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?”

Zappos & Happy Employees

True happiness involves the full use of one’s powers and talents. John Gardner in Self-Renewal

Zappos.Com has been in the business news recently. See my recent posts: Zappos, Teams and Pizza Pie and Zappos and the Dark Side of Leadership. I’m interested in the organizational work at Zappos because it is similar to leadership and consulting work I did long ago. No, Zappos organizational work is not new—just repackaged and renamed. Zappos likes to call attention to itself so we can get a glimpse inside.

Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh wants employees to be happy. He even wrote a book about happiness.

Other company’s invest in employee happiness.

The media tends to focus on glitzy stuff like a kitchen for employees, flashy meetings, and Zappos even pays people to leave the company (few take the offer). I understand the quick-fix mentality of the business world and the “for public consumption” success stories so I look with skepticism on the stories.

Here’s one organizations story and what we learned about happiness.

I led a transformation at the Star Tribune newspaper (Minneapolis, Minneapolis) in the early 1990’s. This change effort began when employees invited the Teamsters union to organize a union in the Customer Service Center: a call center that answered a million calls a year. Employees were upset with a reorganization plan for the department that leaders commanded and controlled from the top-down without employee involvement.

Senior management, determined to not have a union in this department (there were 13 unions at the Star Tribune), fired five women managers–scapegoats for the higher-ups who created the conditions for the organizing effort. I was asked to take over the department and told to defeat the organizing effort AND save millions of dollars at the same time. I created the vision for a new business unit: The Customer Service Center would join the newspaper’s Circulation field operation, which had already moved to self-managed teams.

We wanted to make employees happy to defeat the Teamsters.

We soon realized that being in the happiness business led to frustration and disappointment. We found happiness an elusive idea.

I learned that it was better to create conditions where employees could come to work and feel valued, involved, and informed and have their talents and passions utilized in jobs big enough for them–if they wanted to. Profits would grow as involved, engaged and self-managed employees pursued noble goals and they would feel alive in the process.

Back in the early 1990’s, not many books were available to help us chart our course. We had to learn on our own with the help of a consultant by the name of Diane Olson who practiced as a clinical psychologist and organizational consultant. She guided our process, made sure our decisions were consistent with our vision and values and helped us understand how to lead in a new kind of organization. We learned to understand and incorporate the emotional side of change into our leadership. We were action oriented: we planned (but didn’t get bogged down), took action, reflected on what happened, and adapted as we went–just like all pioneers.

Such an organization–much more difficult to work in and lead than the mechanistic model of command and control– required trust, diversity, relationships, excellence and a tough-love leadership. I had as much or more to learn than anyone. I asked for regular feedback and received it. I apologized often for my slips back to the old ways of leading.

Here’s what employees did in the customer service center:

•I met with employees in groups of 10 and described to them what we had already done with self-management in the field operations. I invited them to join in the vision of employee engagement/involvement, value driven leadership, and the goals–in this order: to improve employee quality of work life, improve customer service, become faster moving and more creative, and increase revenue/cost savings. The employees choose to join us.
• I selected my staff and got the right people in place.
• Employee groups worked to design 15 self-managed teams, and a skill-based pay system. We invited the more skeptical and outspoken employees to become change process teams who insured that employees felt valued, involved and informed as we went through change. They reported to me and became engaged.
• We downsized the workforce by 35% and eliminated most supervisory positions (see my post Zappos, Teams & Pizza Pie).
• Employees created and implemented a process that required all employees to apply for the new positions (jobs big enough for them) and teams.
• We saved millions of dollars, customer service measures improved dramatically and we celebrated.

In the process, we freed up vast untapped energy, talent and potential in employees.

Were the employees happy? I think so. They accepted the difficulties of this change and rejected the Teamsters union.

I felt inspired and I left the company to return to graduate school at age 48 to complete a Ph.D. in Leadership and Organizational Change and to teach others about leading the transformation from a mechanistic world view to a living system world view and how a shift in organizational metaphors leads to dramatic changes in how we work, lead and follow.

I learned over the years that I am responsible for my happiness. I use the Sigmoid Curve as a model to review the stages of my life and help me to become aware of the need and time for continued evolution in my life hence more time of flow or feeling alive. Organizations can use this model to find the right time to change before decline sits in. Enterprises don’t renew themselves just once: they do it routinely from the peak of their success to a new vision of their organizational life—that is, if they want their enterprise to be sustainable.

I agree with John Gardner: happiness comes not from perks but as an outcome of the pursuit of noble goals.

