All Hands, an office life publication, recently interviewed me about my journey in making matters of diversity, equity and inclusivity a priority in my business. We discuss why diversity matters to me, in addition to the challenges I face in moving beyond words and actually putting it into practice. As someone who identifies as a straight, white male of privilege, living in a predominantly white community, I have inherent blind spots and challenges within me -- both as a person and as a leader. To read the full interview click here.
About a year ago I found myself on campus at MIT in Boston, participating in the first year of a three year program called the Entrepreneurial Master’s Program — the brainchild of agile start-up and growth guru Verne Harnish and EO — the global entrepreneur’s organization I’m involved with.
One of the many things that really stuck with me was the idea of designing an internal Continuing Education Program within my own organization as a way to be intentional about professional growth and continued learning for my team. The idea is simple and easy to implement: it's essentially a book club with incentives and rewards to help compel participation.
To give credit where credit is due, this idea was inspired by Arnie Malham. His company actually designed a plug-and-go version of this idea at betterbookclub.com for leaders and companies to easily install and utilize. With that said, I found it very pretty to design on my own.
Here’s what we’re doing: we call it "The Marmoset Book Club."
I’ve strategically curated a collection of about 50 books (so far, plus multiple copies of a few), most of which I’ve read myself. The collection is specifically curated to meet the topics, trends, and subject areas I believe to be most critical to my people, my organization, and to our industry. At my company, we’re especially focused in human systems, psychology, innovation, and creativity -- so those are the topics you'll find in our library.
To put it the way Verne Harnish explained it back at MIT, the human brain is better and much more powerful than any computer in the world. If you think of the human brain as a high-powered operating system, you should also consider the software you load into it. Or to put it more simply — think of what you’re doing… and also what you’re reading and learning as the latest software you’re loading into your human OS.
As the leader of my organization, I have the unique opportunity to actually curate and load the latest and greatest software into our collective operating system with an idea as simple as a library. Here’s how we do it:
We ask (i.e. require) everyone in our organization to select and read one book every 6 months, and write a 2-page book report, covering a few pointed questions and critiques.
As an incentive and reward, everyone earns a $125 gift card to the local area restaurant or store of their choice. Further, for those who are especially motivated by learning and continuing education, staff can read up to a book a month — and upon submitting the book report, they earn the gift card.
In the approximately 9 months since launching the Library, my staff has ingested more than 75 books in total. Considering the awesomeness of the human operating system — that’s a ton of new software we’ve just loaded into our collective intelligence. Further, it’s a super lightweight and easy program to implement as part of your Continuing Education plan for staff and a pretty unique value-add benefit for everyone. I regularly get rave feedback from my staff, as they enjoy having a variety of books to choose from.
Okay, for those scrutinizing leaders out there, you can do the math. For a team that's super motivated by learning (or by gift cards), they can read up to 12 books a year and earn up to $1500 in gift cards annually. Multiply that times your staff size -- we have about 40 people -- and at $125 per book, I've got a budget range of roughly $15k to $25k a year (most people do the minimum 2 books a year). Now I don’t know about you, but that seems like a pretty reasonable cost for achieving high impact, high reward growth and continuing education for a staff of 40 people. It also serves as a bold statement for my people, highlighting the importance of reading, learning and perpetual growth within our culture and tribe.
As you can see, we've had some fun with it -- adding library cards and stamps, so folks can see who's previously checked out the book. We also keep a binder of the book reports, so people can peruse the experiences and reviews of others to help choose their next book.
If this idea hasn't struck a chord with you, think of it this way: In business, there are always competitive games being played publically, on the outside, that everyone can see… And there are also the competitive games and strategies happening in private, behind closed doors, that only you can see from the inside. This "book club" idea is but one of the many inside games or strategies any organization can add to achieve an instant, high impact competitive advantage.
What are you programming your organization’s operating system with?
How are you developing your people? How are you encouraging growth and continued learning?
What's your "inside" advantage?
