Quote from James Anthony Froude "You cannot dream yourself into a character,; you must forge and hammer yourself one." Never let a good crisis go to waste.
In the first post of this series, I shared an anecdote of how I once heard an executive in the US say “Never let a good crisis go to waste”. On the second post, we briefly explored some ideas about how the crisis and how we respond to it might have a long-lasting effect, with downstream effects impacting our character. In this post, I would like to share some thoughts on how a practice of empathy and gratitude can be a character-building ‘workout’.
As the pandemic continues to wreak havoc in our healthcare and economic systems at the macro-level, the downstream impacts it has on our lives are extremely varied. However, it is difficult to keep in mind the different impact ‘modalities’ it has. The conversations, articles, podcasts, news, etc. from the last weeks have gotten me thinking about the different realities people are experiencing – and it’s prompted me both to empathize more and be grateful for my own situation (still working on it!). We can look at some of these different realities through a large number of different ‘lenses’ or perspectives to help with the mental and emotional exercise. Let’s start with the lens of work situation by looking at a very very high level way of grouping different types of work circumstances many of us are facing right now.

Knowledge / remote workers

This is a segment of the population in many countries that has the great fortune of being able to continue their work from home. Some were already doing it before the crisis, but many people in several countries are now full-time remote workers, for the first time. Those who had not worked remotely before might be struggling with the basics: i.e. setting up a proper physical space, improving their setup to have proper internet connectivity (have you been on a videoconference recently where someone is struggling to get good wifi signal inside their house?), proper headset, etc. For some others, the challange might be not only the setup, but also the learning curve to work remotely: I’ve heard from many of our clients how they have struggled to teach their people how to work remotely overnight, with some even paying online courses to teach their workforce how to operate in this environment. There are some others who now struggle to manage a workforce which became a distributed one overnight.
On top of this we can layer other type of complications – a Wall Street firm HR Director recently shared with me a situation they are facing with their younger workers. Many of them might find themselves working out of a densely populated urban area in which they live with roommates in a small space (think NY or San Francisco, for example). In their small apartments, they might not even have a suitable space to camp out with their laptop and take a call, or said space is not enough to have all roommates trying to do it simultaneously. Others might find themselves locked in their house with their kids running around with no school – trying now to double not only as remote workers but as homeschool teachers. I have heard hundreds of variants of this type of situation, but even though it is undeniably disruptive and stressful, it is a great situation to be in, especially if we consider others.

Still with a job, risking it

There are many others who are fortunate enough to still have a job, but it can’t be performed remotely, and it needs to be performed. Thousands of healthcare workers (facing greater risks than anyone), bank branch employees, supermarket employees, essential service provider workers (water, electricity, internet) among many others. They not only have to deal with potentially having their kids at home, but to continue performing their job – and essentially doing it knowing that everyday that passes they risk contagion, with all the uncertainty that comes with it. “Will I get mild symptoms or end in the hospital? Can I pass it on to my kids and or older relatives living with us?” are thoughts we all might have, but I can only imagine the way they are amplified for those having to leave home everyday to go to work.

Now unemployed – and unprotected

Then we have millions who are now (or about to be) unemployed… and depending on which country they are in, and their situation, this can be a downward spiral with potential ramifications worse than the virus’ most common course. A startup CEO in Mexico recently told me “in my country, poverty will kill more people than the virus”. There are billions of people who live either under the poverty line, or who barely surpass it yet require income on a daily or weekly basis to survive. An interruption in income of a few days can mean they can’t pay rent or other essential expenses. Losing employment can mean they lose their medical insurance, whether private or public…

