The Secret Power of Introverts (as Leaders)

First published in Full Start, March 23, 2014

People tend to automatically think of leaders as extroverts. After all, an outgoing nature, openness, and inherent sociability are all basic requirements to being a leader, right? Not necessarily.

Research shows that 4 out of 10 top corporate executives are introverts — and for good reason. Introverted leaders bring quite a few qualities to the leadership table, such as their ability to form deeper relationships and think through decisions. These traits make them a powerful force in a business setting.

In this Full Start article, Chris Cancialosi discusses the misconceptions people often have about introverts and explains the hidden values a more reserved leader can bring to a company.

A Bright Idea @ IDEO

What does a flying fish tell us about corporate culture?

At design consultancy, IDEO, the answer is – quite a bit. When IDEO’s chief creative officer, Paul Bennett, hoisted an Icelandic lamp made from a lacquered, deboned cod above his desk in IDEO’s office space, it was more than a quirky design decision.

The lamp is a symbol of Bennett’s experiment to work differently. One day, the chief creative officer realized that his hyper-scheduled workday was preventing him from living an important cultural value at IDEO: ‘Talk less, do more.‘ Scheduled in back-to-back, ten-minute micro-meetings left no room for doing.

One of Bennett’s core roles as chief creative officer is to ‘help inspire people’. With no space for the type of organic interaction and spontaneity that inspires creative thinking, Bennett felt his energy was misdirected.

So, he ran an experiment:

  1. Clear the calendar: Say no more than yes
  2. Buck the ‘hot desking’* trend: Be an anchor amidst the fluidity
  3. Do ‘doctor’s rounds’: Spend ½ day at the desk, ½ day visiting colleagues
  4. Respond in real time: Allow for 5 minute or 2 hour interactions depending on the real needs of the organization

*Hot desking = No designated workspaces; Employees at IDEO sign up for desks every morning

Claiming a permanent desk and stringing the massive cod lamp above it are symbols of Bennett’s commitment to change his leadership behavior:

“When the light is on, it’s a signifier to the office that I am there, and a symbol to me that I should be accessible and approachable. And it’s a huge incandescent fish: As a surreal object in a public place, it can shake you out of your office stupor and help you think more creatively” Paul Bennett (

Bennett’s experiment is a perfect response to one of the trickiest aspects of managing culture. Culture is grounded in habits. Thankfully, habits exist to save us the time of making drawn-out decisions about…how to sign an email, for example. But, leaders and organizations run the risk of relying on habits that once served them well but are no longer driving high performance. Left unchecked, this is how culture can derail organizations.

Bennett’s habit of hyper-scheduling wasn’t helping him contribute to the creativity and organic interaction that IDEO values. Leaders should be deliberate, like Bennett’s experiment, in course-correcting behaviors that aren’t aligned with their company’s values. Ultimately, leaders set the cultural direction for their organizations. The fish lamp, the dedicated desk over which it hangs, and the stories behind them are artifacts of IDEO’s culture that can’t help but reinforce the value of ‘talking less, doing more.’

The Importance of Now

Over the years, I’ve had countless opportunities to speak with people from all walks of life – children, adults, clients, colleagues, blue collar, white collar – it’s spanned the gamut. One unifying phenomenon I’ve noticed often is that when people speak, they tend to spend a majority of their time discussing what’s happened to them in the past (e.g., “I shouldn’t have done that.”, “That meal was great.”) or about what’s yet to happen (e.g., “I can’t wait for this project to be finished.”, “Vacation is going to be so nice.”). Keeping this observation of others in mind, I’d imagine it probably wouldn’t take long for you to find this to be true of your own encounters as well. There’s nothing wrong with thinking or expressing the past and future in this way, but it does preclude one key experience – the now; the full experience of what’s happening in the present moment.

In Daniel Goleman’s latest work, “Focus,” he makes mention of this “problem” in another way. Goleman’s research indicates that more often than not, in general people tend to be thinking about something other than what they are currently doing. People are therefore not fully in tune with what they are doing. I’d argue that as a result, we too often experience life on the surface; there is not enough processing of the current moment. By living life in this manner, we aren’t giving ourselves the opportunity to fully experience the now, and all of the emotions that it potentially encompasses.

