“To create a fantastic work culture, listen — and don’t expect to have all the right answers”, with Chris Bolman and Phil Laboon

Listen — and don’t expect to have all the right answers (you don’t need to). Great culture happens in an environment of shared values, mutual respect, and open communication. And to do that, everyone needs to be included. While many trends here are getting better, the reality is the majority of people running organizations have the same […]

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Listen — and don’t expect to have all the right answers (you don’t need to). Great culture happens in an environment of shared values, mutual respect, and open communication. And to do that, everyone needs to be included. While many trends here are getting better, the reality is the majority of people running organizations have the same identity background — if not race and gender then at least socio-economic background and education. And when that happens, by default you’re going to miss things, maybe not give someone enough of a voice, or not consider an issue from a potentially underrepresented perspective. I do this for a living and am fairly attuned to workplace D&I, but I’m still a white male entrepreneur, executive, or advisor. I can’t — and shouldn’t — speak for everyone or try to come up with all the right answers. Good ideas come from everyone (and everywhere), and time and time again I’ve needed to solicit perspective from different backgrounds to come up with a better organizational approach or strategy.

As a part of my series about about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Chris Bolman. Chris is the Founder and CEO of Brightest, a startup helping corporate social responsibility and employee engagement teams inspire, mobilize, and measure people-centric initiatives. Based in New York City, Chris has spent over a decade helping organizations of all types and sizes build positive, inclusive, high-performance cultures.

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

Often timing really is everything. One important element of timing for me personally is that I graduated college — without a particularly high degree of career conviction — as the financial crisis was beginning in 2007. And, in a way, it was liberating. A lot of the conventional corporate jobs — going to work at a bank or a big consulting firm — disappeared. You had to be far more resourceful and creative in the job market. So I ended up joining a small firm of about ten people working with solar energy companies — helping them develop projects, commercialize their technology, and understand market and policy implications better.

The experience really opened my eyes in two ways. The first was showing me how the right technologies can accelerate human potential and improve our lives. For example, there’s a lot of (justifiable) concern about the economic and social implications of climate change. But what’s most interesting to me is it’s not a technology problem. The technology we need to run a zero-emission grid exists today. Even more challenging issues like reducing the environmental footprint of industrial farming are doable. What we’re really limited by is our collective imagination (and politicians) when it comes to going out and bringing these solutions to life. Technology’s just the means — the tool, the enabler.

The second thing was company culture. I got lucky. At a time when a lot of people and companies weren’t faring well, in a very small amount of time we grew from about ten employees up to 50. And it provided a deep dive crash course into company culture. What was special about that early culture? What did we do well as we doubled or tripled? Who did we hire (and why)? And equally, what mistakes were made stretching ourselves farther? How did the focus on people vs. profit change going from this tiny, almost family into a firm where priorities did change?

I realized those were the two themes I wanted to combine in my career: technology that meaningfully improves people’s lives, and going about it the most human-centric ways possible, so you don’t lose any of the magic of personal meaning and relationships.

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

One almost cliche goal when you’re a tech startup in New York City is you want to get into the New York Times. The New York Times. Only a few months into Brightest, there was a big uproar against our current government’s handling of immigration issues. Good bet you’ve already inferred my politics, and surely you see plenty of this on the news, but it’s a truly tragic, misguided state of affairs.

But for us, I said to myself: “Ok, if we’ve made a product for inspiring and mobilizing people to take positive action, why couldn’t a tool that helps a company run its employee volunteering do the same for people who want to air their grievances publicly and organize a rally or protest? So I got in touch with this little non-profit that recently formed to list and promote their campaign on Brightest, went down to Brooklyn city hall, and joined a crowd of a few hundred people who came out to the rally.

The next day I’m looking at the news, and I see this big, Getty Images banner photo of me in the New York Times. And I think that’s the right way to do it. Don’t try to pitch yourself as news, go out and try to create the news. Or shape the news. Particularly if you’re not happy with what you’re seeing on Twitter or the TV.

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

I certainly hope so. One area that’s exciting to me is going into companies that have never had a sustainability or corporate social responsibility program, and crafting one from the bottom up. I recently visited a very successful, fast-growing company that makes fitness technology. It only took five minutes into the conversation for them to realized how important all these responsibility elements are. Their employees want to work at a company they feel is doing good for the world; they need to be doing more about the environmental footprint of their supply chain, their packaging, their offices — all these important considerations no one was thinking about or designing policy for, let alone trying to measure.

Sometimes it just takes the courage to ask good questions and be introspective and truthful with yourself. From there, you’ll easily discover a commitment to start (somewhere), and the internal champions or advocates ready to carry the torch forward. Before you know it, you’re bringing the company’s true values to life. And you’ve made it a much more exciting, purposeful place to work.

