Can We Tackle Our Culture If We Don’t Tackle Our Fears?

In 2000 I developed a genuine fear of flying. For someone who was regularly flying between Toronto, New York and Austin this wasn’t good. 

 In fact it got so debilitating that when I moved back to Toronto I elected to take a 13 hour train trip rather than endure the 70 minute flight.  

Doing my research - I had 13hrs to kill - I found out that aviophobia typically arises because your brain believes you're completely out of control of your surroundings. 

Makes sense. When you get on a plane you never see the person in control – if they’re sober, if they look competent, if they look older than 15 etc. You’re hurtling 35,000 feet above ground and over 500 miles a hour. There are miles of electrical circuits and technology that could fail spectacularly at any moment. And, if you’re in Economy, you can’t even control what they feed you during your we're-sorry-for-the-late-departure-we’ll-try-to-make-it-up flight.

Ultimately the fear comes from to trying to exert control over a litany of things you have absolutely zero control over.

And fear makes us act in all sorts of strange ways. 

And we certainly don’t behave at our best when we act out of fear either.

In the past 48 hours I’ve had two very insightful people separately ask me why organizations seem so reticent about tackling their Cultures. 

Why, in the face of mounting evidence that cogent well-functioning cultures attract and retain better talent, are more creative and adaptable and often out-perform their competition on almost every metric possible, do so few organizations seem willing to jump into this opportunity with both feet?

Could it be fear?

Spoiler alert – if you’re fearful that your Culture isn’t perfect, rest assured few are. Even amongst the most respected cultures in the world, the best would acknowledge they still have to work at their cultures each and every day. 

If you’re fearful that your leadership style has created the culture in your current team or organization, I can tell you most assuredly that it has certainly had a significant contribution.

But what other behaviours exist in your organization – inside your culture – that are driven by fear? 

A fear that is debilitating your teams, your productivity, your adaptiveness, your competitiveness?

I fear that if I share key knowledge I won’t be seen as the "indispensable" smartest person in the room. 

That fear stifles teamwork.

I fear that if I don’t tell my people exactly how to do something they’ll possibly do it differently and they might screw it up.

That fear stifles your team's growth.

 I fear that if I tell my EVP of Sales to stop bullying his EA that he’ll go work for the competition.

That fear stifles respect.

I fear that if I speak up and contradict my boss with a new idea I’ll get humiliated or shut down. Better if I just nod and go along.

That fear stifles innovation.

I fear for my job so I will do everything possible to sabotage my colleagues in other departments so I win.

That fear stifles collaboration.

I fear if I'm not sending or checking emails from my vacation I won't be seen as committed to the company.

That fear stifles recuperating and recharging.

I fear that if I push back on a colleague (or client's) unreasonable or unrealistic expectations I'll not get promoted.

That fear stifles truth and transparency.

Remember your culture is simply defined by how people behave to fit in. The deeper and more systemic these fears are, the more they are explicitly creating your culture.

They also needn't be spurring hugely weird and observable behaviour. As the examples above show, some are so small and insignificant, we can fool ourselves that they aren't taking a toll on our people and our culture.

Tackling your fears is no small undertaking. I don’t care how big your title is or how varied your credentials are, just acknowledging you’re fearful is a mammoth achievement.

After all we typically anoint leaders for their invincibility not their vulnerability.

Similarly, creating an environment where people feel they can express their fears without concern for retribution or judgement is incredibly rare. Fear is still seen as a sign of weakness, not strength. Rather show a brave face or a wall of bravado to your colleagues than acknowledge you might not have the answer or aren’t the expert everyone thinks you are. 

As Carolyn Swora eloquently references VUCA – Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity – in her great culture book “ Rules of Engagement” – we are living in fearful times. Just ask any CEO who has gotten on the wrong side of POTUS and his relentless abusive Twitter-stream.

The issue is are we prepared to at least acknowledge our fears? From the Executive suite all the way to the shop floor. From the corner office to the cubicle to the staff cafeteria?

Are we prepared to ask if the poor and unhelpful behaviours we see within our organization’s cultures aren’t based in fear? 

Importantly - are we prepared to minimize those fears as best we can before the unhelpful behaviours bring out the very worst, rather than the very best, of our colleagues and employees?  

I’m fearful for the future of many organizations if we’re not prepared to even try.

What fear is holding YOU back? How might your colleagues and team be able to reduce that fear if you were open with them? How much better might your organization be if that fear was reduced?

I’m fascinated to hear folks.

HR versus Marketing - The Next C-Suite Confrontation

As business has become more complex and more digitally-driven, the traditional roles and responsibilities of the C-suite have become increasingly interwoven and even confrontational.

In recent years C-suite titles have proliferated beyond all recognition and spurred many debates – Do organization’s really need a Chief Digital Officer or not? – and, more importantly, heated debate about where budget control and accountability should lie.

