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.