If you agree with this basic premise, it follows that there are clear implications from this in the business world, including employees’ ability to focus on their work in any given moment or leaders’ ability to focus on the needs of their team. These of course beg the question of how to counteract this tendency.

  • I’d suggest four steps you can take immediately to be less consumed with the past and future, and be more concentrated in the present.Take stock – turn up the dial of your own curiosity; be actively curious about your surroundings and the impact they have on you if you let them
  • Take note – be conscious of all of your senses; what does whatever you’re doing right now feel like? smell like? sound like?
  • Take breaths – focus your full attention on your breathing – in through your nose, out through your mouth; practicing conscious breathing allows for you to bring your mind to the present
  • Take up a hobby – research shows that you can be more alert doing things that are active and engaging

So, what are you waiting for? Just focus on the present moment reading these words. Now these words. Now these.

How does that feel?

How Company Culture Can Make or Break Your Business

First published in Fast Company, March 6, 2014.

We are excited to share Chris’s inaugural Fast Company post. Here’s a quick snippet:

“Culture is a relentless driver of employee behavior. Left to its own devices, it can potentially limit an organization. But if leaders work to define it, assess it, and understand it, culture can be used as a tangible business lever to directly achieve goals and improve performance.”

He goes on to share the four key components needed to translate culture into something people can relate to, and invest in:


For more, read the full piece and feel free to join the discussion on “culture translation” by commenting here. We’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas.

The Talent Retention Myth: A Devil’s Advocate Viewpoint

We hear it all the time, the continuous chatter of experts reiterating the same old talking points about what organizations need to do to retain and engage a younger workforce. All this talk got me thinking.

What if we got it all wrong? What if we are being held captive by our own beliefs and assumptions about the very nature and structure of work in today’s society?

Common thinking is that we, as leaders of organizations, should retain talent as long as possible in order to capitalize on things like organizational knowledge, relationships with co-workers and vendors and that, somehow, employees who stay with us will be eternally motivated and highly productive team members. We may also subscribe to the risk mitigation side of the argument, seeking to keep talent to avoid the costs, financial and otherwise, of having to recruit new talent to fill in the gaps that departing employees leave.

The issue with this philosophy is that we are basing these rationales on our own (older generational) beliefs that the longer the tenure of the employee the more productive, engaged and fulfilled they are. We equate tenure with loyalty and loyalty is a sought after attribute. Workers of the millennial generation, and younger, don’t necessarily view their experience with one employer from a permanence perspective. Instead, they move from job to job, and organization to organization, in a constant effort to find a place where they can make a meaningful contribution and develop.

What if, rather than trying our best to hold onto younger employees and satisfying our own needs, we redesigned work to be accomplished by people who would give us their all while they were with us, but who could also quickly and easily pass the knowledge onto new generations of employees when they moved on? Rather than fighting against the values and trends of the times, what if we embraced the values of younger generations and evolved the way in which we do business to capitalize on a more consistent stream of new and fresh viewpoints and ideas? What if, instead of spending mounting resources trying to retain talent, we used those resources elsewhere and flexed our way of thinking to thrive in a new age of business?

With the speed of change in organizations today, is the job even the same thing it was two or three years ago? One might argue that many jobs today evolve rather quickly and the gains of retaining talent are a bit overstated. Let’s think about re-designing work and re-shaping organizational cultures to take advantage of new talent that fills these roles over time.

The Importance of Learning from (and About) Others

At gothamCulture we talk about culture all the time. Like, all the time. This stems from our belief that at the center of an engaged workforce and an organizations’ performance, whether you define that as a healthy bottom line or degree of social impact, lies its culture. Culture reveals itself in many ways, from the plaque on your office door to the policies that guide how you work, but none more important than how you engage with your colleagues.

As we start a new year, my guess is that a lot of us have professional ambitions on our list of resolutions for 2014, probably just under “lose weight/join gym”. This is great – no one believes in finding professional fulfillment more than we do here at gC. But if you’re feeling antsy and annoyed in a job and are ready to throw in the towel, consider this (incredibly uncomfortable) lesson I learned last month.

