I was speaking with a leader this week who told me they’d added a third of their workforce remotely in the past year. Imagine the potential negative impact on culture and how those new team members must have struggled to integrate. Managers need to focus on helping new people feel connected and making a contribution quickly.
As a part of my series about about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jeff Melnyk.
Jeff Melnyk is Founding Partner at Within People, award-winning growth strategists helping leaders build purpose-led and values-driven cultures. Based in San Francisco, Melnyk and Partners around the globe provide companies with resources to cultivate dynamic cultures to grow the business they love. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts for his contributions in enabling brands to create positive social change. Within People’s impact with clients ranges from increased revenue and customer satisfaction to landing a coveted CIPD Award for “Best Employee Engagement Initiative” by the most prestigious international professional development institute.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Not many people set out in life wanting to help other people find their purpose when finding your own “why” is enough of a journey! It’s really been several steps on the path for me.
I’ve always been curious about why things are the way they are. My parents ran our family business and from a really young age I was helping out. They were entrepreneurs and I learned a lot from them about why business is run a certain way.
After college I moved to the UK to work in the creative industries and landed in broadcasting — that step helped me to understand why culture was critical. At the same time I was on my own entrepreneurial journey launching a record label and producing electronic music. So I got a firsthand taste of the ups and downs of success.
The final step was a move into consulting — seeing business objectively from the outside and creatively working with the blockers to growth. I started to explore ways of helping other entrepreneurs grow their business — purposefully and sustainably. And then I met my future business partner Laurie Bennett. We started thinking about how companies could be places where people could love who they were and what they did. Where work didn’t have to be a four-letter-word, it could be how we found the best versions of ourselves. And that people could make a living following their purpose and passion.
One day on the roof of a hotel in Barcelona we mapped out how that journey would work. We called it the Within Way. That method would help leaders be clear about what they stand for, create belief in their culture through the employee experience, and be able to confidently lead a 21st century business.
We decided our own business had to be a model of what a 21st century business could be — growing through a very elegant framework of purpose and values, based on a context of freedom with principles of equity, radical transparency, wholeness, and self responsibility. And now we deliver to clients the blueprint we have developed for ourselves.
I think leading an organization is like making music: there’s rhythm, harmony. It’s magical and beautiful, and sometimes dissonant. It is freedom within a frame. There’s both an art and a science to it. And you need a ton of practice to get good at it. But most importantly — people need to play together to make it happen. Business is like an incredible stadium band rocking together. Your culture is the signature tune your band plays.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Most of our work is about aligning leaders to get on the same page to move forward — and we do that for big brands and start-ups. No matter the size of the company, purpose and values give leaders the common ground. We have been working with UNESCO for over a decade, and I have the privilege of traveling to amazing places all over the world supporting them to communicate their values and create change. It was on a trip to Israel when I saw just how critical shared values are. Several leaders who had been absent from the stakeholder engagement process we were hosting were able to return to the table when they understood that everyone in the community was working towards one goal.
Maya Angelou says, “we are more alike than we are unalike” — it was that moment that I experienced it firsthand and I knew the work we did was truly transformative.
Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?
The pandemic and social change movements like Black Lives Matter have really opened business leaders’ eyes to the importance of culture and what it means to be a human-centered leader that focuses on an employee experience that is designed for everyone. All of our clients in each of our markets — UK, North America and South Africa — are working through what the “next normal” is going to be for the way they work.
One of Within’s values is “solve at source” which gives us license to ask our clients to go to the heart of issues and work there rather than fix the surface symptoms. We are challenging every client to redesign their employee experience to be equitable — and to reimagine their business success based on creating an inclusive, connected, and creative culture.
My hope is that leaders see their employee experience is about reaching their full potential — and when each individual can be the best version of themselves, the company will mirror that and grow. Corporations still exist in an industrial revolution paradigm where people are just resources. I think business can do better. Each of our clients are leaders committing to a different strategy for growth — growing themselves, so they can grow their people, and then grow their business. To me that means everyone wins. And in doing so we create purpose-led businesses that solve real problems for the world. So maybe the world grows a little bit too.
