Where Did the Learning Go?

The recent United Airlines fiasco illuminated the dark and anti-human side of the machine model of organizations. United has much to learn about leadership.

The following excerpt comes from Learning to Lead, a book manuscript I wrote in 1995. The book described an organizational transformation in the Customer Service department of the Star Tribune newspaper in Minneapolis, MN from 1990-94. These thoughts remain relevant and I offer them freely to United Airlines.

During the fall of 1990, we established five strategic objectives.

They were:

  1. To improve the quality of work life for employees

Technology is important, but we felt that our employees had to come first. If they felt good about themselves, each other, their products, and their company, they would then provide enthusiastic service to the newspaper’s readers. Customer satisfaction and retention rates would then improve.

Quality of work life didn’t mean happiness. We knew we could not make everyone happy. Quality of work life meant creating a culture that treated everyone with respect, involved people in decisions that impacted them, empowered employees to serve the customer, gave employees the tools they needed to serve the readers, and provided opportunities to learn and perform.

  1. To improve customer satisfaction

It would be more important to retain our existing customers than to utilize promotional activities of marginal value to add new and usually temporary customers. We would retain customers by providing outstanding service, recovering rapidly when we made a mistake, and developing good relationships between front-line employees and our readers. These activities would grow our customer base.

  1. To become more creative

We realized that we would need the creativity of everyone as we moved to the future. We would change how we related to one another. We would encourage, draw out, and reward creative thinking and risk taking. To do this, we would have to change how we led. We would give up control, get out of the way, and allow people to be the best they could be. The job of leaders would be to facilitate this process

  1. To become faster moving and more flexible

We would do this through empowerment. Employees would have the freedom to serve their customers and make decisions about work processes they managed. The flow of information would be opened up and would support empowerment; secrecy would end. These changes in how we led people were required to encourage different ways of thinking about work and willingness to doing our jobs in different ways. The results would be speed and flexibility.

  1. To increase profitability

Financial success would be a natural result of realizing the first four objectives. Energized and committed employees would provide outstanding service to readers resulting in satisfied customers who would stay with the newspaper longer. Improved customer retention would mean reduced expense for generating new customers and less money spent on rework and recovery processes. A larger readership impacts advertising rates in a positive way. A creative, faster moving, and flexible workforce, empowered to provide outstanding service to customers, would require less supervision and fewer supervisors.

Creative employees would find new ways to bring revenue to the company. This business unit would eventually conceive of an alternate delivery system that would serve advertisers in targeted ways, initiate the marketing of products bearing the company logo to readers and non-readers, and investigate the use of our distribution system to deliver other products until told to stop by senior management (that wasn’t the business of a newspaper). There was a surge of wonderful ideas–most coming from front-line employees.

In addition to establishing these objectives, we wrote a vision for the business unit and a definition of Value Driven Leadership–those core values that would guide us as we moved toward our vision. Our key strategies were employee involvement, culture change, and market driven quality. We then created new norms for our emerging culture, developed specific planning objectives, and formed project teams. Values and vision drove our planning.

The redesign of our work and the involvement and empowerment of employees awakened those long dead to the organization and led to phenomenal business results and dramatic improvements in already outstanding customer service. Our work was recognized nationally, we spoke at conferences on employee engagement and people from around the country visited us. We had learned and shown that great human potential resides untapped in every group of people. Technology is really important; engaged people are even more vital. We do not have to choose humanity or technology. The right choice is humanity and technology.

I wondered why more leaders and organizations weren’t doing, in their own ways, what we were doing? While on the leading edge, our work was not the first effort to engage and involve employees nor was it unique in the specifics of what we did. Our story was a local one within a larger company, but the deep insights and underlying  dynamics we discovered exist at all levels of organization: The newspaper, the newspaper industry, across industries and across all communities of people and life itself. Why didn’t United Airlines, and thousands of other enterprises (and the newspaper industry) do similar things long ago with the knowledge available to them?

In 1994, I left the Star Tribune to join a movement to transform how we lead, follow and work in organizations and institutions. Under new leadership, the workplace we created was destroyed in short order.

I delved into the deeper dynamics that led to our success at the Star Tribune. I attended a Meg Wheatley dialogue where we discussed the new sciences that led to our success before we knew about the new scientific knowledge. Meg talked of the Fortune 500 clients she had worked with in recent years. When she returned to visit those organizations, she saw no evidence of change or learning. She asked, “Where did the learning go?”

I spent 13 years consulting in organizations and writing about organizational transformation and the kind of leadership required for such change. The movement I had joined had success stories but, unfortunately, I watched leadership in our organizations and institutions regress instead of evolve in life-affirming ways. Promising change efforts were  destroyed routinely; their leaders marginalized. I asked the equivalent of “Where did the learning go?” over and over again.

