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Josh Rovner: “Deal with internal organizational politics even though you don’t want to”

Deal with internal organizational politics even though you don’t want to. My recommendation is to treat politics in a company like you would a bad marriage. You need to “go to counseling” by bringing in “therapist” coaches who can help you and your teamwork through the real emotions you have, including fear, anger, and sadness. […]

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Deal with internal organizational politics even though you don’t want to. My recommendation is to treat politics in a company like you would a bad marriage. You need to “go to counseling” by bringing in “therapist” coaches who can help you and your teamwork through the real emotions you have, including fear, anger, and sadness. If you don’t take this seriously, or you try to ignore it, it’s going to be very difficult to foster trust, move forward, and handle difficult business issues. You can’t have a good work culture if everyone is worried about politics and / or focused on being political.


As a part of my series about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Josh Rovner, author of the business book Unbreak the System: Diagnosing and Curing the Ten Critical Flaws in Your Company.

Josh has more than twenty years of experience as a leader and consultant, working with all levels of small to large corporations to grow their revenues and improve their performance. He leads change and transforms businesses by communicating clearly about complex subjects, designing effective processes, and developing and coaching people. Josh received his Bachelor of Science in Communications, summa cum laude, from Boston University, and his Masters of Management in Hospitality from Cornell University. He lives in Dallas, Texas.


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

Absolutely! Over the course of my career, I’ve seen a lot of great work cultures and a lot of not-so-great work cultures. The more I experienced particularly the bad work cultures, I started to wonder what made the great cultures great and the bad cultures bad. I’ve helped a lot of companies improve their financial performance through the work their employees are doing. I’ve also read a lot and done a lot of research.

Over time, I started to recognize patterns. Eventually, I thought, “You know…I think there may be a book here.” I’ve always loved writing, so one day I decided to write a book. The patterns I discovered became the basis for the ten “critical flaws” that I talk about in my book, which is called Unbreak the System: Diagnosing and Curing the Ten Critical Flaws in Your Company.

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

My own company is relatively new, along with my book, so launching it has been exciting. I’m really excited to get the messages in the book out there to the top executives whose companies are struggling and hopefully help even more of them improve the culture and effectiveness of their companies.

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

Yes! One project that I’m very excited about, which is really revolutionary, is what I call my “Company Symptom Questionnaire”. It’s available on my website, and I’m very eager to start working with companies to use it.

The Company Symptom Questionnaire is like an antidote to the typical employee engagement survey. Most employee engagement surveys don’t provide enough specifics about the problems employees are really concerned about. They typically only contain simple rating scales for generic statements such as “Overall I’m satisfied with the work I do here,” or “I would recommend working at this company to a friend.”

The problem is that, as an executive or leader, you will see the aggregate scores (for example, 7.5 of out 10), but you won’t necessarily know why people rated the question a certain way. It takes a tremendous amount of effort to try to figure out what problems inside the organization need to be fixed.

Because people don’t have a clear outlet to name the things that aren’t working (other than in specific comments, which many people don’t fill out, in my experience), they tend to keep everything to themselves. Or they talk with their colleagues and friends about the issues, but the executives and leaders never hear the whole truth. It’s extremely difficult for executives to do anything about the issues inside their companies because they are often blind to what those issues are — even with the support of their employee engagement survey.

So my Company Symptom Questionnaire completely flips around the typical employee engagement survey and gives people a direct outlet to name specific symptoms and problems with the company culture that needs to be addressed. I often refer to it as an employee disengagement survey!

The inspiration came from the patient symptom questionnaires that you have to fill out whenever you go to any doctor’s office — the ones that ask you to list all the symptoms you’re having that day and how severe they are. For example, do you have any dizziness, nausea, muscle pain, weakness, shortness of breath? — that type of thing. Without your honest answers on that document, the doctor can’t diagnose what’s wrong with you or treat you. As a result, you won’t get better, and you could even get worse if the doctor misdiagnoses you.

The same thing applies to bad (or less than great) company culture. It can’t be effectively fixed if we don’t treat the symptoms directly and aggressively, and we can’t do that unless we know exactly what the symptoms are.

