How Does an Engaged Work Culture Thrive for 25 Years?

Twenty-five years ago the ground broke in a cornfield in Indiana for an innovative new type of steel mill.  Nippon Steel of Japan and Inland Steel of the U.S. partnered with the United Steelworkers of America (USWA) to construct I/N Tek and I/N Kote.  The mill broke new ground both in its “technical” system, as well as in its “people” system.

After spending the recession years of the mid-80’s laboring in the Rustbelt and consulting with firms that were in bankruptcy, in danger of insolvency, or in general needing to “change or die,” the opportunity to work with a start-up company was a thrilling adventure early in my career.  As part of the renaissance of American steel, the company was going to be a radical departure from traditional, integrated mills of the past.  Instead it would be founded upon lean, continuous operations technologies.  To run the new type of “technical system,” union and management wanted a new type of “people system” – a new vision of partnership – a self-managed team approach.

During our design team meetings as the mill was built and commissioned, the dark joke was that “either I/N Tek and I/N Kote would be the shining light that would transform the autocratic, outmoded way ‘the old company’ [Inland Steel’s main integrated steel facility just a few miles away] would do business, or they will send troops to squelch the revolution in the cornfield.”  The design and implementation process was filled with excitement – and trepidation.

Last year the parent companies and union hosted a 25th Jubilee to celebrate their Silver Anniversary!  Twenty-five years of profit, productivity – and partnership.

Much has changed in over two decades.  The joint owners and the union has changed.  Nippon is now Nippon Steel and Sumitomo Metals.  Inland Steel is now part of ArcelorMittal.  The USWA is now the USW.   And the steel landscape has changed.  Foreign competition.  Domestic competition.  Customers changing expectations and preferences for lighter metals, new alloys.

Through it all, I/N Tek and I/N Kote has not just survived, but thrived.  Through management changes, union changes, employee changes, technology change, industry changes – and on and on.

Why?
Of course, the company is founded upon still-innovative technology and a winning business model.  And, a major success factor is the soundness of its founding work culture principals:  a TRULY team-based work culture, with people at all levels, in all functions, working together toward a common goal.

Are there problems?  Of course.
Opportunities? Yes indeed. And that’s why they contacted me a year ago, to ask me to come back and partner with them once again to “renew the work culture.”

These steelworkers have the savvy to realize that you can’t operate the equipment without periodically shutting down, taking it apart, lubing it up, and sometimes retrofitting it with new and improved parts.  Similarly, a work culture needs period maintenance and renewal.

We all can relate to that just thinking about our bodies – which are systems too!  Twenty-five years ago, I could work 16 hour days, travel to a new client with little sleep, and do it again.  Now, in my second half-century, I need exercise beyond running to catch flights, to eat right, and get a reasonable amount of sleep per night.  As the graphic shows, the longer we or any system last, the more energy we need to expend just to maintain “steady state”!



A company’s work culture is a living, evolving entity.  At least, it should be if you want to effectively meet the many challenges that your organization will no doubt face, regardless of your industry or business model or geography.

Change Intelligent leaders know they need to remain agile and continually adapt to stay relevant and prosper.  As we learned from Jim Collins and his team in How the Might Fall: And Why Some Companies Don’t Give In, companies that succeed into the future – while their peers which are highly successful in the short-term fail – is the combination of:

•    Constancy of purpose – focus on vision, mission, and values, and

•    Flexibility of process – evolving technologies, tactics, and techniques

Indeed, when I revisited I/N Tek and I/N Kote after two decades, the vision, mission, and values statements we drafted in the early ‘90s were still posted on the wall, in the office areas, operations pulpits, and maintenance rooms, throughout the mill – constancy of purpose.  And, now there were employees who were children of the founding team members, upgraded technologies, and new business practices – flexibility of process.

As a leader, do you pay attention to your organization’s work culture?  Work culture can seem an amorphous concept, beyond our intentional control.  And yet, while not completely in our control, we can have a positive influence on our company culture, regardless of our position, tenure, or age.

Here are some questions to ask yourself, as a leader committed to helping your organization be nimble, agile, and Change Intelligent into the future:

•    Does your organization have a vision, mission, or values statement?  If so, when is the last time you looked at it?  Mentioned it to your team?  Used it to guide decision-making and behaviors?

•    Do you periodically take a pulse of your culture?  What is the level of engagement?  Teamwork up, down, and across the organization?  Commitment to strategic goals and objectives?

•    In what areas can we do better – where does our lofty rhetoric not match the reality of what it’s like to work in our company on a day-to-day basis?  On what topics would we benefit from engaging in tough conversations to get ourselves back on track, and in line with our espoused beliefs?

Change Intelligent leaders look to the past to honor collective history, look to the future to progress toward new horizons, and foster collaborative cultures to empower people to partner on the journey together.

