Press Enterprise Columns

From My Column: Who Do You Trust?

Special Note: As I am getting close to writing my 200th weekly business column for The Press Enterprise, a daily newspaper in Southern California, I’ve looked back and realized that all that I’ve written probably should have a home here as well. So every few days I’ll post a new (old) column. Hope you enjoy! 

Who Do You Trust?

Originally published by The Press Enterprise, fall 2009. 

Businesses are havens for abstract rules of trust: Only select employees get keys to the front door. Only employees of a certain rank are given the option of having a laptop so that they can work from home. These rules tell an employee everything they need to know about who a company trusts and who it doesn’t. All too often the line that divides the two groups cuts across the pay scale, with the employees on the higher end of the scale being trusted more than those on the lower end. Wherever that unofficial line of trust is, employees can see it and feel it as if it were a bright red line painted straight through the office.

When we organization first looked at creating a work environment that is anchored by trust, we had no idea how much we would need to change. Prior to starting our current Results-Only Work Environment, we had created a telecommuting policy that we were extremely proud of. For the first time in our organization’s history, we were going to allow employees to work from home. Employees were required to submit a form asking for permission to work from home on a certain day and had to sign off that they understood the rules: they couldn’t work from home more than one day per week; if they missed their telecommuting day for any reason they had to get special permission to make it up on a different day; and they were only permitted to telecommute if they were at a certain level or in a certain type of position. Instead of showing our employees that we trusted them, our attempt at adding flexibility to the work environment only served to highlight our glaring lack of trust. When you create a benefit, the people who notice it the most are the ones who don’t have it.

It was one our non-exempt employees who dramatically changed our organizational perspective on trust. She questioned our telecommuting policy, wondering why the highest paid employees had the option to telecommute and thus save money on gas (which at the time was getting close to five dollars a gallon), while the lowest paid employees were not given any option to work from home. This insightful observation led us to ask ourselves two key questions: was our level of trust in our employees directly connected to how much an employee was paid and what title they had? If so, what reasoning did we use to justify that disparity in trust? The brutal truth was that we did have unfair lines drawn, dividing those we trusted from those we didn’t. And the justification? We had none. The only explanation that could be found was that we had always done it that way.

Why does it matter whether or not companies trust their employees? Employees who are not trusted are less engaged and are more likely to be cynical about everything from organizational change to how much they can trust the leaders of the organization themselves. Employees who are not trusted are less likely to take appropriate risks, test out new ideas, and put themselves on the line to help their company thrive. With survival in business hinging on innovation and an ability to change, creating an environment where employees only feel safe coloring inside the lines can lead to disaster. As William L. McKnight, former CEO of 3M said: “If you put fences around people, you get sheep. Give people the room they need.”

Our turning point was implementing a Results-Only Work Environment. The fences came down and the abstract dividing lines between who was trusted and who was not were erased. All of our employees are now trusted to make decisions about when and where they need to work in order to best achieve their results. They are trusted to take as much vacation time as they need, when they need it. They are trusted to make good decisions about how they manage their time, what meetings they attend, and how often they need to communicate with their colleagues. This level of trust has led to more engaged, passionate, innovative employees who are proud of their role in fulfilling our organization’s mission. You can improve your entire organization simply by trusting your employees. The world has enough sheep. What fences are you going to take down?

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Thoughts & Observations

The Challenge of Density in Leadership

I was listening to an interview recently with Susan O’Connell, the President of the San Francisco Zen Center, and she was asked a question about how things had shifted once she was appointed to the role as President of the organization.  

Her answer brought forth a word that I had never connect to leadership previously: dense. 

She described how it wasn’t really that the work of being President was necessarily more difficult then work that she had done previously, but that it was that the role was more dense: that every decision she made, every word she spoke would quickly carry more weight and touch more people then it had before she was officially titled as the leader. 

Because even if you insist that people don’t treat you differently or listen to you differently, there is something about the title that causes a shift. 

And yes, that shift can create stress (and this is a great thing to keep in mind when things are seeming inexplicably stressful), but that shift also creates an amazing opportunity positive impact and change. 

Press Enterprise Columns

From My Column: The BBQ That Will Change Your Business

Special Note: As I am getting close to writing my 200th weekly business column for The Press Enterprise, a daily newspaper in Southern California, I’ve looked back and realized that all that I’ve written probably should have a home here as well. So every few days I’ll post a new (old) column. Hope you enjoy! 

The BBQ That Will Change Your Business
Originally published in late fall 2009

If you don’t think a BBQ can change your business, then you’ve never met Bernard Ross. A year and half ago, I attended an Association of Fundraising Professionals conference in San Diego. Unfortunately, for most of the conference, I felt like I was attending a history lesson: the same strategies and tactics repackaged under the false pretense of fancy new titles. Then I met Bernard Ross, the Director of the Management Centre in London, who is a loud Scotsman with a thick accent and a propensity for profanity, and the registration fee I had paid for the conference was instantly made worth it. He convinced me that what I needed to do to help move our organization forward was host a BBQ. Not just any BBQ would do. This BBQ needed to be a Sacred Cow BBQ.

