Verb your values!

Old-style typewriter keys spelling VERBThe problem with most companies’ values (and, dare I say, most people’s values) is follow-through.

What we do about them once we’ve declared them.

I wrote here about whether values are really values if we don’t always manage to live up to them. Spoiler alert: yes, because we’re human. But – and this is an important point – if we don’t have ways to hold ourselves and our teams accountable, ways to pause and evaluate how we’re doing, then values (especially corporate values) tend to be lost in the day-to-day shuffle of urgency and noise.

And thus we come to this post’s headline.

When we turn our values into actionable statements (verbs!), we – and our employees, families, and communities – have a far better sense of what’s actually intended and how to follow through.

For instance, “Integrity” becomes “Do the right thing.”

How do I know if I’m doing the right thing? Well, I think we all know – but to really make it actionable, for me, it includes “take a stand for what I believe in,” “do what’s necessary even when it’s scary,” and so on.

For an organization, “integrity” could have to do with how employees handle the difficult challenges of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEI&B).

Interestingly enough, even something as apparently-obvious as “integrity” can encompass different action statements – different verbs – for different people and for different companies. Maybe for one company, “integrity” is about how they interact with their customers and the marketplace as a whole, and they have a different value encompassing questions of DEI&B.

All of this requires us, individually and collectively within our companies, teams, communities, and families, to be thoughtful, thorough, and careful. What do we really mean by “integrity,” or by any of the many other values we claim for ourselves?

It’s all very well to declare a value. But failing to walk the talk leads to other failures, within an organization as well as for ourselves as individuals.

It's all very well to declare a value. But failing to walk the talk leads to other failures, within an organization as well as for ourselves as individuals.Click To Tweet

And those failures can be downright catastrophic – as we can see if we look at some of the more … interesting … corporate meltdowns, many (if not all) of which have a failure of values at the root.

More on values: “Values, Preferences, Needs, and Wants (oh my!)“, and “The Value of Values“.

Important points about the need to define your terms (especially values!): “The Missing Link for Real Success” and “Taking Back ‘Success’“.

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So what the *^?@ is “culture,” anyway?

Silhouettes of businesspeople walking awayEvery company has a culture – a personality, if you will. In fact, in larger companies each department or division also has its own sub-culture, which can sometimes be quite different from that of the company as a whole, or that of other departments. If you’ve ever envied a colleague because they worked in a department known for its supportive culture, while your department … wasn’t so much … you know what I mean.

And then there are culture change initiatives, where leadership decides that the culture needs to be improved somehow.

But what IS a company culture? And how can we determine if a company’s culture is “good” or “needs improvement”?

Setting aside a truly toxic culture, the answer begins with that second question, because a “good” culture for one person is a “bad” culture for someone else.  (And one can argue that every culture could always stand a little improvement.)

But obviously that’s only a very partial answer.

I’ve heard culture defined as “what we can and cannot talk about.”

There’s some reality in that. If the culture is one of openness and psychological safety, it’s probably a reasonably “good” culture. On the other hand, if there are taboo topics, harassment of any sort, or if making a mistake is a career-killer, well, I can’t imagine any of us want to work in that sort of environment.

One of the reasons culture is so slippery to define is that, as an Investopedia article states, “Often, corporate culture is implied, not expressly defined, and develops organically over time from the cumulative traits of the people the company hires.” 

Which brings me to my current favorite definition, which I heard only this morning on an episode of Simon Sinek’s podcast “A Bit of Optimism.” He quoted retired Marine General George Flynn as saying that “culture equals values plus behavior.”

There is so much in that five-word statement.

Values plus behavior: if the leadership and employees are walking the talk of their values – then you have a culture that’s aligned and congruent.

Values plus behavior: if, on the other hand, they are not walking the talk – if their behavior isn’t aligned with their stated values – then you have a culture that’s struggling.

Your employees will be jaded, cynical, disengaged; your customers will be skeptical; and your company will be less successful over time than it could be.

Note that in both cases you have a culture. Companies always have a culture. It’s a question of whether the culture is one where people enjoy coming to work and are productive, versus one where people dread coming to work and are much less productive.

All companies have a culture. It's also safe to say that all cultures, even 'good' ones, could stand some improvement. But what IS 'company culture,' anyway?!Click To Tweet

So how do you align values and behavior?

Be intentional. Don’t just pick a bunch of pretty words and put them on a poster on the wall. Explore what the company’s values really are, and then define behaviors that you can measure and hold employees (and leadership!) accountable to.

And then hold them accountable!