As I reflect on my journey in launching a start-up and leading a mind blowing tribe of creative people, I regularly come back to one overarching question: how did we get here?
It was only seven years ago that a friend-of-a-friend and I decided to do this thing — just the two of us, both working out of our respective basements, with no money, 100% bootstrapping it. In short time, we’ve somehow managed to grow things to something much more significant, more mature, and even sustainable.
So how did it all happen? What lessons have we learned along the way that have had the greatest impact? And if we did it again, what would the blueprint look like?
I’ve honed in on the three most important concepts to our story, our success, and specifically in leading an organization made up largely of artists and creative minded people:
1. Genuine Care, Love and Support for One Another.
Yes, I realize how hippie-dippie this sounds. No matter what you think, this concept has been the undeniable X-Factor for us and for our continued success. And it’s also the one thing that every boss and company I’ve ever worked for has gotten wrong.
Please note the word “genuine” and consider how it precedes everything else. Being genuine is monumental, as a lot of leaders are pretty good at coming up with cool sounding mantras or they're good at designing cool workspaces and installing beer kegs in a vain attempt to show how much they care about their employees... and really, that's more about telling people how cool they are. No matter, take note that genuine care, love and support for one another isn't something you can't fake. Trust me, every employee knows when their leaders are posers.
For this to be real and authentic, it has to be 100%, completely baked into the DNA of every single person in the organization. It requires leaders to actually know their people and engage in relationship with them -- actually spending time with them, listening, opening up and mutually sharing about life and personal matters. It requires real, meaningful relationships — on a level that allows you to know who they are, what motivates them, what their needs are, and what matters most for them. And if it matters to them, it should matter to you.
In my organization, every leader has a one-on-one with every member of their respective team at least once a month. Most of our leaders do this bi-weekly. And by "one-on-ones," I’m talking about face-to-face hangout sessions, with people looking eachother in the eyes for at least 30 minutes, aiming to spend at least half of that time being quiet and listening, focused on more personal, non-work topics, asking questions like “what’s going on in your life?”
Genuine care also means knowing your people well enough to know when there might be something you can help with or something to celebrate. My leaders always have their antennas up, looking for special needs individuals may have, like replacing a broken iPhone or fixing someone’s broken down car. We’ve paid for counseling sessions and chiropractors, new MacBooks and for commuter bicycles. We’ve covered airfare so someone could fly across the country to participate in a meaningful cause, and a moving truck to make a potentially hectic move a little easier on someone. Sometimes the little things can be quite impactful.
There's no denying generous benefits and flexible policies can also help provide a solid foundation of care within an organization. Some benefits we’ve found to make a difference for our people include unlimited paid time off, paid health care, health and wellness stipends, sabbaticals, regular paid “creative days,” profit sharing, 401k matching, Bicycle and Bus Commuting Stipends, and access to educational resources like coaches, trainings, and Lynda.com.
Measuring results -- it's worth noting our turnover has been super low, almost non-existent over the seven plus years we've been in business. And that's saying a lot, considering most of these are millennials, musicians and creatives -- a demographic many don't believe to be overly committed or loyal (which has definitely not been my experience). Setting the warm fuzzies aside, the sheer business impact of minimal turnover is important on many levels. The cost alone of retaining staff vs recruiting and retraining new staff is estimated to be an additional 20% or more of each new person's annual pay -- not to mention the related time, stress, distraction, and energy it can require.
2. Strong Structure and Strong Systems
Especially when working with creative people and teams, strong structure and strong systems are critical in keeping the ship sailing smoothly and in avoiding confusion, nasty conflicts, communication breakdowns, internal dysfunction, and chaos. Simply put, strong structures and systems ARE the secret sauce for best fostering and supporting creativity. The structure itself actually provides the medium -- the most critical element -- for creativity and creative people to truly thrive.
Not convinced? Then think about music for a moment. Without the “structure” of rhythm, there’s no way to create a song or even a melody. Without understanding the 12 notes in a musical scale, it can be hard to compose a melody. Once a musician understands rhythm, notes and the structures inherent within music, the possibilities and creativity open up and become endless.
