Thursday, April 20, 2017

Improvisational Leadership: Use Improv to Avoid Leadership Pitfalls

Guest post from Bob Kulhan:

Most of us aspire to be great leaders—passionate, inspiring, thoughtful and productive. But we all know people in the business world who do a terrible job in leadership positions: awful bosses, disengaged department heads, ineffective team managers, and otherwise bad bigwigs in nice offices who make the work environment an unpleasant one.

So if we all have the potential to be great leaders, where do some go wrong? Perhaps some leaders have developed bad habits; some lack an understanding of what it takes to be a good leader; and some feel they’re leading well simply because they’re focused on their intention to lead, not the results of their leadership. I specialize in bringing improvisational skills to the workplace, and one of the key elements of improvisational thinking is the ‘self-audit’—the ability to be aware in real time of how you’re doing your job and how your actions and leadership style are impacting those around you.   

A regular self-audit can keep you from slipping into one or more of the following leadership categories. If you find that some of your language, actions or habits are on this list, don’t worry—some simple improvisational techniques can help you fix them.

YES, BUT(’ers)
Yes, but(’ers) miss a key truth: how you frame language can make an enormous difference in sharing ideas, brainstorming, relationship building, and creating culture and influence. If people know one thing about improvisational thinking, it’s the concept of “Yes, and…” in which you invite open communication by responding directly to and striving to build upon the other person’s ideas. In contrast, “Yes, but…’ devalues, undermines, redirects, and (to the person hearing it) even negates everything that came before it.

IMPROV CORRECTIVE: Be mindful of your team and your role by specifically using “Yes, and…”. Make it clear that you respect what team members have to say and value their input. A great leader creates an atmosphere in which all members can flourish, and using the “Yes, and…” improv technique can help you create a culture of acceptance.

Some leaders assume that every party needs a pooper, and that a leader should point out flaws in others’ work—or say ‘No’ to others’ ideas. Their guiding principle seems to be negativism, and if something does turn out right, they feel compelled to point out that it could have been done better. Few things demotivate and demoralize a team faster.

IMPROV CORRECTIVE: Understand the difference between Divergent thinking (generating as many ideas as you can) and Convergent thinking (winnowing them down to one or two killer ideas). During divergent thinking, take off the “critical thinking” hat so you and your team can fully explore the possibility and potential of ideas before shooting them down. Then reapply the critical thinking skills in a separate convergent thinking phase, as you drive toward a productive outcome.

For these leaders, there has never been a good idea that couldn’t be dismissed in favor of their ‘better’ idea. These people judge the decisions of others without collaborating or contributing to the team in any meaningful way. They are much more interested in highlighting their own achievements, accolades, status and rank.        

IMPROV CORRECTIVE: Set the ego aside. Make sure that your subordinates and colleagues perceive your own goal as a leader to be the achievement of positive team results, not personal gain. If you’ve created a strong, improvisational team and a ‘Yes and’ environment, everyone will help each other succeed; team success is personal success. A good leader will make a good team look great, and a great team will make a good leader look amazing.

This approach to leadership is thoughtless, passionless, and lacking in energy. These leaders say they prize creativity, innovation and change but demand that the same old things be done in the same old way they’ve always be done. They talk a lot about ‘motivation’ without ever doing anything to motivate.           

IMPROV CORRECTIVE: Constantly take action. Make initiations and declarations. A leader needs to keep the energy of a team focused and driven. Change is a constant. You can lead change, follow change, or get dragged along behind it. Which do you prefer?

This leader may be well-liked and has gotten successful results in the past but has fallen into the trap of demanding 100% perfection 100% of the time. This leadership dynamic is based in micromanagement, rooted in a fear of failure.          

IMPROV CORRECTIVE: Go ahead, be vulnerable and open to strategic failure. Improv is by nature about failure and evolution. An improvisational leader should experiment and innovate when possible and constantly seek out potential ways to improve performance. Create periods of time in which it’s okay to take chances and fail.  Avoid analysis paralysis; remember that only approximately 10% of decisions have to be 100% correct—the remaining 90% of decisions just need to be made, and there’s plenty of room to improvise, adapt and succeed. Avoid micromanaging by using improv techniques to create a team culture based in open communication and trust.