Yes, it takes work. But it’s worth it, because then you’ll have a culture that people want to be part of – a culture that’s fun, that invites the right people in, and encourages them to grow.

By the way – if you’re not part of senior leadership, you can still implement this in your department or team, or for yourself personally. 

It starts with defining values. And holding yourself accountable to them.

So if you’re now wondering – what are my values? – these might help: “Values, Preferences, Needs, and Wants (oh my!)“, and “The Value of Values“.

Wondering how to create culture change based on values? Check out Kevin Oakes’ book Culture Renovation: 18 Leadership Actions to Build and Unshakeable Company. I admit I haven’t read it as of this writing, but it’s on my Read Next list based on a REALLY great podcast episode with him on Brené Brown’s Dare to Lead podcast.

And there’s the Change Leadership program, of course!

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Preventing a toxic culture

Last week, I wrote about managing toxic employees.Cartoon of multiple smiling faces of all genders and ethnicities

But what about preventing toxic tendencies right from the start?

Toxicity can develop in an environment where individual achievement is valued over team accomplishment.

It’s important to acknowledge outstanding contribution at the individual level – and it’s equally important to avoid creating competition between individuals. The outdated and destructive practice of “forced ranking,” also known as the “vitality curve” (talk about using an apparently positive term to describe a harmful practice!), sets people against each other for their survival, instead of encouraging teamwork.

Instead, set team goals and offer whole-team rewards. Encourage informal inter-team mentoring. Cross-train.

Facilitate open dialogue about challenging issues, including situations that arise outside the company – protests and other events in the news. Make sure all your employees feel safe; psychological safety is a key factor in employee engagement and productivity.

Thank your employees. Thank your colleagues. Thank your leaders. Studies from Workhuman indicate that just FIVE thank-yous or indications of appreciation over a FULL YEAR reduce the likelihood of an employee seeking another job by over half. No, their paycheck is not “thanks enough” for doing their job!

Have you thanked someone recently?

Organizational culture is top-down, not bottom-up. As a leader, are you walking the talk? Do you know what behaviors your company expects, based on the company values? Are your company values clearly articulated, with associated measurable behaviors, in such a way that every employee knows what’s expected of them? (Ahem…)

Toxic cultures don’t just happen. They’re enabled and facilitated, though not necessarily with malicious intent; usually it’s through neglect and lack of focus.

Toxic cultures don't just happen. They're enabled and facilitated, though not necessarily with malicious intent; usually it's through neglect and a lack of focus.Click To Tweet

You can help prevent that.

Thanking people is an art form. Here are a couple of posts to help: “Why Thank You isn’t enough,” “A simple preventive for employee turnover,” and “For what?”.

Oh, and in case you were wondering … “What the *^?@ IS culture, anyway” – there’s your answer. (Okay, MY answer!)

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How to manage a toxic employee

Photo of a corked blue bottle with a skull-&-crossbones label reading POISONShort answer: don’t.

Try to manage them, that is.

Toxic co-workers are toxic – poisonous, virulent, noxious – those are just a few of the synonyms offered by a Google search.

They damage morale, delay projects, reduce productivity, cause colleagues and managers to dread coming to work, and increase costly employee turnover.

All too often, their behavior is overlooked. Whether it’s because they’re considered “too knowledgeable / too productive / too expert” to let go, or because their manager doesn’t want to face the conflict, or some other reason … they keep on spreading the misery, unchecked.

Don't keep trying to manage a toxic employee. There is no long-term value in hanging on to them. Even if you or your leadership believe they're 'too valuable to lose' - they're actually too destructive to keep. Click To Tweet

This is, bluntly, unacceptable. Leaders must learn to face facts and deal with toxic employees quickly and decisively.

No matter what you or your leadership might think, there is no long-term value in hanging on to a toxic employee.

Work should be more fun, not more stressful. That’s SUCH a value of mine that it’s a core principle of my work, which you can read more about here.

Got other difficult employees? Then you need my handbook, “The Five Most Challenging Employee Types – and how to manage them.” You can also find videos on all five on the Difficult Employees YouTube playlist.

gljudson Difficult people

A simple preventive for employee turnover

Photo of a cup of coffee with "THANK YOU" written in the foamWant to prevent employee turnover? Keep your best employees engaged? Avoid the really high cost of hiring replacements?

Say “Thank you.”

According to Eric Mosley of WorkHuman, as heard in an interview on Brené Brown’s Dare to Lead podcast, just five thank-yous  in a year reduces the likelihood of turnover by a bit more than half, from 15% to 7%.