My Company Symptom Questionnaire takes the ten critical flaws that kill company culture (and financial performance) and lists a variety of symptoms associated with each one. It then allows the respondent to rate the severity of each symptom. Taken together, it provides a complete, clear picture of everything that is holding back the company culture, so it’s out in the open and can be addressed.

Executives can complete the questionnaire on their own at first to help them understand what they need to look for. But the process works best if the executive team works through it together in a debrief after each of the executives fills it out individually. From there, it can be given to employees to fill out. It’s a great way to see what specifically is going on inside the organization that is killing the culture, slowing growth, and hurting financial performance.

I will caution that the Company Symptom Questionnaire can be a little scary on the surface because the symptoms it reveals can be uncomfortable to talk about — especially for executives. But, like I said earlier, in order to create a great culture, you need to be open and honest about what’s really going on that is creating a bad culture or holding back a good culture from being great.

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?

I’ve definitely seen that study before, and I completely agree. There are a ton of reasons why that number is so high. In my book, I’ve distilled it down into ten critical flaws that cause employees to be disengaged. They are:

  1. Politics — which can take a variety of different forms
  2. Blind Spots — which can be customer-focused, employee-focused, or process-focused. Customer-focused blind spots occur when executives and leaders are blind to customer service issues or issues with their products and services from the customer’s perspective. Employee-focused blind spots occur when executives and leaders are blind to the struggles their employees have — or to politics inside the organization. Process-focused blind spots occur when the company has a lot of unnecessary processes or processes that seem to add value but don’t.
  3. Scapegoating — which happens when people are blamed for company problems that are situational and related more to the work environment than to the people themselves.
  4. Unclear Goals — which happens when goals are not numerically precise, when they are not shared across the organization, or when different silos in the organization have different (sometimes conflicting) goals.
  5. Doing Too Much — which happens when companies have way too many goals or initiatives
  6. Dysfunctional Infrastructure — which happens when the company’s org chart is not setup to foster cross-functional collaboration; when employees are not properly compensated or recognized for the activities the company wants them to do and the outcomes the company wants them to achieve; or when there are no expectations, tools, or feedback to help people do their jobs
  7. No Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) — which happens when there are no proper procedures for employees to follow to ensure they produce the best outcomes
  8. Fixing the Unfixable — which happens when companies spend a lot of time trying to fix underperforming entities or people
  9. Legacy Technology — which happens when executives and leaders fail to prioritize replacing technology that causes problems and slows employees down
  10. Chasing Shiny Objects — which happens when executives and leaders constantly change the direction and goals of the company based on their own whims, what the competitors are doing, or what they see as the whims of the financial markets.

In my experience, most companies have many (and sometimes all) of the above critical flaws happening at once, which is why their employees become so disengaged. The flaws work together in that one can cause another, and when you have one, you often have many.

Companies generally don’t know what to do about these issues, and often they don’t even have a way to name all of them. That’s why I wrote about them in my book. I want to give executives and leaders a common language to use to discuss these flaws and a comprehensive set of solutions to treat them.

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?

There is no question that an unhappy workforce will impact all three of those areas. If people aren’t happy, they are not going to put in their best efforts. In some cases, that will prevent the company from achieving its financial objectives entirely. In other cases, the company may still be financially successful, but it will miss opportunities to be even more successful.

Not to mention that unhappy employees cost the company a lot. Often, they leave, which contributes to high turnover, recruitment, hiring, and training costs. Even worse sometimes is when they stay. They can make other employees leave; they can make customers miserable; and they can create politics and other elements of bad culture that hold a company back.

Regarding employee health and wellbeing, of course, when employees are unhappy, they are not healthy. You can’t be unhappy in your job and be truly healthy. There’s been a lot of research showing that unhappy employees get sick more often. That’s not only bad for the company; it’s bad for the employees as individuals, as well as their families and friends.

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?

I have to laugh at this question because, based on my book, there are actually 10 critical flaws that managers and executives must diagnose and cure in their companies in order to truly create a great work culture! But since you’re asking for only 5, I’ll narrow it down and address the ones I see most often.