A Leader in Name Only, these people provide no guidance or support and barely show any leadership presence. Though not present for the day-to-day grind, they take all the credit for success and no responsibility (or accountability) for struggles, challenges or failures.  

IMPROV CORRECTIVE:  Lead by example, not with empty declarations. That means being available when guidance is needed and aware that struggles could be great opportunities for mentorship and team growth. Moreover, own the failures. This is a simple matter of integrity and accountability. The buck does indeed stop with you. A great leader credits the team when there is a success, and shoulders the responsibility when there is a failure. Any team’s chances of achieving desired results increase when a leader allows team members to be invested in success, appreciated when they achieve it, and free of a fear of failure when they don’t.

Great leaders (or bad ones) don’t emerge through just a few decisions or actions. Leadership traits—good and bad—develop over time, and the most enlightened leaders make personal leadership development part of their overall strategy for success. The more honest you are about how you are truly perceived as a leader, the better equipped you’ll be to avoid leadership pitfalls and influence your team in a positive way.   

About the Author:

Bob Kulhan is the author of GETTING TO “YES, AND”: The Art of Business Improv (Stanford University Press; January 24, 2017). He is President, CEO, and Founder of Business Improv, an innovative consultancy that specializes in experiential learning and serves an international roster of blue-chip firms. He is also an Adjunct Professor at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business and Columbia Business School. A performer with over 20 years of stage credits, he has trained with a long list of legendary talents, including Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. An actor and former core faculty member in Chicago’s famed Second City and a member of the resident company at the iO Theater, Kulhan is a co-founder of the critically acclaimed Baby Wants Candy improv troupe. His work has been featured by such outlets as Big Think, CNN, Entrepreneur, Fast Company, the Financial Times, NPR, Slate, and the Wall Street Journal.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Why Great Leadership Requires the Courage to Accept Pain

Guest post from Angela Sebaly:

As a leadership coach, I’ve spent decades observing hundreds of people who have strikingly different backgrounds and equally diverse approaches to leadership. Despite the differences, there has been one quality that has separated the good managers from the exceptional leaders: the willingness to step up to the plate and face any challenge rather than avoid it. That means making difficult decisions or implementing unpopular changes. It also means taking a stand or holding an emotionally charged conversation. Even giving and receiving feedback can be challenging - yet it’s a challenge that absolutely must be faced.

Thus, being a great leader means turning towards the problem and tackling it head-on rather than running from tension. Not just every now and then, but regularly.  This may sound like par for the course, but in fact, it’s more complicated than it sounds and is often shirked because with challenges, comes pain.

Most of us have already experienced this somehow. After all, isn’t it easier to find a workaround in a tricky situation than to risk a confrontation - even if that confrontation might open the door to a lasting solution? This is just one example among many.

Instead of trying to erase or evade the potential for pain in the midst of challenges, I advise leaders to lean into the experience. This begins with acknowledging that pain will inevitably arise  - whether you’re holding a touchy conversation with an employee who has been an hour late for a week straight, or making the decision to cut back on departmental funding or personnel.

Pain can be a tricky thing. We humans experience pain differently. Our threshold for pain is entirely subjective. Pain is a stimulus, and how we perceive that stimulus differs based on our individual propensity to sense it and tolerate it. One person might faint at breaking a bone while another doesn’t realize it’s broken for days, if not weeks. To be an effective leader, you have to understand your relationship with pain and learn to endure it.  It is, quite simply, part of the process of effective leadership.  Leaders must be mentally prepared for this fact that pain and have a toolkit at their fingertips for rising to meet challenges instead of shirking them in favor of stability and comfort.

This, in turn, requires courage. John Wayne once said that courage is being scared to death and saddling up anyway. This definition is one I’ve held onto in my work, because I believe courage partly comes from a leader’s ability to face fear and potential pain.

The good news is, no matter how pain-averse you are, you can develop the courage and strength to rise to challenges and work through pain. Everyone can. Leaders falsely believe they are required to be the Navy Seals of the workplace -- unemotional, unwavering, strong -- to be considered courageous, but in reality, we all have the power to tap into courage.

That’s because courage is not something we are born with.  It is not a definitive characteristic like the color of your eyes or your height. Rather, courage is a mindset that requires only grit and determination. To be courageous means to keep working at something even if it is tough or uncomfortable. It takes practice and dedication, but once it’s developed it is a priceless skill that can be applied to all varieties of leadership, whether in the workplace, in the community or at home.

