Matt Jung: Finding a Better Way | Part 3: Culture Guest Blog Series

Matt Jung: Finding a Better Way | Part 3: Culture Guest Blog Series

I was introduced to Comfort Research before I ever met Matt Jung. The first time was when I moved to Holland more than 20 years ago and heard about these poof chairs being made by some Hope College students. The next time was through their support of a charity event that I was part of. I experienced their commitment to community.

The most recent connection was when I learned that a human resource leader whom I had a lot of respect for joined their team. I believe that great companies attract great people, so I knew they had something special going on at Comfort Research. More recently, Matt stood out to me because of his tireless efforts to talk about culture and leadership through his frequent blog and LinkedIn posts. Describing Matt with the normal business titles would not do his passion justice, which is why you will hear words like “culture-catalyst” and “disrupter” used to describe his role. I will let Matt tell you the rest of the story.

Thank you, Matt, for your willingness to share your wisdom.


My name is Matt Jung, and I am an entrepreneur, business owner, leader, culture-catalyst, disrupter, and industry-leading producer of the Big Joe Brand, the coolest consumer products in the universe.  Founded in 1996 with my college roommate Chip George, our company — Comfort Research — is a lifestyle, product design, engineering, and manufacturing company based in the heart of West Michigan. We have evolved from selling foam beanbags (the patented Ahhsome Fuf Chairs) out of our college dorms to selling disruptive products through the likes of Wal-Mart, Meijer, Amazon, and Costco.

I am a big believer that culture and strategy go hand and hand, and we live that mantra at Big Joe. We have worked tirelessly to recognize, reward, and repeat those that are living Big Joe values. Our Core Business Values include:

  1. Finding a Better Way – this is not a ‘suggestion box’ company!
  2. Expect the Best – of yourself, of your peers, our vendors, and our customers.
  3. Do the Right Thing – not just at work, but also in life.

We believe that simple messages and thoughtful products create strategic alignment. In order to achieve these things you must rethink everything. And that is what we do on a daily basis. Through the principles above, we do our best to lead the company and the 200+ amazing Ambassadors that make up our team. All of our hard work is paying off, as Forbes added us to the Forbes’ definitive list of the nation’s best small companies for 2018. Forbes highlights Comfort Research as a philanthropic company that donates 10 percent of our profits to local charities.

Q: Tell us a little about the beginning. When did you start your business? Why did you decide to start it? What vision or goals did you have for your business in the beginning?

I started the business in 1996 with my good friend and current business partner Chip George. We were attending Hope College when we came up with this concept for a huge foam-filled beanbag we called the “FUF Chair.”

We thought this beanbag thing was pretty cool, and everyone around us had a similar reaction. All of our classmates wanted one, and we’d have tons of kids crashing in our room and hanging out. It really opened our eyes, and we knew then we were on to something. We were obviously far from a serious business at the time, but the FUF Chair was a pretty good start.

I came from a family filled with an entrepreneurial history. I was always writing down business ideas from a young age. Some were decent, but most of them were pretty bad. With the creation of the FUF Chair, Chip and I saw an opportunity to start something big while we still had nothing to lose… and it didn’t hurt that we thought it was awesome and the most comfortable chair we had ever lounged in.

Together, we had always wanted to have a thriving business that was willing to do things just a little differently. And we wanted it to be big… like one billion dollars big. We thought, since we “obviously” had this cool product, it would be very easy to grow a huge business. Who wouldn’t want a FUF Chair? But, like most college kids, we had a lot to learn. It was much harder than we ever could have imagined, and we eventually adopted the “Rule of Three”: Everything took 3X as long, was 3X harder to do, and took 3X the amount of money than we thought it would. In spite of all this, we just really wanted to make cool things and lounge.

Now, more than 22 years after the first iteration of our chairs, we‘ve gotten pretty good at pushing the boundaries of what is possible, all the while building the Big Joe brand. In doing so, we focused on:

  • creating a great workplace where Ambassadors can thrive by building an infectious culture of passionate and empowered people
  • minimizing waste to lessen manufacturing’s impact on the world by being lean and green
  • investing 10% of company profits back into local and global communities
  • engineering awesomeness from the product core to the factory floor
  • sneaking in bonus design elements that surprise and delight
  • designing affordable greatness

We have a unique approach toward strategic planning. Instead of vision statements and mission statements, we have a Why/How/What statement:

Why do we exist? Comfort for All.
How are we doing that? Delivering Unexpected Awesomeness.
What are we doing? Revolutionizing Affordable Branded Consumer Products.

Q:  When did the culture of your business become a focus for you? What were some of the first things you remember doing to start focusing on culture?

We were pretty lucky to be blessed with so many helping hands, guides, and mentors along our journey.  It seemed like whenever we needed help, someone (anyone) was willing to pitch in and help us take the next step. After three years of running our business, we were fortunate to partner up with George and Jason Julius. George had had tremendous experiences at his previous company, where culture played an important part of its growth story. We had always talked about culture together, but we weren’t actively engaged in sculpting an awesome one.  As we grew our business, we decided to change that. Very early on, we decided that we wouldn’t just make great products, but we would work hard to craft a great place to work. We were hiring these awesome people to lead different parts of our business. So our roles changed from being hands-on co-founders to having to figure out how to lead without doing the everyday stuff.  I realized that if we wanted the business to be a billion-dollar enterprise, then I had to transform as well. So I shifted my daily routine to leading through strategic planning and alignment, focusing on I&D (Innovation and Internal/External Disruption), and, of course, building an environment that amazing people would want to be a part of. That is when things really shifted for us.