Today, more than 20 years after Meg Wheatley’s question, we have the United Airlines story within the larger societal context that contains powerful forces for regression and dehumanization. Many feel disheartened. I believe the crazy and dangerous resistance to facts, truth, learning and knowledge along with the marginalization and demonizing of the powerless are the final fearful and desperate efforts of a mechanistic world view that no longer solves our problems. I believe an ecological and living system world view will emerge.

As the rate of change accelerates in the future now upon us, I do not believe that leaders (or anyone else) who want a sustainable enterprise and a good and relevant life can continue to refuse to learn, ignore new knowledge and run from the hard work of human and leadership development. And I believe that new leaders and everyday people who love to learn and relish the hard work of personal growth will emerge from the rubble of places like United Airlines. I believe this because I trust that humanity will, in the end, choose renewal over decline. But then, I am an optimist.

On a global scale, a life affirming awakening flowers in the midst of a strain of madness. We must nurture this movement. If we pay attention, we can see great things happening locally and regionally every day. I hope our human awakening also becomes a great remembering of what humanity has learned through the ages. I hope our conscious evolution and greater enlightenment as a species happens fast so we have time to turn back anti-human forces and the great forgetting not only in our organizations but throughout our human community.

Whether a leader, a celebrity or an everyday person, we can ask, “Am I learning and reinventing myself over and over again so that I can feel alive, be fully human and create a good life for myself and my family?”

Leadership & Training Costs: A Huge Waste?

$70 billion a year for corporate training in the U.S. (Forbes)?

Much of that obscene amount is spent on leadership development and mostly failed efforts to transform corporations.

I had nine promotions over 16 years at the Star Tribune newspaper in Minneapolis, MN. When I left the company the CEO of Cowles Media said my leadership had changed the company forever.

In each job I led groups of people from mediocrity to excellence in value-driven ways. In eight of those positions, I didn’t have consultants or training programs to help me. I simply did what made sense to me and acted according to my values.

Each time I left a group, it regressed to previous levels of mediocrity or worse. This pattern cuts across all levels of leadership in all industries.

I left the Star Tribune and completed a Ph.D. in Leadership and Organizational Change. I wanted to help leaders develop the talents needed to lead organizations through transformational change. In 13 years of consulting, I met two leaders I thought were great. One was fired (guess what happened to the company he led) and the other was promoted.

I met many executives who claimed they wanted to transform the cultures of their organizations as one way to improve the bottom line. None had the insight they needed to change how they thought about leadership and organizations and undergo a personal transformation as or before they led their organizations through transformation. All resisted doing the difficult personal work to grow as leaders. All proved to lack the skills, talents, courage, and commitment to lead difficult change. They wanted cosmetic quick-fixes: fast, easy, cheap and painless and from the outside with no demands for them to learn new things or manage difficult conflict. They didn’t want to lead people; they wanted to fix machines.

Quick fixes endure because they ask so little of us.

I interviewed a front-line supervisor in the power industry. He was upset.

He said, “A consultant sat with me every minute for two weeks and told me how to do my job. I thought I was going crazy. I had to go to a psychiatrist.”

I asked, “What happened after the consultant left?” He smiled and said, “Everything went back to the way it had been.”

That outcome happens in a high percentage of training and change efforts that try to mechanically fix organizations from the top utilizing outside experts who get a significant percentage of the $70 billion spent on “corporate training.”

James Hollis, Ph.D. wrote in “What Really Matters”:

Further, I have come to consider most of what passes for “self-help” literature today as obscene because it ignores the complexities of life, glosses over the ardor and commitment required for change, and promises panaceas not likely to happen.

I could say the same about leaders, academics and consultants. Our enterprises have a dearth of quality leaders. Too many leaders, consultants and authors of books about life in organizations ignore or deny the dark side of life in organizations. Real leaders in organizations often get marginalized. People try to transform organizations from a world view that guarantees a reinvention of what already exists. Too many lie about how hard change can be. Billions of dollars are, I believe, wasted year after year.

Those few genuinely talented and value-driven senior leaders in our organizations should save much of the money spent on corporate training, identify the gifted leaders in their companies (at all levels) who get marginalized because their abilities frighten others, and elevate them to positions of power in their enterprises. Then involve them and engage them with you to create vision, values and purpose and send them out to engage and involve employees and make the vision real.

These leaders will do the rest including making decisions on the books they will read, consultants they will hire and training programs they will use.

Centralize or Decentralize Education Reform?

I read an essay that argued for decentralization of school transformation. Then I read another essay that said the first opinion piece had it all wrong: school reform had to be centralized.

What is needed to reinvent education in America?

A massive number of mature, visionary, enlightened, and tough-love leaders at all levels who can face-down and then engage with politicians, school boards, parent groups, bureaucracies,  powerful unions, ingrained cultures,  along with city, state, and national institutions without losing their vision, values, compassion, and a warrior’s dose of ruthlessness.