Angela Sebaly, author of The Courageous Leader (Wiley, spring 2017), is co-founder and CEO of the firm Personify Leadership, a training provider. Formerly the Vice President of Leadership Development for a global oil, gas and chemicals inspection company, Angela also serves as principle consultant for the firm Invested Leadership. An entrepreneur developing a global presence,  Angela has been coaching, facilitating and leading teams and organizations for over two decades. Education, communication and courage are the pillars of her life’s work.  She lives with her family in Fort Lauderdale. 

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Great Leaders Know What They Do Best – and Let Go of the Rest

Guest post from Kathy Kolbe:
“I’m a strategist,” Hank tells his management team. “Like most good generals, I give you the specifics of what you need to do, and why.”

Hank’s wise about what works best for him to do – or not to do. But his stereotyping of generals is not accurate. We’ve worked with four-star generals who describe their leadership method this way:

“I give my people the bottom line of what’s gotta happen. They’re on the ground, in the midst of the action, and are best at coming up with their own strategies for how to accomplish those goals.”

Most problems can be solved in different ways with a variety of modes of action. Wise leaders know their best methods for initiating solutions, and who to trust to take it from there. They know they can’t do it all – and that they need to find the right people to fill in the gaps. Those gaps aren’t deficits. They are the cards they were dealt. They are the ones they have to require from others.

No one can do it all. There are 12 natural or instinct-based ways of making decisions, which the ancient philosophers and current research ties to the conative part of the mind/brain. Innate conative capabilities determine our best methods of problem solving, not what types of companies we run.  Human beings are born with four of those capabilities in their wheelhouse, their MO (conative modus operandi).

Great leaders know when, where and why to put their four conative capabilities to use. Wannabe leaders believe that anything someone else can do well, they can do better. Their lack of delegating the tasks that don’t fit their MO inevitably weakens respect for their leadership, leads to a loss of collaborative strengths, and causes mental burn-out from pushing themselves beyond their limits.

Former Alaska Airlines CEO John Kelly was a master at knowing when to take charge through one of his conative capabilities – innovating solutions. He also knew when and how to count on the traditionalists on his management team. He knew their conative, or instinct-based MOs, as well as the conative culture throughout his organization. That allowed him to handle their first-ever loss-of-life in a plane crash with outstanding communications and his personal involvement in the most urgent needs. He knew he should be the spokesperson, and he knew exactly who he could count on to cover the other aspects of the complex situation.

Disaster of another sort was predictable at Arthur Andersen, the one-time leading global accounting enterprise. Leaders there ignored warnings that the organization would implode if they didn’t stop churning out conative lookalikes as partners. Their insistence that everyone who filled top leadership roles mimic the MO of current partners led to a bunch of shoot-from-the-hip deal-makers running the place.  Too many so-called leaders believed that bringing in new business was more important than doing an excellent job with their traditional bean-counting role. No one in authority there was paying close enough attention to regulatory matters. That’s not a minor “oops” when the clients you’re advising are lending organizations. Especially since these clients also had leaders who tended to ignore those pesky little details – and were paying them to keep their companies out of trouble.

Growth oriented people need to surround themselves with nay-sayers who save them from themselves. Without the gumption to listen to what you don’t want to hear, the whole house of cards will fall down. None of the information we showed the data-resistant leaders in Arthur Andersen seemed to enter into their decision making. Just a few of the right people in the right place in the organization would have changed the history of its catastrophic failure.

Co-authors Gino Wickman and Mark C. Winters are so right when they wrote in their book, Rocket Fuel, that pairing the right conative abilities “is the key to getting everything you want out of your business.” Their recent experiences in business show that the pattern we have seen over decades remains consistently true. As they say, “You will get more of what you want from your business when you share natural talents and innate skill sets, [because they give] the power to reach new heights for virtually any company or organization.”

Great leaders have the humility to know they are great because they recognize what they are not great at doing – and make the effort to figure out who would be.