I spent a November weekend in an unusual training many social psychologists subject themselves to during their education: a Group Relations conference. Using the word “conference” doesn’t quite call up the right image, because the purpose of this conference wasn’t to ideate around the newest innovations or complete continuing education credits while enjoying a new conference tote and swag. The purpose is simply just to be in groups. Just be….in groups. Over the course of three days we sat in big groups and small groups, self-organized groups and assigned groups. Without an agenda, keynote speaker, facilitator or assignment, the central focus became the words we used and how we chose to relate to each other. (If you feel uncomfortable just reading this, imagine how I and 74 of my new friends felt after three straight days.)

At one point over the weekend, we self-organized into groups and were then encouraged to interact with other the groups that had formed. Conflict theory teaches us that when you fail to see another person in full context, you tend to make up stories to explain any unpleasant behavior. Throw in a little negative emotion and your working relationship goes from water cooler chit chat to sending covert emails to your friends riddled with four letter descriptors. At the conference, you would have thought the walls separating our groups were actually borders separating countries. Because we could only guess at what was happening in the other rooms, our defenses went up fast and my teammates and I were quickly swept up in how convinced we were that everyone else was rejecting us. Every intergroup interaction was entered into with skepticism and doubt about the other’s motives. But when all groups came together toward the end of the weekend, I was surprised to find that my group was not, in fact, the social outcast. In fact, nearly every group thought it had been rejected, too. It was a tremendous “a ha” moment for me when I realized just how rich those stories we wrote about what went on on the other side of the wall were.

Which brings me back to culture, how we choose to engage with others and your list of resolutions. If you are struggling with your boss, so much so that you’re ready to throw up your hands and saunter out the door, consider what’s actually going on behind her wall. It might not be what you think. If you’re a leader whose team or organization is always a little toxic and people just don’t seem to jive, consider the amount of transparency that is (or isn’t) there between you. It’s amazing what just 10 minutes of honest and vulnerable communication can do to clear up years of misconceptions. Consider a resolution to learn more instead of to up and leave. Your own health, and that of your company, will be better off for it. No gym required.

M&A Failures…Oh, When Will They Ever Learn

A recent Google search titled

“merger and acquisition failure reasons” resulted in an estimated 242,000 hits. There is a mix of academic research, specific industry experts and consultants within the first fifty postings, with what appears to be “violent agreement” that somewhere between 50% and 75% of M&A’s are judged to be failures. Lack of attention to organization culture alignment is a likely culprit.

In fact, within those previously mentioned articles, lack of alignment of cultures is identified from the #1 to #17 rationale explicitly. Particular elements of the integration or lack of integration suggest that not enough attention was paid to “the way things are done around here” as opposed to “the way things are done around there.” In fact the “lack of due diligence” is cited frequently. Unfortunately, markets, competition, economy of scale, share price etc., etc, etc. is what is called out…little to nothing is said about the likelihood our people will get along, or whether our processes are different or if we value the same thing.

In my fifteen years plus in culture integration work; I can recall only three clients who were bold enough to do “pre-marital” counseling. Taking that analogy a bit further, typical M&A due diligence might be compared to a couple getting married after “speed dating.” We all know the advice to put our best foot forward during the courting stage. The push-back on due diligence at the front end, particularly public companies, is that transparency is dangerous. But lack of transparency can certainly be more hazardous.

So, back to the three clients who “peeled back the onion” before their union. Two of the three decided NOT to move forward. An excellent case was a financial institution considering acquiring a competitor. We started by gathering quantitative data, employing the Denison Organizational Culture Survey (DOCS). Interestingly enough, both institutions had very strong and similar profiles. In particular, both scored high in “values.” On the surface it seemed like a great fit. Yet there was more of the onion to be peeled.

After doing one-on-one confidential interviews and focus groups, we learned that yes, both institutions had strong values; however, they valued very different things. My client valued entrepreneurial behavior, going the extra mile for their customer and pitching in to help their team mates. The other group saw themselves as a family (some even described themselves as dysfunctional), with members who valued working apart from each other in silos and valued the “rules,” as it related to interacting with their customers. The C.E.O. recommended to her board that they continue to look elsewhere.