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?
Happiness is probably not the best indicator of workplace culture, since we know that happiness is a state that fluctuates. It’s almost like asking someone if they are “happy” on any given day in an intimate personal relationship. I like to think people want to live a fulfilling life. Life will have its ups and downs, but over the course of the journey we will have made the most of it.
And shouldn’t we feel the same way about work?
People increasingly want to do something valuable and meaningful, and we thrive on feedback. For most, work has ceased to be about making something tangible, and so it is harder to see the impact of what you’ve created. Match that up with the pressures of everyday life and people are left asking why they do what they do. Traditional measures of success no longer seem relevant — the need for more leaves us feeling empty. Statistically we are better off than previous generations — healthier, wealthier, more educated, “successful” — but people do not feel happier.
Having “more” at work — higher pay, more stock options, elevated status — clearly also isn’t working. Burn out is increasing. We are going to have to break out of this story we tell about success. Most people do not work at what they truly want in life — they just work to achieve a vision of what someone else has told them success looks like.
Robert Holden — friend of Within and brilliant positive psychologist from the UK — says of success: ‘before you ask yourself “how much more can I get” you first have to ask, “what do I really want”’. That question scares so many people because it means they must step into their own freedom, possibly question everything they have ever been told, rebel against the status quo. They have to design their own life.
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?
We help our clients understand their growth strategy based on three pillars — Joy, Impact and Profit. The idea being that if you focus on the growth of your people (which we’ve called joy!), you will make a greater impact through your products and services, which will increase the value of your business. So really, we need to start with a focus on fulfillment and wellbeing, designing an employee experience where the needs of each individual employee are understood so that they can step into the best version of themselves. This should be empowering, rather than paternalistic — where the responsibility for growth sits at the individual level, with support at the organizational level.
During the pandemic, our clients focused on care for their people and have seen how that built resilience, resulting in productivity and profitability. One of Amy’s Kitchen’s values is “take care of each other” which meant they were called to put people first. Their food kitchens made all the right calls to ensure adjustments to the manufacturing process for social distancing and safety. Demand for Amy’s products went up — so the team needed to work together to rise to the challenges of productivity under the new working conditions. There was significant investment in operational changes to keep people safe, and I am certain that without it, the business would not have been able to meet consumer demand. So, despite the challenges, the business has thrived through the crisis BECAUSE everyone has been taken care of.
The profits take care of themselves when we take care of our people. We see that in hospitality — our clients One&Only are a brand of ultra-luxury resorts with a purpose of creating joy. We worked with them to understand how when their colleagues create joy with and for each other, they will create joy for their guests. That focus on wellbeing drives the impact of the brand, which drives customer loyalty and dollars per guest. It is a perfect example of Within’s Joy — Impact — Profit growth model.
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?
We have five mantras for leaders to intentionally design a culture for growth. These are super practical things that every leader can do right away in important areas to focus on:
- Plug new people in — A recent study revealed that less than 10% of people think their company does a great job onboarding new recruits. Hybrid working makes it tougher — as people on site get more cultural glue than remote workers. I was speaking with a leader this week who told me they’d added a third of their workforce remotely in the past year. Imagine the potential negative impact on culture and how those new team members must have struggled to integrate. Managers need to focus on helping new people feel connected and making a contribution quickly.
- Don’t force the fun — Culture is more than parties. Culture is built from behavior and the unique way things are done. Rituals are critical — and they have to be inclusive and aligned to what employees actually need for recognition and support. The leadership team at Habito — a series-C fintech client in the UK — regularly assess if their rituals are working, retire the ones that aren’t, and revise what works best as the business continues to grow.
- Swap out swag for sincerity — Everyone’s got enough branded water bottles and hoodies. The perks that companies think attract people have less value than belonging and feeling empowered to do purposeful work. Our employee experience design framework asks leaders to shape promises for what the experience of work will be like. And create a plan for how to keep the promises over the perks!