Other lenses

Sickness and death is yet another lens through which we can try to empathize. Both can touch us all – whether we live in the 1% strata or live in poverty, employed or unemployed, no one is immune to this. We’ve heard about infected (and recently dead) royals and celebrities all the way to the mass graves for the less fortunate ones.
There are additional, countless lenses through which we can try to empathize with others during these times: age (i.e. older people seem to have higher mortality rates), having access or not to testing and healthcare if needed, being able to take care of oneself even for basic chores like shopping, the political situation of where you live (those under totalitarian regimes might be on slippery slope to lose even more freedom), etc.
Whatever the lenses we choose to practice empathy, they can be helpful to get some understanding of what others are living during this crisis. If you are reading this, there is a very reasonable chance you are in one of the more fortunate situations: hopefully you have the financial means to weather this storm out, or you still have a job you can do remotely. If this is the case, remember, even if you are experiencing hardships, count your blessings: there are probably millions who would see your current situation as an answer to their prayers, if they could switch places with you today. Realizing that can help put things in perspective – and it’s one of many ways in which we can individually do our work to avoid letting this crisis go to waste.
First published in LinkedIn 

Marcus Aurelius quote "It can ruin your life only if it ruins your character. Otherwise, it cannot harm you - inside or out." Never let a good crisis go to waste: Part 2 - Who do you want to become? Crises as opportunities to (re)build our character.
It can ruin your life only if it ruins your character. Otherwise it cannot harm you — inside or out. Marcus Aurelius
One of the most tangible aspects of a crisis like the one we are living is the material damage it causes: sickness, death, lost jobs, etc. There is, however, a less tangible but also very important dimension: the net balance a crisis has on our character as individuals, and the overall impact on society as a whole stemming from this.
Many phrases such as ‘adversity reveals character’, or variants of it, seem to indicate that a crisis will bring out who we truly are – and in many cases this won’t be a pretty sight. For example, in the current SARS-CoV-2 pandemic we can find dozens of stories of people who are taking advantage of the situation for their own benefit.
The flip side to this is seeing others rise to the occasion. Every tragedy brings its host of heroes, even if most of them remain unknown. Think of the first responders during 9/11, firefighters and others helping people out of crumbled buildings during an earthquake, rescue personnel saving people during floods – or, right now, thousands of healthcare workers, law enforcement personnel, food supply chain workers and countless others who are risking their lives for others.

The opportunities

We see responses ranging from the vile to the heroic and everything in between. This, however, does not prove that the type of responses we see is an inevitable result of a crisis ‘revealing the true colors of individuals’. Even under the most dire of circumstances, we all still have a choice. In other words, critical situations highly correlate with individuals showing more of who they are, but it does not invariably cause it. This might seem like word play from someone with nothing better to do than playing semantics, yet the implications are deeply profound.
Circumstances do not force me into acting one way or another (for better or worse) – I still have a choice. And what I choose has an impact on my character, every single time. Given that crises confront us with an abnormally high number of choices to make every day, we are basically on an accelerated path to build or destroy our character – and we do not have the option of choosing not to be on this path. Either by action or inaction we are doing something to our character. We are much better off by becoming aware of this and improving our choices every day.
Let’s look at this at different levels to illustrate:

At a personal level

A crisis is a perfect (and unavoidable) daily practice of how we react in the face of stress. It is an emotional gym that gives us the opportunity to ‘put in our reps’ every day. Pandemic panic shopping is making it increasingly hard to find vital supplies? This is a text-book definition of a situation to be legitimately stressed about: it can kickstart a downward spiral of fear, horror, self-pity, anger.
It’s also an opportunity to practice how to refocus my mind on what I can control and operate in that space, as limited as it might be: first rep of the day. Kids running around the house with no school – while trying to take a conference call? Check, that is very stressing – how am I going to respond to this? Second rep of the day. Sales projections are down? Third rep of the day: practice how I will manage my stress. You get the picture.
The difference with a physical gym is that here we don’t have the alternative to skip it: we are in it, and we will be putting in our reps. They can be reps in which we practice how to get more stressed, angrier, fearful… or they can be reps in which we try to give the best response we humanly can to every prompt. Every choice we make to every one of these prompts, every one of our responses, is a character building block.