Anything less than that will fail to transform anything: efforts will simply recreate the school systems “leaders” say they want to change.

Get the leaders you need and the appropriate ways to organize will emerge.

Good luck with that: abandonment of the old models would be easier.

The Fall & Future of the Newspaper Industry

“Everything I thought I knew about leadership is wrong.”

  – Mort Myerson, former Chairman and CEO of Perot Systems

We’ve watched the newspaper industry fall for years now. I led transformative change at the Star Tribune newspaper in Minneapolis, MN in the years just before the industry and the Star Tribune crashed and burned. I came to believe that the newspaper industry would not change in the ways it needed to, and I left the Star Tribune in early 1994 to consult with leaders on transformation and to complete a Ph.D. in leadership and organizational change. I completed the Ph.D., consulted for 13 years, and have been a prolific writer about leadership and organizational transformation.

Here’s an example of the kind of real-life boardroom drama that must have played out one way or another at every newspaper in the country over time:

In 2011, Tim McGuire, former editor and senior vice president of the Star Tribune—and currently the Frank Russell Chair of Journalism at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication—wrote in his blog, McGuire on Media:

The Cowles family imagined it [the drop like a rock in newspaper profits] and after years of strong stewardship decided in 1997 the old saw about discretion and valor made a lot of sense to the family. Early in 1997 David Cox, then Cowles CEO, commissioned the major consulting firm Booz-Allen to analyze the future of classifieds. I would dearly love to have that report in front of me now, but I vividly remember sitting through the excruciating pounding my beloved business got that day. While I only remember the broad outlines of the report I remember enough to know that as seers the Booz-Allen people were almost mystical. They predicted the classified demise with a precision that today strikes me as awesome. At the time I thought they were a bunch of negative doomsayers. Unfortunately, they nailed it.

There were two available reactions. Mine, which was “nothing could be this bleepin ‘bad!” In my defense, people like McClatchy’s Gary Pruitt and other newspaper buyers saw it my way. The other possible reaction was, “our entire net worth is tied up in this company and the risk is simply too great.” That was the Cowles family reaction and within months they announced they were going to research “strategic alternatives…”

In 1998 the Cowles family sold the Star Tribune to the McClatchy Company for $1.2 billion.

On December 26, 2006, the Star Tribune was again sold. The sale price was $530 million plus a future tax benefit of $160 million.

In January, 2009 the Star Tribune filed for bankruptcy.

This was a company—and an industry—in free-fall decline.

The change that overwhelmed the Star Tribune and the newspaper industry was different than normal revenue cycles or gradual readership losses. This was discontinuous change: It came without precedent or operating instructions, and fundamentally and forever altered life as newspapers had known it.

I sympathize with the newspaper people. Discontinuous change scares, confuses, and paralyzes people when it hits. Their underpinnings go out from under them. No matter how intellectually prepared one may be, no one knows this kind of change and how discombobulating it can be until it socks you in the gut. Did this cataclysm effectively end life for newspapers with no real hope for sustainability as an industry? Maybe, but people do not give up without a fight.

Despite the nature of change, industry leaders weren’t complete victims of powerful forces outside of themselves. Over the decades, they bore a fair share of responsibility for what befell them. They knew trouble was ahead of them, but they didn’t expect how much they got. Some ignored, others denied, still others minimized. Many executives got lost in the weeds and couldn’t see the big picture. Many clung to the way things were always done or to the ways that had made them rich. All were too timid. The truest voices were often shot down.

To have a chance, newspaper industry leaders, when the catastrophe hit, who hadn’t said it already needed to exclaim it now, “Everything I thought I knew about leadership is wrong!”

I can imagine a tough-love message to the industry, appropriate for a long time:

We are a haughty and stodgy industry with a moribund culture. We’ve lacked foresight and imagination. We are mediocre when it comes to utilizing people’s talents. We are far behind where we should be in adapting to a changing environment. We are in trouble. Maybe it’s too late. We have to put our self-importance aside, learn everything anew, and get comfortable with feeling scared and inadequate much of the time. We have to think bigger, differently, and change more than we ever imagined we could. We need to move fast. And even then, we may well not endure.

Executives in all industries often develop new strategies and do their reorganizations and other changes from the same beliefs and assumptions that may have served them well in the past but have now led to the problems they are trying to fix. Such change is like putting a new façade on an old building; it looks new and shiny. It will occupy and distract us for a time. But underneath it’s the same leaky plumbing and faulty wiring that will soon make things worse. I fear this is what the newspaper industry did in response to the crash: The recreated what they were trying to change.