It was through George’s guidance that we really got serious about focusing on culture. But even then, there wasn’t exactly a handbook on culture that you could read and quickly follow. It was more of a pie-in-the-sky idea.  But, I decided that I would find a solution, and eventually started a “culture system,” because good systems are often the foundation of great business. If you can implement a system to run a business, you can surely do it in a way that creates a kick-ass culture.

I started by creating the FAB award. This award recognized someone in our business who implemented our core value of Finding a Better Way. The idea behind the FAB award was, we wanted our Ambassadors living the culture each day to be part of suggesting and introducing the idea of Finding a Better Way to do EVERYTHING.  We didn’t want to be a suggestion-box company where someone offered their written feedback and then just walked away relying on management to implement their “great idea.” NO chance!

We wanted our team to be part of making it work or finding out that it didn’t work, but learning from the experience. We really don’t care either way, so long as our team is an active participant in the process. We started by creating a form where Ambassadors make a suggestion on Finding a Better Way to do something.  We’d put the idea in front of a panel on a quarterly basis. We’d then award $2,500 to the participant with the idea receiving the most votes. But, that wasn’t enough. We then added an annual “FAB Idea” award, and shelled out $10,000 to the best company-wide idea. We announce the winner at a monthly all-company meeting, and share the idea with every employee so our entire team could see a real-life example of how just one team member was working to improve and shape our culture by actually living it.

We present the $2,500 or $10,000 payment in the form of an oversized check, take pictures, and then post the picture and a description of the idea on the “Wall of FAB” for everyone to continue to see the person who represents our core value of Finding a Better Way. Over time, we rolled that out to our other core values and added more awards, like celebrating the core concept of Expect the Best with the Awesome Award, a peer-to-peer award where one Ambassador brings up another in front of the entire company and shares why this person Expects the Best and is generally awesome. They receive a one-week paid vacation, and their picture — along with why they are awesome — on the Wall of Awesome.

We do the same with our core value of Do the Right Thing. The DiRT Award goes to someone who is doing the right thing at work and in life. Ambassadors nominate participants who are really walking the walk. The winner gets $1,500. To dive even deeper, we now have a rhythm where, each month, we feature one of our core values and use real life examples of people living it. With only three fundamental but crucial core values, we feature each core value once per quarter. We are consistent in this practice, and our people have an opportunity to be recognized on a monthly basis for living the culture and our values. You just cannot escape all the fun.

Q: Can you identify some key successes and a failure or two in your journey of establishing a great culture in your business?

Using our Core Value Awards as an example, we have implemented a system focused on Recognize, Reward, and Repeat. This is our biggest key to success in driving the culture for which we strive. It almost becomes second nature, and part of a routine. There are numerous other things we do to reinforce our culture, including specific messaging on Ambassadors’ uniforms in the plant, messaging on walls and handouts, hiring for culture and other thoughtful practices that can really plant the seeds of a positive environment.

We aren’t perfect, and have made plenty of mistakes along the way. But we learn from our challenges, and we’ve found that we also needed local awards so that people from each of our three locations are winning and no one ever feels left out. We also do a listening tour where we ask 12 participants to tell us what we should stop, start, and keep doing. One mistake we made during the first listening tours was to get defensive when someone was critical. We have learned over time that the most important thing was that we were listening to them, regardless of how we felt about their comments. We have now changed our response to meet criticism with a simple “thank you.” It is powerful when someone knows that you are listening, even if it is just for them to unload or complain about something that has been bothering them.

Q: How would I see your culture in action if I walked through your business today?

We work very hard to have signage and messaging throughout the plant reinforcing our culture, strategic plan (the actual plan is posted on one page throughout all of our facilities), and the walls celebrating our awesome Ambassadors living our culture. But the real, obvious proof of culture in action is just how each of our Ambassadors interacts with one another and care for their specific responsibility or job description within the business. Everyone takes pride in what they do, and it shows by how they do their job and interact with their colleagues. You’ll notice smiles, mutual respect, and a common alignment towards exceeding our goals. You don’t just see it; you really feel it.

Q: As a leader of a growing and dynamic business, how do you personally monitor the health of the culture?

We use NPS (Net Promoter Scores) to measure our culture and find out if we are moving in the right direction. We ask everyone to rate us on a scale of 1 to 10 with regard to how likely they are to recommend Comfort Research as a place to work for friends and family. We then track that score over time. If we are seeing lower than normal scoring, we start to dive deeper and work to find out how we can improve the environment to increase the score. We aren’t satisfied with an average culture. We want the best.

Simultaneously, we do a Start, Stop, Keep survey so we can gauge why things are moving in one direction or the other. As one could imagine, we have seen both. Over the long term, we have seen trends rise and fall, so we adjust accordingly, based on the feedback we receive from those surveys. This constant measurement affords us some pretty helpful insight into ebb and flow with regard to the challenges and obstacles any business could face. In the end, we just aren’t happy with anything below cultural excellence. Over time, we have learned that a happy and positive culture builds a great business model that can face the rigors of everyday business. We are built not just to survive, but to prosper.