At a relationship and / or family level

The lockdown half of the world is currently experiencing has resulted, amongst other things, in an impact to our relationships and / or family life. Young couples who are now living together out of necessity. Families with several generations living under the same roof while weathering out the situation. Couples in the process of getting divorced having to share the same living space, as their separation proceedings slow down or are temporarily halted. Death of loved ones. Families losing the income of one or both parents. Kids homeschooling putting an additional strain on family dynamics. Many of these scenarios can be stressing, depressing, anxiety-inducing, or worse.
If your specific current set of circumstances has made your life more complicated, how are you responding to it? Note that the question is responding to it, not how did you respond to it? This means that you have responded to it, you are still doing it, and more likely you will keep on doing it for the days and weeks and maybe months ahead. Is there a way to respond to it better? Can you address the content of the challenge (tension, grief, whatever it might be) with a better grip on your emotional response? Can you recognize the emotion in the situation, acknowledge it, but not be controlled by it?
The harder our circumstances, the harder choosing to respond to them in a constructive way can be – yet, like most other things in life, practice helps. And every day we have the opportunity to practice a better response. That practice is a way to improve our character. We’re already at the gym: might as well put in the work to come out of this stronger.

Never let a good crisis go to waste

This brings us back to the beginning. Crises bring about painful, tangible consequences. Thousands of us will not survive this pandemic – yet most will. The tragedy and grief that we have and will have for those dying is here and will be here. Let us not add to this tragedy by also losing vast amounts of human quality with the survivors’ characters deterioritating. Instead, let’s honor the departed by becoming a better version of ourselves for now and the times to come. 

Person walking on a beach looking out to a calm sea
First, a bit of context… 12 years ago, we went through a global financial crisis. I remember how we discussed at Axialent the impact of the crisis in organizations, people’s emotions and their effectiveness to give their best at work. At the time, one of my most brilliant mentors, Axialent founder Fred Kofman, said something that stayed with me: People will suffer Survivor Syndrome. He then developed this idea into a short article, and I think now is the time to bring back the “Survival Syndrome” issue to raise our consciousness on what people might be going through these days. Not only might people have lost someone due to the virus, but there is also a feeling of loss whenever we need to let go of the past, of what we were used to. And also when our organization goes through restructuring and we have to let go of colleagues and friends who are part of our community or business family. I call this organizational trauma in times of crisis.
My business partner, Thierry de Beyssac, and I, invite you to read the following article to raise awareness and build effective actions to deal with people’s struggles now. Everyone wants to be at their best, but often unconscious emotional stress gets in the way. We want to help everyone understand some of the hidden and unspoken dynamics we might be facing today and what is it that you can do to dissolve this.
Fran Cherny

The Survivor Syndrome (in times of coronavirus)

Many war veterans realize that their psychological scars are much deeper than any physical pains, and that these will take much longer to heal. The joy and relief of returning home is sooner or later impacted by the things they remember; things they saw, experienced, felt, or feared come home with them. Stories from this past might invade their nightmares for years—perhaps even the rest of their lives. Beyond the happiness of feeling free and back home, the horror and the loss stays.
Psychological studies have found one thing in common in all these great stories of liberations and family reunions: survivor syndrome. One of the biggest emotional weights that those who made it through alive must bear is the guilt of surviving. “Why me and not my friend?” “Why am I alive when so many of my loved ones didn’t make it?” “Do I have the right to live when so many more worthy than me are dead?” Depression and other mental illness, and a great number of suicides are an outcome of not finding a way to deal with these questions.

Organizational trauma in times of crisis

Although organizational circumstances are not comparable with any of these extreme life or death situations, at a subconscious level there are some things that our mind starts thinking in a very similar way. For one’s self‐image and ego, the loss of a job has a deep impact in our self-esteem and how we are perceived by others.
When downsizing, many companies invest in psychological and outplacement counseling for those who have been let go. This occurred after the 2008 financial crisis, and we now see this as a common practice in most large organizations. But what about the “survivors”? What about those who now have to carry more responsibilities in a “leaner and meaner” organization? Who helps these people cope with some of the guilt and stress of remaining when some of their colleagues and friends have gone? People are asking: Why did I “survive”?