We’re also doing some pretty cutting-edge things to help climate movements in the United States and United Kingdom propel dialogue about a sensible direction for our future — but that’s an entirely different interview : )

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?

So the odd thing is we’ve simultaneously got this situation where people love to work — want and need to work — yet we hate the work many of us are actually doing. There are amazing stories, again and again, of people who passionately want to work or spend their time meaningfully, even when they can’t be paid for it. For example, a woman named Susie in California who used to be an accountant was suffering from Alzheimer’s. Really sad. But the incredible thing is the only effective therapy they found for her was… get this, giving her invoices. They started giving her accounting work, and she started improving cognitively, becoming more social, and here you’ve got this poor woman waking up every day, sometimes at 5am, who can’t wait to process invoices and do this “work” because it genuinely makes her happy and gives her a sense of meaning.

Ultimately, this is a very complex question about social and economic design, but a lot of it starts with “purposeful work” and our ability to do or not do it.

First off, people have their own definitions of purposeful work. For Susie in California it’s accounting. For some people it’s art, or that side project hobby you tinker on after hours. For some people it’s public service, being a teacher or a doctor or a nurse — or maybe installing solar panels on local fields and rooftops. It can be volunteering in the community. Or the intellectual, learning, and social environment of the job itself.

But studies do show common patterns when it comes to meaningful work.

First and foremost, people who succeed in the workplace and love their jobs tend to feel three things:

  1. “Mastery” — I’m learning, challenging myself, getting better at my job, and growing as a person.
  2. “Autonomy” — I have the freedom to work, make my own decisions, and control my output or creative process.
  3. “Purpose” — I believe in what I’m doing and think it makes my family, neighborhood, community, city, or world better off. There’s at least one study from Yale that says not only does your work satisfaction account for as much as 20% of your overall happiness, but the people who are most happy about their work strongly believe their work improves the world.

“MAP,” essentially, to use an acronym.

And yes, compensation does matter, but only up to a point. If you’re comfortably out of poverty, how you feel about MAP becomes one of the most important indicators of your overall job satisfaction.

So what we really need to be asking ourselves as policymakers, leaders, or managers is why are we failing to create these types of jobs and conditions for our workers?

How do we ensure every employee’s work feels meaningful?

How do we train our front-line leaders to help their people discover their own sense of MAP?

Because without that, you do see all this widespread, corporate malaise. And that displeasure leads to employee turnover, lost productivity — things that, if the ethical or human side of this isn’t compelling enough for you, also really matter for political outcomes, economic prosperity, and business performance.

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?

Now that this research is actively happening, the data suggests it’s quite severe and profound. Unmotivated workers who don’t have MAP cost companies billions of dollars in lost productivity and wasted resources.

Researchers estimate when you really motivate and inspire your workforce, alongside investment in corporate social responsibility and employee engagement programs, you can cut employee turnover by as much as half (50%), and increase overall employee productivity by at least ten to fifteen percent. That’s massive. It’s like getting an extra half day of work out of every employee your organization, for free, because they believe in what they’re contributing to and want to put in that extra effort.

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?

Crafting an inspired culture is a lot like being a great chef: the specific recipes differ here and there but they all share the same essential ingredients. Here are the five I recommend focusing on:

1. Have a clear mission and vision employees understand, believe in, and can rally around. This really matters. And there’s a big difference between putting up a values poster on the wall and really creating a set of values your people embrace and carry forward. For example, when I was an executive at a past firm, we had a value “just,” which was designed around fairness. Seeing the direction the world was going — the trends around what our employees needed and wanted to see — there was a movement to re-frame the value and broaden it to talk about workplace diversity and inclusion (D&I). Finding a value that resonates for employees — that they can seize hold of and define on their own terms — is where the real magic happens in a company’s culture. It’s one of the main raw materials for MAP. Culture has to be dynamic, and it has to come top-down from leadership and brand identity, but also bottom-up from your employees and what they care about. In my experience, most companies misunderstand (and mis-implement) the relationship between internal communications, employee-manager relationships, and employee engagement, much to their detriment.

2. Create a policy playbook that puts employees first. Leaders, particularly in HR, need to be prioritizing D&I, comprehensive employee health, wellness, and engagement programs, and fair, respectful labor practices. If someone’s going to spend the biggest percentage of their waking life’s time working toward your organization’s success, they should be getting real personal enrichment in return, starting with a fair, livable wage. Perks are nice, but it’s often less about the specific perks and more about the company’s messaging and conduct. One great practice recently adopted by a large, successful non-profit in NYC is making every employee take turns serving on the recruiting committee. They rotate employees on and off to keep the committee a manageable size, but the goal is to give every person a role and say in who they hire (and how), the process, what the D&I policies are, and bring shared perspective around hiring needs that represent different internal communities, identities, and viewpoints. So many companies miss the opportunity to give their people a seat at the table, when the reality is it’s always a win-win for both sides when it’s done thoughtfully.