Q: What final wisdom or advice would you share with a leader that wants to create healthier culture in their own business?

Keep your core values simple, and interject them into the foundation of your business. Have only three to five core values, and make them personal to you. If you believe them and live them every day in everything you do, your team will respond.  No doubt, it will show if you are half-assed in your core values. Choose memorable principles that carry through your business. Don’t over-complicate them, because they will have the opposite impact on your development. Your organization doesn’t need to be a place for everyone, but it should be an amazing place to work for a select few who fit within your culture. Once you find those people, snatch them up and do all you can to keep them.

Systematize your culture. Create processes and rhythms around recognizing, rewarding, and repeating your core values. It has to be something that is part of the very heartbeat of your business, and not just fly-by-night ideas you talk about every now and again. Honor those who are living it publicly and openly. Don’t hide great ideas. Rather, make them part of your daily rituals. Be consistent and you will be able to drive and align your organization around your core values.

Most importantly, don’t settle for anything less than excellent culture. You can achieve it. Sure, it takes time. And energy. And a bunch of bullshit you might not particularly enjoy. But, as you work hard each and every day to align your business with your core values, you will start to see a monumental shift not just in the way you do business, but in the way people feel while doing business. Whether you’re manufacturing beanbags, running a restaurant, building a tech company or even coaching a sports team, it is your culture that acts as the glue that holds it all together. Don’t forget that when the times get tough. And when they get easy — which they will with a great culture — celebrate the people who helped forge the path.


Thanks, Matt, for sharing your journey from startup to successful company and how culture played such a huge role in making that happen.

If you want to learn more about Comfort Research, I recommend:

  • Signing up for a culture tour
  • Reading Matt’s blog (Mold Your Own) = this has the appropriate tagline of “inspired strategies and insights for anyone working to build an employee culture that endures”
  • Considering Matt when you next need an engaging speaker = take a look at YouTube for a sample of the energy, excitement, and easily implementable steps that Matt brings when he speaks

The next time you are visiting one of the retailers he mentions, make sure you take a seat in one of their products. You are guaranteed to stay a while! Thanks, Matt, for sharing.

Mandi Brower: Be Kind | Part 2: Culture Guest Blog Series

Mandi Brower: Be Kind | Part 2: Culture Guest Blog Series

The Quality Car Wash story was first revealed to me at a local chamber event when the business received a small business award. I have since become a frequent guest at one of their locations, and after hearing Mandi talk about their culture, I have seen firsthand how it translates to their team members. Their car wash team is always warm and kind.

When it came time to think of leaders to share their wisdom, I thought of Mandi. She graciously agreed, and I am excited to share her thoughts with you.

Mandi has also just been awarded Small Business Person of the Year for 2018 by the Michigan West Coast Chamber of Commerce. In accepting her award, Mandi brought up all the people from her team to share a little about the company and help everyone get to know the organization from some different perspectives. I would like to offer my warmest congratulations to Mandi and everyone at Quality Car Wash for this well-deserved recognition.


Q: Tell us a little about the beginning. When did you start your business? Why did you decide to start it? What vision or goals did you have for your business in the beginning?

We are a third-generation business that was started by my grandfather and great uncle in 1969. They were entrepreneurs who already ran a bowling alley and saw the need in the community for a car wash. Innovation is a big part of what we pride ourselves on, and it really started at the beginning.

Before building their car wash, Grandpa watched the process at other businesses. In those days, a car wash was just a pull-in stall that you had to back out of when you were done. He realized how inconvenient it was for the customer, so when they built their first location, he removed the end wall and put in a garage door to create a drive-thru car wash. Even then, he was focused on the customer experience. My father joined the business and really became the innovator around the technology we use in our car washes. When you drive through, you see round arches. These were my father’s innovations, and you can find his innovations at car washes globally. Both my grandfather and father are still involved in the business.

From the beginning, my grandpa used a pretty simple phrase to guide everyone: “Be kind.” It wasn’t a fancy vision or mission statement, but it started everyone being focused on treating people the right way, and that continues today. The other key concepts that we have formalized over the years are warm, friendly service and an exceptional guest experience. Personally, I have grown to see the business as my personal-mission field, and see our business as a tangible way I can serve others.

Q:  When did the culture of your business become a focus for you? What were some of the first things you remember doing to start focusing on culture?

From the day our grandpa started talking about “Be kind,” it has been the heart of our business. In the years since the business started, we have added definition around our culture. One of the transforming events for us was the purchase of two new locations in 2012. At the time, I had just joined the company and we only had three locations. We were suddenly faced with having to integrate new teams into our culture and hire new people into locations that were not as close to our original locations. This helped focus our energy into defining our culture and being very intentional about building it at all our locations.

This resulted in us formalizing our hiring process, bringing all of the teams together for Rally Nights twice a year, creating a vision statement, and defining our values. Our vision is: “Enriching Life, Adding Value, and Serving Communities.” Our core values are centered around the acronym, “WE OWN IT!”

  • Wow Factor
  • Exceptional Guest Experience
  • Outstanding Team Work
  • Winning Attitudes
  • Never-Ending Pursuit of Excellence
  • Immediate Call to Action
  • Training

Q: Would you share three successes and one failure in your journey of establishing a great culture in your business?