Some real situations

It is easy to think that those who still have a job should feel reassured, consider themselves lucky, and be ready to give the best of themselves. This might be very true for some, but also a bit more complicated for many others. Not facing a possible organizational trauma could prove to be gross negligence for your business.
In the past several weeks we have seen many people in coaching sessions, leadership meetings and virtual training sessions trying to talk about this and finding it hard to find the right words. We have seen a case of a company who decided to cut 40% of their workforce as their industry has been deeply affected. We heard from some of the people still there, who are working double the hours, and still investing a lot of time in connecting with their colleagues who are gone now, checking on them. We know of one employee even offering to give up 50% of their salary so they can offer a 50% job to someone else, as a way to take care of a colleague they valued a lot, which is an amazing gesture of generosity, but that has much more implications when the company does not know how to respond to these initiatives. All this takes time, energy and emotional resilience, and people don’t know how to deal with this.

Paying attention to the hidden dynamics

In the midst of the current global crisis, we are seeing a deep impact not only at a health and an economic level, but also at a mental health level. With so many companies of all sizes impacted by the coronavirus confinement and restrictions, and with the high level of uncertainty of the future, it is important to also take these work‐force survivors into consideration and help them to be at their best. Yes, many people have lost their jobs and we should definitely connect with them and support them emotionally and financially. But let’s also be aware that many others have kept their jobs and in a different way, they are struggling to. Yes, people are being supported by their employers to deal with technology issues, how to effectively work from home and many other things that are definitely needed, but we are seeing very little attention being given to the emotional issue created by survivor syndrome.

Why do we need to also focus on this when we have so many others issues? Because these are the employees that will carry us through the crisis, and their needs must be met as they face difficult situations, many times expressing symptoms of guilt, stress and fear. And many worry they could be next as there’s no guarantee that layoffs will not continue.
Our invitation is to at least consider it, because this might be a hidden issue affecting your employees’ state of mind and their capacity to be at their best. It is always better to check, to connect with people’s real concerns and fears, than to pretend that nothing is there, creating an “undiscussable” (something we all know exists, but no one really talks about openly, which creates even more tension).

Leadership responses will make the difference

We are raising this because with the current context and level of challenge everyone is facing on all levels, we perceive a risk that many managers might use “passive aggressive” or “passive defensive” behaviors, based on how our primal brain works when we are stressed and in really challenging circumstances: the flight or fight response. This could be expressed in various ways, for example by saying “Come on, let’s focus on the future, let’s move on” when others are not ready, or by just not talking to and connecting with colleagues as a way to avoid “rocking the boat”, or by feeling the need to connect emotionally with our own vulnerability and fears.
If these dynamics are happening today, we believe things will get much more difficult soon when we face the expected next phase of “people and business rightsizing“ that many are already calling, maybe too quickly, the “new normal”.