In closing, there was an anti-war song in the 60’s by the folk group Peter, Paul and Mary titled “Where have All the Flowers Gone.” The key repetitive lyric… “Oh, when will they ever learn?” seems to apply here. When will companies learn that sometimes it makes sense to go a little slower at the front-end so you can go fast when it really counts? Perform the “cultural” due diligence…it pays dividends in multiple perspectives.

*To date DOCS appears to be the only survey instrument that makes the connection between the strength of an organization’s culture and performance measures such as market share, ROI, customer satisfaction, employee satisfaction and quality.

On Being Unreasonable

Last week, I watched an executive address 150 leaders in his organization – an organization known for its unparalleled ingenuity, ‘against all odds’ innovation, and global impact. In his remarks to close a three-day ‘leaders summit’, the executive made a request of his team:

“Please…Be unreasonable.”

Unreasonable: difficult, obstinate, without good sense…

The negative connotation of the word hit first. But within seconds, the meaning behind the request settled. And the reaction was visceral– an energy spurred by the idea of disruption, dissatisfaction with the status quo, an urge to take risks. I envisioned Monday’s to-do lists being mentally rearranged by listeners, “reasonable” tasks being shuffled off the list indefinitely.

We hear leaders struggle with the pace and complexity of today’s changing environment. How do we inspire innovation? Breakthrough? How do we stay ahead of the curve?

Doing something remarkable requires risk-taking. Inevitably, with certain risks comes failure. To motivate employees to take risks, leaders need to drive and maintain a cultural acceptance for failure. “Please…be unreasonable” set the foundation for just that.

If your organization feels starved for fresh ideas, a good first place to look is how failure is perceived culturally. Is risk being recognized and rewarded – whether it ends in success or failure? Are failures broadcast as organizational learning or swept under the rug? Are leaders encouraging employees to tackle challenges that seem impossible? If we think about what innovation truly is – upheaval, disruption, breakthrough, how could we achieve it any other way than being unreasonable?

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man. – George Bernard Shaw

5 Tips For Turning A Performance Deficit Into Your Company’s Best Year Yet

We all know that in a company’s big picture, consistently failing to meet performance goals can have dire repercussions. But falling short of these goals can also affect how a workplace functions on a day-to-day basis. Employees can lose passion for their work or even look for other, healthier companies. Their productivity is likely to fade alongside their enthusiasm.

That’s why it’s so important to keep on top of these performance failures and change course before small losses snowball into bigger ones. In this article, Chris Cancialosi discusses how you can take these failures and turn them into opportunities to make your company healthier and stronger.

Toxic Cultures: Where Does the Buck Stop?

It’s been a long couple of weeks for New Jersey’s Governor Chris Christie. With numerous political scandals coming to light and the Governor continuing to insist that he knew nothing of the alleged strong-arming of local politicians with opposing views, one must wonder- how do such cultures devolve to the point where staff members feel that it is acceptable to behave in such ways.

When scandals erupt, once publicly confident leaders who seem to have complete control of their organizations suddenly claim ignorance and rush to divert attention away from themselves. This happens more commonly than one might expect.

If unethical organizational behavior is known to leaders and tolerated, for whatever reason, the clear message to employees is that it is okay to behave in such ways. If the behavior occurs unbeknownst to the leader than the leader is not doing an effective job of supervising the people that work for him. Either way, the leader is at the root of the culture issue.

Four Signs Your Culture May be Toxic-

  1. Employees feel they can behave in unethical or unprofessional ways with little or no repercussion from their leadership.
  2. Leaders hold themselves to a different standard than they hold their people.
  3. When the going gets rough, leaders quickly look to blame someone or something else for the mishap rather than take responsibility.
  4. Employees are fearful that they cannot speak up in fear of retribution from leadership.

The buck really does stop with the leaders. And, they must intentionally cultivate employees’ beliefs about acceptable and unacceptable behaviors and the guidelines for behavior in the organization. With so many stakeholders looking more closely at the brands and companies they engage with these days, it pays to create an organizational dynamic where team members know exactly what’s expected of them. Otherwise, toxic cultures will kill themselves.