- Trust in flexibility — We are finally seeing the trend that perhaps it’s not necessary for everyone to be full time in an office anymore. But real flexibility isn’t just where we work. What would happen if employees had the power to choose where, when, and how they work? Stop creating procedures for managing time — instead, enable teams to work at their best. Our clients iTech are exploring a “work your way” culture that encourages teams to find their own flow.
- Get personal — A company is a collection of amazing individuals with individual needs. Each employee wants different ways to be rewarded, recognized, and grow. Leaders must learn how to invest in employees as whole people — to help each one of them thrive in the culture. Each Within Partner has their own Personal Growth Plan, and as a partnership we commit to supporting each other — and hold each other accountable.
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?
The American Dream is based on the notion that anyone can be successful if they work hard. Sadly this inspiring idea now means being the best or having the most — instead of each individual having their own dream without comparing themselves to others. At the same time, too many groups in society are marginalized, making it harder for people to believe that they have choices in their life to move towards.
We need systemic change to a more equitable society. A critical part of the shift will be to reimagine what success is. At Within, our vision is to help leaders see a path to a more connected, inclusive, and creative culture so that they can determine their own business success. With this lens, performance cultures driven only by profit would flip to focus first on people.
It can feel overwhelming to consider where to start with systemic change. I believe you start within yourself. As leaders it is in our power to make that change first. And we can see that change happening in business now — from B Corporations to purpose-led, self-managed organizations that are more democratic and dedicated to serving others. The old systems that will no longer serve us are starting to fall because they are no longer fit for purpose. Businesses are systems, so changing how they work for everyone is a major systemic change.
How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?
We did some qualitative research with leaders around the world to try to uncover what it takes to lead a 21st century business. From their experiences we developed Within’s 8 Qualities of Human-centered Leadership. The leaders we spoke to had a consistent set of qualities and were drawing on them at different times — they weren’t things they needed to learn. They all told stories of having to “unlearn” old beliefs and behaviors in order to step into this new way of leading. We use these qualities now with all our leaders to help them authentically lead their way.
The one quality out of the eight that I work most on is PATIENCE. I know I need to take people with me, not rush ahead even if I know where we can go, and not get frustrated if something seems to take too long.
And the quality out of the set that I feel is most important is LOVE. It’s not a quality that is usually accepted in business. I truly believe everyone has everything they need to be successful — no one is broken or needs fixing. It’s something I think is essential in leadership today — to see others for who they are. Our research showed that leaders also need to care deeply about themselves and their own wellbeing. That is something I try to be intentional about — it’s far too easy to be critical and hard on yourself.
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?
We really do stand on the shoulders of those who come before us. I am grateful to my great grandparents Petro and Anna. I never met them but over the past few years I have been learning more about who they were and their journey from what is now Ukraine to Canada at the end of the 19th century. They were true pioneers — peasant farmers who wanted to move from the oppression they faced in the Old World towards freedom.
Through them I now understand more about myself and where my entrepreneurial spirit comes from. This is the basis of the book that I am working on now. I want to map their pioneer journey to the success of entrepreneurs and outline how we can all light the pioneer spark inside of us.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
The greatest gift we have in our work now is that people say thank you for what we do with them. I’ve had people tell me that I have changed their life. I don’t think there is anything more humbling to hear.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Eckhart Tolle invites us to consider that we are not our thoughts — that “you are not your story”. It is one of the most profound and transformative ideas — because if we are not our perceived identity, then who are we? I’ll often say to CEOs and founders — you aren’t your title, you’re a human being, playing a role. It also reminds me to check my ego, to come back to what is most important. And to try to meet each person without judgement — because they are not the story, I tell myself about them. I think that is the key to great work and an equitable society, and it means not putting people up on pedestals.
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. 🙂
For work to be a place where every person is valued for who they are. Where everyone has the same status, invitation to participate, and access to opportunities for growth. It is not conformity where everyone is or has the same — it is about everyone stepping into their power, being treated equitably according to their needs, so that they can succeed. This is what diversity, equity and inclusion really needs to be about in work culture. If every business stepped into that ideal, we would have a key foundation for freedom in the world.