Responding to the challenge in a constructive way

So how can we break this vicious circle? How can you help your employees get back to their best and grow the power of adaptability and resilience they, and your organization, need now more than ever?
Axialent has been working with organizational culture change, executive learning and team effectiveness for a long time now. During difficult times and crisis, people usually do not respond as they normally would. There is a layer of emotional challenges that blocks many people’s ability to face reality and to embrace new ways with agility and joy. And unless worked on, it is hard for many people to connect with the opportunity and explore how they can grow, bringing the best of themselves for them, their colleagues and even, for those who are not around in the team anymore.
As a way to start helping you, and leaders in your organization, support your employees to be at their best, we offer below some specific actions. These will help people move on, with resilience, integrating their feelings and refocusing on what they can do to make the situation better for everyone:
1. Put things “on the table”What remains “under the carpet” or hidden, exists anyway and becomes a source of tension that will add unconscious “weight in people shoulders”. It is critical to create a safe space where people can talk about their feelings, engage in a constructive dialogue and build a collective emotional intelligence.
2. Meet people where they areWith empathy, compassion and non‐judgement, let’s allow everyone to be where they are before we invite them to move on. Don’t ask them to follow and meet you where you are, but walk towards them and let them know you are in it together. Show people it’s ok to feel what they feel. And recognizing our own vulnerability first is a strength that will allow people to move on faster and from a good place.
3. Ask people what they need to be at their best, inviting them to be players and gain controlPeople are often trapped in their own victimhood and find it hard to connect with what is in their control to make things better. We can gently invite them to connect with that part of themselves. It is always impressive to see how improving self-confidence and self-esteem is one of the most powerful ways to gain the resilience you need to face any crisis.
4. Create a future togetherIn the current uncertain times, it is critical to create a vision for what we can create together, in a way that strengthens our capacity to adapt. Building scenarios together, and adjusting them based on new information, is an exercise that helps people share possibilities and start working based on them. This helps everyone feel that they are contributing to solving things in each of the three dimensions of sustainable success: business KPIs, the way we work together building trust, and how each of us feel as individuals are aligned to our core values.
5. Gather information about how all this evolves and then act fastThe number one need that both employees and managers have been expressing is to be actively listened to. In today’s world you can leverage technology to gather data (even every day) about what your employees think and feel, and what their general mood is (always using it in a responsible and open way with the people from whom you are collecting the data from). Don’t miss this opportunity to know how your people are doing, and design actions that can meet their emotional needs.
Only from a place of awareness, we can choose how to best respond to each situation. This is the time to help everyone be at their best and each of us can play a key role in making this happen.
First published by Thierry de Beyssac and Fran Cherny in LinkedIn

Viktor Frankl quote “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
A couple of years ago, I joined a team facilitating an executive development session at a US company. During that meeting, a defense contractor executive shared an anecdote of a big crisis they had faced, and he said “Never let a good crisis go to waste”. That phrase stuck with me and during the last week I’ve been thinking about the current SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus crisis. The crisis is here, government officials, scientists, healthcare workers and many others are actively working to slow it down. The rest of us have been impacted in more than one way. There is now no scenario in which what is happening is not a crisis. Hence I have been pondering, how do we prevent this crisis from going to waste? In other words, what can we do to at least get some form of benefit to go with the hardships that are here, and that will inevitably come in the upcoming weeks and months. The answers to such a question are wide ranging – from a macro level of learning how to better prepare for this type of events in the future, all the way down to a very intimate level, like how do we cope in these critical times. I hope that this article can spark actionable ideas of how to get something of value in the midst of the inevitable.
I would like to share something that is more philosophical in nature. For some this might mean it’s only theoretical (and thus with little to no value in real life), but in reality it’s the cornerstone, or least a foundational piece, to equip ourselves to respond to this crisis. Let me start with an anecdote.
When I was 17 years old I was going through a rough patch of my life. A teacher at the time recommended that I read Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search For Meaning”. I found it very valuable at the time, yet I was (and still am) far from fully comprehending the depths of the lessons there. Fast forward to 2020 and we are in the middle of a global pandemic. As bad as things are as of April 1st, we are still in a moment in which we find people at very different places of understanding the situation. There’s a range that goes from completely ignoring the gravity of the situation (i.e. spring breakers in the US, or visitors enjoying the cherry trees blossom in Japan) to losing a loved one – and in some cases not even being able to give them a proper funeral, and everything in between. It does seem to me that as days progress more and more people are moving in this range towards the realization that we are in the midst of an unfolding catastrophe. As more and more cities enforce lockdowns to varying degrees (i.e. self-shelter or even curfews enforced by police or military personnel), we start seeing the control measures take their toll on society: work places closed, people losing jobs, kids home from school, overwhelmed healthcare workers risking their lives without enough supplies, you name it – and it is bad.
In the midst of this chaos, I have found it helpful to remember one of Viktor Frankl’s most famous quotes: “The last of the human freedoms: to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” This might be easy to dismiss if it was coming from a Psychiatrist sitting in a posh office somewhere, just coming up with a nice phrase. However, in case you are not familiar with his story, Frankl had this and many other insights as a result of his observations when interned in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II. His accounts of the experiences in this space are harrowing to say the least – yet suffice it to say that they are of a much graver nature than what the vast majority of us are experiencing during this crisis. So, wherever we find ourselves in the stress-spectrum, whether it’s in one end of being oblivious to it (or being in denial), or in the end of downright grief as tragedy has already struck us, we all keep the last of our human freedoms – choosing our attitude in our given set of circumstances. Such a deceivingly simple phrase merits being looked at in more depth – much more than what I would dare to attempt to cover. However, there are a couple of ideas I would like to put forward to take one step ahead in looking at the choice we can make with this last of our human freedoms:
-This is an internal choice, in which we are choosing how we respond to our circumstances. It allows us to at least being able to choose that attitude when we are in a situation in which we can’t choose most (or any) of our circumstances – whether you are locked up working from home during the epidemic, feeling stressed, taking your last breaths on a respirator – or in a concentration camp in WWII.
-This choice has to be renewed, as Frankl says, every day, every hour. Talking with colleagues, friends and family something I consistently hear is “I can’t believe it’s been only x weeks, it feels like months”. The toll of going about every day with the hardships we are facing is not a minor thing. Thus, we have to renew our choice every day, every hour: what is my attitude in light of these circumstances going to be? And to emphasize the point, circumstances do matter, they have a tremendous impact in us, but they do not inevitably condemn us to being and feeling in a certain way. According to Frankl’s work, even in the concentration camps, in which everyone was equally subjected to some of the worst horrors we’ve seen in history, there were differences in the attitude choices that some made. As Frankl says,  “It is not freedom from conditions, but it is freedom to take a stand toward the conditions.” 
Paying attention to this last of our human freedoms might seem inconsequential when compared to the scale of questions leaders, scientists and many others are working on answering: can we find a cure? If so, can we do it before the scale of this pandemic increases? Before the economy collapses? For the rest of us, most of these decisions are out of our reach. Our questions might be how do I pay rent? How do I keep food on the table and a roof on our heads? How do I manage the stress of …? In either case, having the weight of the world on our shoulders, or the weight of our families, or just of our own emotions, let’s focus on what we can control, or at least get a grip on: our attitude is a great place to start. If we all take care of this, we will at least collectively be in a much better mental and emotional space to make better choices, execute them and live with the consequences to come for the weeks and months ahead.