Kathy Kolbe and Amy Bruske are the authors of the new book, Business Is Business.
Kathy is the global leader in discovering and accessing the power of human instincts. She's done the brain research to prove the relevance of her Kolbe Theory of Conation to individual and organizational success. Kathy was the first person to connect conative behavior to instinctive drives, which she postulated as the source of the patterns of mental energy commonly known as a person's MO.
Amy is the president of Kolbe Corp and leads seminars for business leaders throughout the world. She was recently named Business Owner of the Year by the Phoenix chapter of the National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO).

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Culture is King

Guest post By Dr. Linda Sharkey:

“Our customers are important to us. Please stay on the line for the next available representative.”  The irony of this message sinks in after the first five minutes on hold. During the next five minutes, it becomes clear the values of the organization are aligned around cost savings—with the naive hope you’ll ignore their actions and believe their words.  Thankfully, there are organizations that are a delight to do business with, where employees go out of their way to help you—and help each other. This atmosphere makes you want to jump for joy and figure out how to clone the whole experience.


The difference in these two scenarios is culture. And cultural innovation should be a top priority for your company. No doubt you have probably experienced workplaces where

managers yelled at their teams. People keep their heads down to  avoid doing something wrong and, as a result, avoid doing something right. The culture of these places tamps down good ideas instead of bringing out the best in people.

What about your organization? Have you ever had someone tell you that your idea wasn’t good, and then share it as their own? Or say he wants creativity and innovation, only to criticize every new perspective?

Good ideas are regularly squashed, never to see the light of day. You get the sense your boss really does not want good ideas that don’t originate from him. So, as the employee, you stop and you do as you are told. You know the written rules of the company really are not true and that your place is to be quiet, follow orders, and survive if you can.

Here is a real example from a leader I have worked with that depicts the situation mentioned above. While I was coaching this leader, he vented that his staff lacked creativity. He said, “they never have any good ideas when I ask for them. They just look at me blankly. It’s so frustrating.”

When we interviewed his team the picture became clearer. He sent the message to his employees that he really didn’t want ideas from them. He only wanted his own ideas. They shared how they wasted lots of time and energy in coming up with new ideas just to see them go nowhere.

When the team feedback was shared with the leader he was shocked and did not believe it. He actually thought he had a lazy and uninspired staff. The staff definitely was not lazy or uninspired, just extremely frustrated. The boss was creating a

culture of low accountability and complacency and did not even know it.  This leader thought he valued others ideas but his behavior telegraphed he did not!  If this scenario sounds familiar to you as a leader or as a team member you are creating or working in a toxic culture.  Maybe you don’t have a boss yelling at you which is toxic enough but you have a boss who is holding you down!

Cultures that are toxic by their very nature are not innovative. People in these toxic organizations lay low, stay out of trouble, and rarely step forward with an innovative idea or recommendation. If you’re not purposely investing in a healthy culture, your business is already declining, whether you realize it or not.


Culture is rooted in values. Not the ones on the posters in the hallways but in the values that really shape the practices of the organization.

Notice the beautiful value statements on the walls: We are a team. We work to bring great solutions to our customers. Our people are our most important asset. Integrity is our core. But when you ask for help you get bounced around.

Bersin and Associates reviewed 6,000 companies on Glassdoor representing more than 2.2 million employees. They discovered, as did we, that culture and company values were the biggest driver of a company’s brand. Our own study of over 500 Fortune 1,000 companies showed that culture and values statistically had the greatest impact on the company’s brand and market performance, followed by coaching.

Culture is also key to a satisfied workforce. In another 2014 study by Glassdoor they uncovered what people really cared about. Culture and values. Regardless of income, Glassdoor found these two factors to be the top predictors of employee satisfaction.  And as people earned more, culture and values became even more important.  Today employees move around a lot more, and one key driver of why they come to your company is the values you represent and live.  For millennials, culture and values is far more powerful. It is the hidden underbelly that makes people want to work for you and stay.


We’ve all experienced the toxic leader and we know how demoralizing that can be.  But the worst part of having toxic leaders is that they drive a toxic culture.  Once a culture embeds toxic behaviors and values – it takes forever to change.   Interesting enough, you can change leaders quickly but cultures are so powerful that they suck the new leaders into quicksand of the old patterns and behaviors.    The new leaders either leave or they adapt.  Changing a toxic culture is hard, takes lots of time, energy and money that most organizations don’t have the luxury of today.


