What do the best leaders know about the “X” factor?

What do the best leaders know about the “X” factor?

Originally published in Forbes on September 11th 2019

Culture is the secret to success. What do the best leaders know about growing a dynamic culture that most managers do not?

I am not a “cultural relativist.” I don’t think all cultures are equally valid or equally valuable. For example–everything else being equal–a culture that feeds, clothes and shelters its people is objectively superior to one that consistently starves its people. A culture that does not practice human sacrifice or slavery is objectively superior to one that does, and a culture that turns a blind eye to rampant corruption is inferior to one that does not. The same holds true organizationally: Some corporate cultures are downright toxic while others bring out our best.

But what fascinates me is why–in the face of sometimes overwhelming obstacles–some cultures overcome while others succumb.

For more than 20 years, Rome, for example, was repeatedly and catastrophically defeated by Hannibal and his invading Carthaginians. In 216 B.C., Hannibal slaughtered 80,000 Roman soldiers in the single battle of Cannae. These were unspeakably horrific casualties for ancient times, and Rome was still a small city state.

So why didn’t Rome give in? By the ancient rules of war, she should’ve sued for peace. But she didn’t and eventually triumphed over Hannibal and Carthage. Where did this cultural resilience come from? Rome started out as a village just like tens of thousands of other villages throughout the Mediterranean. So why was she so very different?

Another example: Spain was conquered by Islamic “Moors” in the early 8th century. But even though other Christian countries like Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria converted to Islam when conquered, the Spanish did not. Little by little over 900 years the Spaniards gradually took back their country until in 1492 the last Moors were finally driven out.

So why did Spain hold out when everyone else did not?

One more: Japan was utterly destroyed by World War II. My god, America dropped two Atomic bombs on Japan! Imagine–or try unsuccessfully to imagine–the collective trauma to their culture. Add to this that Japan is a tiny string of islands practically bereft of natural resources. Yet within a few short years after the war Japan had the second biggest economy in the world and even today only recently ceded second place to China.

While most of us don’t realize it, we live in a culture permeated by Marxism. Marx taught that we are all passively driven by deterministic historical “laws.” Individuals and even societies are helpless cogs in this great historical machine. We used to think that men made history, but Marx taught us that history makes men. Over the last 60 years this Marxist world view has become prevalent among many of our academics and social scientists.

Ergo whenever we see a “failed state” we immediately look for the external–like imperialism–that is to blame. Conversely, we often diminish successful cultures with the same kinds of arguments. This analysis relies on a closed system that is all top down.

While I don’t deny or diminish the role of external factors, I also believe in something called the “human spirit.” The human spirit is the X factor that no one can quite explain. The human spirit is an open system that arises bottom up. It shows up either individually and/or collectively again and again, and this spirit often succeeds when logic, common sense and Karl Marx’s deterministic model would predict certain failure.

I am fascinated by this X factor. I believe in the human spirit, and I have spent most of my life trying to demonstrate to myself and others that we are not just passive cogs in Marx’s deterministic machine mindlessly driven by historical forces.

My three partners and I turned $2500 and a business plan that read, “We’re smart guys, we’ll figure out something to do” into two multimillion-dollar technology companies in seven years. And we did it mostly to prove the point that the human spirit can do almost anything.

As a leader, I don’t deny the importance of top down hierarchies, management systems, policies, procedures and compensation plans. However, if we want to create an extraordinary organization we must go beyond inanimate and mechanistic “inputs” like these.

Instead we must focus on the X factor of human spirit. In business the X factor shows up in that ethereal and intangible, yet critically important attribute called morale. Morale, like charisma or leadership itself, is virtually impossible to quantify or even define, but it can be nurtured.

This nurturing process starts with acknowledging the importance of morale and dedicating the time and resources needed. Next, we must recognize that morale is created and maintained through an almost myriad number of “little things” that cannot be imposed and are impossible to fake. In short, we must care about others even more that we care about ourselves. Most importantly we must demonstrate this caring instinctively each and every day through something as trivial as remembering the name of the guy who stocks the break room with water bottles.