The first success we have had is to integrate our culture into the hiring process so that we are bringing on new team members who are the right people for our organization. We implemented a four-step interview process that starts with a phone call, moves into a first interview and tour of one of our locations, a personality profile, and a final interview to ensure that the future team member and management both see the match. All new hires also go through an onboarding process where our culture is a big focus. These steps have really transformed our ability to hire the right people and get them making positive contributions to our culture from their first day on the job.

The second success is focusing on doing all the steps in our hiring process, especially when time-pressure to hire someone creates situations where people want to skip steps. The talent shortage we are operating in has created that pressure, and I really watch for this and remind our leaders that we can do steps quickly and efficiently if needed, but skipping them is not an option. That discipline is hard to maintain, but it has really helped us in continuing to get the right people, even in this labor market.

The third success is Rally, which is an all-company event that happens twice a year. We hold one in the summer where we have had an Olympics competition, speakers, team-building and talent shows. We always share the vision and have a meal together. Our other traditional Rally event is held at Christmas.  We are a much bigger company now, and these events help us feel smaller because team members get to know each other and meet people from other facilities. The other benefit is the training we can provide each of our team members. We focus on topics that they can use at work and at home. I love the stories we get back from them on how things they learned at work have impacted their life outside of work.

The one failure was a realization that if you went out into our business today, I don’t think all of our team members know what the exact values are behind “We Own It.” The lesson we have learned is that it’s easy to get bored after repeating the same information. We got to a point where we assumed everyone knew it. Since that realization, we have gone back to do a better job of making our core values visual everywhere and reviewing them often with our team members.

Q: How would I see your culture in action if I walked through your business today?

When you walk into any of our facilities I would expect you to be welcomed and feel a warmth in our business. You should also meet team members who are helpful and appreciative.

Q: As a leader of a growing and dynamic business, how do you personally monitor the health of the culture?

On an ongoing basis, we meet with 10-person focus groups each summer to get their input on a variety of topics like marketing, our fundraising program, and operations. It’s a great way to help them inform us on ideas that could help us improve as a business, and we get time to just listen to our team members. This has proven to be both helpful and energizing for our leadership team.

We also do quarterly reviews for everyone in which each team member must answer three questions. We roll the answers up across the organization and review them as a leadership team. This helps us to keep a pulse on the business, because we know everyone is getting feedback from their manager quarterly, and we get to pause to see what messages our teams are sending us through the questions we ask.

Another thing I personally watch is which teams are getting volunteers for their extra projects. We offer extra hours for team members to come in outside of their scheduled shift and do things like replace carpet in a dining area, painting, and other projects that help us keep our facilities in great shape. Volunteering to fill an extra shift for a special project is a great measure of engagement. I can look at the lists of people who sign up (or don’t) and tell you which facilities might have a culture issue that needs to be addressed.

I also do a lot of management by walking around. I make time to be in every operation biweekly and use that time to talk to people and just observe team members and interactions with our guests. One thing I look for is body language, another good indicator of engagement. I also listen to responses to guests, and expect to hear warmth and kindness. It’s a great time for me to personally catch people doing something right, and to model and remind people of the behaviors we expect that create a great guest experience.

This past summer, we also hired an intern to have conversations with more than half of our people around the health of our culture and to get input on what we could do to make Quality a better place to work. The survey provided us with valuable feedback on what was working and a few things that we needed to change.

Q: What final wisdom or advice would you share with a leader that wants to create healthier culture in their own business? Are there any people you follow who have been a source of inspiration or guidance?

Creating a great culture takes grit. You have to commit to repeating yourself often and leading by example. In the journey, it’s also important to recognize your team for every positive step they make in living it out each day with their teammates and our guests.

We believe in training our leaders. In 2018, we sent 41 people to watch the Global Leadership Summit from Willow Creek Association. We also frequently use the learning events through our local chamber (Michigan West Coast Chamber of Commerce) and share books from Zig Ziglar and John Maxwell.


Thank you, Mandi, for sharing your wisdom and experience around culture and how to intentionally sustain and grow it as a business opens multiple locations.

If you live in West Michigan and want to learn more about the people at Quality Car Wash, visit one of their locations. One of the innovations at a couple of the newer locations is a conveyor for your car as you go through the car wash. It’s very cool! I also want to put in the plug that we are close to the holidays and car wash coupons make great gifts. 😊

Jeff Disher: Make a Positive Difference | Part 1: Culture Guest Blog Series

Jeff Disher: Make a Positive Difference | Part 1: Culture Guest Blog Series

Jeff Disher pictureI have known of Jeff for many years. We worked at the same organization earlier in our careers. Around the time that Jeff was starting DISHER, I remember hearing that he left to start his own company and thinking, “That guy has some courage; I hope it works out.” I didn’t yet get being an entrepreneur at that point in my life.

Fast forward to 2016: I was flipping through Fortune magazine and saw DISHER recognized as one of the top-5 small company workplaces. Things have worked out for Jeff and the DISHER team, and in getting to know them over the past three years I have always been impressed with how what they believe just oozes out of them. They are a powerful and positive force in my community with their service mindset and their commitment to helping organizations grow. I will let Jeff take it from here to share a little more about his story and his wisdom around building a great culture.Disher logo


Q: Tell us a little about the beginning. When did you start your business? Why did you decide to start it? What vision or goals did you have for your business in the beginning?

