Refactoring Leadership

A geek struggles to become a leader

Culture is The Economy

Depending on where your political beliefs fall, you may smile or cringe when a politician or the chair of The Fed announces they are going to do something about the economy. Altering the law or changing the overnight rate to banks does not directly change the economy in America. Rather, hundreds of millions of individuals make decisions based on the new rules for themselves and their business interests. The laws are not the economy, the trillions of individual decisions and actions are the economy.

Culture in your business is the same way. The leadership can't simply declare "We value honesty." "Work/life balance is important to us." "Everyone's ideas have merit."
Walk around, read your email, listen in meetings, observe what's going on. That is your true culture. Your culture is the aggregate of every action, communication, and decision made by the people that make up your business. You can change or support the culture not by simply declaring it to be what you want it to be, but by actually doing the hard work of evaluating your own actions against your ideals. Constantly, Publicly, with humility. Engage your coworkers with Radical Candor when they are not acting according to the business's principles. When a company declares one set of values but people observe contradictory actions being rewarded, it creates the worst kind of rot in your culture. Principles that should have real meaning come to be viewed as worthless platitudes.

In the past year I've got myself changing course on a decision when I realized I had just done what I've always done, or let emotion cloud my judgement. It's OK to be wrong and backtrack. Culture has to come from the top, and then be individually adopted. It has to be defended and reinforced or it will be ruined, and it has to start with you.

The Riddle of the Suit

My company recently took professional pictures of all employees. I really appreciate this. It's fun for most people, and it's fun to observe the squirming objections of those who don't want their photos taken. For personality, they asked everyone to be prepared with Props or Poses that were clues to your personality.  Here are my pictures, which have earned me some interesting responses.

Normal/Professional:

Flavor:

I really like my motorcycle. It's one of the ways I deal with stress, and I put a lot of miles on. Over 11,000miles on two wheels last year probably puts me beyond most people's definition of "casual rider". 

One of the responses that gave me pause was "Well, which person is the real you?" The implication here is that one of these is an act. Well I am definitely Director of R&D at Edgenet, and I definitely earned my Iron Butt Association patch on my vest.
What does that say about the commenter, myself, and Business? I actually started wearing a sport coat years ago because I currently live in Wisconsin and it gets cold during the winter and maybe my metabolic rate isn't typical. I've grown to like it because I do like to look better sometimes.

Given the choice, most people today will choose to dress more casual more of the time. Dressing up, we are told, is the "Uniform of Business" and must be done to be taken seriously by other Serious Business People. One dear colleague has even said his goal is to be so good at his job that he can wear shorts & flip flops into the board room. Given the cultural shifts brought about by the Internet age, the connection between appearance and performance seems ever more tenuous. If Vice Presidents and CEOs and venture capitalists all want to be wearing shorts why are we still participating in this costume ball?

I am reminded of an old story explaining why there were so many Vice Presidents at Hewlett Packard. Why so many VPs with no direct reports? Without that title, they found that they couldn't get meetings with the right people during customer engagements. If your company is so geeky cool that your business card says "Analytics Jedi Master" and I'm not a Star Wars geek, I guess I'm not really sure if I want to accept a meeting from a Jedi Master.  On the other hand, my employees don't treat me any differently on a sport coat day vs. a millennium falcon t-shirt day. What gives?

I'm convinced that business attire is like that VP title. It's the correct thing that makes you safe and appropriate. I don't need to wonder if your Legend of Zelda shirt is a band or a cartoon. For every person who will appreciate it, there are hundreds who won't get it, won't appreciate it, or will even tell you your hometown sports team sucks. Yes, some will even assume incorrectly that you're not taking this meeting seriously because of your retro Atari shirt and matching socks.

Unfortunately being safe still pays off most of the time. As for me I'll keep wearing sport coats to stay warm in my freezing office, and otherwise treat the suit like an overly rehearsed first date: once you see I'm not a broke, sloppy axe murderer I can cautiously reveal a little more "me" next time.