As an executive, the top five things you should be doing to improve your company work culture, which very few companies do, are:

  1. Deal with internal organizational politics even though you don’t want to. My recommendation is to treat politics in a company like you would a bad marriage. You need to “go to counseling” by bringing in “therapist” coaches who can help you and your teamwork through the real emotions you have, including fear, anger, and sadness. If you don’t take this seriously, or you try to ignore it, it’s going to be very difficult to foster trust, move forward, and handle difficult business issues. You can’t have a good work culture if everyone is worried about politics and / or focused on being political.
  2. Prioritize addressing your company’s customer-focused, employee-focused, and process-focused blind spots. I have several frameworks for doing this depending on which type of blind spot you are dealing with. There are a number of stories related to these blind spots that I talk about in my book. Very often companies struggle to find the most impactful things to do in any given year. There isn’t much that’s more important at any point than fixing something your customers or employees hate — or fixing/eliminating a process that doesn’t add a lot of value. As an example of a process-focused blind spot, I find that a lot of companies have a lengthy, complex “budget season” or process that occupies tons of time but doesn’t really improve anything for customers or employees. Great work cultures keep a relentless focus on making life better and eliminating pain for their customers and employees.
  3. Avoid scapegoating — especially people. From my experience, the problems in your company run much deeper than the scapegoat and are typically caused by multiple environmental/situational factors. Creating a great work culture means addressing problems deeply and thoroughly based on the entire ecosystem of your company. Take the time and do the right thing by looking at all the factors that could be causing problems with your work culture. Seek input from people about what those problems are. Once you discover them, address them systematically, directly, and with only good intentions.
  4. Focus only on a “vital few” clearly defined goals, and resist the temptation to chase shiny objects. Many executives contribute to a poor work culture by trying to do too many things at once and / or changing goals all the time. But it can be very easy to determine what your focus should be in a given year if you do it in a structured way. Your employees will greatly appreciate the clear, unwavering direction. I have helped numerous companies focus on the vital few through facilitated sessions and planning. As part of this process, make sure your company’s goals are numerically precise and shared by everyone in the organization. This will keep everyone focused and working together, and it will build great solidarity among the team, which is critical for a strong work culture. If you need inspiration on this, Apple is a great example of a highly focused company that resists shiny objects very well.
  5. Re-design your company’s infrastructure to eliminate friction, support cross-functional collaboration, and enable the best processes. Most companies have a siloed, functional reporting structure even though their key value-driving processes require cross-functional collaboration. In the best case, this design causes work culture problems when different functions don’t realize what other functions are working on or what they are capable of. Worst case, it can cause open war between functions. On top of this, most companies do not have proper Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) that clearly define desired outcomes, standards for judging whether the outcomes have been achieved, and the best practices for making the decisions that lead to those outcomes. Even if your people are skilled and dedicated, having dysfunctional infrastructure will drag down the company culture. Remember that a company’s infrastructure includes the previously mentioned items, as well as compensation/recognition structures; recruiting, hiring, and expectation-setting practices; and tools and resources necessary to get the job done, among other things.

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?

Great question! Again, there’s a lot. But two things come to my mind right away, and they both involve the critical flaws we’ve talked so much about.

The first is that executives and leaders need to learn more about the critical flaws inside their companies and prioritize actively addressing them. There’s a lot of leadership development material out there that’s focused on helping leaders change themselves as people. That’s certainly very important. But if leaders work on changing themselves in concept without actually having a plan for addressing the flaws in their companies, they’re missing the boat. As a starting point, executives need to give their employees a better forum to speak out about the specific symptoms happening inside the organization that are dragging the culture down.

The second thing that needs to happen is we need to begin teaching specifically about the critical flaws in business schools, universities, and continuing executive and leadership education. Ultimately, the best way to create a great work culture is to prevent these critical flaws from happening in the first place. The more leaders and executives come out of the gate knowing how to engineer the system in their companies to prevent these flaws, the more society will naturally shift in that better direction.

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

It’s hard to define anyone’s leadership style because that’s such a broad concept and there’s so much that goes into that. It also fluctuates somewhat based on the circumstances, of course. But as much as possible I try to be a collaborative consensus builder.

I want to make sure that everyone who has a stake in an outcome works together and is able to decide on the best course together. I find that things move faster when everyone has a chance to be heard and voice their concerns. You get a lot less resistance that way, and people are more committed because they’ve been involved in the process. They also know more clearly why you’ve chosen a particular direction.