DISHER opened its doors officially on January 10, 2000. Y2K had just happened a week and a half earlier. The world didn’t end, so I figured it was a good time to start a business. Kidding aside, it was a good time to start the business I was in, given the predicted shortage of technical talent over the next couple decades. I just didn’t know it at the time.

My reasons for starting DISHER were two-fold. First, I was unhappy with the engineering firms I was hiring when I was an engineering manager at Prince Corp. I felt that I, as the customer, wasn’t being supported in the best way by these firms. I started thinking of what I would do differently if I was in their shoes to make me happy as a customer. Not realizing it at the time, I was formulating my business model for DISHER at that moment.

Second, I know that people find out what they are made of when they are pushed to the extremes of life. Whether our backs are against the wall, struggling to survive, or we’re experiencing extreme success, both will show us the real picture of what (and who) is inside us. I wanted to find out who I am at the core, and starting a business from scratch with no safety net was the way I was going to find out. If it failed, I wouldn’t have liked it, but I would have learned a ton about myself along the way. If it succeeded, I also would’ve learned a ton about myself. From that perspective, either way I couldn’t lose. So, after much prayer and planning, along with the full blessing of my wife Kathy, I took the risk.

My goal for the first year was to survive, plain and simple. We had two survival goals the first couple years:

  1. Say ‘yes’ to as much work as we could do, and
  2. Do all our work with excellence, because that would lead to more work

Only after surviving the first year did I scratch out on a piece of paper (which I still have) a vision for the company. Today, 18 years later, we have accomplished — or, at least, tried to accomplish — every part of that vision, and more.

Q:  When did the culture of your business become a focus for you? What were some of the first things you remember doing to start focusing on culture?

I wrote our mission statement, “Make a Positive Difference,” a few months before our business opened its doors. I had learned earlier in my career how important and powerful a clear and simple mission can be to any organization. I wanted that for DISHER. I also had a handful of early values written out that helped guide the few of us who were on the team. Having our mission and initial values written out from the beginning gave us all a standard by which we held ourselves accountable, no matter how small we were. I remember having lots of discussion with our team about how to conduct ourselves, how to live our mission out in all kinds of situations and why it all matters, but our culture didn’t start to find its identity and strength until years later.

Much like the natural laws of the farm, cultivating a strong culture doesn’t happen overnight. It has to germinate and grow. All along, each person needs to water, weed and fertilize it to the best of their ability. The moment you stop nurturing it, it begins to die. We work hard on building and sustaining our culture at DISHER.

We’ve learned so much from other companies and we’re sharing back by providing culture tours for any organization interested. Building a strong culture takes hard work and intentionality. There are no shortcuts, but the rewards make it all worthwhile.

Q: What are three successes and one failure in your journey of establishing a great culture in your business?

The first success we had was keeping our mission simple, clear and in front of us every day. Without this, our culture would be blind and without purpose as it tries to find its way. The second success was establishing a clear set of 12 value phrases that we call “Culture Characteristics,” and covering a different one each month throughout the year with our entire team. This gives us a chance to tell stories and highlight what each one means to us. The third success has been our semiannual off-sites with our entire team. These are day-long events that build comradery through discussions around company strategy, improvement, updates, learning and stewardship.

One failure we had early on was not being careful enough to hire for a cultural fit. We would bring people in first because of the talent and skills they had. We ended up with some people who would create dissension within our team due to their attitude and how they treated others. This hurt our culture more than it helped our business. Now we’re very careful to interview candidates first for a cultural match. This has made an incredible difference.

Q: How would I see your culture in action if I walked through your business today?

We have a wall in our lobby dedicated to our mission, and another wall with our culture characteristics displayed so everyone can see them. You would see a ripple chart showing how each person has made a difference in our business. You would hear how we encourage each other and hold ourselves accountable in our weekly team meetings. You would see emails sharing which nonprofits in the area need help and who is coordinating support for them. And, occasionally on a Friday afternoon, if we’ve had a long week, you might get pelted with Nerf bullets as an act of love from a neighboring teammate.

Q: As a leader of a growing and dynamic business, how do you personally monitor the health of the culture?

Staying connected with and being available for all team members allows me to hear where our team is at, and what trends are happening that we need to respond to. We have various opportunities built in throughout the year for all these interactions to take place. I also have an open office with no door, and I let everyone know that they are welcome to stop in if they have a question or something to share with me. I see these not as distractions, but as a part of my role and a chance to connect and help. If I need protected time, I find a conference room or coffee shop.

I’ve also found that the more authentic and vulnerable I am with people, the more they are the same with me. Office politics and gossiping are pet peeves of mine. Being real with people, and encouraging the same from others, is the best way I know how to avoid those cultural-health busters.

Q: What final wisdom or advice would you share with a leader that wants to create healthier culture in their own business?

My advice is to know and communicate clearly the purpose (mission) of your company to your entire team. Make it simple enough for each person to immediately understand and personal enough so that each person can see how they connect to it through the work they do. Once you have that, talk about it often — more than you think is needed; every day, if possible — and encourage others to talk about it, as well. Then, be very intentional in living it out for others to see that you are serious about it and adamant that everyone lives it out in their own way, as well.