3. Train your managers to become real leaders. It’s so critical to have responsible, well-trained managers who act as stewards of a company’s values. “Putting employees first” is a day-to-day practice that runs through front-line management. Studies show that, other than individual factors (i.e., feeling MAP), the #1 reason employees are likely to quit their job is because they have a bad relationship with their manager. There’s often a lot of focus on department, team, or employee measurement, but manager measurement is just as important, if not more. Every organization should be working to understand what the common attributes of successful, tolerant, and inclusive managers are, how to design compensation and goal-setting models that incentivize it, how to teach and train newer managers on those success attributes, promote diverse perspective, and, just as importantly, deal with bad or toxic managers.

4. Commit to employee engagement. HR can’t just be about hiring, firing, payroll, and benefits. There are so many opportunities to elevate and modernize this vital function inside every company. Beyond learning and development (L&D) initiatives: encourage employee clubs, create internal forums and dialogue about important workplace issues, and take the extra mile to encourage volunteering programs and community service. A lot of our customers have seen immense benefits just changing their mindset from seeing HR as a department that “hosts employee events” to one capable of running and growing longer-term campaigns and holistic programs. Well-run employee engagement and CSR programs are one of the best ways to deepen people’s relationships with each other, the company, and their local community. It’s good for business, culture, and morale, but it’s also just the right thing to do, full-stop.

5. Listen — and don’t expect to have all the right answers (you don’t need to). Great culture happens in an environment of shared values, mutual respect, and open communication. And to do that, everyone needs to be included. While many trends here are getting better, the reality is the majority of people running organizations have the same identity background — if not race and gender then at least socio-economic background and education. And when that happens, by default you’re going to miss things, maybe not give someone enough of a voice, or not consider an issue from a potentially underrepresented perspective. I do this for a living and am fairly attuned to workplace D&I, but I’m still a white male entrepreneur, executive, or advisor. I can’t — and shouldn’t — speak for everyone or try to come up with all the right answers. Good ideas come from everyone (and everywhere), and time and time again I’ve needed to solicit perspective from different backgrounds to come up with a better organizational approach or strategy.

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?

I think the biggest mistake many executive and companies have made is turning their backs on their own employees — treating them as just a business input in the interest of shareholders. We can’t prioritize executive compensation and shareholder value over the people who create it for you day-after-day. It’s unfathomable to me that Amazon is one of the most valuable companies in the world, yet a major percentage of its lowest-level workers are on food stamps in order to meet basic needs and provide for their families. Or the way Google gives its employees non-voting shares so they get financial benefit from the company’s performance, but no real decision-making say.

An interconnected mis-step is this constant drive toward efficiency and optimization at all costs. I realize that’s a bit odd for me to say as a technologist, but to me there’s an important distinction between technology that unlocks creativity and human potential, and technology that makes people feel like physical or intellectual cogs in a spiritless machine.

What the industrial revolution did is it transformed cottage industry into corporate industry. If you lived in a small town and your job was furniture, you had to actually craft and make the furniture. It’s inherently creative, i.e., satisfying. Now the most ‘furniture crafting’ most of us do is assembling an IKEA piece from an instruction manual. I don’t know a lot of people who find creative purpose in assembling IKEA dressers, do you?

Well, we’re now starting to do the intellectual equivalent of this in a lot of industries, and I think it’s quite damaging to people’s sense of MAP. That job you used to have solving the whole Sudoku puzzle, well, now we just want you to solve a single box and pass the puzzle along to the next department without seeing the big picture or any real reward benefits problem-solving for the ultimate outcome.

We’ve already stripped a lot of the meaning out of physical work, to revisit the IKEA analogy. Now we’re starting to take the same approach with intellectual work, whether that’s via machine learning algorithms or constant management consulting optimization.

That to me is a far more important and pressing issue than anything about “Millennial entitlement” or job-hopping.

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

The most important role of a leader or manager is lifting people up and giving the work meaning. Of course we need to hit the next quarter’s sales goal or launch that new product, sure — but if you’re not tying together metrics and purpose, good bet that’s part of the reason why your employees are underperforming, if not outright job-hunting.

So as a leader or manager, your first goal is to set the values, build trust, foster open communication, get a pulse on culture, then help guide it in the right direction. Easier said than done, but I tend to start there first.