It's true within nature too -- arguably the most creative concept imaginable. Nature is full of structure -- and the rigidity of the structure, systems and processes can actually be quite complex too. For example, there are exactly 109 atoms — one for every element. And the differences between atoms give the elements their different chemical properties. And that's where the magic happens. And so on.
As such, within the creative teams at my business, we’re perpetually scrutinizing, optimizing and innovating our internal structures, systems and processes — constantly working to make them as strong and supportive as possible. At its best, a strong organizational structure provides the glue, reliability, and peace of mind among highly creative people and teams, ultimately making the creative work easier, more free flowing and able to truly thrive.
One example of how we've installed strong structure and systems is our Daily Huddles, which I explored in a previous essay. In future essays, I'll delve into other structures, tools and approaches we've found success with.
3. Alignment and Commitment Around What Matters the Most.
From our earliest days, we’ve been fierce about identifying what matters to us the most. Early on as founders, Brian and I regularly discussed what kind of company we wanted to lead, the kind of work we wanted to do, the kinds of people we wanted to work with, and values we wanted to live out. As things have progressed and as our venture has matured, we now frame these conversations around our purpose and our core values. We’ve invested a lot of time and resources and have gone to great lengths to achieve greater clarity, alignment and commitment around these things.
First and foremost, we searched our souls to establish what’s most important to us -- wrestling with these kinds of questions:
- What's our purpose? Why do we do what we do? What do we want to accomplish?
- What defines us? What’s our constitution? What are our core values?
- Where do we want to be one year from now? 3 years? 5 years?
- How do we want to impact our community? How do we want to impact the world? What will be our legacy?
Once we could confidently answer these questions, there’s a myriad of much deeper, more specific details and objectives we've drilled into, worked through, and we continue to drill into on a regular basis.
With all of that said, hear this: articulating your purpose, core values, and having all of that stuff figured out and having it written down somewhere isn’t the most important thing.
The most important thing is having 100% alignment and commitment to these things throughout all of our people, our teams and our entire organization. Without alignment and commitment by all, we're like a sailboat without wind. And so we've installed insanely comprehensive methods of communication, rhythm and alignment to make certain all of our people are on the same page. These include daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly and annual rituals, rhythms and events that provide regular checks and information exchange to keep everyone on the same page.
Worth noting -- whenever it comes to light that someone in the organization isn't fully committed or appears to be out of alignment, it has to be dealt with and managed immediately and swiftly. It's the sort of thing where one misaligned or under committed individual can have quite a profound negative effect on the whole lot, if not attended to quickly. Trust me, I've delayed or procrastinated handling such matters once or twice in the past, naively hoping they might dissipate or self-resolve, and it's always made things much harder in the end.
In summary, the three most important concepts to our story, our success, and specifically in leading creative people and creative teams are:
- Genuine Care, Love and Support for One Another
- Strong Structure and Strong Systems
- Alignment and Commitment Around What Matters the Most
I've had two profound conversations this week, within hours of each other, that've got my wheels turning at high speeds ever since. It’s the idea of homogenized people -- particularly in the workplace.
I’m concerned my organization is becoming homogenized. I’m afraid we want to work with people that look like us. People who talk and act like us. People who have similar interests as us. People we know we’d enjoy spending time with, working alongside, and hanging out with. People who line up with similar values, similar beliefs and who naturally have similar ways of approaching things and doing things. People who enjoy similar music and similar food. People who’d be “a good hang.”
In summary, it’s an undeniable fact that people naturally tend to prefer spending time with people who think like them and agree with them, rather than spend time with people who think differently and disagree with them.
But before I delve too far into this idea, let’s first ask why.
I have a growing belief that people want to live, work and spend time with people who look and act like them because it’s easy. It’s much easier to spend time with people who approach life similarly to the way we do and enjoy similar interests as we do. It’s easy to hang out with people with similar temperaments, people with similar communication styles, and those who exhibit similar behaviors.