Culture is not a program or an initiative that is separate from our daily work. Culture is the way we work.


Thank you, Jeff, for sharing your wisdom and experience around your journey building a powerful culture at DISHER.

If you want to learn more about the people at DISHER and how they work, you can: 

Exit Interviews – 1 Question Leaders Should Ask

Exit Interviews – 1 Question Leaders Should Ask

I make it a point to partner with leaders I respect and admire. It’s important to be around people that push you to become a better version of yourself.

In a recent Leaderwork program session I attended, we covered the topic of ‘Develop People’ which follows a defined process to select, recruit, onboard, and develop your people. In the conversation about exit interviews, a seasoned CEO shared the one question he wants to ask everyone who leaves his organization:

When did you first think about leaving?

He went on to explain why: that this question takes people back to the moment when they made the decision and therefore helps him understand the things that need to change in order to manage these moments that happen for everyone. It is the gap between this moment and the day they told people they were leaving that needs to be examined.

Great conversations start with a question, and seasoned people-centered leaders have lots of great ones that should be part of your organizational scripts.

Listen . . . Lead. Repeat often!

Does Your People Process Include a Stay Interview?

Does Your People Process Include a Stay Interview?

We ask people questions when they leave, it is called an exit interview.

We ask people questions when they get hired, it is called onboarding.

Do you ask people questions each year designed to explore how they feel about their work and to ensure proactive action is happening to make their job more desirable?

If you don’t, you should. This is called a stay interview.

Stay interviews can be a crucial part of your people process, because it focuses on your best people and it allows leaders from other parts of the organization to get to know them and help identify potential changes that would make them more engaged and your business more successful. Does that sound like a win/win?

Recently Ken Savage, who has accountability for people at Cascade Die Casting Group, shared the questions he implemented as part of their stay interview process. It is targeted at their most valuable people, and it is a way for him to go out into the business to listen.

  1. What about your job do you like the most?
  2. What about your job frustrates you the most?
  3. Do you feel like you get recognition for your performance?
  4. Where are you being under-utilized?
  5. What about your job would you change?
  6. Could anything tempt you to leave this organization?

The caveat Ken shared is the questions are not exact, but a synthesis of a conversation that would include natural follow-up questions based on responses. If you would like to learn more about how Cascade Die Casting Group uses the stay interview, let me know and I will connect you with Ken. He has graciously agreed to talk individually with people wanting to know more.

Additional Note: Pure EOS® Moment

The process component of the EOS model requires you to name the handful of core processes in your organization, define them, and then implement them to the point they are followed by all (FBA). Refer to the following pages in your leadership team manual:

  • The 3-Step Process Documenter™ – page 30
  • Followed By All (FBA) Checklist™ – page 31
  • The H/R Process – page 32

A great process design quote I heard to support the 80/20 rule is to design your processes for your best people. That will be enough for them to get it done well, and if they don’t get it they are probably in the wrong seat.

3 Questions to Test for Trust

3 Questions to Test for Trust

I believe that great conversations start with a question. One of the questions I ask all leadership teams during our EOS® annual planning is:

What role do you want in this organization in 3 years?

I can see the discomfort right away, and I let it stay there. This is part of the process of building transparency within the leadership team about how they want to contribute in the future.

I can vividly remember the faces of one leadership team as they shared their answers. It was clear they were being at least 80% honest because they all mentioned different roles than they were in today, but clearly aligned with what they were interested in doing. They smiled as soon as the words came out of their mouths, as if some sort of internal pressure had been released.

People-centered leaders work hard at finding powerful questions to ask that will reveal truth and test for trust. These leaders mine for feedback and view this feedback as an action item for themselves – and a measure of how much their team trusts them. Here are three powerful, people-centered questions:

  1. How have I made your job harder in the last 30 days?
  2. What role would you like to be doing in 3 years?
  3. What questions do you have for me?

People stay safe and vague when they are afraid. The first question focuses on telling you which feeling is winning – fear or trust.

Maturity and safety allows people to be honest for the second question. One answer I love is the same role. My follow-up question for them is: If you stayed in this role, tell me a little more about the challenges you would like to help fix or how you want to be challenged?  Staying in the same role is okay. Lack of interest in changing or improving is not if I am a leader challenged with accomplishing more. When you invite people to help in a more significant way, most will respond. Questions invite them to help.

Finally, the last question helps judge the depth of their thinking about your work and how much they are willing to challenge your decisions. Both are indicators of how much passion they have for your work, and whether they will help you make better decisions. It takes courage to come back with challenging questions, and this creates space for that.

I work with a leader who has become a mentor for me. He has become a mentor because he is so grateful when I challenge his thinking or bring a new idea. My idea does not always win, but he listens. I trust him enough to tell him I am having a busy day or a terrible day. I learn something every time I am around him and it feels so good to be able to be transparent with him. I have found that it takes so much energy to pretend.

Trust is about not having to pretend.

Create space for authentic conversations by using powerful questions and listening.

Lead well . . .

Help is Not a 4 Letter Word

Help is Not a 4 Letter Word

How well do you ask for help? If we did a word association right now and I said the word help, what would be the first 5 words that come to mind?