Zappos, Teams & Pizza Pie

Zappos.Com, an online shoe and clothing shop based in Las Vegas, Nevada, offered employees three months’ severance pay to leave if they felt they could not get behind the company’s move to self-managed teams. The Washington Post reported that about 14% of Zappos 1,500 employees took the money and left.

The article reminded me of a similar story.

In the early 90’s, I was privileged to lead a business unit at the Star Tribune newspaper in Minneapolis, MN through a cultural transformation, which included the move to 15 self-managed teams in the Customer Service Center (we also added 15 self-managed teams in the Circulation department’s field operation spread throughout the newspapers Primary Market Area).

Our goals were to improve the quality of work life for employees, improve customer service, become faster moving and more creative and save millions of dollars. On top of that, we had to defeat a Teamster’s Union organizing effort in the Customer Service Center.

We wanted to downsize 100 positions without laying anyone off. We froze hiring in the Customer Service Center, the newspaper froze the hiring of outside candidates so our employees could apply for positions throughout the company and some employees accepted an early retirement incentive. And we offered an incentive similar to Zappos.Com for employees to leave if they wanted to do something else.

More people signed up for the incentive plan than we had anticipated. Nineteen employees who counted on the money had to be told they would not receive the severance pay. We scheduled a lunch and had pizza brought in.

The people were excited and filled with anticipation as they walked into the conference room. They thought they would get the severance pay. I welcomed everyone and invited them to dig into the pizza. I said I had good news and I had bad news. They looked at me expectantly. The good news was that we had achieved our downsizing goal through voluntary means. The bad news? They would have to stay.

The people were shocked, angry and disappointed. One married couple had booked a cruise. A man had bought a new car. They were critical of me. Some felt we were obligated to give them the money anyway. Some were critical of the process. I never thought I would be criticized for telling people they had a job.

We survived and went on to implement 15 self-managed teams, a skill-based pay system, reduced job descriptions from 25 to 12, eliminated most supervisors, reduced staff by 35%, improved customer service dramatically and saved millions of dollars. Employees told the Teamsters to go away.

The teams were engaged, empowered and morale was high.

I wrote the story of our transformation in my e-book, “Value-Driven Leadership: A Story of Personal & Organizational Transformation.”

The leadership experience changed me. I left the company after the transformation was finished. I completed a PhD in leadership and organizational change, wrote about life and leadership and consulted for 13 years before I retired.

What happened to the teams? Neglected by a mindless senior management, the teams faded away. A great opportunity was missed.

I  believe in the vision of organizations filled with engaged and involved employees who produce phenomenal business results. I’ve lived the experience.

I also believe that at this time in history we lack the number of leaders, at all levels, who have the talents, skills, maturity and experience to understand the difficulty of such transformation and lead such change.

My  prediction: Another transformation will prove unsustainable for lack of leadership.

Best wishes to Zappos.

I hope you prove me wrong.


P.S. to Zappos leaders: Knock off the jargon. It shows your lack of experience. It’s your job to learn the theory and explain it to employees in ways that they can understand. Realize that what you are doing is not new. Do your homework on self-management, employee involvement and past efforts to transform organizations.


Moral Courage

A man wrote me:

The seduction of the hiring process convinced me I had arrived in an organization that would embrace my methods. A place I thought my heart and talents could finally grow and flourish. I offered too much of myself unprotected and was “wacked” into reality.

I watched as the president of the company berated, humiliated, and then fired a good and stable sales representative. He did this in front of all the employees of the company. I sat and squirmed in my seat, metaphorically visualizing the owner shooting a hostage in the head to instill fear and ultimate control over the rest of us. The president noticed my discomfort. He asked, in a threatening manner, if I wanted to stay with the company. I felt compelled to quit on the spot, which I did. I managed to speak my mind a little as I left. I am now home, unemployed and recovering. (I wrote this man’s story in an essay entitled, Bearing Witness).

This story exemplifies moral courage: doing what you believe is right in the face of loss, criticism, rejection, or retaliation.

Over 18 years in many leadership and change agent roles at the Star Tribune newspaper and 13 years as a consultant to leaders of dysfunctional organizations, people tested my commitment to my values many times. The decision to stand up for my values was sometimes painful, and I wrestled with self-doubt at times. But I had vowed to live a value driven life, and I believed in value driven leadership. The values my parents had taught me were deepened and solidified as a young Secret Service agent where I experienced the might of ethics, excellence, and purpose and as a lost soul in a tough alcohol treatment center where I came to believe that my life depended on a value driven life.