Here’s five actions you must take to be sure your culture shines in the eyes of employees and customers:

1.    Be crystal clear about your company’s core values and never deviate for financial gain.

2.    Ensure your leaders behave consistently according to those values and allow no bad apples.

3.    Hire and promote those that live the values – who you hire, promote and reward speaks volumes about you as a leader and what you really value.

4.    Get the facts - monitor and measure your culture closely to make sure it reflects the values.

5.    Tap into your customers and see your values through their eyes – does you brand live up to your customer commitments.

Dr. Linda Sharkey is the co-author of The Future-Proof Workplace (Wiley, 2017), and widely acknowledged as one of the world’s prominent thought leaders on global leadership development. At the foundation of Dr. Sharkey’s success are years of in-the-trenches experience with some of the world’s largest and most admired companies, including GE where she was a Senior HR Executive, building high-performance teams and developing talent that drives productivity and company growth. As Chief Talent Officer and V.P. People Development at Hewlett Packard, Dr. Sharkey was responsible for driving the company’s talent management initiatives, performance management processes career development, executive staffing, coaching, employee engagement, and diversity and inclusion efforts. 

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Were the Founding Fathers Great Leaders?

Guest post from Gordon Leidner:

Alexander Hamilton and the Founding Fathers have made a splash in the news recently, thanks to Broadway’s sensational production “Hamilton.” The modern hip-hop and R&B musical highlights the leadership of Hamilton, Washington, and other Founders during our country’s revolutionary beginnings.  This brings to mind two questions: “Were the Founding Fathers really the great leaders they are claimed to have been?”  If so, “What can we learn from them?” Let’s look at the facts:

ü  Facing the opposition of King George III, leader of the most powerful nation on earth, the Founders declared American independence and defeated the king’s formidable armies with a military force that general George Washington described as “half-starved and always in rags.”

ü  In a world where the rights of a monarch or a privileged few were all that mattered, the Founders resolved to establish a new nation based on the proposition that “all men are created equal.”  They fearlessly accepted the risk of being hanged for treason and signed their names to the Declaration of Independence.

ü  In spite of the fact that every previous democracy had failed, the Founders created the world’s first surviving democratic republic which effectively balanced power between thirteen independent states and all three branches of their new federal government.

Most people recognize the Founders as “revolutionary” leaders, but leadership theorists have a more descriptive term for them.  The Founding Fathers, such as Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams are seen collectively as “transformational” leaders.

Transformational leaders are the ones to call on when you need significant change.  They are unique because they don’t just point the way to a goal, keep a project in the black, or manage day-to-day activities.  They envision significant change and define it as “the right thing to do.” They exemplify moral integrity.  They create appropriate goals, are honest and vulnerable with their followers, and establish an environment of trust.  They are followed with loyalty and respect.

Because transformational leaders define the right thing to do and lead with integrity, their followers are frequently motivated to do more than they originally expected to—and often go “above and beyond.”  Followers become leaders in the cause.  When the going gets tough, they continue to persevere and make sacrifices toward the common goal in spite of personal difficulties or hardship.  According to leadership theorist James MacGregor Burns, transformational leaders and followers “raise one another to higher levels of morality and motivation.”

The Founding Fathers utilized various leadership techniques, but for the purposes of this article we will focus on three fundamental strategies for transformational leaders.  These strategies were intrinsic to the success of the Founding Fathers well over 200 years ago, and they are equally essential for aspiring transformational leaders today:

1. Exemplify moral integrity
Although George Washington was an experienced military leader, it was his unquestioned moral integrity that led Congress to appoint him Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army in 1775.  Long before he was chosen for this command, he had earned the trust and respect of all American citizens.

It is impossible to be an effective transformational leader without the trust, loyalty, and respect of your followers.  To achieve this, a leader must start with honesty.  Honesty can be demonstrated in many ways, including one that people are reluctant to follow—admitting personal weaknesses.  Fearing loss of respect, a leader may believe that it is advantageous to hide his or her faults.  But admitting weakness not only encourages the respect of followers, but it also helps to establish an environment of trust, which is a key action for turning followers into leaders.

2. Go beyond self-interest
After they decided to form a new nation based on the proposition that “all men are created equal,” the Founders boldly proclaimed their reasons for rejecting the king’s rule, and wrote the Declaration of Independence to describe their vision of democracy.  Then, despite a powerful British army only a hundred miles away, they demonstrated their willingness to go beyond their own self-interest for the good of others, and signed their names to the proclamation.

