Thursday, December 31, 2020

Culture is Not Enough

Guest post from Thomas Steding:

Slowly, almost inexorably, culture has big become almost top of mind as a key factor in effective leadership. From the Harvard Business Review “Strategy and culture are among the primary levers at top leaders’ disposal in their never-ending quest to maintain organizational viability and effectiveness.” In the high tech industry, the emergence of culture as a critical factor has been greeted with a sense of relief, a respite from the reductionistic venture investor sole focus on numbers. As a result, Peter Drucker's alleged comment that “Culture eats strategy for lunch” has become popular in our collective memory.

The problem remains, however, that leaders declaring the culture is a critical factor in their thinking is akin to one wetting one’s pants in a dark blue wool suit: It may give you a warm feeling, but it doesn't show very much. The issue is that few people can define what they really mean by culture. One venture capital colleague was heard to talk about the importance of culture yet was unable to define what he meant. Another CEO colleague told me that his company had a wonderful culture described in detail in his company presentation. Upon examination, I discovered it contained in a series of typical bromides like “We don't do politics” or “Be passionate” or “Go for the best” along with a promise for pizza on Fridays. A subsequent HR benefits survey across 1500 employees included questions about the company culture. It revealed that a vast majority of the employees actually hated the culture. I suggested to the CEO that he pour himself a glass of wine and sit in a quiet corner to review the results. I never learned his reaction to the survey, but the company stock eventually went from $95 to $2.

To understand an effective culture you need to start in a different place. If you define the Cultural Layer as the de facto patterns of behavior between members on the team you can define the Mindset Layer as the de facto patterns of thought between the ears of the key leadership. The Mindset Layer, therefore, sits below the Cultural Layer and determines its outcome. We have defined the four archetypal (“original model or prototype”) dimensions of the Mindset Layer. These are the underlying, universal factors driving mindset. Over more than a decade, we have found that understanding where an organization resides along these dimensions provides a powerful predictor of organizational outcome and is critical to establishing an effective underlying culture.

The four dimensions are Courage, Relatedness, Awareness, and Agility. Each of these dimensions has a dual, or complementary, aspect, typically along intellectual versus emotional dimensions. Courage is facing danger and fear with confidence and resolution. Courage includes the capacity to take bold and fearless action in the marketplace, but also to be willing to hear and process unwelcome input from the team that could have a redeeming effect on organizational outcome. Relatedness implies an intellectual understanding of staying connected with customers, but also insists on respecting the emotional connections across the team. Awareness implies a thorough understanding of the company’s markets, technologies, and strategies. It also implies a close understanding of the emotional life of the team. Agility is nimbleness of thought and action. It means the ability to change direction and turn on a time due to changing conditions in the market or industry conditions. Emotional agility, on the other hand, means the ability to hear and consider another person's perspective even in the case that you hold an opposing point of view ex ante.

A balanced state among these four Mindset dimensions provides a defense against organizational dysfunction. The inferior Mindset dimension is the gateway for dysfunctionality to penetrate. At the same time, it can offer an effective roadmap for organization improvement. For example, a team was stuck in the process of making a fundamental product development decision for six months. Clearly, their inferior dimension was Courage—in this case, courage to make a product decision, get the product out, and determine its viability. The lack of team courage lead to dysfunctional behavior, such as gossip, blame shifting, and, obviously, schedule slippage. Their dysfunctional behavior cost their firm market leadership.

Hence any conversation, or program, addressing culture has to start with the Mindset Layer. Misalignment between mindset and culture leads to the all-too- frequent case where the behavior in the room bears no resemblance to the code of ethics on the wall. Authentic culture must reflect who the company and its personnel are authentically. Going through the intellectual process of specifying the culture without understanding underlying mindset is like building a structure starting on the second floor. So, we add: “Mindset eats culture for breakfast.”

Dr. Thomas Steding is a senior corporate executive with an excellent track record in founding and growing successful businesses based on complex, leading edge technologies.  He has been CEO of over 12 high tech companies and active chairman of several others. His new book is called Real Teams Win: What Smart Leaders Need To Know About Achieving Performance.

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Great Leaders Attract Great Talent

Guest post from Susanna Camp and Jonathan Littman  

As a leader, you shape the ideas, provide the direction, set the goals. You’re great at focusing the journey and laying a course, especially when winds are uncertain. It can be a long, strange trip indeed – and your success depends on attracting the right talent.

Entrepreneurs, corporate executives and managers know from experience that the best teams sport a rare mixture of friction, freedom and alignment. Diversity and complementary skill sets are key. So how do you assemble a great team?

We spent many years interviewing and writing about talented people and teams for our new book The Entrepreneur’s Faces: How Makers, Visionaries and Outsiders Succeed. Our biggest takeaway? Talent comes in many different flavors, and the best startups and companies recognize the benefits of building a kind of superhuman tensile strength in their teams. 

We call these talents archetypes. We’ve met so many entrepreneurs that we can usually identify someone’s type in a few minutes. How do we know? They master challenges with a characteristic approach, and echo the habits of renowned innovators and entrepreneurs. What’s perhaps most valuable about understanding someone’s type is how their behavior plays out in the dynamics of a team. We all know the conflicts that upend teams. Dueling leaders or visionaries throw obstacles in the path to success. The opposite happens when you achieve superior compatibility. A human-centric approach to designing high achieving teams begins with filling out your squad with a healthy cross-section of talent and mindsets. And that starts with learning to recognize patterns.

In The Entrepreneur’s Faces, we present ten archetypes.  When you build your team, make sure you have a good mix. Here are the top seven types leaders need to know.

Step One: Start with the idea generators

 1. The Outsider: This is person who finds novel opportunities in industries and markets you might not normally target. They master the “beginner’s mind.” Defy the experts.  We believe every team needs at least one Outsider. The global crisis has made this role even more essential. When trends and habits change overnight, the Outsider is even more attuned to dig up emerging possibilities.