*    *    *

Our collective unwillingness to acknowledge the X factor is my major problem with the philosophy that has created our current “victim mentality.” It teaches that nothing can change bottom up through individuals, families, small churches, and communities, but only by top down massive programs and “interventions.” Without these interventions the individual is powerless and hopeless. This is a soul killing dogma. My parents taught me how to emulate the Romans, Spanish, and Japanese. And I am so grateful that they did.

Written by August Turak

The 4 pillars of Effective Performance Dialogues

The 4 pillars of Effective Performance Dialogues

Originally published in Forbes on July 1st 2019

It’s essential in high-performance organizations that managers have productive, open and collaborative discussions with direct reports to assure performance is effective and aligned with organizational goals.

My partner and I refer to these as “performance dialogues” instead of using phrases such as “performance management” — a euphemism for dealing with unsatisfactory performance — and “performance evaluation” — a term generally referring to a one-time-a-year event. Ongoing, regular performance dialogues are required for optimizing performance.

As a leadership development and team effectiveness coach, I’ve seen that talking about performance is often stressful for both managers and direct reports. Some managers are uncomfortable being straight and clear and might also realize that they and their organizations bear some responsibility for any performance issues. Direct reports, on the other hand, could be sensitive about negative feedback or might be nervous they will be judged or blamed for results that weren’t within their control. Simply put: both parties feel vulnerable. Add the brain’s negativity bias, and I believe you have a recipe for tension.

What’s required? First, you must lay a strong foundation.

Create a safe environment.

Throughout my time as a coach, I’ve observed that when you feel safe, you’re more open and receptive to feedback. Safety allows you to be curious and vulnerable. When safety is missing, you become reactive; you move into fight-or-flight mode, and you’re more likely to attack or defend. Dialogue becomes tense and unproductive.

Managers adept at facilitating safety set the stage for productive dialogues. Those who aren’t set the stage for a mess. What’s required for safety? I believe Stephen Porges’s Polyvagal Theory is key:

Porges uses the term “neuroception” to describe the process whereby we unconsciously scan for signs of safety or danger. We first look for a variety of signs in people’s faces, voices and movements to indicate whether we’re safe. If we find safety, all is well. We’re positioned to have a productive and open dialogue.

But what if we don’t find safety in the social engagement system? Our fight-or-flight system engages. We might begin attacking, defending or stonewalling. If that doesn’t work, our freeze system engages, and we might feel numb, dissociated or even find it difficult to think or speak clearly. When our neural system engages these responses, our brains and bodies are primed for responding to danger rather than for collaborating effectively. The resulting dialogue is less productive at best. At worst, it sets the case for complaints and grievances. In any case, there’s no point in continuing the dialogue.

With this in mind, to boost the effectiveness of your performance dialogues, learn to engage the “tend-and-befriend” system. It starts with how you lead. Is your style often intimidating, bullying, threatening, passive-aggressive, non-communicative, gruff, focusing-on-the-negative, sarcastic or belittling? Do your direct reports often feel like objects getting the work done, rather than valued humans in your care? If so, you must work on how you lead — such as through seeking guidance from a mentor, coach or peer — before you can have effective performance dialogues.

On the other hand, perhaps you’re already a high-performing leader: You treat people well, you genuinely care about them and are good at communicating this. You have at least a 3-to-1 ratio of affirming, positive comments to any challenging or negative ones. You understand you are co-responsible for the performance of your direct reports and act accordingly.

Whether you’re already a high-performing leader or are well on your way, there are a few steps you can take to lay the foundation for effective performance dialogues:

1. Focus on who you’re talking to.

Take a few moments before the conversation to get in the right frame of mind and heart. Don’t just shift from handling a task. If you’re still in “task mode,” you might not relate to your employee as a human being in your care. It might help to remind yourself that this is another person — just like you  with hopes, fears, sensitivities and vulnerabilities. Set the intention of treating them as you’d treat someone you deeply care about.

2. Reflect on your desired outcomes for the meeting.

These desired outcomes shouldn’t just be from your perspective; they should also reflect your direct report’s, and they should address both tasks and people.

From a task perspective, what results are you looking for? For example, you might be seeking better role alignment or to resolve a task-related issue. From a people perspective, what do you want their experience to be? Perhaps the person you’re meeting with wants to know you have their back, or they might be seeking more trust and engagement.