I abhor rankism, dishonesty, disrespect, unfairness, mediocrity, and irresponsibility. I value respect, justice, fairness, integrity, excellence, and responsibility. I never thought of myself as having moral courage: I tried to be a good person and leader and fought through my anxiety and fears to do what I believed was right the best way I knew how.

Acting from our values often comes at a cost. I know well the fear of losing a job, and the loss of status and relationships along with humiliation and marginalization. It takes courage to stand alone in danger, to defy the unwritten rules, to illuminate the dark side, and to go against the cultural grain.

Why take the risks of moral courage at all? I do it to support values and to live an honest and authentic life and to do what I can to make the world  healthier and more ethical. And to stand up for those with less power and to go against the villains of our world. I do it so I can like myself. Aristotle said we become brave by doing brave acts. Think of moral courage as a muscle that grows stronger with use.

Robert Greenleaf, author of Servant Leadership, wrote that the problem in the world is not the evil, lazy, crazy, immature, disrespectful, and irresponsible people. They have been with us forever. The problem is the good people who have gone to sleep. We live surrounded by the need for moral courage to stand up to abuse, injustice, dishonesty, willful ignorance, the ism’s of the world, and the lack of compassion.

Moral courage may be the most needed courage in the 21st century and the mark of personal maturity and true leadership.





When I took over the business unit, the Teamsters were trying to organize a union in the Operations area. I met Bettye when I held the small group sessions in Operations. Our first impressions of one another were not positive. The Teamsters were organizing a union in her department, and my job was to defeat the union. I suspected her of being one of the leaders of the union effort.

The people who worked with Bettye were led poorly. The organizing effort was their cry for help. I began to understand Bettye. She was unhappy, and she worked in a demoralized department. Changes were being forced upon employees that made no sense to them, and the employees were not being listened to.

I got to know Bettye. She was a stately black woman with a loud voice and a great sense of humor. Bettye was down-to-earth, and she asked tough questions. She cared about people and was not intimidated by me. Soon my first impressions changed; I liked her.

After several months, the Teamsters gave up. Bettye’s department—Field Services—was redesigned, delayered, downsized, and the people operated as a self-managed team. The people in Bettye’s department, who led the organizing drive, were now leaders in our move to employee involvement and were involved in all aspects of these changes.

I asked Bettye to be part of a presentation on employee involvement to a small group of senior managers that would be held at a local hotel. When it was Bettye’s turn to speak, she stood up and said, “My name is Bettye, and my knees are shaking.” Five minutes later she was in total control of the room. I think this shift happened when she asked Bruce Gensmer what he did all day long. He was startled and began to laugh. Bettye voice grew stronger and her confidence grew. She began to have fun.

Over the next few months, Bettye and I developed a good relationship. One day I invited her to lunch and told her about some problem I had with my plan for a vacation. This vacation problem was the big issue in my life at the time. She listened with interest and then told me how she was raising four children without a father in south Minneapolis. She described how she tried to protect her children from gang influence and how she raised them to value work, education, and concern for others. I felt about two inches tall. How could I work one hundred and fifty feet from someone and have no idea what her life was like? How could I assume that she could relate to my vacation problem or that I could relate to her life? How could I be so oblivious to the challenges my co-workers faced?

Several months later at Christmas time, Bettye and I went to lunch again. She told me, in a matter-of-fact way, that she and her children had a monthly roundtable where they discussed issues and made decisions. The discussion that past month was whether to use their available money to either get their car fixed or to buy Christmas presents. The younger kids wanted Christmas presents. The older kids realized the importance of a car in the wintertime and reminded the younger ones of how cold winter was. The consensus was to get the car fixed.

Bettye described how the last time the car broke down she had traveled by bus to take the kids to the babysitter and to get to work. That reminded me of the story of a senior executive who rushed into a 9:00 a.m. meeting, out of breath, and exclaimed, “I’m sorry I’m late. The nanny was sick, and I had to get the kids ready for school.” He realized his audience, looked up and said, “I’m sorry, all of you have to do that every day.”

I was paid four or five times more than Bettye. David Cox was paid five or six times more than me. I sat about one hundred and fifty feet from Bettye. David Cox sat about one hundred and fifty feet above me. I wondered if his world was as far away from mine as mine was from Bettye’s. I wondered if he was as unaware of the differences between his life and mine as I was of Bettye’s and mine.

