How to change your workplace culture
“Ideas are worthless. Execution is everything.” So says Scott Adams.
Mike Tyson has his own perspective: “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.”
We explore lots of ideas in Rise With Drew. Ideas are great. Ideas are wonderful. We don’t generally lack for ideas.
But life gets interesting when we attempt to put our ideas into action.
As we begin the eighth month of Rise with Drew, I’m planning to experiment a bit with incorporating more of our real-life experiences at PCI. I’ll still write about great books and the lessons we can learn from them. But once a week or so, I’ll share some lessons learned from putting theory into action.
Thinking back on my 25-years at PCI (gulp. News flash: time flies…), it strikes me we’ve experienced two periods of deep change, one of which involves our adoption of servant leadership as our leadership philosophy. I include our story below as context as we wrap up our analysis the next two weeks of my favorite leadership book, Robert Greenleaf‘s The Servant as Leader.
Deep change involves entering what Robert Quinn calls the “fundamental state of leadership.” When we do, we attract others around us into this same state. We grow and they grow. Deep change, Robert shares with us, is the antidote to slow death. We “learn our way forward” challenging our old assumptions. These periods can be treacherous but often result in exponential personal growth. Along the way, we develop adaptive confidence: “a belief that we can move forward into uncertain situations and learn what we need to know as we need it.” Robert calls it “building the bridge while we are walking on it.”
PCI is a third-generation family business. But really, we are two-time, second generation family business. The transition from the first generation to the second generation didn’t go so great. Which resulted in a reset.
My grandfather Rocky Clancy started what became the nation’s first alumni directory publishing company in 1921. When he died in 1964, he selected my dad Jack to be President of the Rockwell F. Clancy Company. My dad was 27 years old at the time. This decision did not sit well with my Uncle Jim who also worked in the family business. He was eleven years older and he wasn’t crazy about working for his kid brother.
Ultimately, in 1971, they made the decision to sell the company. My uncle exited and went on to have a successful career in insurance. My dad went to work for the acquiring company.
But Jack Clancy was a born entrepreneur. And in 1982, he founded Publishing Concepts (PCI). My dad was a great guy and we had a great relationship. He was the best man in my wedding.
He was also a perfectionist. He liked to control things. All things. All the time.
And, what happens when the person who makes all the decisions gets sick and can’t come to work?
In early 1995, my dad had his second heart attack, was diagnosed with congestive heart failure, and wasn’t able to come into the office for an extended period of time. That year, revenue declined 25% to $3 million. Worse, the company lost $600,000.
It was a dark, difficult situation. I moved back to Dallas and joined PCI in an effort to stabilize the company. My dad’s sudden absence had created a large hole as well as a high degree of uncertainty inside PCI.
To survive would require a new approach. To survive would require deep change.
There’s an expression I like: what makes you good, makes you bad. And, what makes you bad makes you good. Put another way: too much of a good thing isn’t always a good thing.
It’s extremely challenging getting a new venture up-and-running. Failure rates for start ups approach 90%. I’m convinced my dad’s strong, controlling personality was a major reason that the company survived and ultimately thrived in its early years.
But, when one person makes all the decisions it creates a very traditional, top-down culture.
I have different skills than my dad. Like him, I am persistent. But, I am also more collaborative by nature. Upon arriving in Dallas, I quickly discovered we had a strong team. I was able to provide the rudder and a vision for a better future. We made some good decisions and were able to turn things around. In time, we tripled revenue to $10 million by the year 2000.
Changing a workplace culture, however, is a trickier, more complex proposition.
How did we go from a traditional top-down culture to a company that has been recognized repeatedly as a great place to work?
There were several factors that played an important role, including articulating our core values (thank you, Jim Collins) and prioritizing personal growth and development (thank you, Rand Stagen). But, I firmly believe the single most impactful decision we made was adopting servant leadership as our leadership philosophy.
It’s not as simple as holding a meeting, making an announcement, and then all of a sudden everything is different. Far from it. To enact this type of deep change is a long-term, on-going commitment. We began with a goal and some general principles, very much as Robert outlines in The Deep Change Field Guide. We did not hire a consultant or follow a linear process with a checklist.
Instead, we started with a vision that the role of leaders at PCI was to serve, support, and remove obstacles so that our front line could do their jobs with excellence. Then, we began experimenting, learning our way towards our goal. In late 2001, we bought copies of The Servant as Leader and organized all of our associates and into small groups to read and discuss the essay. The discussions were lively and powerful.
At the conclusion of the discussion groups, we held a half-day offsite where we sought to apply and integrate some of Robert Greenleaf’s key concepts: serve first and leadership will follow, have big dreams, accept and empathize, be aware, listen first, persuade instead of coerce, joy and peace come from within, and one step at a time: the way great things get done.
I recently came across the agenda we put together. I was impressed with our fearlessness. We had one exercise which began with 5-minutes of silence where in small groups we considered and then shared our answers to questions like:
Something you love about your job and why
Something about your job you find challenging/frustrating and why
Something that brings you real joy and why
Something that brings you real sadness and why
What is it you want to get out of your career and why
What is it you want to get out of your life and why
As time went on, we defined our core value of service through the lens of servant leadership: “We see each day as an opportunity to serve our clients and each other. We embrace the principles of servant-leadership.” All the while, we looked to hire and promote leaders who understood the power of “serve first, leadership will follow.” Various PCI leaders attended the annual Greenleaf conference on servant leadership. We joined the Dallas Servant Leadership Learning Community (SLLC). And, every five years or so everyone in the company would read and discuss The Servant as Leader.
For twenty years, we’ve been working on becoming a servant leadership organization. We’ve created our servant leadership culture one decision, one situation at a time. It’s journey – and we are still a work-in-progress. That said, this leadership philosophy has taken root and transformed our organization.
Perhaps the greatest benefit is the idea that leadership does not lie with one person or with a small group; but rather but can be found everywhere, at all levels within the organization. We’ve attempted to turn our org chart on its head, with our clients and our frontline at the top. On their first day at PCI, I share with our newest associates that leadership is not a title, but a mindset.
From that moment forward, each of them is expected to be a leader.
Reflection: Reflect back on times in my life when I’ve been involved in deep change. What stands out about these experiences? Do I see any patterns?
Action: What area of my life right now would benefit from deep change? Embark in this direction.