One management framework I really like and use a lot with my own teams and customers is V2MOM, which stands for (V)ission, (M)ission, (M)ethods, (O)bstacles, and (M)easurement. It’s borrowed from Marc Benioff, who founded and runs Salesforce. And, while Benioff isn’t a perfect leader, to his credit he’s built a valuable company while also being one of the few Silicon Valley executives on the right side of several important social issues — championing progressive housing reform in San Francisco, or calling out Facebook for its frequent abdication of social responsibility.

I think V2MOM is one of the smartest management frameworks, because it accomplishes exactly what I’m talking about. As a leader or manager, it forces you to have a conversation with your team about the mission, define (and refine) it, then tie all your team’s priorities and metrics back to it. It creates a unifying thread between values and action I’ve found to be really powerful inside organizations.

Google it, do a bit of reading, and try it out. Or track me down and get in touch if you need help.

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?

There are a lot of people I’m thankful for — my parents, first and foremost. I’m even thankful for bad experiences and managers. Often it’s more helpful to learn from mistakes and failures than successes.

I’m grateful to Michael Rogol (Shift Energy) and Noah Brier (Percolate) for helping me think about problem-solving in terms of first principles and unit economics. And a lot of personal love and credit to Kareem Rahma (Nameless) for setting a great example of what it’s like to be an entrepreneur for the right reasons and working tirelessly to put your teammates first.

I also give a lot of thanks and credit to James Gross (now running the Micromobility Conference) for challenging me earlier in my career to (dare to) think in scale. At a point where my team was effectively running and overseeing a local community meetup, James asked me the right challenging questions: why couldn’t this be a 500 person event? What would it take to make this a 1,000 person conference? What would it take to make it a road show and take this format around the world?

As individuals — and as a society — we don’t challenge ourselves enough to ask what’s possible. We all benefit from thoughtfully taking on a few more stretch goals.

And, by the same token, thinking and trying to problem-solve only in terms of scale can also be deceptive and dangerous. Read Anand Giridharadas’ latest book if you want some good perspective there.

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

Being fortunate enough to pursue and develop Brightest hopefully is the biggest contribution I can make. As one individual person with finite time and resources there’s only so much I can personally do and contribute. But if I create a system and a toolset for others to bring good to the world, then hopefully the sky’s the limit and I’m just the catalyst who gave the ball its first push.

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

My all-time favorite “life lesson quote” is from the English writer Walter Pater. It’s quite a quote, one I’ve carried around in my mental back pocket ever since I discovered it in college:

“To burn always with this hard, gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life. In a sense it might even be said that our failure is to form habits: for, after all, habit is relative to a stereotyped world, and meantime it is only the roughness of the eye that makes two persons, things, situations, seem alike. While all melts under our feet, we may well grasp at any exquisite passion, or any contribution to knowledge that seems by a lifted horizon to set the spirit free for a moment, or any stirring of the sense, strange dyes, strange colours, and curious odours, or work of the artist’s hands, or the face of one’s friend. Not to discriminate every moment some passionate attitude in those about us, and in the very brilliancy of their gifts some tragic dividing on their ways, is, on this short day of frost and sun, to sleep before evening.”

There’s a lot there, but when you start to break it down I hope it captures a lot of what I’ve been talking about.

We all have our own magical gifts and talents, not to mention incredible relationships in our lives who introduce us to other exciting ideas and passions. We all find beauty and meaning in different things out in the world. Go out and live. Appreciate and nurture your relationships. Create, shape, and experience what makes life worth living. Just, whatever you do, don’t sleep before evening.

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. 🙂

One of the main movements I’m personally proud to be a part of — and see Brightest continue to support — is the global transition to environmental sustainability and stewardship. Pollution, rising sea levels, droughts, storms, food shortages — it’s imperiling millions of lives and costing us billions of dollars. It’s an existential threat to all of us, particularly future generations and our children.

On a micro level, Brightest is a net zero emissions company. We offset everything we consume, and we have a “One Action, One Tree” program where we plant one tree for every measurable act of good completed through our software. So any time a customer’s employee, or even an individual person who downloads our app goes out into the world to volunteer at a shelter or attend an event for good, that’s another tree joining the Earth to sequester carbon and enrich the soil. So we’re actively planting thousands of trees all over the world, which feels like a sensible start to the type of contribution we want to make.

But more than that, we want our technology to challenge and inspire companies and social movements to see more sustainable possibilities for themselves. How does that climate non-profit recruit the next thousand supporters or voters? What type of energy powers the office? What’s being done with used coffee cups and all the other waste being generated?

We have to problem-solve these important issues top-down (government, policymakers, corporate leadership) and bottom-up (individual people becoming more informed, changing their behavior, and making better, more sustainable day-to-day choices because they believe it’s the right thing to do).

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

Thank you.

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