Winning the Race for Change: Lessons from the Iditarod

During our family vacation to Alaska last year, we got the chance to meet the fabulous and frisky decedents of the Alaskan huskies who led Susan Butcher to victory in the Iditarod (the 1,049 mile dog sled race between Anchorage and Nome, through Alaska’s treacherous sub-Artic terrain).



The story of Susan and her favorite dog, Granite, captured my imagination – here are some highlights:

  • Granite was the runt of his litter – he was small, had knock-knees, and was pushed around by his bigger siblings.  Susan was told that he’d never have the size or strength to be a sled dog, and advised to give him to a family to become a pet.  Instead, Susan saw his determination and intelligence, and groomed him into a powerful leader.
  • During their first Iditarod together, Granite courageously saved the team from being attacked by a charging moose.  (Moose kill more people in Alaska per year than bears!)  He was severely injured, and the team was forced to withdraw from the race that year.
  • While training for another Iditarod attempt, Granite became gravely ill.  The vet said if he recovered, he would never race again, because the sickness had damaged his heart.  Susan nurtured him back to health, and the next year he led their team to victory.

Their story offers many lessons for us as change leaders –
here are just a few:

Inspire the “Head”
Susan had a vision of victory for her team.  She pointed them towards the “true North,” and despite naysayers and circumstances which would have caused many others to quit, she stayed the course and never lost sight of the goal.

Engage the “Heart”
Seeing potential where others did not, Susan forged an unwavering commitment between musher and dog.  Their trusting and loving relationship was the foundation of their success, and motivated the entire pack.

Help the “Hands”
Victory was only possible because of years of training, learning commands to “hike” (go), “whoa” (stop), “gee” (turn right) or “haw” (turn left), and then retraining after injury and illness.  Susan got the right players on the team, and in the right positions – lead, swing, team, and wheel.  They exercised to build their individual strength and stamina, and practiced together to hone their ability to work as a team.

All totaled, Susan and Granite won the Iditarod together four times, and Susan is the only musher to win four times within five consecutive years.  Susan was only the second woman to win the Iditarod, and Granite was one of the race’s most winningest lead dogs.


As the saying goes, “it’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog.”


I’m also reminded that all leaders are really followers.  Susan had the vision, trained her team, and issued the orders.  However, once the race started, it was the dogs who ran the race, with Susan being pulled along in her sled.  Granite as the lead dog needed to chart the course through blinding snow storms, during periods when Susan could not see more than a few feet ahead and her limbs were numb with cold.  Granite sacrificed himself to protect Susan and the pack when charged by the moose.  These actions were possible because of how Susan as the leader inspired her team to always focus on the end goal, do whatever it takes to overcome obstacles in their path, and help each other along the way.  Susan remarked that early in her career, people told her she would never win because she “babies her dogs too much.”  At the end of her career (which ended much too soon due to her untimely death from cancer), people said, “It’s no wonder Susan wins – she takes such good care of her dogs and they take care of her.”  When we as change leaders focus on developing the change intelligence of our teams, we set ourselves up for individual and collective success.

A special note for my fellow women change leaders:  as we know from research using the Change Intelligence / CQ Assessment, women tend to lead with the Heart, and the Hands is a strong secondary style.  As we know from research using 360-degree assessments (view the webinar I did on the subject in partnership with Denison Consulting), women tend to be rated equally to or higher than men on all leadership dimensions, with the notable exception of “visionary leadership” – that is, the Head style.  Susan Butcher was a woman who combined all three critical aspects of leadership, and serves as a courageous role model for us all.

[Side notes:  Susan and Granite’s story is captured in a lovely book that she and her husband wrote for children, titled Granite.  The tale is of course reminiscent of the classic The Little Engine that Could, which is often cited as a favorite of high-achieving leaders.  As we gear-up for back-to-school season, I invite you to consider gifting these books and the wonderful life lessons they impart to kids in your life, or perhaps a school or library!  Also, if you’re interested in learning more about Granite’s still-sledding and very amazing descendants, and the kennel established by Susan and her husband and operated by him and their daughters, visit Trail Breaker Kennels.


What Can Winston Churchill Teach Us about Leading Change?

While in London, I had the pleasure of visiting the Churchill Museum, an extremely well-preserved vista into the past, displaying the underground rooms where Churchill, his ministers, military advisors and staff led the effort to win the Battle of Britain and ultimately World War II.  It was amazing to see history frozen in time, and learn so many details of the life of this great man and the trials and tribulations of that great generation.

Leading change can so often feel like a war zone – devising plans and strategies, arming ourselves with tools and tactics, focusing on the mission and averting scope creep, engaging stakeholders both allies and enemies, overcoming resistance, striving for small wins during the many battles to win the war, avoiding land mines, juggling scarce resources, regrouping and redeploying, coping with stress and battle fatigue, negotiating terms and conditions – I could go on and on, the analogies are seemingly endless.

