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.

How To Manage Dynamic Tensions — And Master The Balancing Act

At the core of good leadership is a skill shared by tightrope walkers and jugglers around the world: the balancing act. But in the business world, the tightropes are opposing workplace tensions and the juggling balls are stakeholders.

The trick to mastering this daunting feat? Find a way to manage seemingly opposing dynamic tensions — like stability and flexibility — to foster a clear set of expectations that allows for growth and innovation in an ever-evolving marketplace. In this article, Chris Cancialosi offers insight into how to manage these tensions to achieve an equilibrium that keeps engagement, performance, and productivity high.


Everything You Need To Know About Management You Learned In Psych 101

As a student, you almost certainly spent more time dreading general education courses than actually paying attention to them, and following the final, you quickly forgot the material altogether. After all, you’re never going to use calculus again, right?

Psychology 101, however, is one course that does play a pivotal role in business operations — particularly team management. Reacquaint yourself with the basic principles of psychology to boost your leadership, your team’s motivation, and your company’s success.


Six Leadership Lessons From “The Walking Dead”

Zombies aren’t typically my thing, but “The Walking Dead” series has caught my attention. My interest isn’t so much related to the zombies as it is the leadership lessons that are embedded within. That’s right – leadership lessons. A lot can be learned by watching this small group of survivors struggle to prosper in a post-apocalyptic world infested with the living dead.

Here is proof that leaders can find guidance in the least expected places.

  1. Ditch the Script When the gates fail and you are being overrun, as happens in business and during the apocalypse, the rulebook should be thrown out the window. Leaders who are able to break from the script and quickly adapt to changing conditions are those who will survive. Those who stick to the plan no matter what’s happening around them risk being mauled.
  2. You don’t have to have all the answers Just because life as you know it has ceased to exist and you find yourself leading your group in unfamiliar territory, you aren’t expected to have all the answers. When hordes of undead are knocking at your door, effective leadership may call for decisive, top-down authority. But don’t forget that team members on the sidelines may hold key information that will help inform your decisions.
  3. The Stockdale Paradox The people who succumb to the mere thought of the biting and clawing undead always seem to be those who either lose all hope and quit or who fail to realize their dire situation. The Stockdale Paradox proposes that leaders must ensure that their teams are honest with themselves about the reality of their situation while always keeping hope that things will improve. Those who don’t keep a balance between the two are much more apt to lose their focus and become lunch.
  4. North Star Having a guiding “north star” provides clarity and creates a collective direction. Supporting the Stockdale Paradox, leaders need to articulate a vision for the future that inspires people to weather the storm. This becomes especially critical when the going gets rough and people are called to task in ways that push them to their limits.
  5. Empower your people Micromanaging doesn’t work in the office, and it certainly doesn’t get you very far during a zombie attack. Empowerment involves people making some mistakes, but that’s a great way for them to learn. Authoritarian and hierarchical structures enable dependence and mindless followership rather than creativity and proactive behavior. The worst you can do as a leader, in most cases, is to breed a team of zombies.
  6. Stick together It happens in every time. The person who splits from the group inevitably ends up stumbling around with a glazed look destined to become a future threat. When the odds are against you, working together becomes especially critical. One reason team members split off from the group is that they are misaligned in terms of who the real “enemy” is. As leaders, we must keep the group together and focused in the direction of that North Star. Misalignment can be disastrous in a business context in terms of lost productivity and team effectiveness. In “The Walking Dead,” it can mean the difference between life and death.

Though the obstacles we’re facing in our own businesses hopefully don’t match the intensity of “The Walking Dead,” we can certainly take a page out of the book of the brave survivors navigating the ultimate leadership challenge.

Well-Being & The Bottom Line

Remember the time when that boy in your fourth-period class made fun of your glasses and it totally ruined your day? Fifth and sixth periods offered up tons of new knowledge but you were too busy swimming in a sea of four-eyed misery to notice?