2. The Visionary: The future is coming, and it helps to have someone on your team who sees its first. This type brings a different kind of focus, based on their uncanny ability to see months and years ahead. What makes them so valuable is that they are practical. They map “from now to then.” They understand how the future will build on present realities, and start taking key steps to get there.

3. The Accidental: This may sound surprising, but you want someone on your team who will run with ideas that seem long shots. Google and many other firms have officially recognized this entrepreneurial type with a 20 percent or 10 percent rule, allowing staffers to pursue their own project ideas on company time (this has led to Gmail, Google Maps, and Google AdSense, among other G-Suite products). Accidentals bring passion to your company and that energy can be contagious. The Accidental infuses a project or company with authenticity.

Step Two: Round out the team with the problem solvers and doers

4. The Maker. It’s key that your team has someone with an aptitude at finding new ideas and opportunities. But you need Makers to put them to the test. Makers dive right in. They find a way to do an experiment or a test. They’re great at designing prototypes to provide quick feedback. And they learn fast from small, inexpensive failures.

5. The Collaborator. Every leader could use a few Collaborators. They excel at  analyzing how everyone and everything fits together. Collaborators keep their own ego in check, knowing they’ll  rise farther by connecting others and bridging ideas. They are the glue connecting the whole team.

6. The Evangelist:  Even the best of products and services need a story to catch fire. Evangelists bring an uncanny ability to fan interest. They’re naturals at creating the story behind the product, and know how to strike just the right points to touch hearts and move minds.

7. The Athlete:  This is the type that loves a contest and a challenge. Athletes relish preparing for the... unexpected. During tough times you couldn’t ask for a more robust, versatile staffer. They love to work. Adapt, recover, pivot is their mantra. Athletes figure out the connections between seemingly diverse activities, building new processes and opportunities on the fly. 

Smart Choices Make Strong Teams

Who you choose depends a lot on the kind of team you want to create. There can be a world of difference between a startup of four or five individuals and a corporate squad of ten or more. You’ll also want to consider where you stand on the seven-stage journey we call the Entrepreneur’s Arc. Are you just getting started at the Awakening and Shift? Midstream, approaching the Launch, or hitting do-or-die time, at the Test.

We think you’ll find these archetypes and this team question of diversity and compatibility valuable. Building out your team starts with self-awareness. To learn more about all ten types and take our diagnostic quiz, please visit our website at

Of course, share the results with your friends and networks!

Jonathan Littman and Susanna Camp are the authors of The Entrepreneurs Faces: How Makers, Visionaries and Outsiders SucceedJonathan Littman collaborated with IDEO on
the bestsellers
The Art of Innovation and The Ten Faces of Innovation (more than 650,000 copies sold worldwide in 12 languages). The author of ten books, five of his works have been optioned for films. His award-winning journalism has appeared in Playboy, the LA Times and Forbes. Follow Jonathan on TwitterSusanna Camp is the Editor-in-Chief of A journalist specializing in emerging technology, she was an early team leader at Wired magazine, and has also been on the staff of Macworld, PCWorld and Outside magazines. Follow Susanna on Twitter.

Thursday, December 17, 2020

Great Leaders Nurture

Guest post from Barbara Bruno:

Would your current team or new hires describe you as a leader who supports, teaches, and encourages them?   This type of nurturing often determines whether the members of your team become engaged and retained employees or end up as a costly turnover statistic.

Technology has changed the way we communicate however a combined high-tech and high-touch communication style is most effective.  Nurturing plays a significant role when it comes to a new employees’ view on the leadership and vision of their new employer. Nurturing helps them adapt to their new role, feel comfortable, essential, and appreciated in their new workplace.

As new hires understand the significance of your vision, it allows them to develop working strategies which align with your vision.  It also helps build self-confidence, knowledge, and the drive to succeed.  By helping smooth the transition to their new role, you deepen your relationship with your employee that continues well beyond your onboarding process.

To assist your nurturing efforts, consider the value of mentorship on new hires as well as your current employees.  Mentorship is also extremely effective for employees who may be working remote.  Modern mentorship programs are designed to support both the mentor and the mentee with a high-touch approach.   A strong mentor-mentee relationship will help new hires learn from an experienced employee.  It also provides solutions and approaches to accomplish objectives from the fresh perspective of your new employee.

Mentoring also demonstrates to the new hire the benefits of an open culture where employees share knowledge, generate ideas and work together to build a successful company.   Benefits of being a mentor include development of leadership and management qualities, increased recognition, a sense of fulfillment and personal growth.

Another benefit of nurturing is increased referrals of top talent.  When your new and current employees have a great experience working for you, they are more likely to refer others.  Nurturing is an important element to your internal employee referral program and can dramatically reduce your cost per hire. 

Take time to review the new hires you have made in the past twelve months.  If a majority were not the result of referrals, it may be time to upgrade your onboarding, nurturing, mentorship, or employee engagement efforts.  Your employees are either your army of recruiters enticing others to work for you, or they are being recruited away.

Too often employees are only interviewed twice, their initial job interview and their exit interview, when it is too late to resolve their issues. Consider conducting regularly scheduled stay interviews, where you ask your current employees why they enjoy working for you and your company.  A stay interview will reveal what you are doing well but, will also identify areas that may need improvement.

Stay interviews are much more effective than the high-tech approach of utilizing online employee satisfaction surveys.  They are a high-touch conversation where both you and your employee can ask questions and then set a specific date to follow up on any action items discussed.

When your employees are happy, they become more engaged, productive and will help you attain your goals and objectives.  In any type of relationship people want the answers to three question: Do you care about me?  Can I trust you? Will you do what you promise?  When you nurture your team members throughout their career, the answers to all three questions will be yes. 