The overlap between the Chief Information Officer (CIO) and Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) has been well documented for the past decade. With so many emerging technologies and digital channels falling under the purview – and accountability – of Marketing, it’s hardly surprising that Gartner believes CMO budget expenditure will exceed the CIO expenditure this year. Even if there is a liberal sprinkling of hyperbole in all the usual forecasts and predictions, you need only look at the exploding LUMAscape for marketing technology and the ascendency of a CMO-as-technology-buyer isn’t a surprise. It is an inevitability.

In recent months, the number of highly-publicized and much derided snafus in the airline industry suggest to me another impending C-suite battle.

This time the battle will not be over Pixels, but over People.

This time the confrontation will be between Marketing and Human Resources.

Here are three areas where I see this playing out.

Purpose over Policy

Purpose has become one of the hottest areas in management thinking in the past few years. It has become a central mandate of Marketing in many organizations as executives seek new ways to differentiate themselves to prospective clients but also to prospective employees.

Popularized by Simon Sinek in his book “Start With Why” Purpose is typically seen as the ultimate articulation of why an organization exists, where traditional descriptors like Mission Statements defined what an organization was doing to become successful. 

What’s more Purpose is seen to actually drive performance and help with both employee acquisition and retention. In their popular book “Corporate Culture and Performance” John Kotter and James Heskett drew significant parallels between organization’s with a strong Purpose and financial performance. And, as we all know, anything that positively impacts the bottomline gets CEO attention. 

Historically this hasn’t been the domain of HR. Instead, HR has been more accountable for crucial tasks like labour relations, benefits and compensation, annual leave and annual reviews. These tasks center more on managing people within an organization rather than inspiring them.

In a Purpose-driven organization, the real opportunity doesn’t lie in articulating what is allowed...but what is possible.

Articulating that possibility lies firmly with the CMO today.

Culture as a Differentiator

Marketers spend their lives seeking to create – and market – a compelling differentiator to prospective customers. Tools like positioning statements and classic frameworks like the 4 P’s were built to determine and define these points of differentiation.

As access to markets and technology has obliterated the traditional barriers to entry in many categories, marketers have struggled to find those elusive differentiators. Even more elusive are differentiators that are sustainable and not easily copied by the competition. In many cases organizations are quickly realizing that their own culture is actually a point of differentiation and, considering how long it takes to nurture a great culture, it can’t be easily replicated.

Service-driven organizations are obvious examples where Culture is absolutely a differentiator. Consider how different the experiences at Starbucks, Southwest, Zappos and The Four Seasons are from their competition. But its not just service organizations where culture contributes to success. Internet behemoths like Reed Hastings at Netflix and Jeff Bezos at Amazon both cite their cultures as reasons their organizations have been able to capture market share and mind share so adroitly.  

If culture can create meaningful and sustainable differentiation, and that differentiation drives customer preference and loyalty, it is inevitable that forward-thinking CMO’s will want to ensure they have a firm hand in both creating and nurturing their organizational culture. 

Brand Experience = Customer Experience AND Employee Experience

In reality all brand experiences are a culmination of an expertly managed customer experience - and that’s often not feasible unless equal rigor is applied to the employee experience.  

Simplistically speaking, marketing creates a promise in the market. But invariably it is employees who fulfill or fail on that promise when customers come calling. Case in point, United’s promise of “Fly The Friendly Skies” quickly became fodder for Senate hearings, late night comics and internet memes when their gate crew were anything but friendly. The disconnect between marketing promise and employee fulfillment couldn’t be starker. 

For organizations that spend millions tracking metrics like NPS (Net Promoter Score) or instal core KPI's like Gartner's "Effortless Experience" the critical necessity to ensure the business delivers and over-delivers on customer's expectations couldn't be more important. And, for organizations where executive compensation is directly tied to NPS results, this all comes into very sharp focus.

It is not surprising then that employee experience initiatives are a rapidly growing area for consultancy engagements and F100 company investment. Both realize that spending time on internal audiences (employees) can be even more important than time spent on classic CX and UX endeavours. Author of the excellent book “What Great Brands Do” Denise Lee Yohn penned a great HBR article that outlined all elements of the employee experience journey and how focusing resources (and investment) on each stage would drastically increase not only the caliber of the staff an organization hired but also the critical level of engagement those employees would have.

If creating a world-class brand experience remains the remit of CMO’s, and without fully-engaged employees that’s not possible, it stands to reason that employee experience and engagement should fall under that remit too. 

For the record, as a long-time marketing veteran my opinion is entirely subjective.

I’m certainly not debating the capability and competency of HR veterans, merely suggesting that responsibilities like employee engagement, culture, employee experience are going to become areas of sharper focus if organizations want to avoid the social media outrage currently aimed at the airline industry.