Maybe it wasn’t your nerdy specs, but we’ve all suffered similar affronts to our self-image. It’s amazing how negative experiences and the emotions they elicit can hijack our brains. And what might have once been fodder for teenage drama actually continues into our professional adult lives. Research on emotions and cognition suggests personal wellness has real implications for your company’s bottom line. In a fast-paced knowledge economy where we must innovate more quickly and more often to get ahead, leaders can’t afford, literally, to ignore the well-being of their employees.

A recent meta-analysis examining research into the relationship between employee well-being and business outcomes showed that business performance improves as employee engagement goes up (Harter, Schmidt, & Keyes, 2002). This is not news but rarely does this idea get linked to the bottom line. Consider perhaps the most obvious outcome of employee engagement: retention and turnover. If your company replaces its employees to the tune of $30,000 per person, it makes good sense to fight to retain your talent. This is not to mention less immediately quantifiable outcomes of engagement such as productivity, creativity and collaboration – just the stuff your company needs to reach optimal performance.

To avoid perpetuating those brain-hijacking negative emotions in the workplace, leaders need to make employee wellness a priority. But before you gather everyone in the conference room for a soothing kumbaya or attempt to win hearts and minds by starting up a Taco Tuesday tradition, here are a few quick questions to gauge if you are building the right environment for employee actualization:

  • Do your employees know what’s expected of them? While autonomy is important, at the end of the day employees need to know what they’re expected to achieve. More importantly, however, is making sure they understand the value of their contributions to the organization’s work.
  • Is your rewards system oriented toward the long-term? It’s imperative that employee’s basic needs like fair compensation and appropriate resources are readily available. But the best leaders look to the long term by considering how rewards and opportunities can benefit all aspects of employee health. Giving someone a raise might make her happy in the short term, but employees need emotional and intellectual fulfillment to commit for the longer haul.
  • Are you all in this together? The well-known cliché that we spend more time with our coworkers than our loved ones shouldn’t necessarily be a sad commentary on our lives. Work provides us with a casual social outlet, but research shows that when an employee feels a strong sense of belonging at work, well-being goes up. Feeling that someone in the organization cares about him can not only increase the chances he’ll stay there but has also shown to increase productivity and even the quality of service that he then passes on to customers.
  • Do you know what your employees love to do? Perhaps the best things leaders can do is understand not just their employees’ strengths but also what they love to do. You might ask, “If you could focus on just one part of your job all day long, what would it be?” Studies show that business outcomes and long-term retention rates improve when employers give employees space to indulge and grow their most beloved talents.

gothamCulture recently worked with a client who closely considered these questions. To explore how they could invest in the not just the physical but also emotional, intellectual and social health of its employees, they asked us to design a program for some of its senior team focused on employee well-being both in and outside of work. What was clear to them, and to us, is that organizations that want to move beyond surviving to thriving in the marketplace need to pay more attention to employees’ “higher level” needs.

From Where Do You Lead?

The Army teaches officers to “lead from the front”, creating visions of a sabre-wielding leader in Union blue followed by legions of men and a cacophony of battle cries as he charges the enemy. This style of leadership makes a lot of sense on the battlefield. During times of crisis that are oftentimes associated with combat, there isn’t time for group input. Decisions must be made on limited information, and leaders must show their followers that they are not going ask of them anything they are not willing to do themselves.

Thinking about leadership more deeply, I began to ask myself – is this always the most effective form of leadership?

As a civilian leader and entrepreneur, I have found myself leading from various places in order to drive performance. At times, I’ve certainly had to lead from the front, providing a foundation for the team by setting the example in times of crisis. In less critical moments, I’ve held back encouraging my people to push themselves, make mistakes and learn from those mistakes. On a rare occasion or two, I’ve had to lead from the back by nudging people to get things where they needed to be. And there have been instances where it makes sense to lead from the middle, serving in a facilitator role rather than one of positional leadership power.

To me, this speaks of the theory of situational leadership – adapting our leadership style and behaviors to the context of the situation and the capabilities of the team in order to get the best from our people.