And in this time of pandemic burnout, saying “thank you” is even more important.

Employees are struggling. People are struggling. Even as the vaccine rolls out and we begin to gradually, tentatively put a toe back in the water of “normal” life, people are burned out and anxious.

Some companies have reported greater, or at least comparable, productivity and trust.

Some, including one of my clients, are reporting real performance challenges with employees who are depressed, unfocused, and – bluntly – screwing up.

All employees deserve a “thank you” for the things they’re doing well, or when they’re simply maintaining pre-pandemic acceptable performance.

Thank you - it's a simple preventive for employee turnover. It matters. Especially now in pandemic-burnout time. Who will you thank today?Click To Tweet

I’ve heard true stories of a CEO’s handwritten thank-you notes kept for years.

I’ve personally experienced the warmth that comes from a sincere thank-you for work I’ve done.

I’ve seen the smile on someone’s face when I’ve thanked them for their work.

It’s not hard. And it makes a difference.

Who will you thank today?

How to do it? Read this: For what?.

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Values, preferences, needs, and wants (oh my!)

Photo of Captain Obvious“Values are important” – there’s a real Captain Obvious statement, hm?

I’ve written about values before, and I call out that importance – quite emphatically – in the Empowered Leadership program.

But how do we go about discovering and defining our values – instead of just taking it for granted that of course we have them?

My thoughts on this have changed.

In the Leadership program segment, I followed the example of Barry Salzberg, past CEO of Deloitte and currently a Columbia Business School professor. But his approach, which I heard about on a podcast interview, leads to a whole … I hesitate to say this, given his prominence … laundry list of “values” that I never felt quite comfortable with.

Thinking about this, I’ve concluded that what often happens is that we confuse preferences (such as “being kind”), needs (such as “I need time for personal reflection”), and wants (such as “I want to be part of a close community”).

If you’ve really, truly dug deep and identified your core values, you’ll almost certainly discover that there are just two – maybe three – that are your actual values. Everything else – those preferences, needs, and wants – fits under one or the other (or both).

Mine: fun and integrity.

A preference for being kind: integrity. Needing time for personal reflection: integrity (personal integrity to self) AND fun. Being part of a community: fun!

Environmental responsibility: integrity. Lifelong learning and reading: fun.

And so on. (I’ll stop boring you with my personal lists!)

If these correlations make no sense to you, that’s absolutely understandable. You (probably) don’t share my core values, nor should you adopt my preferences, wants, or needs.

Values aren't preferences, needs, or desires. They're something bigger than that - more than that - and when you've defined them correctly, your values will encompass your preferences / needs / desires.Click To Tweet

You have your own values. And when you drill down deep enough (or climb high enough!) to find them, you’ll see how your preferences, wants, and needs will fit.

It’s … fun!

Fun. Work should be more fun! That’s SUCH a value of mine that it’s a core principle of my work, which you can read more about here.

Yes, I am updating the Empowered Leadership program to reflect this change. Curious about the program? Learn more here.

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Better? Worse? Different!

Photo of a three-armed signpost silhouetted against a blue sky with white puffy clouds; arms read Past, Future, PresentWe’re a bit over a year into the pandemic.

Some people are struggling.

Some people are coasting.

Some people have found silver linings – and some of them feel guilty about that.

Some people are nostalgic for how things were. Interestingly enough, though, they’re a significant minority. Most people do not want to go back to How Things Were.

The people who are struggling aren’t always the ones you might expect.

Of course there are those who have no idea how they’ll pay the rent or the mortgage, and are lining up at food banks and wondering what will happen when the water- and electricity-shutoff moratoriums end. And that’s awful and, frankly, should not be happening in a country as wealthy and generally advanced as ours.

And there are others who still work at good jobs and have income and food security, whose families have stayed healthy, who have been able to take appropriately-distanced walks with friends, and so on … and they’re still feeling like their lives have been pulled – yanked! – out from under them.

There is no going back to those past lives.

And where we are today isn’t how it’s going to be forever. (Of course, “today” is never how it will be “forever,” but this is the first time we’ve been smack up against that reality in an undeniable way.)

There are things that we miss, of course. There are other things that we don’t much miss. There are things that are different that we don’t much like. And there are things that are different that we definitely do like.

Instead of judging things as “better” or “worse” than before, or than they will be, why not just look at all of this as different?

And remember that the person next to you – whether digitally on a Zoom call, or literally six feet to your right or left – may be struggling, even if they don’t look like they are, or even if, according to your perception of their circumstances, they “should” be okay.

