your organization—like processes that can be streamlined or improved to reduce employee overtime or errors—the direct impact of culture is difficult to measure.  But because culture provides guidelines on how things actually get done (regardless of what is in the policy and procedure manual), it affect everything your employees do:  customer care; product quality; attendance and punctuality; safety; communication and decision-making; trust and integrity—the list is endless.

In 2011 Booz & Co., a leading global management consulting firm, published research (“Why Culture Is Key”) in Strategy +Business showing the importance of culture to organization success.  They found that companies with cultures that are highly aligned to innovative strategies have 30% higher enterprise value growth and 17% higher profit growth than companies with low degrees of alignment.

You live in your culture every day—but you probably don’t pay it much heed.  When your culture and strategy are not aligned, however, then your culture becomes counterproductive.  Think of culture as the environment in which your strategy—and your brand–either thrives or dies a slow death.  Culture matters enormously—and creating and maintaining a successful culture that is aligned to your strategy takes careful attention and hard work.

Kevin Dincher is an organization development consultant, professional development coach and educator with 30 years of experience that includes not only OD consulting but also work in adult education,  counseling psychology and crisis management, program and operations management, and human resources.

LinkedIn: Kevin Dincher

Posted in Change Management, Corporate Culture, Organization Development (OD). Tags: , , , , . Comments Off on Re-engineering Your Company’s Culture? All You Need to Do …
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