Given those desired outcomes, what’s required of you to optimize the dialogue? Make a plan to address it. For instance, you might need to work on listening more than telling or showing your curiosity about others’ perspectives.

3. Think about the context of the conversation.

Where do you have the dialogues? In your office? If so, avoid a position of self-protection and power, such as sitting behind your desk. Consider meeting in a neutral conference room or in their office. Create a more collaborative arrangement by sitting at the same level with no furniture between you.

4. Set the stage for a successful dialogue.

Greet your employee with sincere warmth, and remind yourself they are a human, which means they, too, have anxieties, fears and vulnerabilities.

Keep in mind your desired goals and what’s required of you, and set the stage: Explain what you’re there for and the quality of dialogue you’re hoping to have. Ask what you can do to help support that and what they can do as well. Display positive body language (i.e., uncross your arms, lean toward your team member), and turn off technology to show them you’re present and available.

Reaffirm your desire for positive interaction, and at the end, reflect together on how you did. Celebrate what worked, and see what you can learn from any less-than-ideal results. I’m confident you’ll notice the quality and effectiveness of your meetings greatly improving.

Written by Dr. Joel M. Rothaizer, MCC

How you can increase your Emotional Capital as a Leader

How you can increase your Emotional Capital as a Leader

Originally published in Forbes on August 29th 2019

By now, you’ve probably heard of emotional intelligence. But have you ever heard of “emotional capital?”


According to researcher Robert K. Cooper, Ph.D., “Emotional intelligence is the ability to sense, understand, and effectively apply the power and acumen of emotions as a source of energy, information, connection, and influence.”

Emotional capital (EK), however, is the make-up of all the skills and abilities that allow you to understand your own emotions, to recognize them in others, and to function with other people in a perceptive and rewarding manner.

Think of it as the ability to empathize with other people and to effectively communicate with them, leading you to develop and enhance strong, effective relationships. Emotional capital is the foundation on which all motivational and decision making leadership skills are based. Defined by the French Academy of Moral and Political Sciences, it is “the set of resources that inhere to the person, useful for personal, professional and organizational development, and participates [in] social cohesion, with personal, economic and social returns.”

EK is absolutely essential to leadership success. Self-awareness, empathy and assertiveness are prerequisites for building your own EK.

There are several competencies that make up emotional capital. Some of them include:

1. Self-esteem

2. Self-regulation

3. Self-motivation

4. Self-reliance

5. Relational agility

6. Optimism

Think of learning these competencies as a way of making “deposits” into your emotional capital account. These deposits will later be effectively spent in your quest to become the best leader you can be. Emotional capital is built over time and sustained by consistency. It is a booster for human, social and cultural capitals. You can help make emotional capital more useful and beneficial by thinking about ways to generate more of it, as well as ways in which it can be advantageously spent.

Let’s look at these competencies through the lens of emotional intelligence and discuss how you can increase them.

Self-esteem is your emotional evaluation of your self-worth, which is formed by beliefs and values within. You increase your self-esteem by accomplishing your short and long-term goals. These successes, no matter how small, all go toward increasing your confidence in yourself and your ability to operate successfully in the world.

Self-regulation is your ability to calibrate and control undesirable behavior. By being aware that there is an emotion rooted in unwanted behavior, you can address that root cause directly rather than dealing with the more superficial result (undesirable behavior). You are able to replace the undesirable behavior with something more beneficial.

Self-motivation is the emotional energy that pushes you outside your comfort zone, creates changes and motivates enthusiastic action. The best way to increase self-motivation is through inspiring self-talk and achievable goal-setting.

Self-reliance is the confidence to rely on your own abilities. It calls on you to make the best possible decision using all available emotional data. You increase your self-reliance by evaluating the best and the worst-case scenarios with flexibility and impulse-control management.

Relational agility refers to an empathetic “win-win” approach with openly communicated boundaries. The way to increase relational agility is to listen from a place of curiosity, emotional flexibility and mutual respect, rather than from a place of viewing situations as simple, isolated transactions. In other words, you need to delve into the complexities of things rather than just accepting them as presented.

Optimism is a positive emotional outlook that everything will be OK instead of worrying and thinking with a “glass-half-empty” attitude.