Barbara Bruno, author of HIGH-TECH HIGH-TOUCH RECRUITING: How To Attract And Retain The Best Talent By Improving The Candidate Experience, is an internationally recognized recruiting expert who has a proven track record of helping recruiters and talent acquisition professionals become more successful and less stressed. She has created several popular LinkedIn Learning courses and is president of Good As Gold Training, HR Search, Inc., and Happy Candidates.

Thursday, December 10, 2020

Leadership Insights for Moving from Burnout to Breakthrough

Guest post from Eileen McDargh:

In May 2019, the World Health Organization placed burnout in its International Classification of Diseases diagnostic manual. While not calling it an “illness,” it classified burnout as an occupational hazard.

Indeed, the global statistics in 2019 were enough to consider burnout a global pandemic. From massive stress-related losses in North America ranging between $120 to $300 billion; to European countries revealing high burnout rates among health professionals and educators; to Chinese media reporting that about 600,000 Chinese citizens a year die from working too hard; to Australia reporting some $34 billion being spent on burnout incidents. The list is almost endless.


And then COVID-19. Everything we thought we knew about workplace engagement, stress management, and on-site health and wellness programs vanished. In its place, leaders now struggle with managing remote teams, developing widely different strategies for disrupted marketplaces, and dealing with uncertain economics.


Ironically, the oft-reported desire to have some flexibility to work on occasion from home has been smashed. Employees are feeling more burnout than they did prior to COVID-19. Lines are blurred between work time and home time. Output to prove productivity has skyrocketed, leaving employees exhausted and tense. A feeling of being estranged from the organization and team members results in loneliness. Job uncertainty haunts many dreams.


The process of moving from burnout into the breakthrough that allows employees to recharge and handle these emotions can be greatly aided by a wise, compassionate manager who employs these practices: 


  1. Be a more-than-clear communicator about expectations and accountabilities.  Then, step back to ask team members where these expectations are unrealistic or need to be broken down into smaller achievable goals. Are resources needed? Are some of the “normal” workplace systems now outdated? It’s a great time to streamline and adapt.
  2. Be human. From children at home to caring for an aging parent, everyone’s world is very different. Ask each team member what constraints they have and when are the best worktimes. Share that information. Without creating Zoom overload, bring all team members together -- as much as possible -- to check in on a personal level FIRST, not a productive level.   
  3. Avoid email diarrhea. Email can stand for escalation and error. Have people talk in real time with each other with the leader as a facilitator. 
  4. Beware of micromanaging. Let people know you trust them and that working 12 hours a day is not expected unless there is some emergency. (Don’t create that emergency either!)
  5. Express appreciation. There’s no need to wait until some project is completed 100%. Say thank you along the way. As I have always told my clients: “An inch is a cinch. A mile takes a while.” We need encouragement for the inches. Let employees know the difference their work is making for the team, the customers and the business.
  6. Help employees create work/life boundaries. Even before COVID-19, The Boston Consulting Group had a standard practice that NO email was to be answered on the weekend. 
  7. Create a best-practice free-for-all. In a virtual gathering, encourage everyone to share something that is working for them (personal or professional) in this new world of work. Have a way of celebrating each report.
  8. Encourage and support physical activity through the workday. Getting away from the desk and computer is essential for well-being. Prioritize time off. Ask each team member how they are doing with this.
  9. Provide ongoing virtual training in resiliency skills, mindfulness, communication and technology (if the latter is needed).
  10. Laugh! Laughter is the shortest distance between people. When we laugh together, we bond. We create a community. Whether sharing funny signs , animal videos, parodies, whatever -- allow people to laugh. 


This is by no means an exhaustive list. The single thread that consistently runs through these actions is that a leader has empathy, a keen ability to listen deeply, a desire to help their team grow and flourish amid disruptive times. The leader themself acknowledges their own journey and insights in moving from burnout to breakthrough. In these more-than-crazy times, the burnout flame will come again. But with practice, it will no longer be a massive bonfire but rather a spark from a match.

Eileen McDargh has been called a hope merchant although she says she has been put on earth for comic relief. She’s an internationally recognized keynote speaker, master facilitator, and award-winning author with expertise in resiliency and leadership. In 2020 Global Gurus International, a British-based provider of resources for leadership, communication and sales training, also ranked her 5th of the World’s Top 30 COMMUNICATION Gurus following a global survey of 22,000 business professionals. Her articles have appeared in countless publications and two of her seven books have been awarded national recognition. Her latest book, Burnout to Breakthrough: Building Resilience to Refuel, Recharge, and Reclaim What Matters, launches in August 2020. To learn more Eileen, you can visit her website here.

Thursday, December 3, 2020

A Systems Approach to Leading Through Transfomation

Guest post from Brendan P. Keegan, CEO, Merchants Fleet

One thing all great leaders have in common is that they understand that transformational growth doesn’t happen without a willingness to change. When I joined Merchants Fleet as CEO in 2018, I knew I was joining a team of some of the most experienced professionals in the fleet industry. However, with all of that experience, habits were inevitably inherited along the way. In order to achieve our lofty goals, we had to be willing to change.

By asking ourselves “How can we do this better?” we were able to build upon many of the old habits and traits that had worked in the past to quickly transform into the fastest-growing company in our industry. To make this happen, we put a system in place with six key focus areas:

1. Create a Clear Vision, Strategic Direction and  Communicate It Constantly. In my years serving as CEO I have made it a priority to build a living, breathing strategic plan. A big part of that is having a simple vision that teams can rally around and a strategic direction that leaders can buy into and articulate easily throughout the organization. At Merchants we have a simple yet powerful vision—to enable the movement of people, goods & services freely—and a well-documented strategic direction that we revisit regularly and communicate to the broader organization on a constant basis so that everyone understands their part in achieving it.