Transformational leaders today must first define their most important task.   It must be something of lasting importance their followers will recognize as beneficial to other people as well as themselves. The transformational leader must be willing to put his or her “skin in the game,” and demonstrate how others will benefit at least as much as, and ideally more than, the leader will.

3. Respect your people
After the United States Constitution was accepted by the Continental Congress and sent to the states for ratification, the Founding Fathers were surprised by the adverse reaction of the people.  Where, the good citizens asked, were their “rights as citizens” defined?  James Madison respected this request from the people and led the effort to generate a bill of rights—which were added in the form of the first ten amendments to the Constitution.

There are many ways today for transformational leaders to show respect for their people.  Ideally, they should try to develop personal relationships with as many of them as possible.  They should treat followers as individuals, and attempt to understand their values, aspirations, and beliefs.  Finally, transformational leaders should find ways to challenge their followers intellectually, and develop methods of integrating followers’ personal goals with the group’s goal.

So, a return to our original questions yields two answers: yes and yes.  The Founders were not only great leaders in 1776, but are still worthy of emulation by aspiring leaders today.

Gordon Leidner has over thirty years of management and engineering experience in the aerospace and IT industries, and an advanced degree in Applied Management.  An author of many books and articles on American history, his latest book, The Leadership Secrets of Hamilton: 7 Steps to Revolutionary Leadership from Alexander Hamilton and the Founding Fathers.  For more, go to

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Leading with Trust

Guest post by Paul J. Zak, PhD:

One-third of business leaders surveyed in 2015 said that retaining colleagues is their number one concern. Everyone knows that people are mobile. About one-quarter of employees say that they will look for a new job in the next year. Some are chasing a higher salary, but nearly equally important is the desire for a better opportunity inside or outside their present company. Employers underestimate the importance of personal and career development on employee retention, vastly overestimating the importance of salary and benefits. As Christopher Bishop, head of Herman Miller’s Innovation lab has said, "The war for talent is over, talent has won."

Leaders who fail to invest in skill development for team members implicitly enforce a rigid hierarchy that inhibits innovation.   A lack of leadership development also undermines a key aspect of culture that drives high-performance: trust.        

Through my research, I have found that high trust organizations outperform low-trust ones on multiple outcome measures by a wide margin.  My team spent a decade running experiments that measured brain activity while people worked to find out why some teams are productive and others engage in "presenteeism."  Trust, and an understanding of how the organization improves lives, were key performance drivers.  Our work also uncovered the eight building blocks of trust.  The science provides specific and actionable ways that leaders can modify these building blocks to increase trust and reap performance improvements.        

One of the eight foundations of trust is a set of policies I call "Invest."  Companies that actively invest in the professional and personal growth of colleagues are demonstrating trust in them. The brain's trust signal, a neurochemical called oxytocin that my lab discovered in the early 2000s, motivates us to reciprocate when someone provides us with a benefit.  Our studies show that when companies invest in colleague development, it increases engagement and productivity.   It also reduces employee turnover: investing in colleague developments demonstrates a desire to have a long-term relationship.        

In a surprising finding, my research revealed that personal growth has a powerful effect on engagement and productivity.  Philosophers such as Aristotle, and psychologists including Carl Jung, Abraham Maslow, and Martin Seligman have argued that personal growth is necessary for human flourishing. Our analyses confirmed this – there is positive feedback between thriving outside of the office and productivity at work. I call investing in both professional and personal growth "whole person" development.          

Many successful companies have realized the positive return from personal and professional development programs. SAS Institute, a statistical analysis software company, invests in its colleagues with an almost limitless set of classes to acquire new skills, gives employees access to career mentors, subsidizes care for elderly parents, offers financial assistance and paid leave for adoptions, has built on-site sports and recreation facilities, has a beautiful campus with resident artists, and serves healthy food in their cafes. SAS also minimizes the use of contractors and simply hires the people they need. This commits colleagues to SAS and allows SAS to commit to them. By all accounts, it is working.  SAS is the world’s largest privately held software company with over $2 billion in revenue and 11,000 employees.   They are also winning the war on talent: SAS receives 200 applications for every opening and have the lowest employee turnover in the software industry at two percent per year.          