The name may sound somewhat horrific, but the concept and the results are anything but. At the foundation of a Sacred Cow BBQ are an organization’s “sacred cows” – the rules that an organization follows, both written and unwritten, official and unofficial. Every organization has sacred cows, things that have become so engrained in an organization that no one can remember why the rule or procedure got developed in the first place. Sacred cows are the “we’ve always done it that way” elements of any business.

Not all sacred cows are bad. Sometimes sacred cows are good. There may be some things that you’ve always done that are actually effective and beneficial for you to keep doing and that in fact are what set your business apart from others (like In N’ Out Burger still using fresh potatoes for their french fries). The point of the Sacred Cow BBQ is to bring multiple stakeholders in your organization to the table to openly and honestly discuss all of your organization’s sacred cows – the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Depending on the type of organization you run, a Sacred Cow BBQ would involve all levels and types of staff, customers, volunteers, clients, other businesses, and vendors. Although not necessary, it helps if you actually do host a real BBQ (people are more likely to come and actively participate if food is involved). The location for your BBQ will need at least one wall that can accommodate Post-It notes being stuck all over it.

Here are the Sacred Cow BBQ rules: each participant is given a pad of Post-It notes and a pen. Before any food is served, the participants anonymously write down as many of your organization’s sacred cows as they can think of, one per Post-It note. There is no judgment passed on the sacred cows they write down and it is acceptable if their sacred cow is the same as someone else’s. For each sacred cow that the participant writes down, they get one piece of BBQ. Their first sacred cow gets them a hamburger bun, their second gets them the hamburger, their third gets them condiments and hamburger toppings, their fourth gets them coleslaw, and so on. As the participants turn in their sacred cows in exchange for food, the sacred cows get posted on the wall. Before long, all of the stakeholders in your organization are staring at a wall covered in sacred cows.

As everyone enjoys their hard-earned meal, the session facilitators start the process of categorizing the sacred cows, grouping similar and duplicate sacred cows together. As this process takes place, patterns start to develop. It becomes clear what the organization’s biggest sacred cows are. For us, the most frequently listed sacred cow had to do with requiring volunteers to complete too many forms. After the sacred cows are categorized, the session facilitators lead a group discussion around the top five or ten sacred cows. Together the group talks about each sacred cow and debates whether it should be kept, modified or removed.

The discussion that occurs around a Sacred Cow BBQ is probably one of the most interesting discussions you’ll ever have in your organization. It provides clarity around what your organization values and what may be preventing your organization from growing or providing better products or services, and it gives you starting place to make changes. Since we knew that our volunteers were frustrated with forms (our biggest sacred cow), we embarked on a forms reduction project and brought the number of forms from 52 down to nine essential forms. That is how a BBQ can change your business. What are your sacred cows?

Thoughts & Observations

Giving Others Space for Discovery

I write a weekly column about business for a newspaper in Southern California, and this past weekend my column was about the valuable insight I felt I had gained from the concept of “Giving Everyone an A” from the book The Art of Possibility. The concept of removing false competition and instead helping individuals develop into their best possibility selves resonated deeply with me and mirrored the observations of my own experience.

Shortly after it was published I received notes from two readers. Neither of them were praise. Both pointed out that the concept had been floating around for 10 years and had already been disproven. 

Had I written about a new insight I derived from reading the Bible or some other ancient religious text, I doubt that anyone would have said to me “What? You’re just discovering that? That text has been out for a few thousand years.” 

This got me to thinking about the importance of giving others space for discovery.

There are plenty of books that were published 10 years ago, 20 years ago, and before I was born that can provide me and anyone else who reads them valuable insight. When I share how those books have helped me see the world a bit differently or have pushed me to question whether our assumptions about how we do things are correct, I’m not questioning other people’s experience or their own discoveries, I am simply illuminating mine in the hopes that my insight will spark someone to go off on an exploration of their own. 

Beginner’s mind isn’t just about how you approach things, it’s about how you let others approach things as well. 

Thoughts & Observations

The Applause is Infinite

I’ve been challenged for a long time by a feeling of scarcity and competition – that there isn’t enough money, love, praise, applause, etc. to go around in the world, and that if someone else gets a whole bunch of love or applause, it means there is less for me.

I’ve always known that this mindset wasn’t the right mindset to have because of the negative side effects it created: it meant that as much as I could love and be close to people, sometimes when they succeeded I would have a difficult time being purely happy for them because with my scarcity mindset, their success made me feel diminished.

I had never stopped to think about whether or not my sense of scarcity was actually true – I just accepted it as fact. The supply of love and applause was finite, and more for you meant less for me.

But a few things have happened recently that caused me to pause and challenge that assumption.

First, I started reading the book the Art of Possibility (recommended by my friend Parris) which shed fascinating new light for me on the idea of abundance. Then, right around the same time, I heard someone talking about how there is actually plenty of wealth in the world, there is enough to go around, it’s just not evenly distributed.

All of a sudden my thinking shifted. I realized that all of the resources I had been viewing as finite are actually infinite. And not only are they infinite but they are exponentially generative – giving more applause and more love does not drain the resource, it fills it back up.  The well only has a limited supply of water when you stop giving from it.

There is enough to go around. Your tremendous value and contributions do not diminish mine and mine do not diminish yours.

And now that I’ve deeply realized and felt this, I wonder what the hell we’re all competing for…