2. Align and Refine Core Values. Employees want to be part of something meaningful, and it’s the leader’s job to articulate the values of the organization and hire people who align to them. At companies I have led, we did exhaustive exercises to uncover the values of the organization. Sometimes, it was refining what the company already had, and other times we built them from scratch. The values are in the company already, you just have to listen for them. At Merchants, through our FleetIQ program, we seek individuals who align to our values and have strong industry backgrounds. Our values are also widely visible—on the walls and printed on employee ID cards—so that everyone is reminded on a daily basis to live and breathe them.

3. Organize Around the Client and Simplify the Offerings. After developing a clear strategy and setting its direction throughout the organization, we quickly evaluated our operations and moved to reorganize around the client into one company. Merchants, to its credit, has always been an extremely entrepreneurial company. Because of this, there were a number of “micro-businesses” throughout the organization that had been created to answer a need but had not been fully integrated. Through our strategic approach, we aligned the micro businesses into the larger business to provide the best experience for clients.

4. Involve Everyone and Encourage Collaboration. Setting a lofty strategic direction and pursuing a truly synergistic experience across our whole company required collaboration. Previously, the leadership team had only met on a monthly basis. We established a weekly standing meeting and during the pandemic have had daily team meetings at some points—focused meetings with real decisions and tangible action items. Establishing a culture of feedback and collaboration has inspired shared learnings and led to new opportunities. Moreover,  this approach has cascaded down through the entire organization, which means we are collaborating more and driving more value.

5. Drive Culture from the Top. Most companies have accidental cultures. Culture is one of those things that you can’t really put on a piece of paper, but you know it when you’re in it. We can consciously build culture, but it requires investment and commitment from the top. First, I had to align our leadership team to drive the service-oriented, flexible and innovative culture. Next, we implemented formal and informal leadership development for our most influential leaders to instill the culture and teach others the way. Finally, I believe in fun—fun drives culture. So we celebrate all kinds of wins, we reward our employees, hold events on a regular basis, and make sure our employees have a transparent understanding of what we are doing.

6. Make Innovation Everyone’s Job. For most organizations, innovation sits as a separate entity in the makeup of the org chart—or it doesn’t exist at all. As a leader, I think innovation is a fundamental skillset that should permeate the entire organization, and not be locked into one particular area or group. It’s about giving employees the tools and training to innovate for themselves, while also having a process designed for the larger innovations. We call the little innovations “Little i’s” and the big innovations “Big I’s”. By providing the communication and tools, we have seen employees across all areas of the business implementing highly successful innovative ideas, and we reward those ideas on a  quarterly basis.

I’m an engineer by training, and through my experience have seen that systems work, when practiced regularly and planned purposefully. The best practices I have listed above are one of the many systems that I have developed and implemented over my career as a CEO.  If you find yourself in a transformation situation—one where you are implementing quite a bit of change or experiencing rapid growth—these six steps can be extremely powerful and help guide your thinking and the organization at large. Systems work because they keep us organized, give us a playbook to run from, and provide a starting point from which we can be creative. Sometimes having a playbook is all it takes to remove the fear of leading and inspire you and your teams to incredible heights.

Brendan P. Keegan is Chief Executive Officer at Merchants Fleet. Under Brendan’s leadership Merchants has become the fastest-growing fleet management company in North America, earning a spot on the Inc. 5000 list. An award-winning, six-time President & CEO of companies ranging in size from 500 to over 10,000 employees, Brendan is the author of more than a hundred articles on leadership, strategy, and technology. He is also a frequent speaker at conferences across the financial services and technology sectors. 

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Gauging an Employee’s Emotional Well-Being in a Virtual World: Warning Signs and Ways to Help

Guest post by Guy Casablanca:

Much has been written lately about how leaders can gauge productivity and performance in a virtual world. Beyond these two metrics, we have asked the question, “How can a leader tell when an employee is struggling emotionally in a virtual world?”

In a short span, a lot has changed in the world, and how we work, socialize, and lead. The impact of COVID-19 has altered the very nature of every human interaction. In the work environment, Zoom sessions have replaced conference room meetings, and email exchanges have replaced in-person interactions. In our personal lives, concerts have become podcasts, and even funerals are now webcast and have become virtual gatherings for the grieving. Replacing our familiar interpersonal experiences and sense of connection, all this virtual-based interaction has left us feeling detached, isolated, and despondent.

It can be challenging for a leader to keep contact levels high when all communication must happen via the web. It is even harder to interpret the reality of someone’s well-being when we only have an email or an image on a screen with which to interact. Body language is limited. Technology obscures the subtleties that we detect in a person.

So how do we know when an associate is struggling with grief in a virtual world? What is a compassionate and concerned leader to do?

Here are some warning signs that may help you recognize employees who are dealing with the effects of emotional trauma or grief in a virtual environment:

Tardiness: Emotionally traumatized people often fall into a state of distraction. They operate in a fog, unable to focus or concentrate. Deadlines come and go without them noticing. Procrastinating is common. A typically prompt person who begins to run late habitually could be an early warning sign of trouble.

Lack of Participation: It is hard to keep attendees of a virtual meeting interested. I know that when I am attending a virtual meeting, I make a deliberate effort to type a comment or response now and then, just so my boss knows I’m fully engaged. Even a mere on-camera “thumbs up” sends the signal that my attention is undivided. Lack of participation may indicate despondence more than disinterest, especially if the lack of involvement is unusual for this team member. An emotionally distracted or depressed person will find it difficult to concentrate and participate.