We’re gradually emerging from this time. What will come next will be different than it was before – and we still don’t know what that will be.

What's next will be *different*. We're not going back. And how we go forward is up to us. What choices are you making? What choices will you make?Click To Tweet

Which means we have the direct and immediate opportunity to shape “next” in ways that create a more humane, just, and equitable world.

Leadership is how you show up. It’s not your title or your role. What IS leadership, anyway?

Just because we’re coming out of a time of massive change – doesn’t mean we’re not still facing a lot MORE change. My course Change Leadership: strategies for success could be helpful. Take a look! 

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What’s the cork in the bottle?

Photo of a wine cork with the corkscrew in it, against a dark background with blurry orange lights

There’s something you want to do.

But you’re not doing it.

(How do I know? Because we all have that in our careers and lives!)

It might even have become a source of serious – or at least mild – frustration.

Why aren’t you doing it?

Let’s ask a few questions. And bear in mind: this is relevant to anything in your life, but since this is a blog about leadership, I’ll be offering examples about career and professional growth.

Do you really need and want to do this thing?

Is this a “should” thing? Is someone else (aside from your boss!) telling you that it’s something you’re “supposed” to do?

Do you really, truly need to do it?

Obviously, if it’s your boss telling you to do it – you probably need to do it. (There are options here, too, but that’s a topic for a different post.)

But if it’s a cultural, societal, or even family expectation, reconsider. If this thing has no meaning for you personally, see what happens if you let go of the expectation. Cross it off your list. You can always put it back on again later if it turns out you really do want to do it.

For instance, maybe your family, your boss, your friends – someone important in your life – is telling you that you “should” aspire to a leadership role. But not everyone wants that, as I discuss here. And that’s okay.

Do you know what this thing is?

Okay. You’ve concluded that you really do want to do the thing.

What IS it? Have you defined it – explicitly, clearly, unambiguously?

Do you know what it looks and feels like to have done the thing?

It’s pretty much impossible to achieve something if it’s only a vague blur in the distance. As I review in the Change Leadership program, defining the objective is essential to achieving it. And that means truly understanding it in detail.

You have career goals. What’s the next one on the list? What will it look and feel like when you’ve achieved it? Is it a promotion – to what role? A new job at a company you admire – which company? what job? And so on.

What’s the next smallest step?

Especially if this thing is a Big Thing, you need to break it down. The biggest failure in planning comes from putting a project on your to-do list instead of a task.

Why do I say next smallest step? Because – again – anything bigger is often too big, and can keep you from starting. If you have half an hour, you need a half-hour-sized task, not a three-hour-sized endeavor. If you have fifteen minutes – you get the picture.

Bite-sized steps, small steps, baby steps: that’s what gets you to the goal, not giant leaps.

Want that promotion? You might be tempted to put “Talk to my boss about what I need to do to get the promotion” on your to-do list. No. The next smallest step is to look at your own calendar, and see what times you have available for a meeting with your boss. Then the next smallest step after that is to actually schedule the meeting. And so on.

These are all separate steps. And you can do each of them in just a few minutes, which makes them ideal for slipping into your day in between meetings and other, larger tasks.

What’s the cork in the bottle?

So much frustration comes from constantly feeling like you “can’t quite get around” to doing the thing you want to do. You know it will advance your career and / or your life, but it remains perpetually juuuust out of reach.

If you’ve done the three previous steps, there’s probably a cork in the bottle.

What do I mean by that?

Your desire for that clearly-defined objective (the thing), and even the next smallest step you can take, is stuck behind something else you’re doing.

Which means you need to clear that “something else” out of the way – take the cork out of the bottle – in order to free yourself to take action on the thing.

You want that promotion, but you’re in the middle of an important project. Or you’re on parental leave. Or you’re intensely busy with kids, caretaking an elderly parent, planning a wedding, or some other big life event.

The cork might be a good thing – parental leave! planning a wedding! – but it’s still a cork. And before you can move ahead with the thing you want to do, the cork has to be removed: the activity or event or project has to be completed.

It's not procrastination. It might be one - or more - of several other things, though. Including ... a cork in the bottle!Click To Tweet

Yes, there are other factors

Big Things that we want to do usually include changes in our career and life. Change is challenging. So if you’ve worked that cork out of the bottle, but you’re still feeling stuck, take a look through the other articles here on Change Leadership.

And note that the cool thing about change leadership skills is that they apply to personal life as well as to our careers!

Interested in learning more? My course Change Leadership: strategies for success could be exactly what you’re looking for. Take a look! 

gljudson Change leadership, Owning your career

Is change hard?

