Culture Creation

One can endlessly recite “Do as I say, not as I do,” but it won’t change the underlying reality that once there’s an alarming chasm between words and actions, one’s ability to persuade becomes negligible. And so it is that corporate slogans and values frequently turn laughable after being revealed as little more than a random amalgamation of benign, positive words inconsistent with actions on the ground. It’s less a bluff than wishful thinking. Good corporate culture is a worthy goal; achieving that type of environment is definitely challenging; designing corporate values feels like doing something to this difficult end; and maybe if the words are repeatedly emphasized, the desired culture will magically appear.

Of course that won’t work. Of course the foundation of any culture is actual behavior. Of course how leaders act sets the tone for everyone else. So of course being a member of your team was constantly enjoyable. It begins with your geniality. When you are, say, in the office, everything is just a bit better. I would be genuinely disappointed if meetings with you were cancelled, as I always had a feeling of Nice! I get to talk with xxxxxxxxx (in stark contrast with the many who are condemned to having to talk with a boss).

Those warm and fuzzy feelings, though, can often disappear when times are tough, when people err or hard asks are required. Not for you; you never abandoned a calm consistency. However frustrated you surely were inside, negativity didn’t seep into team meetings. This aplomb gave people a place to vent while also meaningfully demonstrating that you, and by virtue all of us, were not to spend too much time perpetually complaining. Is there something we can do to fix it? Great, let’s focus on that. If not, direct attention to what’s controllable.

As for getting people to actually fix what requires fixing, that’s where I learned the most from you. I cherish maximally intense environments with dog-eat-dog competition and incessant barking from the coaches/teachers/leaders. I’ve come to appreciate the rarity of this predilection and tried to pivot my own leadership accordingly. But I’ve never personally witnessed a great alternative until you. First, there’s the behind-the-scenes strategizing regarding what makes people tick and how to make them look good, how to make them allies. It seems so simple in print, but this was truly a breakthrough for me. For example, I remember a group e-mail I was about to send that would have (rightfully, in my mind) embarrassed a certain person for her negligence. I’m hovering over the send button and your disembodied voice appears. I recalibrate and instead send a helpful solo e-mail. My reward was an ally who likely would have hated me had I not absorbed some of your wisdom.

However great one’s groundwork may be, there still comes a time when you must make specific requests. Surely this would be the time when your composure fades, right? But no. Even as you’ll say you had to really “get on them,” you seamlessly maintain your cool. What I’ll dub the “Meredith Grace” is the fine art of gentleness without being weak, is constructiveness without being insulting, is asking without telling such that recipients want to do what you hope they’ll do. Undergirding their future follow-through is a desire to make you look good. Better to be loved than feared or something like that. Thus, it makes total sense to me that the xxxxxxxxx of the world would gleefully jump at the opportunity to work for you after experiencing your “hard asks”: the true character of a leader is best revealed in these trying moments.

So, great news, you excel in the corporate setting! This letter and your current recruitment process is more proof of what you already knew; you are “successful” as popularly defined. But what good is this “success” if your non-corporate life is subpar? Not all that much, I’d contend. Now, an outsider can only ever know so much about another’s actual life (one of the reasons I loathe glowing wedding speeches talking of “perfect love” – you aren’t in the relationship so you can’t know!). I’ve never met your family or interacted with you outside of work. Still, I can say you are hitting a series of markers that indicate a life well lived. I see seven buckets where one expends energy: (1) romantic relationship (2) parenthood (3) friendships (4) fitness/health (5) interests (6) knowledge (7) career. And since everyone has limited time, excelling in all seven categories is all but impossible due to ever-present tradeoffs. You, from my limited perspective, may be balancing the buckets better than anyone I know. Read fiction every night before bed? Leave work early for football games? Crushing Barry’s classes? On and on. Most uniquely is that you still have (3). People with (1)/(2) invariably lose (3), but not you. The fact that you still take trips to visit friends is borderline unheard of. Worth noting is that all this effective work/life balancing is the ultimate culture setter for a corporate team. When the boss claims to care about team well-being while lacking it herself, we are back to hollow values. HR may encourage you to take a vacation, but when leadership never does, those type-A strivers see the game for what it is and race to the bottom bragging (by pretending to complain) about month-long vacation reserves. The opposite dynamic existed with your team where people felt both trusted to get work done and, importantly, to not work – just like the boss.

So, thanks for letting me be a member of your team. I learned a lot, and I had loads of fun in the process.