Fidgeting, Stepping Off Camera: Someone who is emotionally distracted, overwhelmed, grieving, or aggravated by having to be “seen right now” may exhibit signs of the “fight or flight response.” Squirming, constant movement, and stepping out of the shot may indicate someone’s patience is reaching a breaking point, and they just want to get away! Maybe they just need a bathroom break, but it may be a sign of something deeper going on in the person’s life. Be sensitive to the signs of those who obviously want the session to end.

Emotional Outbursts or Fits of Anger: Those struggling with emotional trauma or grief are subject to emotional outbursts. When the cause of their distress gets overwhelming, the person begins to question why things like work even matter. These feelings can lead to a lower than usual emotional boiling point.

Absenteeism: A person experiencing emotional trauma rarely wants to expose their psychological state to others. Even more so than in real life, “virtual absence” can be a red flag for emotional duress. Not wanting to go into work is one thing, but an inability to make the commute from the bed to the laptop in the living room is a whole new level of emotional incapacitation.

Camera off” moments: My 4th-grade son, while experiencing technical glitches during his on-line schooling, was quickly falling behind the rest of the live class. In a panic, he began to cry out of frustration. To avoid being seen in tears by his classmates, he went “camera off” and muted his audio. This threw his teacher into a panic because she could not tell if he was safe or not. Little did she know what he was experiencing was a grief-induced breakdown that he didn’t want others to witness. “Camera off” moments can be an indicator that someone is struggling emotionally.

Now that we have an idea of what grief and emotional stress looks like virtually, how should leaders adapt? Here are three important action steps:

Be aware: This is harder than it sounds. The virtual world masks many of the queues a good leader will be sensitive to “in the room.” The virtual world requires even more focus on the part of the leader.

Engage and communicate: When a leader suspects there may be a deeper issue behind the behaviors they are witnessing, they should engage and communicate as early as possible. This engagement should take place privately and as in-person as possible. Never by email.

Be vulnerable and listen: That may sound counterintuitive, but if the leader does not acknowledge the struggles they are having, neither will their people. A person silently suffering through emotional trauma or grief needs a compassionate leader who is willing to listen and be supportive. The only way the person will respond is if the leader is vulnerable enough to demonstrate they genuinely care.

The office environment has changed. The subtle points of contact leaders usually have at their disposal have diminished. It takes a deliberate and concentrated effort to compensate for the lack of interpersonal opportunities to connect with your people. You won’t pass that grieving person in the hall to give them a pat on the back. You won’t see them sighing their way through their tasks. You won’t witness them skipping lunch to cry in their car. As their leader, you must be the consummate communicator, and in a virtual world, you must be constructive, creative, and consistent.

Guy Casablanca and Anthony Casablanca are the cofounders of GriefLeaders, a training and consulting organization devoted to educating leaders on how to help grieving employees excel at work. Guy is a dually licensed funeral director and mortician, highly experienced at facilitating healthy grieving processes, who has owned two businesses, consulted for corporations, and led teams of managers. He currently manages a funeral home in Loveland, Colorado. Anthony is a senior executive with 30-plus years of experience and a proven track record of purpose-driven leadership. He has held several leadership roles with Batesville Casket Company, the world’s largest funeral service products provider, and was named the 2009 Human Resource Executive of the Year for Indiana. Brothers, Guy and Anthony Casablanca are the coauthors of The Dying Art of Leadership: How Leaders Can Help Grieving Employees Excel at Work. Learn more at  

Thursday, November 12, 2020

How the Best Place of Work Became A State of Mind

Guest post from Jonas Altman:

Matt Mullenweg’s company had a plush office at Pier 38 in San Francisco’s Embarcadero. It was only a five-minute walk from his apartment, but his preference, like many in the company, was to work from home.

More than three years ago they shut their office and the company continues to flourish. If ever there was living that giving workers flexibility and control over their life works - it’s Wordpress. Mullenweg the founder of Automattic (the parent company) explains, ‘In the future, [companies] will either be distributed or be taken over by companies that are - because the smartest people in the world are going to want to work this way.’    

Indeed, one of the biggest obstacles to getting great work done may still be the physical office. Many of these dire places rob inhabitants of their focus (and soul for that matter), through a constant stream of distractions. In some ways, COVID waved a magic wand, enabling many employees to change their work environments overnight.

A Far-Out Vision

When it comes to engagement, creativity, and productivity - there’s an intricate tango to strike between people and place. A far-out vision for achieving this harmony in work is that of architecture professor David Dewane. His Eudaimonia Machine has the lofty goal of helping workers reach their full potential.

Featuring a series of five distinct rooms, each is dedicated to a specific mode of work: the gallery for inspiration, the salon for conversation, the library for research, the office for light work, and my personal favorite, the chamber for deep work. There are no hallways so you move through each room, sequentially edging towards your most concentrated work. All that’s missing, it seems, is a dedicated space to recharge, which may just entail decamping from the office altogether for some fresh air.

Some companies hire architects, interior designers, workplace strategists, psychologists, and even mathematicians to design the perfect office for their particular needs. But for many, work is something you feel empowered to do, not necessarily somewhere you need to be.

The precise destination of work tomorrow, whether geographic or virtual, will be an arbitrary concern. Because great work can, and will, continue to happen anywhere. It happens in those temporal places that cater best to the technological, creative, and intellectual needs of the individual and team.

The Magic Number

One reason why midsize family businesses have flourished throughout history is because they’re nimble, with typically less than 150 employees. There are strong bonds and good communication between workers. It’s these businesses that account for a whopping 60% of global employment. Military units are often capped at this magic number of 150 because when lives are on the line, it’s helpful if everyone knows each other’s name.

That’s not to say that you can’t grow bigger and still maintain a great culture. Squarespace, a technology company with nearly 1,000 employees, has been voted New York’s best place to work countless times.

While their Manhattan office may be static, how they work is anything but. They live their values by respecting, inspiring, and challenging workers and encouraging them to be their most creative–wherever that may happen to be. Many workers make the journey to the office because they say it’s a place where they love to work and ‘hang out.’