On the contrary, it can be very challenging to spend time with someone who’s different. Someone who comes from a different place and background. Someone who speaks a different language. Someone who talks louder than we do... or maybe they just talk a lot. Someone who has different values and beliefs. Someone who approaches life (and work) from a different perspective or with a different style. It's often the difference between a good roommate and a bad one. Right?
And in the workplace, there’s no denying that on-boarding, training and ultimately collaborating with and working with someone who’s inherently different from us can be very challenging — even exhausting. It requires more time, attention, patience and ultimately it requires more work to achieve success.
As such, it’s no surprise that people naturally want to work with people who are more like them. It’s easier. Right? Ok, but what else?
I’m still working on this topic, but I’m honing in on a few over-arching, slightly disjointed beliefs on this topic:
- Regular agreement and consensus among creative people and creative teams is poison. It's a canary in the coal mine. Disagreement, differences, dissent and healthy conflict are critical to achieving understanding, innovation, creativity, empathy, learning and growth.
- Collaboration, collective intelligence and the magic that comes from these ceases to occur and no longer matters if everyone is the same, thinking the same, sharing similar beliefs, similar interests, similar thinking, working with a similar approach and doing things the same way. Instead we become sterile, stale, and more closely embody the creativity of a drone or maybe a sugar ant.
- Creative people tend to be emotional people. Emotions can sometimes cloud or interfere with logic and decision making. Difficulty in relating to and working alongside people who are different from us can breed stress, anxiety and negative emotions. It can be hard. These emotions have a tendency to blind people to diversity’s upsides. Upsides include new ideas, better understanding, increased creativity, innovation, empathy, and new, wonderful solutions.
- Homogeneity provides harmony and agreement. And while this offers a high degree of comfort and ease, which are generally good things, homogeneity feeds a dangerous level of affirmation, self-indulgence, over-confidence and consensus. And at its worst, it provides the perfect conditions for a fantastically terrifying echo chamber. For a macro example of this, consider the current state of American politics.
- In spite of efforts toward globalization, the world isn’t homogenous. An organization or a group of people who lack diversity will no doubt be incapable of knowing, understanding, and successfully navigating a diverse world. This is especially true in business. A homogenous group of people is really only capable of serving themselves well. And THAT can be a very deceptive, hypnotizing cup of self seduction — one that tastes so good, yet is nothing short of a toxic venom.
- People who are clearly and distinctly different from one another CAN totally align around a core purpose, core values, strong structure and systems, and ultimately thrive together to achieve great success. In fact, research points to much greater success than that of homogenous teams of people. While it may be a slightly more challenging path, strong leaders are the catalysts to model and cultivate this among their people and teams.
What to do:
As I continue to work on this topic, I’ve distilled two critical, overarching objectives I plan to spend some time on. I have a hunch these may be the key to unlocking a game-changing transformation around Homogeneity vs. Heterogeneity in the workplace:
- Awareness. I believe most of us have spent little to no time with these ideas and therefore lack awareness of these dynamics that are taking place in us and around us. If we can be more aware of what’s happening and of our actual behaviors, whether we’re doing it consciously or unconsciously — we can start paying attention and start to learn more about ourselves and about others around us. It seems to me that awareness alone may be half of the solution.
- Understanding and promoting the value of diversity (and the danger of homogeneity). It’s easy to say “diversity is good and homogeneity is bad” — but being able to really identify, understand the value, and sincerely desire diversity is what’s critical. Without sounding too business-nerdy, the best way to get people to truly want diversity is to present a value proposition that’s too good to turn down or avoid.
Okay, that's where I'm at. And while I'm not well read on this topic, here's a couple of interesting articles about the value of diversity over homogeneity in the workplace, written by experts who are much smarter than me:
Now comes the hard part -- it’s time for me to get to work on this. Stay tuned.