Recently I was working on a project for a company related to changing a process. Before bringing the proposed change to the top executive, I knew there needed to be alignment from all the related functions and personnel, so I actively worked to gain that.

Then, rather than the change suggestion coming just from me, I was able to say that all affected parties had been involved in the process, everyone had given feedback, and we were unified in our recommendation for the change. It was so much easier. Although that’s one recent example, there are countless others like this from my career that have been key to my success.

Many leaders are hesitant to lead with collaboration and consensus-building because they think it takes too long, or they know you can’t please everyone. But if you do it right, it can be done quickly. It’s a great opportunity to engage help from people who may have actively resisted if you didn’t involve them. This strategy is great for turning “naysayers” into champions of change.

Plus, you as a leader will learn more about their specific objections (which are often very valid) and how to address them. You will learn much more about where the pitfalls and problems will be for any possible solution before you make a decision. This is invaluable information that likely would not have come to light if you hadn’t intentionally built consensus up front.

I’ve found that when there isn’t a collaborative consensus-building as early as possible, that’s when the problems pop up that throw you off course and prevent you from getting where you were trying to go.

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?

Most definitely. This is a tough one, too, because there are so many people. Honestly, I’ve learned so much from all the people, leaders, and teams I’ve worked with over the years. I’m grateful for all of them — even the ones that, at the time, were difficult.

Overall, though, I’d say the one person who has probably had the most profound impact on my professional life and career is Paul Elliott. Paul wrote a book called Exemplary Performance: Driving Business Results by Benchmarking Your Star Performers. I’ve worked with him on several occasions. He has been a great mentor to me in the organizational effectiveness/business performance improvement space.

Paul is the one who showed me how work problems are typically situational, rather than being rooted in the people themselves. I also learned from him how it is very possible to replicate the performance and results of top performers in any role in any industry using a systematic, structured approach. And Paul was instrumental in encouraging me to write my book.

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

It’s really about helping the companies I work with and the executives and leaders I work with to get better. There is a real, powerful ripple effect that comes from that, which is quite amazing and humbling when you think about it. Of course, the financial performance of the companies improves, which is great. But even though that’s incredibly important, that’s not the best part for me.

For me, when I help a company improve — especially its culture — it makes life better for its customers, its employees, its shareholders, and all the families and friends of all those people. That’s a lot of people when you consider that impact. I never thought about it much at first. But the more I’ve been on this journey, the clearer I got about my own vision and mission.

My goal is to alleviate pain and bring about joy in the world by helping companies do better. I am lucky to be able to do what I do. I am grateful for the opportunity to continue to spread the message that there is a better way to run your company — one that’s not only better for the bottom line but also better for all the people involved and for society in general.

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

Once again, it’s really hard to pick a favorite. There are tons of life lesson quotes I’ve learned from over the years that still resonate in my life every single day.

But for this question, I have to go with a quote from Geary Rummler, author of the book Improving Performance: How to Manage the White Space on the Organization Chart. The quote is: “When you put good people up against a broken system, the broken system wins almost every time.”

That quote inspired the title of my book, which is Unbreak the System: Diagnosing and Curing the Ten Critical Flaws in Your Company.

Whenever I am working through a problem with any company, I always look at the whole system and situation to make sure I don’t miss a critical flaw and to ensure there is alignment. It doesn’t take much to cause a broken system, so it’s really at the foundation of the way I lead. It’s something all executives can and should do to be better leaders and achieve better results.

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. 🙂

The answer to this question is tied to my favorite quote from the previous question. The movement I’m trying to inspire is for top executives and business leaders to lead their companies in a way that’s better not just for the bottom line but also for the people in the organization and for humanity as a whole.

The way they can do that is by learning about the critical flaws that exist in their companies and working intentionally to treat and prevent them. That’s what will create an amazing company culture with happy, engaged employees. That’s what will drive increased customer satisfaction and loyalty. That’s what will create efficient, effective operations. That’s what will drive extraordinary business results; and that’s what will lead to scalable, sustainable growth.

I would urge all executives to cure the critical flaws in their companies as soon as possible. Whether it’s individually or, hopefully, as part of a new movement, that’s the best way for them to make the world a better place!

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you continued success!

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