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“Follow through on your commitments to create a great work culture” With author Karen Jaw-Madson

Follow through on your commitments. Often times, the mistake happens when decisions are made and people move on to the next thing without ensuring follow through. If a company doesn’t follow through it erodes trust and its leaders risk tying their legacy to the flavor of the month. One executive retired, and so did the […]

Follow through on your commitments. Often times, the mistake happens when decisions are made and people move on to the next thing without ensuring follow through. If a company doesn’t follow through it erodes trust and its leaders risk tying their legacy to the flavor of the month. One executive retired, and so did the company’s new approach to product development and innovation. Another executive decided to pause an in-flight, workforce-led people initiative for a period of one year, citing it as a distraction from business priorities. They never re-started. Their organizations are worse off today. Changes should be implemented to remain as long as they are needed, even if it outlives the tenure of their leaders.


As a part of my series on strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Organizational expert Karen Jaw-Madson, who enjoyed success as a corporate executive before pursuing a ‘portfolio career’ comprised of research, writing, consulting, teaching/speaking, and creative pursuits. As a versatile leader across multiple industries, Karen developed, led, and implemented numerous organizational initiatives around the globe. Today, this East Coast transplant to Silicon Valley (via Ireland and the Midwest) is principal of Co.-Design of Work Experience, where she enables organizations with innovative approaches and customized solutions for intimidating challenges. Focus areas include culture, organizational change, and people strategies. Her book, Culture Your Culture: Innovating Experiences @Work (Emerald Group Publishing) was released in June, 2018. She has a BA in Ethnic and Cultural Studies from Bryn Mawr College and a MA in Social-Organizational Psychology from Columbia University.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

The subject of culture has been a part of my life going all the way back to my childhood growing up in New Jersey with immigrant parents. I was shaped by experiences that made me question why things were the way they were. By the time I got to high school, I relied on reading books to sort through my identity formation because I didn’t have many peers that looked like me. In college, I became a student activist on campus and took up interdisciplinary Ethnic and Cultural Studies with a minor in Women’s studies. My thesis on the status of women in a multicultural society was my way of exploring the social constructs of race and gender. After graduation, I spent a few years in non-profit program management before jumping to corporate diversity and university relations. From there, I built a career in Human Resources while also completing my Master’s in Social-Organizational Psychology. Positively shaping and impacting culture through organizational change was and continues to be my passion. Adding international experiences and responsibilities only broadened my perspective while deepening my love of studying culture. Six years ago, I made the decision to pursue my passion 100% of the time and take up my portfolio career. There were a number of reasons for this big change, but the reader’s digest version is that I needed more balance in my life, I had to write this book, and I wanted to model the Future of Work and spend more time where I find meaning and inspiration. I gave birth to two babies in the span of a year — a beautiful son (who is now 16 months old) and this hard-fought book, Culture Your Culture: Innovating Experiences @Work.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

There are so many to choose from, but for the purposes of this discussion I’ll share a story that ended up in the book. The event itself was small, but significant. I received an e-mail from a client that started with “Have to share this with you.” Long story short, an outside vendor worked with my client on a less-than-ideal installation of new equipment. It worked, but it wasn’t perfect. On their own volition, they returned the next day with a different and better solution. Why? Because on the way out the day before, they saw papers taped up on the wall — work from an active culture initiative going on…and were inspired. This story is special because it shows a positive ripple effect of culture.

Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?

I’ve been busy with a mix of different activities, from giving talks, to coaching and consulting with clients, to mentoring at startup accelerator programs, serving on non-profit boards, etc. — all of which are exciting in their own ways and intended to make a positive difference. My biggest, long-term, multi-year project is to spread the word about Design of Work Experience (DOWE), the much needed step-by-step “how to” for designing, implementing, and sustaining culture and the focus of my book, Culture Your Culture: Innovating Experiences @ Work. Out of my frustration with how often culture is blamed for organizational failures after the fact, I created the framework to enable companies to intentionally create culture on the up front — as an asset, instead of a liability. There’s lots out there that speak to cautionary tales, aspirational archetypes, and case studies from other companies, but not enough resources to develop the actual culture-building capability in people with relevance to their unique context. Long ago I realized that there was more work to be done than what I could do alone, and I resolved to share everything in the book as a contribution.

Ok, lets jump to the main part of our interview. According to this study cited in Forbes, more than half of the US workforce is unhappy. Why do you think that number is so high?

There’s two major reasons why this is happening: 1) Companies aren’t doing enough to ensure the conditions are in place for both people and business to thrive. A Duke and Columbia study gathered data showing the importance of culture to companies, but only 16% believe their culture is where it should be and 69% “blame their firms’ underinvestment in culture.” 2) People don’t feel empowered enough to improve their work situation. This manifests in a variety of ways — from settling to disengagement to job hopping and even anxiety and mental breakdowns. While both companies and their employees have their parts to play, the onus is on organizations to create the psychological safety and trust needed to collaborate in the first place.

Based on your experience or research, how do you think an unhappy workforce will impact a) company productivity b) company profitability c) and employee health and wellbeing?

It’s pretty straightforward: besides giving up all the potential, benefits, and access to/retention of top talent, unhappiness leads to employee disengagement and stress. This negatively impacts productivity. On a large scale, the inefficiencies and ineffectiveness have a very real and quantifiable cost to a business’ profitability. The same factors precipitating an unhappy workforce are also setting the conditions for scandals and other business risks like safety, finances, compliance, harassment, discrimination, and even illegal activity. They have the potential to significantly devalue a company or even risk its very existence.