Many roads crisscrossing in a disorienting way, with road signs pointing all over There are many reasons why change feels hard.

The unknown is scary

We’ve all seen (and probably experienced) how easy it is to stay in uncomfortable – and even painful and dangerous – situations because they’re known and familiar. As poet and author Anais Nin famously said,

And the day came when the risk it took to remain tight inside the bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.

In order to change, we must acknowledge the anxiety and fear and explore options for mitigating what we perceive to be the risks. We cannot just ignore the emotional impact of change, even when we wish we could, or think we should. It’s not a matter of “willpower” or “engagement” or “motivation” – and I put those words in quotation marks* because in this instance, they’re simply irrelevant to what’s really going on. Humans are not wired to embrace uncertainty, and change is inherently uncertain.

And then there’s the question of identity

We have many layers of identity, often unconscious.

In order to change, we must actively understand both the current identity (which is holding us in place as the person or organization we are now), and the new identity (the ways in which we will be different after the change).

We may consciously want the change we’re seeking to make – we may want it very deeply – but without understanding the commitments we have to the current identity, that current identity will hold us back.

This is true on a group level as well as a personal level. Organizations have identities, departments and teams within organizations have identities, and if we as leaders of change don’t recognize this, acknowledge it, and help our teams understand that what’s important about those identities will be carried forward – that’s one of the reasons why organizations struggle to be successful in their strategic change initiatives.

And then there’s grief

All change involves grief, because all change requires us to leave something behind. If we don’t consciously acknowledge this grief and allow space for it, we will, again, be held back from progress in the change we’re attempting to create.

To lead change – whether for our own personal life, or as leaders within an organization – we must understand more than the tasks or steps that will create the change; we must also understand, navigate, and lead ourselves and our teams through the emotions of change. Merely understanding the tasks is change management – a necessary, but not sufficient, skillset.

So yes, some aspects of change are hard

But mostly change is uncomfortable. It’s vulnerable. It brings up a lot of emotional content that’s challenging, especially in a work environment.

Change isn't hard - it's uncomfortable, vulnerable, and emotionally challenging. Being a change leader means having the skills and tools to navigate All That and succeed.Click To Tweet

The sooner we accept that we’re humans, that humans have emotions, and that those emotions aren’t going away – the sooner we’ll start being more successful and less stressed in leading change.

Want to know how to handle these emotions and lead change – without the stress? My course Change Leadership: strategies for success could be exactly what you’re looking for. Take a look! 

* Fun fact: those unnecessary quotation marks are called “scare quotes” because they’re intended to draw attention and create doubt.

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Are you a “lifelong learner”?

Whiteboard reading "To-Do List: LEARN"“I’m a lifelong learner!”

If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard someone say that, or read it in a resume or on a LinkedIn profile, or saw it in some sort of social-media meme … I don’t know if I’d be set for life, but I’d certainly be richer than I am.

The problem with feel-good sayings like this is that they usually don’t translate into action, change, different ways of doing things, improvement, or at least experimentation in the hopes of improvement.

Reading a book, watching a TED talk, attending a conference session – it makes us feel good. It makes us feel like we’re doing something important.

We’re being a Lifelong Learner. Woo-hoo us!

But – but – but.

If you’re not doing something differently, or doing something new, or trying something out – you haven’t learned a thing. Not. A. Thing. As in, nothing.

You’ve entertained yourself, which is great. And if that was your intention, go for it! I entertain myself all the time with books, TV shows, movies, and even, occasionally, with books that I thought I was going to learn from.

But you haven’t learned anything, because learning is in the doing. Yes, you need to read, watch, or listen to the information first. But then – do something with it.

Reading, watching, and listening is enjoyable.

Actually learning something is often not. It’s confusing. It’s awkward. And we don’t like feeling confused and awkward.

It’s confusing and awkward because we’re learning, and learning (doing) new things is almost always confusing and awkward.

To learn something, we have to DO it. Not just read about it, or listen to a podcast about it. DO IT!Click To Tweet

I recently heard a podcast interview where the interviewee mentioned something that I immediately adopted. After finishing a book, he writes down three takeaways, AND – here’s where the proverbial rubber meets the proverbial road – he writes down what he’s going to do based on those takeaways.

Something to think about, whether for a book, a TED talk, a conference session, or any situation where you’re taking in information and hoping to actually learn something.

Learning is in doing. Always.

What are you learning?

More on why learning feels so awkward in this article

Change is all about learning new, different things. Leading change is a whole new skillset. See more (learn more!) at this link.

gljudson Owning your career