I work a lot with leadership teams that are full of achievement minded, smart, goal oriented, and passionate leaders. One way I know the team is working is when I see one of those leaders openly admit they are stuck and ask for some time with the team to talk through the issue and help them get unstuck. I also watch for avoiding it, and if I see it I will make sure it gets named and talked about. It is when my job of helping teams have a productive conversation gets tough, and yet it is in these conversations that leaders are made and teams get healthy.

One of my 2018 summer reading list for leaders, I recommended Option B by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant. In this book, they share a model called the Ring Theory by Susan Silk. It is a graphic representation of the rolls of different groups around a situation that generates trauma. The use is pretty simple, those closest or most impacted by the trauma go in the middle, and each ring contains the names of individuals or groups impacted by the trauma. The farther you are from the middle, the less impact it has on you emotionally. In Sandberg’s situation with the death of her husband, she put her children in the middle, herself and his parents/siblings in the next ring, and then different groups after that. The tool is simple, create the ring and comfort in, dump out. Dumping is unloading the emotions the situations is causing and/or asking or accepting help from those that are in outer rings.

The Ring Theory by Susan Silk

The lesson for leaders, when you drive change or have to react to change the market exerts on your organization, it is often helpful to look at it through the lens of the Ring Theory because of the emotions that are generated.  Have you ever been in one of these conversations:

  1. Restructuring a team due to growth, resulting in dividing up teams and changing leaders around
  2. Firing a well liked person
  3. Firing someone you hired, maybe a friend
  4. Trying to support someone who is going through one of the big three life stressors – death, divorce, job loss

All these situations, some sort of loss is created for people that requires work and time to heal before people can return to a a more normal state of productivity and joy. I have watched many leaders go through a similar situation in leading change, where they are focused in (their team members or teams), and not asking for help or accepting help. The Ring Theory is a reminder that those resistant forces often require us to dump out be seeking or accepting support from others.

The trick is, support in only works when people ask for or accept help. Effective leaders do it, and the rest treat help like a four letter word and avoid it at all costs, even though their need is obvious to all.

So let’s adjust the question: Do you act like HELP is a four letter word?

Lead well!

 

 

Leadership Wisdom 101: The Power of 2 or 3 or 10 (Part 3 of 3)

Leadership Wisdom 101: The Power of 2 or 3 or 10 (Part 3 of 3)

This is the third part in a series I called Leadership Wisdom 101:
Part 1: Seeing the Bigger Picture in Leading
Part 2: Developing Your Capacity to Lead Change

I have stared at this post for almost a month now, with the confidence that I needed to write it, but lacking the clarity on what I was going to write. Then Sebastian Junger’s latest book, Tribe, dropped into my lap thanks to a summer reading list for my daughter’s AP Literature class. His exploration of the power of belonging was my weekend read (only 136 pages) and it helped crystallize what I needed to say on this topic.

I have always known the power of having friends, parents, and being part of a strong team. Here are some random – but powerful – statistics on the power of being in relationship with others and having a sense of belonging to something:

  • If you are a smoker and a loner, and your goal is to live longer, statistically you should keep smoking but invest time in developing a group of friends. (Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam)
  • Single men will die 8-17 years earlier than their married male friends. (NBCNews.com)
  • One of the key 12 questions from Gallup to measure employee engagement – I have a best friend at work.
  • During the bombing of London in World War II by the Germans, doctors in London saw a decrease in mental health issues such as depression and suicide.

The importance of being connected to others is well-documented as a benefit across all areas of our lives. Junger’s book even provides some startling statistics around societies where a strong sense of community and individuals being connected to that community impacts things like suicide rate, PTSD in soldiers, and mass/random shootings. I recommend giving it a read. (Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger)

So what does that mean for leaders?

  1. First of all, you will not be at your best if you have no safe place to go talk about things you are struggling with or if you lack friends/significant others in your life.  A leader’s first job is not to drive profit, but to take care of themselves so that when hard decisions/times hit you have a web of community around you to keep you fresh and resilient.
  2. Secondly, when new people come onto your team, be intentional about getting them connected to others faster. Assign a mentor to them for 6 months and have them go around to each teammate or key contact from another department with the single item of getting to know them. (Best practice is to use a personality tool like DiSC or Birkman Method to talk about how they will work together along with a Team Member Fact Sheet to share personal information.)
  3. Thirdly, find activities every month to bring people together around a meal or an activity to maintain and build that sense of team and trust. It can be as simple as pizza or a potluck. It could also be a half day working on a Habitat for Humanity build or another community project.
  4. Finally, use planning to focus a team on a single problem to solve or a goal to reach. One of the reasons I became an EOS Implementer™ was the power in creating a simple plan that everyone could contribute to and understand. Coupled with weekly and quarterly rhythms around planning, the team becomes a community vs just a group of people working together.

There is more power in 2 than 1. The feeling of connectedness is a powerful thing, for our individual health and the ability to have a healthy and resilient city/state/country. The evidence is there, and as leaders this needs to be a basic truth you believe in and stay focused on – in both the habits you create for yourself and the ones you create for your team. Remember, teams will watch you how live as much as they listen to what you say. When they see you having friendships with peer executives, carving out family time for yourself, and being active in your own community, your words will become more powerful.