Increasing your emotional capital is just like depositing into a savings account. The more you deposit, the more you can take out. Relationships function exactly the same way. If instead of withdrawing emotions, you deposit them, you will get them back but multiplied. Remember, relationships are an essential component of your well-being and happiness.

Svetlana Whitener

How To Market Yourself Without Marketing Yourself

How To Market Yourself Without Marketing Yourself

Originally published in Medium.com on April 3rd 2019

You don’t need a complicated marketing plan, selfie strategy, or growth hack to market yourself.

If you want people to care about you and your work, double down on its quality, your commitment to those who consume it, and your willingness to share your expertise with the world.

Here are seven simple ways to do that…

1. Make things and put them into the world.

Your work is your greatest marketing tool.

People may ignore what you say, but they’ll pay attention to what you do.

The more you make, the higher its quality, and the more willing you are to share it with the world, the more people will discover and spread the word about you.

2. Help people.

Be known for being generous.

Not only is it the right thing to do, but it will get you noticed by the people you help and the people they know.

Selfish doesn’t spread.

3. Overdeliver.

An adequate job doesn’t get talked about.

Nobody tells anybody else about the person who did a “good enough” job on work they hired them to do.

To get noticed, you must exceed expectations — not simply live up to them.

4. Respond to everyone who reaches out.

You don’t have to have an answer to every question you get asked and you don’t have to agree to every request you receive.

But you do to have to respond to them.

5. Acknowledge everyone who mentions you.

It’s amazing how many people and companies want to better market themselves while they simultaneously ignore their existing audience.

Everyone is worth your time when trying to grow your audience.

I repeat: Everyone is worth your time.

6. Share what you learn.

That thing you learned today? There are millions of people who haven’t learned it yet, but would love to.

When you share your journey, it makes people want to come along for the ride.

7. Teach what you know.

Your knowledge is an asset that becomes infinitely more valuable when you share it.

Create vessels — mine are my For The Interested newsletter and blog posts like this one — to teach what you know to people hungry to know it.

Teaching not only attracts an appreciative crowd and creates opportunities, but it also unlocks a deeper understanding of your subject matter for you in the process.

Want proof?

After writing this post, I know a lot more about how to market yourself without marketing yourself than I did when I started it.

I hope you do too.

Josh Spector

Finding your Ikigai: how to drive organisational purpose and engagement

Finding your Ikigai: how to drive organisational purpose and engagement

Finding your Ikigai: how to drive organisational purpose and engagement

Written by Stuart Taylor.
Originally published in Inside HR on July 9, 2019

Ikigai is a Japanese concept akin to one’s purpose and reason for being, and Stuart Taylor says that uncovering this on an individual level and driving it on an organisational level is critical to success.

Searching for a clear and driving purpose in our lives, or one’s Ikigai, is something humans have been in pursuit of for generations. It’s becoming increasingly apparent that purpose plays a key role in the health of employees and the overall success of an organisation.

And as we become a more secular society, people are searching for purpose and meaning through their work life, and we’re seeing a progressive shift where employees care less about monetary fulfilments and more about how their work seeks to fulfil a greater purpose. In fact, a recent study by LinkedIn found that 74 per cent of job candidates want a job where they feel like their work matters.

A workplace culture thrives when an organisation and its employees identify and nurture their collective purpose.

Purpose in the workplace
While it’s been found that knowing your purpose leads to numerous personal benefits including improved health and longevity, sleep, mental health, cognitive function and resilience, it’s often forgotten amidst increasing demands, deadlines and in striving for the bottom-line is that in the context of the workplace, purpose is powerful.

In the workplace, a collective purpose refers to the shared goals and values of the organisation and its people. It is the understanding of the ‘why’ of the business – why it exists and why it is important. In the absence of purpose, organisations almost inevitably become focussed on metrics, and miss our human need for purpose and our desire to engage in meaningful work. A shared purpose operates as a propelling force behind staff, encouraging them forward with a clear sense of direction and a mutually acknowledged destination.

Without organisational purpose, your employees are simply putting in time. Their minds might be engaged, but their hearts will not be. However, when a business establishes a collective purpose it loses the need for a hard-line approach on productivity and innovation. Workers who buy into the company’s purpose are motivated from within, meaning the age-old method of top-down pressure for performance and results becomes largely unnecessary.