A State of Mind

That special something businesses are looking for–fostering the right energy–comes from people. And since humans, like businesses, evolve over time, the healthiest work environments change in concert with their occupants and the general state of the world.

‘There are companies that are finding new ways to work, that allow people to set their own hours, have more flexibility, live wherever they want in the world and they’re going to attract the best people,’ declares Mullenweg. He should know, the unassuming billionaire’s company has less than1,200 employees yet astonishingly powers 37% of all sites on the web.          

For way too many, there’s a disconnect between the company culture that managers first set then strive to realize, and the culture they experience every day when they come into work. Creating a great place to work means truly understanding the ongoing interplay of worker bees within a complex system. When there isn’t a clear goal or a shared language, it’s near impossible for a culture to gel. And when workers don’t have the tools and support they need, eventually they’ll up and leave.

We can view work for what it’s becoming; an experimental practice to evolve. It now occupies a psychological space as much as a physical one. Turns out, the best place to work isn’t a place after all; it’s a state of mind.

JONAS ALTMAN is the author SHAPERS: Reinvent the Way You Work and Change the Future (Wiley, Sept 2020). He is a speaker, writer, and entrepreneur on a mission to make the world of work more human. As the founder of award-winning design practice Social Fabric, he creates learning experiences to elevate and grow leaders at the world’s boldest organizations.

Thursday, November 5, 2020

How to Solve Your Most Difficult Leadership and Talent Challenges

Guest post from Stephen Shapiro:

To find better solutions to your most difficult business problems, paradoxically, you don’t want o focus on solutions.

Instead you want to make sure you are asking the right questions. Changing the question changes the range of possible solutions.

Changing Just One Word Can Change Your Solutions

If your challenge is, “How can we hire the right talent?”, you might put your energies into time-consuming campus outreach programs, complicated recruitment campaigns, or expensive technology.

But changing the question to, “How can we retain the right talent?” may shift your focus to internal motivation and performance management strategies.

Simply changing one word yields a completely different set of answers.

You could change it again to, “How can we develop the right talent?” Now we are looking at leadership opportunities that might not have been previously considered.

Before investing in developing solutions and strategies to your problems, first make sure you are moving in the right direction.

Be More Specific to Reduce Waste

When problem-solving, it is common to start off with an opportunity that is too broad. When we ask broad questions, we invite a lot of wasted energy. When asking the question, “How can I improve the business?”, (the default question associated with most suggestion boxes), you could get literally hundreds or thousands of possible answers.

In fact, over 99% of the ideas submitted to most suggestion boxes are low value and are not implemented. This wastes the time of those who submit the ideas and those who have to evaluate the duds.

But if you make the problem statement more specific, you focus people on what matters most. 

Going back to the original statement: “How can we hire the right talent?” What does “right” mean? Maybe the question could be, “How can we hire for unique skills that make our products differentiating?”

This now focuses your efforts on a specific skillset. Of course, it might lead you to ask the question, “What differentiates our products from the competition?” Answering this gives you deeper insights into your business and the people that are required to support it.

Sometimes Being More Abstract Can Increase Creativity

Although we often start with broad problem statements, there are times when we are too specific. Either our focus is so specific that it limits our ability to find solutions. Or in some cases our questions are really just solutions masquerading as questions.

I remember a client who was focused on, “How can we use 360-degree feedback to improve performance?”

Their myopic focus on this one tool limited their ability to “see” other leadership development solutions.

The broader question might be, “How can we improve performance?” 360-degree feedback was too specific.

This then forced them to ask, “What is the performance issue we need to solve?” After some analysis, they determined that the issue was a silo mentality within the company. When they shifted the question to, “How can we break down silos in our organization?”, they found a wider range of solutions. As it turns out, 360-degree feedback was not part of the approach.

Our Best Solutions are Often Invisible

The questions we ask impact the solutions that are visible. Subtle changes to the problem statement can reveal solutions that were previously hidden.

Or to paraphrase a quote that is attributed to Albert Einstein, “If I had an hour to save the world, I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute finding solutions.” From my experience, most organizations are spending 60 minutes solving problems that are unimportant or irrelevant.

When everyone in your organization learns how to powerfully reframe business problems, you will get better results, faster, with lower risk. It’s the simplest tool you have to find the best solutions that will grow your business.

For over 20 years, Stephen Shapiro has presented his provocative strategies on innovation to audiences in 50 countries. During his 15-year tenure with the consulting firm Accenture, he led a 20,000-person innovation practice. He is the author of six books, including his latest: Invisible Solutions: 25 Lenses that Reframe and Help Solve Difficult Business Problems. His Personality Poker® system has been used around the world to create high-performing innovation teams. In 2015 he was inducted into the Speaker Hall of Fame.

Friday, October 30, 2020

How Your Late Employees Improve Your Competitive Advantage

Guest post from Grace Pacie:

We’ve all heard the story that lateness costs the country billions in lost productivity  - it’s claimed that lateness costs American businesses more than $3 billion dollars a year, but can that figure be trusted?  Are late people a liability or an asset in the business world?

Punctuality issues are very often combined with a bundle of behaviours which I have christened “Timebending” in my new book ‘LATE! A Timebender’s guide to why we are late and how we can change’. Timebenders do not work in a linear way – they get deeply absorbed in their work and can lose all track of time, which can result in them being late. However, Timebenders are not always late – on the contrary, they are highly motivated by deadlines, and when facing a tight time limit on an important task, they are able to concentrate extremely effectively, and often produce their best work. On the other hand, employees who arrive early for work and meetings typically work at a steady pace, allow time for every eventuality, and lose the ability to think clearly when they are under deadline pressure.