PS: in all of this, I should note I'm growing keenly aware that I sit here, writing and sharing my thoughts as a straight, white, male, living a privileged life. This is an iceberg topic. Or rather, an ocean of icebergs. While I have some experience and expertise in leading creative people, I am nothing more than a curious explorer on the bigger, broader topics contained here.
I attribute much of my success in leading creative people to having strong rhythms in place throughout my organization. In fact, as I type this, I realize how absolutely nerdy and uncool it may sound -- but I'd go so far as to say the rhythms I've developed and implemented, may be one of the most critical, most impactful organizational practices of all.
But first, a note about rhythm.
You can't have music without rhythm. It's the essential ingredient to all music. In fact, melodies and harmonies and all of that good stuff doesn't really exist without rhythm. It's the core that binds everything together. And the same can be said for people systems. Especially when working with creatives.
The primary, over-arching rhythms I've designed for the creative people I lead are actually quite elaborate. In fact, just thinking about it sorta makes my head spin. In this essay, I'm providing an introduction to rhythms and I'll elaborate on daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly and annual rhythms in later entries. And if you don't read any further, know this: without strong rhythms among creative people, sooner or later you'll likely be at risk for varying levels of communication breakdown, internal dysfunction, and chaos. Trust me.
But first -- why is rhythm so important in the first place? To many, I'm sure it sounds like a lot of wasted time. We've all got far too many meetings, huddles, and conference calls already, right?
In my experience, high structure and strong processes, dovetailed with clear and frequent communication, is a blueprint for success in creative work environments. Rhythms give everyone regular, reliable opportunities to give and receive information. Rhythms help keep everyone aligned and on the same page. And they keep everyone's awareness up, so people can pivot, make adjustments, and give their attention and resources to wherever it's most needed. Most of all, rhythms give everyone in the organization a peace of mind -- knowing they'll always be kept in the know, they'll always be well-connected to their team, and knowing there'll always be opportunities to ask questions, to care and be cared for, and to learn about and give input on the most critical matters.
Morning Huddle Magic
The real value of a Morning Huddle is to set up the blueprint for the day. And in less than 10 minutes, every single person in the organization knows exactly what they need to know to succeed that day. It provides a level of awareness, alignment and synchronization that's impossible to get any other way. Here's how we do it:
At exactly 9:22am every team gathers for a standing huddle. Each of them arrive with a small, pocket sized notebook, with their "daily status" already written down and complete. The Team Leader may facilitate and get things started, though there's value in rotating that responsibility.
There's exactly seven items contained in a daily status report, and each of them should be no more than 3-4 words max.
The Daily Status Report
- The Weather
- #1 Objective for the day
- #1 Challenge for the day
- Is there a crisis anywhere on the horizon?
- Any Out of Office plans within the next week?
- Personal share (optional)
Now let's define what each of these means.
- The Weather quite literally means the current state of one's life -- or at least their work life. Are you doing well? If so, you might say your weather is "75 and sunny." If you're having a hard day, you might say "100 degrees" or "stormy." My Leadership Team has evolved to simply naming a temperature that correlates with their current state and we all automatically know that if someone gets into the upper 80's or higher, then they may be having a hard time or might need some help. If someone says 100 degrees, we might stop the huddle for an intervention.
- Sharing a Gratitude is pretty straight forward. Research has proven the positive impacts that can be made by simply verbalizing what's good and what you're thankful for. It's science. Shaun Achor's book, "The Happiness Advantage" speaks to this as well. Highly recommended.
- The #1 Objective for the day should be specific and measurable. "Getting through my email" wouldn't be an acceptable response.
- The #1 Challenge is similar -- it needs to be specific and measurable. Sharing your #1 Challenge is important because you never know when a teammate might be able to help or support you in it. And who knows, someone else might even have the solution.
- Asking "Is there a Crisis anywhere on the horizon?" is a ritual that keeps everyone's antennes up and communication high, asking the ever important question: "are there any MAJOR, crisis-level problems out there, or even potentially out there, that anyone is aware of?" The sooner you can identify a potential crisis, the better. And if your company is healthy and strong, the answer to this is almost always no.
