Call this just a quick, and incredibly obvious, observation…
Dan Weston, business consultant par excellence, tells me that it takes two to three years to even make a dent in the reshaping of the corporate culture challenge. He is very good at it, has a definite plan to help organizations in this challenge, and yet there is no “one session, one retreat, one conversation” magic pill to get this done. Reshaping a corporate culture is a multi-session, over-time, long-haul challenge.
So, imagine the turmoil in a company that faces impressive, almost overwhelming competition (Google, et. Al.), and a workforce that is whiplashed by the constant changing of leaders. That is the challenge facing Yahoo at the moment.
Scott Thompson, Yahoo’s third CEO in about three years, has officially left the building.
(Yahoo’s CEO is out. Now what?)
Uncertainty; whiplash. People need to know “this is what our company/organization intends to be.” A trusted, respected leader plays a pretty big role in that “this is what our company intends to be” task. Going through three leaders in three years makes this almost impossible.
(A personal note: My youngest son is getting married this weekend, so with my current schedule, I may be doing a little less blogging at the moment. My apology. And thanks, as always, to Bob Morris, who keeps this blog a daily source of wisdom and insight with his many offerings).
You might not realize it, but you are a creature of an imaginative realm called Neverland. Neverland is your home, and before you die, you will spend decades there.
Jonathan Gottschall, The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human
If you say, “The queen died, and the king died,” that is a chronicle.
If you say, “The queen died, and the king died, from grief,” that is a story. (Joe Lambert and Nina Mullen, drawing from E. M. Forster).
Bob Johansen: Get There Early: Sensing the Future to Compete in the Present
I heard Krys Boyd on KERA interview Jonathan Gottschall about his book, The Storytelling Animal. (Krys is a great interviewer). And I remembered the brief description of the difference between a chronicle and a story from Get There Early.
We care about stories. We learn from stories. We place ourselves within stories, because we all know that every story, is, in some way, our own story. Last night I watched House. Wilson has cancer. A very close friend of my wife has cancer. The fictional story is her story – our story. You know…
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.
(John Donne, For Whom the Bell Tolls)
In the interview, Gottschall observed that stories always include two elements: some form of dilemma, and some form of resolution. It is the old “problem-solution” formula for persuasion. And when a story is told well, it always makes us stop and ask: “What is my dilemma? Can I find a way out; a solution; a resolution that works for me, and hopefully for others?”
I read a lot of nonfiction books — but, sadly, too little fiction. Gottschall observed in the interview that people who expose themselves to more fiction have an easier time interacting with others. They are more socially connected; better connected. And, thankfully, he reminded us that stories preceded printed books, so maybe I get almost enough fiction from my favorite television shows. I guarantee that, in House alone, there is enough dilemma and conflict to last a while.
In my own reading, I have come to realize that the best nonfiction writers are, in fact, superior story tellers. I think this explains the popularity of Malcolm Gladwell, and why I have so warmed to The Power of Habit and Imagine just recently. They are both written by superior story tellers (Charles Duhigg and Jonah Lehrer). Books that are principle-rich and story-poor just aren’t quite as engaging or gripping. Or insightful.
And I think it is why I remember some books I read years ago more than others. David Halberstam is always at the top of my list, because he was such a wonderful story teller.
In the realm of organizational culture, story plays a major role. To build corporate culture, to build corporate strength, to build a true community, tell the stories of your organization. Yes, tell the good stories, the stories of success — but tell especially the “struggle” stories. “This is what we faced. This is how we overcame it.” A well-told struggle story can help a current struggle seem not quite so overwhelming.
We love a good story. And, it turns out, we need a steady dose of good stories.
Good stories move us. They touch us, they teach us, and they cause us to remember. They enable the listener to put the behavior in a real context and understand what has to be done in that context to live up to expectations.
…storytelling is the ultimate leadership tool. (Elizabeth Weil).