According to a YouGov survey, 19% of the US population are late for work at least once a week.  But does an employee who regularly arrives late, actually work fewer hours than one who arrives early?  Lateness tends to attracts universal condemnation, particularly from the ‘time anxious’ who are obsessive about punctuality.   Yet the people who arrive late for work are usually the last to leave, because they can get lost in their work, and are less focused on the clock.  Lateness for meetings also deserves closer examination.  While there is no doubt that someone who is late for meetings can hold everyone up, there is another side to the issue. People who arrive early for meetings and events are typically less productive than those who arrived a few minutes late, since the Timebenders are likely to have been working right up to the deadline on their previous task.

Is Time Management the Answer?

Time Management courses are designed to improve workplace efficiency -, typically advising employees to prioritise their tasks, schedule their time and avoid distractions.  However, these are only successful strategies in an environment which has a predictable and stable workflow.  In businesses which need to be responsive to client needs, and where priorities might need to change at short notice, a workforce of punctual timekeepers who work at a steady pace and cannot deal with interruptions will be a liability rather than an advantage.  Timebenders may often be five minutes late for work, but they are also flexible, not easily stressed, calm in a crisis, and will squeeze extra tasks into a tight time schedule.

The Time Management model fits a traditional manufacturing environment, but can be counter-productive in the new world of flexible working and responsiveness to client needs. 

Creative agencies and consultancies who need their staff to come up with original solutions to problems, often at short notice, know that timekeeping is a very low priority on the skills list. A deadline doesn’t just force Timebenders to get the job finished – it can stimulate them to perform certain tasks better. There are numerous examples of outstanding work achieved under pressure. Martin Luther King famously added the words “I have a dream” to his speech just as he was standing up to make his address. Bill Clinton, Lewis Carroll, Aaron Sorkin were all ground breakers and also famously for lateness. Did they unconsciously realize that the last minute was when they did their best work?

Punctuality Around the World

If you are working in international business, don’t assume that expectations of punctuality will be the same in every culture. In Germany, South Korea or Japan, if you’re not 10 minutes early, you’re seen as late, whereas in Saudi Arabia lateness is a mark of seniority, and it is highly offensive to consult your watch during a meeting.  In Russia and China, attitudes to punctuality match those of Brits and Americans, whereas Southern Europeans, South Americans, South-East Asians and Africans tend to work on the principal, “If everyone’s late then no-one’s late”. 

Where Are We Headed?

The concept of Time Management is now a century old, invented at a time when productivity and efficiency were keys to competitive advantage.  Today the world is a very different place- the future is less certain than it has ever been, and the Timebending traits of flexibility, adaptability and responsiveness will be vital weapons in the fight for economic security.  Maybe in this post-COVID world, your most effective employee might be the one who arrives 10 minutes late every morning, but is the last to leave at night. Perhaps ‘Sorry I’m late’ should be the words you most want to hear when your staff arrive at work tomorrow morning.

Grace Pacie is a strategic business consultant specializing in international buyer behavior.  She has a BA and MBA, and is qualified in Myers Briggs, Neuro-Linguistic Programming, Emotional Freedom Technique, Hypnotherapy, and Marketing.  Her new book, LATE! A Timebender’s guide to why we are late and how to change’ is published as an ebook and Amazon paperback, and will shortly be released as an audiobook. 

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Three Classic Negotiating Mistakes

Guest post by Clint Babcock:

Recently I was teaching a class on negotiation for salespeople. I set up a buyer–seller role play scenario and I asked two participants to work through the scenario in front of the rest of the class.  Both were provided with the pertinent information they needed to secure a good deal; all they had to do was negotiate the price.  I specifically narrowed this role play down to this one issue; neither one of them knew what they were selling.  Such a scenario allows participants to focus on how best to work through the money issue.

The point of doing an exercise like this is not the end result.  It’s observing the process that people go through, the great moves they make and/or the mistakes they fall prey to. Analyzing the process used is what creates learning and growth opportunities for everyone, including the observers.  Whenever I do an exercise like this, and lead the discussion afterward, I’ve noticed that there are three mistakes that always seem to present themselves. As I predicted, all three showed up during this role play.

Mistake #1: Talking too much. This is the single most common mistake. Salespeople, I’ve noticed, tend to defend and justify their solution, apparently under the impression that the more they say, the better the solution looks. They pile on the features and benefits of working with their company.  As you might imagine, the stream of words they unleash gets them nowhere, because the prospect already knows all of this. If they didn’t, why would they be negotiating? A better approach. Don’t talk about your features and benefits. Focus on the pains that your solution will solve by asking questions about how they see the solution solving their problems.  Become inquisitive and curious as to their position; keep in mind that the more information you uncover, the deeper your understanding of the situation will be – and the better positioned you will be to reinforce your position as the right choice for them.

Mistake #2: Offering or agreeing to concessions immediately. All too often, salespeople fail to recognize that they are even in a negotiation, and they volunteer a concession.  For instance: The buyer asks for a better price, or better terms, and the salesperson’s knee-jerk response is, “What were you looking for?”  Very often, we have not prepared for this all-too-predictable moment. We fail to process the reality that we may well be dealing with a strategic negotiator, someone who has prepared and planned for this negotiation and who has created leverage they can use against us.  Giving up something without getting anything in return is a no-no! A better approach: Instead of encouraging the other side to ask for concession after concession, do your prep work. Recognize that you will be in a negotiation at some point in your sales cycle. Identify what, specifically, you will ask for in return when someone asks you to make a concession. Hold onto concessions for as long as you can; don’t give them up until late in the sales or negotiation process, and plan to get something in return, such as a firm commitment to do business. Preparing ahead of time is the key to ensuring you don’t simply react, but instead respond appropriately to a request for a concession.