This is excerpted from my e-book, Value Driven Leadership: A Story of Personal and Organizational Transformation available at Amazon.com

The ROC’s

I led a transformational change process that changed my life forever. Fifteen teams were located in offices through the Primary Market Area of the Star Tribune newspaper. Each team had a secretary. The secretaries came to be called ROC’S: regional office coordinators.

We created role groups around specific elements of work. We hoped the groups would be the structure we could use to institutionalize learning around selected topics, develop strategies, and create action plans. For example, we had a group for employee safety, one for employee satisfaction, one for customer satisfaction, and one for the administration of team budgets. Each team member was on a role group. Role group membership rotated each six months. We challenged the groups to establish a learning objective in their subject area, and to then put something new in place from what they learned. Each role group did a presentation to management each six months to share their experience and accomplishments.

Some of the groups did better than others. Those that set their own objectives did better than those whose team leader set the objective. Some topics seemed easier to manage than others. For example, employees could get their hands around safety; customer satisfaction seemed harder for them to impact in a strategic way.

The first presentations to management were just okay. What else should we have expected? The groups had struggled with process issues, goal-setting, and how to carry out their plans. But they all put forth effort, and a start had been made.

The ROCs made up a role group. Their job was to work together on systems development and office procedures. I attended their first presentation. They were enthusiastic and wanted to know what they could do to continue learning and how they could increase their involvement. I encouraged them to read Peter Senge’s book, The Fifth Discipline. I offered to provide some consulting help as they tried to apply the concepts of the disciplines, especially systems thinking and personal mastery.

Six months later, we were invited to the next regional office coordinator role group presentation. When I arrived at the conference room, I noticed it was decorated. The walls and ceiling had stars pasted on them—references to the future and to visions.

At the conclusion of their presentation, I, along with everyone else, was speechless. They had scripted their presentation around vision, systems thinking, personal mastery, and creating your own future. They had transformed the concepts into reality. They described their goal-setting process, how they divided up the work, and the results they achieved. They talked of reengineering work processes they managed and the savings this generated (without the help of consultants). They were alive, energized, and enthusiastic. They took responsibility for their own learning. Their presentation was a moment of “what could be.”

One thing I learned during this transformation was that front-line folks were often awfully smart—sometimes smarter than vice presidents—and the fear of such smart people can lead to resistance to employee involvement by senior managers.

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

Don’t Hurt the People


Nearby lay the wounded General Sickel, who had refused to be taken from the field before his turn and had watched the poignant scene from the shadows, “General,” he said, smiling benignly on his commanding officer, “You have the soul of a lion and the heart of the woman.”  In the Hands of Providence: Joshua Chamberlain & The American Civil War by Alice Rains Trulock


The business unit I led had moved to self-managed work teams. The workers were represented by the Newspaper Guild at the Star Tribune newspaper in Minneapolis, MN. We had been meeting with the Guild for several weeks in an attempt to resolve several longstanding issues. This negotiation would allow us to move forward in our redesign and culture change efforts rather than waiting a year or two for the contract to expire.

Discussions were not going well. The union that represented the Circulation district managers also represented the Newsroom reporters, and they had an adversarial relationship with their management. Through bargaining the publisher hoped to gain commitment from the reporters for a newsroom reorganization, and the reporters were trying to make up for a wage freeze.

We believed we could come to an agreement with the district managers. We wanted to break away from the newsroom and negotiate our own contract. We decided to try. The vice-president of Labor Relations and I would meet with the head of the union and Dave, the union leader from our business unit. We hoped to reach an agreement with the union, and then try to get the larger union membership to approve those agreements.

We met and talked; the strategy might work. The executive secretary of The Newspaper Guild and the vice-president of Labor Relations sent Dave and me away to work out the details.

Dave was a rotund man in his late forties. There is nothing phony about him; what you saw is what you got. Slow to anger, when upset his face turned beet red, and he tells you what he thinks in no uncertain terms. Dave gives his all for the people he represented. The two of us fought over the years and had developed a mutual respect. I liked Dave.

We went to my office. We reviewed the components of a settlement, which would include the unions support in a job redesign process, which could change the job of the district manager.

Dave was very concerned about this possibility. He looked at me, and with love for his people in his voice and tears in his eyes said, “Please don’t hurt the people. Don’t destroy the work they do.” My heart went out to him. To me, his deep emotion and concern for his people were the essence of leadership. Dave was getting the best deal he could for those he represented and plead with me to be just.

The negotiations fell apart eventually, but the love in this leader’s heart for the people he represented will stay with me for a long time. In the years ahead, I would meet many union leaders in different industries. I never met one who didn’t care deeply for the people they represented. I wish I could say the same about the executives from top to bottom who I would meet.