Faced with an existential threat, newspapers had to do more than reinvent what they had always done. Newspapers needed transformation (fundamental change that cuts to the core of the company’s values, culture and operating methods.) and no one transforms anything by repeating their past. To transform, organizations need transformative leaders who see their environment accurately, learn new models for leadership and organizations, and creatively reimagine from new beliefs and assumptions the fundamental nature of their business: what their business is, and how they do the work of that business. Nothing is “not our business.” Organizations and industries then adapt continually in a symbiotic relationship with their environment, and they fundamentally change organizational and leadership designs.

Imagine a hypothetical newspaper that embraced transformation and went boldly into the future. What the process might have looked like:

Our imaginary newspaper began their journey with study and conversations. The leaders went through the early and difficult struggles and learned much new about leadership and transformation. Leaders applied new ways of thinking to vision, strategy, and business models as well as to operating units. Armed with the courage and excitement of new insights and creativity, they leapt into the future with a shared vision, strong values, and the noble purpose of the newspaper industry. All operating units felt great intensity for the challenge ahead. Instead of running fear-filled from the threat, people sprinted alive to a new future. They understood that such change did not come with a guarantee of success, but it improved the odds compared to continuing to do what no longer worked.

Many people throughout the newspaper had their personal inner shiftsand many leaders with new skills were empowered at all levels of the enterprise. Employees were fully engaged. Many obsolete sacred cows were painfully sacrificed and many new experiments tried excitedly throughout the company to find what worked for the future. The work was hard; the pain great at times. But people felt alive.

The ways things had always been done changed. Accountability became high: mistakes were allowed in this creative endeavor, and excellence was required; issues were surfaced and addressed directly, honestly, and openly. The newspaper became faster-moving, more creative, and people felt valued, involved, and informed. It took time, but new revenues were created. Suddenly the newspaper was transformed. It was still a newspaper but everything but its deepest identity had changed. The newspaper was alive and next time would understand that the time to transform again would be at the peak of their success.

“Easy to say, impossible to do,” you say? “Grow or die,” I reply.

What is the future of the newspaper industry? No one knows for sure. It’s late; maybe too late, and it is reasonable to believe that the cataclysm of the Internet and other threats combined with fainthearted leadership will destroy newspapers as we’ve know them, and that history will debate why the newspaper industry died.

Perhaps the industry will find the improbable will, creativity, and leadership to still transform and renew the industry in new forms.  Maybe Amazon founder Jeff Bezos who recently purchased the Washington Post can bring new energy into the tired industry. Or perhaps newspapers will muddle along—alive but never again what they used to be. Most likely, some will thrive, more will die, and many will muddle.

What might have been if the newspaper industry had heeded the voices of the future?

Excerpted from my e-book, Value Driven Leadership: A Story of Personal and Organizational Transformation.

The Illusion of Control

Always on the lookout for rare corporate authenticity, I listened to the group from a Fargo, North Dakota manufacturing plant as they spoke at an ethics luncheon sponsored by The Center for Ethical Leadership at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota. Pete, the quality guy, was high-energy and exuded enthusiasm — a true believer in the work he did.  Walt, the president of the company, was humble and soft-spoken.

They talked of their workplace  and new tools like self-managed work teams, open book management, and continuous learning, along with the various methods of the quality movement they excelled in. I was more interested in their depth, passion, idealism, and human connection than in the tools they used to organize and express themselves — as interesting as those programs were.

Walt invited me to visit the plant. I talked with him and other plant leaders for two energized hours. Someone expressed concern for the sustainability of their innovative work. I told them they could think of their work as a beautiful garden that they nurtured with loving care. And I told them how a guy in a pickup truck could destroy their garden in a moment. Successful change efforts get destroyed every day in the corporate world by mindless and sometimes malicious executives.

The dominant culture of the corporation eventually pushed Walt out. Committed to ethics, authenticity, and employee engagement, Walt took over a plant in the middle of America. The plant owner had visited the Fargo plant and wanted Walt to transform his plant. As the plant turnaround took off, the owner complained to Walt that things felt out of control; he felt out of control.

Things felt out of control?

I think the owner wanted a feel-good quick fix: easy, fast, and comfortable. He apparently didn’t understand that fear, anxiety, and feeling inadequate and out of control go with organizational transformation and that deep change can’t happen without inner turmoil. Dealing with fear, loss, anxiety, and the loss of control evolves us as people and from the changes in us our organizations change. Under stress, people often try to return to an earlier state of comfort─a sure step towards decline. If people understood that their discomfort would pass if they embraced it, they would grow to a new level of understanding─a sure step towards sustainability.

I knew many executives over the years who said they supported employee involvement until the day came when they felt they were not in control─a sign that change was happening. Then their dark sides took over, and they sabotaged the employees who did what the executives had told them to do.

Our cosmos is not a vast machine that we control. She is a living system: chaotic, complex, and ever creative.

The belief that we are in control is an illusion.

Walt, a wise and resilient man, now leads a plant in the Eastern part of the country.