“Without organisational purpose, your employees are simply putting in time. Their minds might be engaged, but their hearts will not be”

In an individual sense, leaders who understand their personal purpose are more likely to be focused, efficient, and productive, and less likely to experience distress and worry. They are also more likely to be confident in their capabilities and more resilient in the face of complex tasks and problems. In the long term, people with purpose experience increased vitality, optimism and job satisfaction. In the majority of cases, they also retire later in life than those without purpose.

Finding your purpose
Finding your purpose begins with the task of identifying one’s values. Start with highlighting what is most important to you, both in the context of home and the workplace. The simple task of identifying values effectively prioritises life’s commitments and requirements, resulting in a grounding sense of perspective from which purpose emerges.

You can do this by landing on your Ikigai, a Japanese concept that can be understood as your reason for being. Ikigai calls you to draw on your passions, talents and skills to identify your role and meaning within society.

Finding your Ikigai leads to a clearer sense of purpose and increased positivity, which is reflected in your attitudes, behaviour and overall wellbeing. Ultimately, these benefits also have an impact on one’s work life, with people who have identified their Ikigai reporting higher levels of productivity, efficiency and better decision-making skills.

To find your Ikigai, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What do you love?
  • What are you good at?
  • What does the world need?
  • What can you be paid for?

“When a business establishes a collective purpose it loses the need for a hard-line approach on productivity and innovation”

How to drive organisational purpose
As relates to business, most organisations have a mission or vision statement that communicates what the business is and what it stands for. The problem is that most organisations treat this as a tickbox exercise, rather than a valuable tool that can be used to drive comradery and communicate purpose.

To drive organisational purpose, try integrating the following steps:

  1. Lead from the top. Creating a purposeful workplace requires commitment and action from all levels of an organisation. In order to enable staff to find their purpose, leaders must first strive to find and articulate theirs.
  2. Communicate purpose often. Communicating organisational purpose, encourages employees to come on board. This includes the genuine desire to improve the working lives of employees.
  3. Anchor your decision making to purpose. In every decision you make, ask yourself, “is this decision in line with organisational purpose?”
  4. Get employee buy-in. Ask employees what is important to them and try to integrate their feedback into the overall organisational purpose.

It is easy to disregard the concept of purpose as superfluous, particularly in the context of the workplace, however, it is purpose that separates an average business from one that is successful, healthy and fast-growing. An understanding and appreciation of one’s purpose are what drives workers to go above-and-beyond, sustaining them in their wellbeing, and in turn, sustaining the organisation well into the future.

Image source: Depositphotos

Inside HR

Leaders Focus Too Much on Changing Policies, and Not Enough on Changing Minds

Leaders Focus Too Much on Changing Policies, and Not Enough on Changing Minds

Leaders Focus Too Much on Changing Policies, and Not Enough on Changing Minds

Business transformations are typically built around new structural elements, including policies, processes, facilities, and technology. Some companies also focus on behaviors — defining new practices, training new skills, or asking employees for new deliverables.

Not long ago, I asked 100 CEOs attending a conference how many of them were currently involved in a significant business transformation. Nearly all of them raised their hands, which was no surprise. According to a study by BCG, 85% of companies have undertaken a transformation during the past decade.


The same research found that nearly 75% of those transformations fail to improve business performance, either short-term or long-term.


So why is transformation so difficult to achieve?


Among many potential explanations, one that gets very little attention may be the most fundamental: the invisible fears and insecurities that keep us locked into behaviors even when we know rationally that they don’t serve us well. Add to that the anxiety that nearly all human beings experience in the face of change.

Nonetheless, most organizations pay far more attention to strategy and execution than they do to what their people are feeling and thinking when they’re asked to embrace a transformation. Resistance, especially when it is passive, invisible, and unconscious, can derail even the best strategy.


Business transformations are typically built around new structural elements, including policies, processes, facilities, and technology. Some companies also focus on behaviors — defining new practices, training new skills, or asking employees for new deliverables.


What most organizations typically overlook is the internal shift — what people think and feel — which has to occur in order to bring the strategy to life. This is where resistance tends to arise — cognitively in the form of fixed beliefs, deeply held assumptions and blind spots; and emotionally, in the form of the fear and insecurity that change engenders. All of this rolls up into our mindset, which reflects how we see the world, what we believe and how that makes us feel.