Listen . . Lead. Repeat often!

(Another great book about the power of a healthy community to impact performance and change lives is Season of Life: a football star, a boy, a journey to manhood by Jeffrey Marx. I am adding this and Tribe to my 2018 Summer Reading List for leaders)

The Sweet Spot: How to find it for yourself

The Sweet Spot: How to find it for yourself

Touring a garden recently with a master gardener (My Mom) and these words kept coming out of her mouth – they love it here. At the nursery last week, another seasoned gardener talked about healthy places for certain trees. Both of these experts taught me the same lesson, to always look for vibrant signs of health – growth, healthy color, and a full look. Life through the eyes of a gardener gave me a different view of the world around me.

It hit me that same view can be taken with people. That place where we are comfortable, happy, challenged, and energized is a great place to be. What words would you use to describe yourself in that spot?

  • Energized
  • Creative
  • Confident
  • Collaborative
  • Positive

This is our sweet spot. The ultimate trick is not knowing how to find this spot, but how to realize when we get there and how to return to it.

Some leaders can see it, just like the master gardeners can see when a plant is in the optimal spot for growth and performance. Most of us need help from people to tell us where that spot is, and maybe a little more help to stay on track making the moves necessary for all people on our team to be in their sweet spot. Imagine if we could coach our team so each individual knew where that spot was for themselves, and were driven to continually improve and increase their understanding of their own sweet spot?

Maturity is simply the knowledge to know where your spot is, the patience to work toward it, and the ability to make the shifts to perform at a high level even if you are not in the exact sweet spot. Mature does not equal old, it just means wise.

Leaders need to know their own sweet spot and surround themselves with people who can handle the critical work outside of that spot. Great leaders also know how to develop the wisdom in others to replicate that sweet spot for themselves at all levels of the organization. Imagine being surrounded by a dozen people who feel energized, creative, confident, collaborative, and positive? Even an amateur gardener like me could spot that team.

There is nothing better than to watch your kids, your friends, your team, or yourself perform in that sweet spot!

Anybody told you lately, “I can tell that you like it here…”? If not, it is time to get to work finding it.

Three great resources to help your thinking:

Master gardeners don’t just work with plants.

Lead well . . .

Easy Way, Hard Way

Easy Way, Hard Way

As a young parent, a challenging task was bath time – especially when the kids developed the muscles to effectively jump, squirm, and grab. The toughest part was hair, because the “No more tears” promise on the bottle never seemed to work. When I encountered Avenger-like resistance to washing hair, I developed a standard script with them which sounded like this – and most of the time it was delivered in a calm and even tone of a loving father. Most of the time 🙂 “Aubrey, you have a choice here. Easy way – You hold your breath and close your eyes when I tell you, and I will do everything I can to keep the soap from getting in your eyes and mouth. Hard way – you keep screaming and I will just pour the water.”

Many of you know I wrote a book on parenting, and as I look at the paragraph above I am not sure a chapter like that would ever be written. If it did, it might involve waterproof stickers or $50 Avengers mask that protected ears and eyes. In hindsight, I was trying to teach them a first lesson of choices and teamwork because we face decisions like this daily as teenagers and adults, and the reality is that this flips as adults when the hard way actually becomes the right way.

People-centered leaders focus on the choices their team members have and work hard to coach them through decisions so there is greater ownership. They recognize when people choose the ‘hard way’ in communication by sharing a hard truth that puts their job at risk. Here are some examples:

Situation 1: Your leader is not effective at leading you because they second guess all your decisions, fail to give you the information you need to make the right decision, and have not given you any routine performance feedback in 2+ years.

Easy way: Complain at happy hour about your leader or resign and hope there is an exit interview for you to share your frustrations.

Hard way: Share how the leader is making your job harder at your next one-on-one and ask for help.

Situation 2: The smell of a teammate’s perfume or body odor is making it hard for you to work (allergies, or just a bad smell) to the point you are thinking about working remotely. {Sounds crazy – but ask an HR professional about their story on this and I guarantee they have one.}

Easy way: Buy $100 worth of potpourri for your office.

Hard way: Pull your team member aside and share the impact the odor is having on you (perfume, body odor, shoes being off) and ask if there is a way to address it.

Situation 3: Your project is going badly and you don’t know how to fix it.

Easy way: Do the best you can to fix it, but hide the truth in updates to your leader and team.

Hard way: At the next update or meeting with your leader, tell the truth and ask for help.

Of course, the key ingredient in all of these situations is trust. If it is there, it makes the hard way easier. When a high degree of trust between two people is not present, the easy way becomes the only way.

People-centered leaders recognize when someone has chosen the hard way, and shared something that they did not have to. When that happens, make sure you stop and recognize the choice they made. If you don’t know what to do? Easy way – Pretend you do and make promises you might not be able to keep. Hard way – Tell them this is a new situation for you and ask for 1 hour/1 day/1 week to give it some thought so the next conversation will be a productive one. Commit to helping resolve it, and follow through on your commitment.

What did you do today to build trust with each individual on your team?

Listen . . . Lead. Repeat often!

Here are two resources for those of you interested in what a conversation around different ‘hard way’ choices might sound like:

Read Crucial Conversations

Podcast and book: Radical Candor