Visiting the museum caused me to ponder what we as change leaders can learn from Churchill and his stewardship of WWII.  Among many other talents, he was known for his wry wit and exception oratory prowess.  Here’s a sample relevant for all of us in the business of leading change:

  • “To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often.” Churchill said this in response to criticisms about the fact that he changed political parties.  Indeed, this quote is the essence of Change Intelligence:  to lead change, we must start with ourselves first.  This is one way that great leaders are both courageous and vulnerable – they reflect on their strengths and weaknesses, and course correct – sometimes in very public ways – to ensure their behaviors match their values and goals, even when it’s not easy.
  • “Blood, toil, tears, and sweat.”  This quote reinforces the fact that change can be a long and arduous journey.  While most of us will never have to endure bombing raids or food rationing, we all need to cope with the emotional tribulations of letting go of the old and grappling with the new, and our own and others’ feelings of loss, confusion, and fear.
  • “Never was so much owed by so many to so few.”  In this quote Churchill was praising the Royal Air Force, giving thanks for their heroism and sacrifice while fighting the Battle of Britain, during which Hitler’s Luftwaffe bombed the country relentlessly for months on end.  So often leading change can seem like a thankless job, and we can feel scarred and shell-shocked during the fight and for quite some time after it’s over.  Great change leaders acknowledge the hard work – both effort and outcomes – that helps us fight the good fight and prevail against what can seem like insurmountable odds.

One more footnote about Churchill:  he became Prime Minister in 1940, when he was 65 years old, and remained active in British and global politics long after the war ended, retiring at age 81.  Throughout the war and beyond, he is said to have outworked his staff.  I like to keep that in mind every time I get an invitation to join AARP in the mail!  We’re never too old to make world-changing contributions, and we benefit from the wisdom of our elders.

Enjoy living in peace and freedom today.

Leading Through Transition: 3 Powerful Tools to Equip Your Team

Dr. Bridges, a giant in the field of change management, shows us the distinction between “change” (what happens on the “outside” – be it a harrowing tsunami or a hostile take-over) and “transition” (what happens on the “inside” – our psychological and emotional reactions).

As Dr. Bridges demonstrates, transitioning from the old to the new happens in three stages; the Ending, the Neutral Zone, and New Beginnings. As leaders charged with supporting our people through major transitions, how can change intelligence help us as we endeavor to help others move through these phases?

  1. During the Ending Stage, we need to let go of the past, say goodbye to “the way things have always been done.”  Change intelligent leaders start with the “heart,” connecting with people at an emotional level, dealing with feelings of loss (security, status, skills).  They then educate the “head,” clarifying the why and what of the change:  What is really ending, and why are these changes necessary?  What’s the business case, and what’s the implication for me?  Helping the “hands” by explaining the specific plan and sharing as much information as possible multiple times through multiple mechanisms lends comfort and some sense of control during this stressful time.
  2. The Neutral Zone finds us, just like the first ambitious flowers poking up through the still-falling snow here in my hometown near Chicago, hovering between two realities – often confused and feeling caught in “limbo.” In this phase, build on your heartfelt connection with others by sharing your vulnerability:  in what ways have you been unsure and even doubting yourself, and how have you overcome your anxiety and gotten back to effective action?  Exhibit patience with missed deadlines and off-target efforts – recognize this is a sign that you need to engage the brain by prioritizing new goals and actively listening to unearth barriers people are facing, both in the shifting workplace and within themselves.  Talk tactics with people.  Change intelligent leaders recognize that they may need to deploy temporary procedures.  Providing structure and “hand holding” from an involved, in-the-trenches leader can be invaluable to guide people on the new path.  Work alongside people to channel the chaos into creativity, so you can all move from stuck to back in momentum.
  3. New Beginnings come when the change finally starts to happen. People’s first efforts in a new style are delicate, fragile, and easily injured.  It is a leader’s responsibility to protect and nurture.  Recognizing small successes and behaviors supporting the new way of working both recognizes people’s efforts as well as clarifies the new expectations for others.  Remind people of the purpose of the change and demonstrate to them through anecdotal stories and hard statistical evidence corroborating the soundness of the rationale.  Be consistent in rolling out the change and relentless in identifying and remediating systems and actions blocking the transformation that must occur.  Involve people as partners in the process – you’ll get actionable feedback, higher quality solutions, and mutual accountability to the team and the change objectives.  By approaching the transition process in this way, change intelligence leaders inspire the heart, engage the head, and help the hands toward a brighter future. And, they remember that the three stages are iterative, overlapping, and happen at different times and manifest differently for different people and groups.

While we can’t foresee when the tsunamis of life will hit us, we can prepare ourselves and be of service to others by building our change intelligence, so when the inevitable comes, we’re as ready as we can be. That’s why the most effective change leaders have the self-awareness to adapt their styles to the unique demands of unique individuals and their unique transition experiences.