The result is that transforming a business also depends on transforming individuals — beginning with the most senior leaders and influencers. Few of them, in our experience, have spent much time observing and understanding their own motivations, challenging their assumptions, or pushing beyond their intellectual and emotional comfort zones. The result is something that the psychologists Lisa Lahey and Robert Kegan have termed “immunity to change.”


We first ran up against the power of mindset two decades ago when we began to make a case inside organizations that rest and renewal are essential for sustaining high performance. The scientific evidence we presented to clients was compelling. Nearly all of them found the concept persuasive and appealing, both logically and intuitively. We taught them very simple strategies to build renewal into their lives, and they left our workshops eager to change the way they worked.


Nonetheless, most of them struggled with changing their behavior when they got back to their jobs. They continued to equate continuous work and long hours with success. Taking time to renew during work days made them feel as if they were slacking. Even when organizations built nap rooms, they often went unused. People worried that if they rested at all, they wouldn’t get their work done, and above all, they feared failing. Despite their best intentions, many of them eventually defaulted back to their habitual patterns.


More recently, we worked with the senior team of a large consumer product company which had been severely disrupted by smaller, more agile online competitors selling their services directly to consumers. On its face, the team was aligned, focused, and committed to a new multi-faceted strategy with a strong digital component. But when we looked at the team’s mindset more deeply, we discovered that they shared several underlying beliefs including, “Everything we do is equally important,” “More is always better,” and “It has to be perfect or we don’t do it.” They summarized these beliefs in a single sentence: “If we don’t keep running as hard as we can, and attend to every detail, everything will fall apart.”


Not surprisingly, the leaders found they were spreading themselves too thin, struggling to pull the trigger on new initiatives, and feeling exhausted. Simply surfacing these costs and their consequences proved highly valuable and motivating. We also launched several initiatives to address these issues individually and collectively.


One of the most successful began with a simple exercise aimed at helping the leaders to define their three highest priorities. Then we took them through a structured exercise including delving into their calendars to assess whether they were using their time to best advantage, including setting aside time for renewal. This process prompted them to examine more consciously why they were working in self-defeating ways.


We also developed an online site where leaders agreed to regularly share their progress on prioritizing, as well as any feelings of resistance that were arising, and how they managed them. Their work is ongoing, but among the most common feelings people reported were liberation and relief. Their worst fears failed to materialize.


Several factors typically hold mindset in place. The first is that much of it gets deeply rooted early in our lives. Over time we tend to develop confirmation bias, forever seeking evidence that reinforces what we already believe, and downplaying or dismissing what doesn’t. We’re also designed, both genetically and instinctively, to put our own safety first, and to avoid taking too much risk. Rather than using our capacity for critical thinking to assess new possibilities, we often co-opt our prefrontal cortex to rationalize choices that were actually driven by our emotions.


All this explains why the most effective transformation begins with what’s going on inside people — and especially the most senior leaders, given their disproportionate authority and influence.  Their challenge is to deliberately turn attention inward in order to begin noticing the fixed patterns in their thinking, how they’re feeing in any given moment, and how quickly the instinct for self-preservation can overwhelm rationality and a longer term perspective, especially when the stakes are high.


Leaders also have an outsize impact on the collective mindset — meaning the organizational culture. As they begin to change the way they think and feel, they’re more able to model new behaviors and communicate to others more authentically and persuasively. Even employees highly resistant to change tend to follow their leaders, simply because most people prefer to fit in, rather than stick out.


Ultimately, personal transformation requires the courage to challenge one’s current comfort zone, and to tolerate that discomfort without overreacting. One of the most effective tools, we’ve found is a series of provocative questions we ask leaders and their teams to build a practice around asking themselves:


“What am I not seeing?

“What else is true?”

“What is my responsibility in this situation?”

“How is my perspective being influenced by my fears?”


Great strategy remains foundational to transformation, but successful execution also requires surfacing and continuously addressing the invisible reasons that people and cultures so often resist changing, even when the way they’re working isn’t working.


Harvard Business Review- By Tony Schwartz 

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