Ultimately collaboration, not confrontation, is the hallmark of any well-functioning leadership team. Just as the CMO and the CIO had to find ways to work together to map a successful path forward, the CHRO and CMO will need to find a way to harness the very best of their unique experience and individual acumen.

In the future a “people, not pixels” mantra will - in my opinion - be a source of competitive advantage so marrying Marketing and Human Resources will be absolutely critical.  

What say you Dear Reader?

Is this confrontation already brewing? Does Marketing have any legitimacy in this area? Does HR hold all the cards? Where does it makes sense for these two groups to share accountability for culture development?

I really do want to hear your opinion. Please leave your comments below.  

Why Measuring The ROI On Culture Is So Damn Hard

We live in KPI-driven world.

Perhaps, more accurately, a KPI-obsessed world.

Miss your quarterly forecasts – even by one or two cents – and watch how quickly investors pounce.

Don’t show a continuous upward tick in your fully-optimized marketing campaigns, boy oh boy…

Missing a credible and substantiated “adoption curve” in your investors deck – ideally one that looks like a hockey stick – then be prepared for the quickest VC meetings in history. 

KPI’s are good.

They give us something to strive for, a yardstick to meet and exceed. Heaven knows we’re swimming in enough data to generate a million KPI’s for each and every business. And just wait until my IoT friends get their hands on you.

Perhaps that’s why I remain so perplexed when I hear debates about the ROI of investing in Culture and how hard it is to quantify the impact of Culture-building (or Culture-changing) activities.

Truth is measuring a Culture ROI is relatively easy – and getting easier every day.

There are great organizations, like Globant and Microsoft, with amazing tools that can measure utilization rates (always a favourite in places who still label departments “Human Resources”) levels of collaboration, how “integrated” new teams and new members are within your company, average turnover, retention, tenure, absenteeism etc.

The ability, and the fantastic Saas-enabled, shiny Dashboard-rich technology, is there. Fantastic news for those of us who earnestly believe you measure what matters. And what matters more than Culture?

The issue, if I can try explain it from my observations, is not that measuring the ROI of Culture is impossible or even difficult these days.

The issue is that measuring the ROI of Culture is uncomfortable.

COMMITMENT - Uncomfortable because it requires a leadership commitment at the very highest levels of an organization. A commitment of time, a commitment of resources, a commitment of real dollars into defining, creating and nurturing a culture that promotes the care and growth of your people.

NEW EXPECTATIONS - Uncomfortable because it forces you to confront and address the classic refrain “why train our people if they’re only going to leave us” and actually build an organization that rewards curiosity, risk-taking and employee freedom. That means letting go…just a little..and letting the good people you’ve hired step up.

That’s hard if you’re accustomed to command-and-control operating principals, no matter how outdated those may be.

SPEED - Uncomfortable because, unlike tweaking our Tech Stack and our latest SaaS subscription, we can’t immediately and efficiently optimize our people in the same way.

With gleeful exuberance we’ll invest Trillions of dollars in Enterprise software, digital transformation consulting and elaborate Customer-Experience journey maps for the promise of immediate growth. Unfortunately changing how our people behave and how they make decisions takes longer – and FAST is the prevailing business mantra of the day.

AND HUMANITY - Uncomfortable because it requires confronting your values and your humanity head-on.

As Newsfeeds are populated by advances (or techno-porn) of machine-learning, AI and automation – and the huge gains to be made from deploying those – it can be hard to remember that business is still inherently human. That, until Robots have wallets, you’re still relying on other human beings to imagine, create and BUY your products.

To create a Culture that inspires and invigorates other human beings means YOU have to be able to inspire and invigorate others.

And you can’t mail that part in.

I get how uncomfortable it is.

But any more uncomfortable than these KPI’s?

Only 12% of American workers believe they get effectively on-boarded.

Only 35% of senior executives believe their Culture is effectively managed.

One in 5 employees are actively sabotaging their current company.

The $3 TRILLION lost because of the excessive bureaucracy of organizations stifling productivity and innovation 

I am a marketing person at my core. I’ve spent my career helping organizations find and communicate what makes them different and unique. With every passing year I’m more and more convinced that products can be copied – and commoditized. Flashy new technology can be acquired just as quickly by your competition.

But only your Culture is truly unique. No other company has it - or can copy it.

Only your Culture can inspire and invigorate your people to overcome and thwart the inevitable disruptions coming to every sector in the years ahead.

Only your Culture can attract the world-class talent you need to thrive in the future. Whether you like it or not, top talent doesn’t have to settle for mediocre Cultures.

In the end, your Culture really is the only true sustainable competitive advantage you have.

What’s the ROI on that?

I wanted to thank my friend Cybelle Srour for inspiring this post. She was the boss that personified a genuine mantra of caring for and growing her people. Thanks Cyb!!