I was told that when I left the company someone asked Dave to access my time as leader. “Well,” he said, “The job is better when he left than when he came.”

A few years later, the “job” and this union group would be destroyed.

Excerpted from my e-book, Value Drive Leadership: A Story of Personal and Organizational Transformation available at Amazon.com

Team 7

When we created our teams in the Star Tribune’s Circulation department field organization, we tailored our efforts to fit the union environment, and the culture of the organization. We reduced the number of supervisors and moved those who remained to a centralized office where they worked as a team. We changed all incentive plans to be team-based instead of individual and competitive. We created team roles. We began to shift work from the top of the organization down through the layers of management and staff and empowered district managers to make decisions about their work. Teams established work schedules. Teams assumed some budget management authority.

District Managers felt a great deal of ownership for the districts they alone were responsible for. They felt afraid to give up their districts and work solely as a team responsible for the larger area. We decided not to force this change—it would not work if we mandated the shift. The union would fight us, and the people would be angry and resistant. To be a true team, we felt we had to eliminate the individual districts that set up artificial competition for resources. Eliminating districts also seemed to be the most efficient way to utilize the time and talents of the staff. We let teams know that we would like a team to experiment and give up district boundaries. Team Seven came forward.

A couple of months later, the team leader, May Worker, came to me with a plan she and the team had devised to eliminate district boundaries. I rejected the plan and sent May back to change it. The plan did not fit my concept of how the work should be organized.

A few months later, I asked Steve Marine—May’s boss—how the plan was coming. He said fine. I told him to be sure that the team and May followed my instructions. I did not know that Steve had met with the team and heard their presentation on how they wanted to do the redesign. Their plan was different than what I had directed. They knew that I expected my instructions to be followed and would be angry that they weren’t; Steve was afraid to tell me. I was busy, and a couple of months passed.

One day, I asked Steve what was going on. He told me the truth. I got angry. I chewed him out—along with May Worker and Diane Olson. I told Steve to get a meeting scheduled with Team Seven. I would be the bad guy and tell them that they could not do the redesign the way they wanted.

We met at Team Seven’s office. All of the team leaders and union leaders were there. We listened to Team Seven for one and a half hours. They had written a mission/vision statement for the team. They explained their job redesign and how it would work. The team figured out how they would handle workload issues. They talked about how the redesign would affect the people who worked for them and how issues would be handled. Team 7 talked about their weekly team meeting and how they handled conflict.

One team member courageously told a story of how the team was upset with him and confronted him. The team members went to May for advice on how to talk to him. May volunteered to talk to the man for them. They said no, they wanted to handle the situation. They just wanted May’s advice on how to confront their teammate. The man spoke of what he learned from this experience.

I asked many questions and the team had good answers for all of them. Their pride in their work was evident in their voices. Their commitment was powerful. We were moved by what we saw and heard.

I said, “I have to eat some crow. I told you that you had this wrong. You defied me. That took courage. You did what you believed in and you were right.” I felt proud of the team, May, and Steve. I learned much that day about listening to those closest to the work.

Excerpted from my e-book: Value Driven Leadership: A Story of Personal & Organizational Transformation available at Amazon.com

For Want of Imagination

In early 1992, I  recommended that the Star Tribune newspaper (Minneapolis, MN)  investigate using our distribution system (warehouses, computer system, trucks, knowledge, and experience) to deliver items that would be purchased on the Internet and delivered to purchaser’s doors. I imagined that we could become a regional distribution company. I was told that what I proposed was not “our business.”

In 1995, Jeff Bezos began Amazon.com. He delivered the first packages to the post office himself and had trouble raising $1 million. Since then, Amazon.com has reinvented itself over and over again and today has 225 million customers worldwide. Their mission is: “To sell everything to everyone.”

Since 1995, the newspaper industry failed to renew itself and crashed and burned because of the Internet.

In 2009, the Star Tribune filed for bankruptcy.

Within five years, Amazon plans to deliver products to customer’s doors within 30 minutes via drones.  Drones may or may not materialize. What is important is that Amazon continues to imagine, experiment, and get new ideas from new things.

The newspaper industry doesn’t have a vision for a sustainable future.

Amazon had what the newspaper industry lacked: imagination.

Jeff Bezos recently purchased the Washington Post.

For more about my career at the Star Tribune and the newspaper industry see my book: “Value Driven Leadership: A Story of Personal and Organizational Transformation.”

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.