James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Pozner: Encouraging the Heart — A Leaders Guide to Rewarding and Encouraging Others
The open letter from Greg Smith, Why I Am Leaving Goldman Sachs, has generated so much interesting, important, and provocative discussion. Goldman Sachs has strongly denied the accusations made in the letter. Clients have gotten nervous, and I suspect that Goldman Sachs has some pretty serious, long-term client reassurance work to do. (If you haven’t read the full letter, published on the op-ed page of the New York Times, read it here. It is definitely worth your time).
But, let’s pretend that the letter is accurate. Just what business lessons do we learn from it? I think there are at least three:
Lesson #1 – Core values and culture really matter, and keeping the right things the right things is very difficult work.
The letter is filled with accusations that the core values have been forgotten or abandoned. For example:
It might sound surprising to a skeptical public, but culture was always a vital part of Goldman Sachs’s success. It revolved around teamwork, integrity, a spirit of humility, and always doing right by our clients. The culture was the secret sauce that made this place great and allowed us to earn our clients’ trust for 143 years. It wasn’t just about making money; this alone will not sustain a firm for so long. It had something to do with pride and belief in the organization. I am sad to say that I look around today and see virtually no trace of the culture that made me love working for this firm for many years. I no longer have the pride, or the belief.
I knew it was time to leave when I realized I could no longer look students in the eye and tell them what a great place this was to work.
When the history books are written about Goldman Sachs, they may reflect that the current chief executive officer, Lloyd C. Blankfein, and the president, Gary D. Cohn, lost hold of the firm’s culture on their watch. I truly believe that this decline in the firm’s moral fiber represents the single most serious threat to its long-run survival.
It takes unending vigilance to maintain core values throughout an organization. If there is a shred of truth to these accusations, then Goldman Sachs has some serious work to do.
Lesson #2 – Put your customers (your clients) above all else. If there is even one employee that is guilty of calling clients “muppets” at Goldman Sachs, and it is known by a supervisor (and the accusation is that “managing directors” actually used the word), how can anyone trust that this firm puts the needs of customers/clients first?
It makes me ill how callously people talk about ripping their clients off. Over the last 12 months I have seen five different managing directors refer to their own clients as “muppets,” sometimes over internal e-mail. Even after the S.E.C., Fabulous Fab, Abacus, God’s work, Carl Levin, Vampire Squids? No humility? I mean, come on. Integrity? It is eroding. I don’t know of any illegal behavior, but will people push the envelope and pitch lucrative and complicated products to clients even if they are not the simplest investments or the ones most directly aligned with the client’s goals? Absolutely. Every day, in fact.
Lesson #3 – The practioneers of today become the leaders of tomorrow… And, they will lead the way they practice. And it is here that Mr. Smith raises the alarm the loudest:
How did we get here? The firm changed the way it thought about leadership. Leadership used to be about ideas, setting an example and doing the right thing. Today, if you make enough money for the firm (and are not currently an ax murderer) you will be promoted into a position of influence.
You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that the junior analyst sitting quietly in the corner of the room hearing about “muppets,” “ripping eyeballs out” and “getting paid” doesn’t exactly turn into a model citizen.
Mr. Smith ends his letter with this:
I hope this can be a wake-up call to the board of directors. Make the client the focal point of your business again. Without clients you will not make money. In fact, you will not exist. Weed out the morally bankrupt people, no matter how much money they make for the firm. And get the culture right again, so people want to work here for the right reasons. People who care only about making money will not sustain this firm — or the trust of its clients — for very much longer.
Question: can an organization, a company, forget its founding, core values? Is such forgetfulness and abandonment possible? Absolutely. So, whether the accusations in this letter are fully true, or only partly true, the warning is valid, and valuable for us all. In fact, Goldman Sachs should welcome the chance to reinforce its core values, within the firm, and to its clients. This is good advice for any organization. And, the final paragraph of Mr. Smith’s open letter really does set an agenda for an on-going vigilance for all of us.