So, my question to you is, “From where do you lead?”

The Best Business Mistakes I’ve Ever Made

Recently, I have been taking stock of my journey as an entrepreneur. I’ve realized that I had learned quite a bit the hard way. Making mistakes and learning from them, as an individual leader or as a team, is enormously beneficial. Now, I’m not advocating for making mistakes to make them, but I am suggesting that we don’t let a good mistake go to waste.

Making mistakes is part of leading. They are part of life. If we fear failure and bash those who make the occasional mistake, we stifle people’s ability to take risks and innovate and may find our competition leaving us in the dust.

In reflection on some of my most colossal blunders over the years, I came up with a list of key learnings that have helped me both professionally and personally.

#1. Bad decisions don’t get better with time. Decisiveness is critical in helping you move faster than the competition, but it also means sometimes having to make decisions without the benefit of reams of data to back them up. We all make poor decisions sometimes. The real shame is when we don’t admit the blunder and try to ride it out in hopes that things will get better. Being able to identify a misstep quickly and being decisive enough to course correct is critical to success.

#2. You’re not always the smartest person in the room. As an entrepreneur and leader of a team, I felt intense pressure to have all the answers. Looking back, I recognize my faulty assumption. I may have started the company, but I’m certainly not the only one with all the answers. We have a smart and creative team that analyzes things in very different ways than I do. This is an enormous source of strength for us as we discuss and debate business topics before making decisions. This diversity of thought helps keep me honest.

#3. Hope is not a plan. We started our business on a hope and a dream. What we quickly realized is that hope is not a plan. As our organization matured and we became more established leaders in our industry, we took tangible steps to be intentional about who we are, where we’re headed, and how we plan on getting there. With the assembly of our Board of Advisors, our market repositioning, our all-hands strategic planning processes and reviews, we developed a planning cadence that focuses our work effort throughout the year.

#4. Don’t be afraid to fail. Starting a new business was a terrifying experience. What I realized quickly, however, is that fully experiencing life is about taking risk. Now, I don’t mean a constant Vegas-style gamble, but I am an advocate for putting yourself out there in an uncomfortable situation where you very well may fail. Assess the situation and mitigate as much risk as possible to stack the deck in your favor, then execute with everything you’ve got and don’t stop until you’ve succeeded in your endeavors.

Theodore Roosevelt made a speech at the Sorbonne, in Paris, France on April 23rd, 1910. I’ve memorized and carried part of this speech with me throughout my business endeavors:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

There is no great effort without some level of error and shortcoming. And when you make a mistake, don’t get so caught up in wringing your hands that you don’t capitalize on the learning opportunity.

Why Do We Do What We Do?

“That’s just the way we do it” – Something I’ve heard countless times from leaders and their reports in response to my question, “Why do you [fill in the blank]?”. I am surprised by how little careful thought we tend to give to why we do the things we do in the workplace.

This led me to wonder – why? If an organization’s culture is a collection of lessons that helped it grow and survive, it is only sensible that members of the group would look to past successful behavior for future guidance. Over time, provided these behaviors yield positive results, management develops processes to ensure that these effective behaviors occur and that positive outcomes are achieved in more and more consistent ways. Eventually, people aren’t consciously thinking about why they do what they do. They do what they’ve always done because it seems to have worked for them in the past.

Adding to the potential risk of this work on autopilot is the “noise” of the day-to-day. As people scramble to tackle to-do’s, they oftentimes don’t feel they have the luxury to think critically about why it is they do what they do.

This, in and of itself, wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing…if we worked in a bubble where our environment didn’t change. But when behaviors that have historically yielded success cease to do so, people start to ask themselves why they are doing what they do. Unfortunately, by then, it may be too late.

Truly exceptional leaders are those who constantly ask the question, “Why?”. Effective leaders are those who push others to examine why they do things the way they do them and inspire them to understand the marketplace and question the efficacy of their behavior.

When is the last time you stopped and asked the question, “Why do I do the things I do?”. The answer may surprise you.