Can you share 5 things that managers and executives should be doing to improve their company work culture? Can you give a personal story or example for each?

1. Ask the right questions. I have been known to challenge my audience with, “Does your culture support or erode the success of the business? Is it an asset or liability?” It’s a pass/fail question and challenges people to really think about the answer and encourage them to take action. Raising questions brings organizational tensions, paradoxes, and contradictions to light and poses them in the form of possibilities. In one culture study we conducted, we asked: “Working here is a unique experience in a beautiful setting enhanced by work-life balance, flexibility, and autonomy. Why aren’t people happier?” Organizations practicing design thinking begin their questions with, “How might we…?”

2. Engage with their employees. Don’t rely on surveys alone to tell you what’s going on. I have said this many times before: what would be so scary about engaging your people on important topics they care about? I’m not just talking about the same old “management by walking around” approach — I’m referring to authentic relationships and interactions, where organizational change creates an opportunity where people, through engagement, can draw even closer to the organization and leaders can connect with their employees in unprecedented ways. As said by a client in the book, “…we are changing our culture. By ‘we’ I mean the entire group — everyone from the President to the maintenance staff.”

3. Co-design possibilities. A company hires employees for the talent they bring. Use it. They come with a broad diversity of perspectives and ideas, and sadly I have heard too many say they’ve never been asked. I say co-design “possibilities” instead of “solutions” on purpose: if you take a problem or deficit-based approach, you’ll never be done (and you might create new problems). Designing for possibilities sets the conditions by which those problems can’t exist. It’s the difference between fixing everything that’s wrong vs. creating the best workplace. Appreciative Inquiry (which has influenced DOWE), teaches this mindset through application and practice.

4. Follow through on your commitments. Often times, the mistake happens when decisions are made and people move on to the next thing without ensuring follow through. If a company doesn’t follow through it erodes trust and its leaders risk tying their legacy to the flavor of the month. One executive retired, and so did the company’s new approach to product development and innovation. Another executive decided to pause an in-flight, workforce-led people initiative for a period of one year, citing it as a distraction from business priorities. They never re-started. Their organizations are worse off today. Changes should be implemented to remain as long as they are needed, even if it outlives the tenure of their leaders.

5. Sustain positive change. Along the same vein, if there isn’t enough momentum to push for sustainability, organizational entropy sets in and “whatever isn’t maintained will deteriorate.” One company I worked with was able to take stock after one year and recognize intervention was needed to rejuvenate their culture initiative. In their case, it wasn’t too late and they were able to move forward with a renewed push.

It’s very nice to suggest ideas, but it seems like we have to “change the culture regarding work culture”. What can we do as a society to make a broader change in the US workforce’s work culture?

Totally agree! We need to reframe culture for what it really is: a need to do, not a nice to do. Companies who want culture to be their asset (or, at a minimum, don’t want their culture to be a liability) need to be willing to invest in it on a continuous basis. That means continually looking at the intentional design and meaning behind their culture, how culture ties into the vision, mission, values, and business strategies of the company, as well as managing and sustaining culture. Employees should also take it upon themselves to contribute to a thriving workplace. Sometimes that means moving beyond the status quo. There should be accountability on everyone’s part.

How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?

I practice values-based leadership, which means there’s a set of values that serve as the backbone to everything I do. People know what to expect of me because I am consistent and reliable. They know I collaborate and communicate as much as possible without shirking my responsibilities as a leader and compromising confidentiality. I give latitude with support, where my team can make choices and learn on the job. In the words of a direct report who posted a recommendation on my LinkedIn profile: “With an innate ability to form authentic relationships Karen encourages a collaborative environment, providing insight and support while allowing team members the room to develop their capabilities and expand their roles…” These ideals are tested in tense situations or environments, and especially when there are performance issues. I set expectations, identify patterns, and empower others to choose their path. One of the last people I had to let go for poor performance told me, “…but I still want to work for you.” As tough as it was to part ways, I took that as a good sign.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Yes! I am most grateful and inspired by my best friend, who also happens to be my husband. Jason Madson’s support goes beyond a few grand gestures — he demonstrates his encouragement and faith in me on a daily basis. At our church, we’re going through a sermon series on hope, which is defined not as a wish, but an expectation. Where I had always wished for my success, Jay expected me to succeed with a conviction that I need every time I feel discouraged. I’m so blessed to have him with me on this journey.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Well, my goal is to establish a positive correlation between my success and the good I bring to the world. Even if I were not successful, I would be trying to do good. Culture Your Culture is dedicated to improving lives where we spend the most time — at work. In everything else I do, I want to make a positive difference, whether it is connecting people who otherwise wouldn’t meet, coaching and energizing others, or the work I do serving on non-profit boards and committees.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I first heard, “our worlds are formed by the questions we ask” from David Cooperrider, the “creative thought leader of Appreciative Inquiry.” These few words speak volumes, but I am particularly attracted to how it encourages a curious mind, continuous learning, possibilities, and positive change.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Thank you, but my desire is to be more of a positive difference maker than an influencer. ☺ I’m inspired by David Cooperrider’s generosity in sharing appreciative inquiry. As a result, he sparked a community of practitioners and a field of study that has shaped how we see organizations and taps into their human potential. I hope to do the same with Design of Work Experience.

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