Mistake #3: Believing that money is the only issue. A lot of sales and business negotiations focus on money.  Remember: The best negotiations have little or nothing to do with money.  The best negotiation discussion is about finding the best fit solution. Yes, people want to pay as little for that solution as possible. But if we make it all about money, we both lose. A better approach. Even if buyers try to make the discussion about money, you need to stand your ground, and make it about solving their pains and issues with your solution. Yes, this takes practice! But what’s the alternative?

Most companies and sales organizations have no idea how often their teams make these mistakes during a negotiation process. Why? Because negotiation is rarely trained or practiced. What ends up happening after a long series of negotiating errors is that senior. leaders are brought into the process – because they know how to handle these situations.  This is not an efficient solution. With guidance and practice, salespeople can learn to avoid these common mistakes.

Clint Babcock is the author of NEGOTIATING FROM THE INSIDE OUT: A Playbook For Business Success. A Sandler trainer based in Florida, Babcock has over 25 years of sales, leadership, and negotiation experience; he has worked with senior executives at companies in a wide range of industries to help them strategically build their sales forces. For more information, please visit

Thursday, October 15, 2020

It’s Great to Lead with Smart Experiments

Guest post by Steven K. Gold, M.D.:

Leadership is all about decision and action. As leaders, our goal is to make the best decisions

that lead to the most productive actions. As the world becomes less certain, even highly unpredictable, how do we go about optimizing our chances for success?

Fortunately, we have a group of experienced leaders who have been grappling with the challenges of uncertainty for many years: successful entrepreneurs.

For over 20 years, I have studied entrepreneurs. As an academic and as a thought leader, I have conducted studies of thousands of entrepreneurs of all kinds, on three continents. This has included embedding myself within various accelerator programs to observe the daily (and even moment-to-moment) decisions and actions of successful and unsuccessful entrepreneurs. This led to the idea of Smart Experiments.

Experiments are investments of a first set of available resources that produce a second (hopefully more valuable) set of resources. I use the term “resources” broadly, and they include human connections (networks), knowledge, experience, expertise, and ability to influence others, among many others. Resources are the foundation of experiments.

Experiments – like everything else in life – can be done poorly or well. Despite this, most of us have never been taught how to do an experiment in a way that predisposes to success. Expert entrepreneurs, on the other hand, have developed and mastered a particular process that I refer to as a Smart Experiment.

Smart Experiments are done in an ongoing cycle that includes four steps:

1) DESIGN. Entrepreneurs always look around to assess their available resources. What resources do I have – human connections, material, knowledge, experiences, expertise, finances, etc. – that I can combine in creative ways to design a possible experiment? Entrepreneurs make formal and informal lists (referred to as Opportunity Registers) of all of their possible experiments, based on the resources they have at hand. Expert entrepreneurs like having many opportunities, and options.

2) DECIDE. Given a long list of possible experiments, entrepreneurs categorize them. They do this continuously, and are always reassessing their resources in light of the results of ongoing experiments. Any possible experiment that has been Designed in Step 1 can be placed into one of four categories: a) do it now, b) do it later, c) find a partner, or d) forget about it. This prioritization determines what happens next.

3) DE-RISK. Before embarking on the “do it now” experiments, entrepreneurs de-risk their experiments. This means that they identify the most likely potential causes for failure, and prepare for them in advance of doing the experiment. This step recognizes that certain easily predictable and fixable issues can make a big difference, and they are addressed up front. This predisposes any given experiment to success.

4) DELIVER. Only then do entrepreneurs do the experiment, which almost always involves a series of small steps. Since every experiment is an investment of resources intended to secure (more valuable) resources, expert entrepreneurs harvest all of the value that results from any given experiment. They do not leave value on the table.

We can each choose to do our experiments poorly or well. Doing Smart Experiments – and helping others to do them properly – increases chances for successful outcomes. The best entrepreneurs encourage everyone around them to do Smart Experiments.

Here are a few take-away lessons for leaders:

First, Smart Experiments involve thought and action. Entrepreneurs rarely get stuck in “analysis paralysis” because they break down risky activities into less risky, small steps. Instead of jumping across a room, they take it a step at a time. By taking a step at a time they increase the likelihood that each step will go well, and they are much more likely to make it across the room – even if they encounter an obstacle. Obstacles (representing uncertainties) are easy to walk around, and much harder if you fly right into them. This is one way that expert entrepreneurs deal with uncertainty.

Second, the best entrepreneurs understand that succeeding and failing are two sides of the same coin. Smart Experiments, using prioritization and risk mitigation, mean that our failures become smaller. That said, failures do occur, and are expected to occur. If an entrepreneur is not failing at least a good portion of the time (remember, they are taking small steps and so these are relatively small failures – or learning adventures), this means the entrepreneur is probably not trying hard enough.

So why is it great to lead with Smart Experiments? First, understanding resources is the best way to understand the value you have to invest. The more you have to invest, the more you are likely to reap greater returns. Second, Smart Experiments prioritize those actions that make the most sense – to do now, do later, partner, or not do at all. Smaller steps that make up Smart Experiments are also easier to get started with, and to make successful. When things go awry, as they often do in uncertain environments, smaller steps lead to smaller failures, which protect resources. All of this predisposes to a higher probability of success, which has a dramatic compounding effect.

Leading with Smart Experiments means one more thing: prioritizing intelligent action over results. If people are empowered to do their best, to do their best experiments, then they are pursuing their potential. They will succeed much of the time, and fail at other times, both of which are indicators of effort. With this in mind, celebrate Smart Experiments. Teach Smart Experiments. Be a role model for Smart Experiments.

Steven K. Gold, M.D., is the author of HOW WE SUCCEED: Making Good Things Happen Through The Power Of Smart Experiments. He is Chairman of Gold Global Advisors, a firm that advises leaders and teams in the science of sustainable success. For more information, please visit