- Out of Office plans during the next week is obvious. This is a nice, built in way of keeping your core team aware.
- Personal Share. This one is optional, but it's a wonderful opportunity (especially for Leaders) to share what's going on in your own personal life with the people you work the closest with. For instance, if your dog just died or if you are going through a break-up -- that would be a pretty important thing to tell your team, so they might be able to care for you through it. Or if you're starting a 30-day cleanse -- that might be good to share too, so your teammates will know why you're so irritable in the afternoon. And if you had a rough night sleeping -- that would probably be helpful for your colleagues to know, so they can take it easy on you if things get tough during the day. Things to celebrate are good shares too. Every little bit you can open up and share has the ability to help with chemistry, expectations, collaboration and care among your team.
Because everyone arrives to the huddle on time and arrives prepared with their daily status report, written down beforehand in their little notebook, these huddles should ideally take about 5-8 minutes, depending on how many people are in the team. The teams I work with tend to have between 3 to 7 people. The maximum a huddle should take is 12 minutes.
These are designed to be a highly efficient, lean and mean, quick-fire exchange of information -- no deep dives or conversations that lead to rabbit trails. If that happens, quickly identify it and say "let's connect about that topic after the meeting or at another time," so you're not requiring everyone's time and attention. And standing-up totally matters. Energy is different when people are standing. Being on your feet signals the brain that we’re moving. Even the most long-winded people will be more focused and will stay on topic better.
At my organization, the Leadership Team meets at 9:36am, immediately following the 9:22am team huddles. This is so critical communication can flow up and back down if necessary, when the Team Leads return back to their respective teams.
Whenever someone is Out of the Office on business, like a business trip or client meeting or an offsite, everyone is responsible for sending their Daily Status reports to their team before 9:22am. We use Slack.
Also worth noting -- successful sports teams use huddles very similarly, to quickly sync-up, check-in on each other, boost morale, and to call the play. This is essentially the same thing.
It's fast, it's efficient, and best of all -- it's effective. And in an instant, a team becomes aligned, in-sync, aware, and ready to tackle whatever the day may throw at them.
One final word of caution: This is hard. The Morning Huddle requires a level of commitment, discipline, rigidity, and all-out hardcore, nerd-dom that's on a level unto itself. If you attempt to do this half-way or half-assed, it most definitely won't work. Like a new early morning workout routine, it's actually pretty hard to get started and implemented. But it's so worth it.
I am a reject. I am a rebel. I am a non-conformist. I'm a rule breaker. Throughout my life I am one who’s continually been told no. I've been discarded, cut from the team, kept on the sidelines, and have been told I’m not good enough, I'm not worthy.
I am an underdog. And I have a chip on my shoulder. For better or worse, I have made my life’s work one of breaking the rules, getting back up, testing the boundaries, asking the uncomfortable questions, and pushing hard against the grain. I’ve learned to be brave in the face of uncertainty. I've learned to persevere through the storms of life. As a child, I was often scolded for “disrupting.” Now, I thrive in it, and I attribute much of my success in leadership and business to my disruptive, persevering, never say die nature.
As I write these words, I realize my approach hasn’t always served me well. In fact, I’ve been fired from jobs, have most definitely lost friends and have harmed a few relationships with this approach. And if I'm being honest, I have some very real, heartfelt regrets and sorrow for some of my past rule breaking and disruptive behaviors.
With that said, I do believe that as I’ve grown up, I’m growing older, wiser and I'm becoming better equipped to manage my own inherent behaviors and tendencies — and I know I’m still a work in progress. Where my rule breaking and disruptive personality didn’t always serve me well in my youth, I’m learning how to be more responsible and aware of when it’s appropriate and not appropriate to wield such a double edged sword. I presume this can be much attributed as part of growing up and maturing. And I thank God for that part of his design.
And so I'll take the good with the bad and will remain committed to keep learning, growing and getting better...and disrupting.