Investing in colleagues does not need to be expensive.  A trend at many companies including Zappos, Google, Procter & Gamble, Hubspot, and Facebook is napping rooms.  Many colleagues are sleep-deprived due to travel or having young children and this gives them a chance to refresh their brains and gain the energy boost from a short nap.  Other companies, such as mortgage lender United Shore Financial Services, use a program called "Firm 40" to focus colleagues on going all out for forty hours and then going home.  These companies expect the parking lot to be empty at 6:05 PM and that work is not brought home. Even Goldman Sachs has gotten rid of the go-go days of 100-hour work weeks.  To keep the best talent, they created Goldman Sachs University to invest in professional growth and they also provide guidance on taking time off. The co-head of investment banking at Goldman Sachs said, “The goal is for our analysts to want to be here for a career... This is a marathon, not a sprint.”

Just investing in colleagues increases trust and productivity. The science I have done shows leaders how small changes to the other seven building-blocks of trust will increase engagement.  The war for talent is real, and building a culture of trust is an important step in empowering, engaging, and retaining, top talent. 

So what investments are you making in a culture of trust?  Now is the time to start, because your competitors already have.

Paul J. Zak, PhD, is founding Director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies and Professor of Economics, Psychology, and Management at Claremont Graduate University.  He is author of TRUST FACTOR:  The Science Of Creating High-Performance Companies (AMACOM, January 2017).  For more information, visit

Thursday, March 9, 2017

When “Fluff” Triples Revenues: Why Leaders Can’t Overlook Happiness

Guest post from Michelle Gielan:

The first time Gary Baker, president of Nationwide Brokerage Solutions heard about the research on happiness and how it affects the workplace, he referred to it as “fluff.” And why wouldn’t he? Our culture has long viewed happiness in the workplace as a sign of lower productivity. Surely those infusing joy and laughter within the confines of their office are slacking off and costing the company time and most certainly money. By referring to happiness research as “fluff,” Gary was only holding true to a generations old societal norm where happiness should be withheld until after the job is done.

But what if happiness is the key to getting the job done?  

Science has shown that when we are filled with positive emotions, our brains actually work much better and our results improve. This can and does translate into workplace productivity and overall company success. Our research has found that a positive brain is connected with increasing sales by 37%, productivity by 31%, and decreasing the negative effects of stress by 23%. Instinctively we may know that the negative social script of holding out on happiness until the work is done puts us at odds with our most human instincts—and that creates stress and an epidemic of disengagement. But because the desire to conform is incredibly strong, most of us give in and slowly disengage from our work too.

Look at this through your own lens. When you are passionate, happy and engaged in what you are doing, how is your own productivity and success? How is it when you are unhappy, disengaged and experiencing complacency or even dread? Those two scenarios have two very different outcomes I’m guessing.

It’s important for leaders to disassociate smiles and laughter with slacking off and, instead, pair it with passion, heightened creativity and desire to reach goals. Your team needs to feel like a team. Teams want the same thing. They work toward the same thing -- everyone doing their part for the bigger picture. Experience passion and happiness at work and with work is helpful to the bottom line. People want to get their jobs done, freeing you up to focus on leading.

No iron fist ruling necessary.

Against his initial instincts, Gary Baker introduced our training program that would help the organization confront and rewrite social scripts that were not serving success, and provide a narrative pathway for people to reach a more positive mindset, attain higher levels of optimism, and deepen social connections.

Our training is called “The Orange Frog,” and it highlighted stories of various frogs in parable format. Through it, employees learned the best practices of resilient leaders, how to become more adaptive, and how to develop a capacity to “see” more opportunities, which all lead to better business outcomes. Thousands of employees at Nationwide were trained on how to put the latest happiness research into practice to achieve tangible business results, and it didn’t take long before Baker and his team saw the effects.

What was the outcome of this experiment in “fluff?”  For one, Nationwide’s revenues increased by 50% in just 18 months--to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. Additionally, the new insurance application rate increased by 237% during that same time. When he saw results that he couldn’t ignore, Baker changed his tune. He also changed the walls in his office, painting the entire call center bright orange.

The once somber cubicles are now scattered with orange plush frogs, and hanging around the offices are large framed pictures of employees working at soup kitchens wearing bright orange shirts. Employees are very enthusiastic about “being orange.” They know broadcasting happiness--constantly communicating an empowered, resilient, optimistic mindset especially in the face of challenges--can fuel their success.

The changes did not stop there. Now, at the Nationwide Sales Academy, as salespeople are initiated, they are taught a story that is different from the usual corporate social script:

Happiness leads to sales, not the other way around.

Using the same tool we rolled out at Nationwide, you can test yourself right now on the three greatest predictors of long term success. Take the Success Scale now for free, and receive your scores and an interpretive report!

Michelle Gielan, national CBS News anchor turned positive psychology researcher, is the bestselling author of Broadcasting Happiness. She is the Founder of the Institute for Applied Positive Research and is partnered with Arianna Huffington to study how transformative stories fuel success. Michelle is an Executive Producer of “The Happiness Advantage” Special on PBS and a featured professor in Oprah’s Happiness course.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Empowering The Quiet Team Leader

 Guest post from Ilene Marcus:

It’s crunch time. Your team is on overdrive. Each decision matters. Every moment counts. You can’t afford to be distracted and yet, there it is – the workplace annoyer. A team member with a trait, a quirk that gets under your skin. You rationalize, we have just been spending too much time on this project. Or as the leader, I have so much more on my plate that I can’t be involved in every detail and they keep dragging me in. Already you are spending valuable time thinking about it. And it’s costing you and the team time and energy. You know the project is starting to stall. You need a surge, a bump, a crescendo. You need an unexpected hero, not annoying subordinates.  

Team engagement is always critical. It is natural to go for the obvious team drivers: the alpha, the verbalizer, the workhorse. What we value in them is also what starts to irritate us as the project stalls. I spend most of my time working with leaders on how to handle those annoying superstars. What is less obvious is how to empower the quiet leader: the person who leads from the back of the room, the person with the power to un-annoy.  

This is the team member who intuitively understands your agenda. Unassumingly, they steer the team closer and closer to the goal. This is the manager who embodies the soul of the effort and emerges as the glue that binds. They may not be the most authoritative or the jump starter, but they will be the anchor. They will be your closer – the person who moves your effort across the finish line.  

What is so special about this team member? Foremost, they have a sphere of influence that climbs steadily throughout the project. They consistently contribute and engage. What defines that sphere of influence? The term derived from international politics is a power, an authority, a right to have a say or influence over another. It’s a commanding term, it evokes strong images. And yet this subordinate uses their power wisely, discretely.  

Learn to harness the traits that enable these employees to translate and evolve your agenda to your team. Count on these team members to drive engagement and purpose for long haul success. Recognize the traits of these un-annoying team members:

1- Inspiration. They believe in the work, the product, the community of the workplace. Settling is not in their nature. They want each interaction to count, to mean something. They find purpose in uncommon places and aren’t afraid to share their vision about the perfect customer, a new streamlined process, a better onboarding system. They make everyone around them look up and see what can be.   

2- Sincerity. They mean what they say and they follow through. This employee looks you right in the eye (or right in the email) and says, “Yes, I will perform. I will show up. I will be the person you can count on.” And they do it, no ifs, ands, or buts.  

3- Purposely Engage Others. They ask for help from the right people. They know it’s a team sport and cooperation and assistance from other managers, divisions, and departments is critical for victory. They know how to ask for help and get it. They engage others easily and maintain commitment.

4- Stimulus Thinking. Their ideas spur ideas. They enable others to connect to the brand emotionally. They set a platform to overcome challenges. They encourage interconnectedness. 

5- The Celebrator. Institutionally, they believe in success and understand the millions of tiny steps it takes for your vision to become a plan, for the plan to be put into action and those actions to become a benchmark operation. They celebrate, every win, every loss, every lesson along the way. They take time to reflect and note the insights gleaned.

What’s Next?

Evaluate your team members based on their sphere of influence. Pay attention to the managers who promote engagement. Nurture this special skill set in all your team members. Let your quiet leaders augment team success. Celebrate their work from the front of the room. 
Ilene Marcus, MSW, MPA, is founder of Aligned Workplace, and author of MANAGING ANNOYING PEOPLE:  7 Proven Tactics To Maximize Team Performance.  For more information, please visit