In recent weeks we have found ourselves in situations unlike anything we have ever experienced. It’s difficult to know what to do, how to act, or what advice to follow, but one thing is clear, our world has changed and continues to change on a daily, if not hourly, basis. For that, we crave some kind of stability and a way to understand this new world we find ourselves in. I would like to share some of the best ways I have found to deal with our new reality and make the best of it.

1. Choose how to respond!

Many of us feel like we are stuck at home. Events are being postponed, people are being asked to work from home, and there is a need to change consumption habits and more.
Now the question is, how will each of us respond to this situation? How fast can we adapt and learn new ways of engaging? How can we adjust to working from home? And what if our families are also requested to stay at home? How do we deal with that complexity? How can we still deliver the content needed for people who were attending an event that has been postponed or cancelled?
Small but important adjustments in our ways of thinking and acting can create a huge impact.

2. Acceptance and next steps…

Let’s make a bold and smart move: accept that this is happening.
Once we have accepted our new reality, we are able to assess whether we need to change anything or ask for support to be as productive as possible in this new situation.
Last week when I realized I would be working from home, I took the opportunity to reorganize my home office.
Do you have everything you need to create an “office at home”? What can you do to make it work best for you? Can you ask your company for anything that would make it easier for you to be productive?

3. Home office: Setting boundaries: speak up and share

Many issues can and will arise with this new situation; and these are things that we all need to learn how to respond to.
Kids at home? Sharing a room to work in? Are there people around who are not clear about your availability? Colleagues who don’t know your situation?
Here are some ideas on how to deal with this and still be productive.

4. Generate connection while working virtually

What can you do to stay connected to your colleagues and clients, and increase effectiveness while working in a virtual environment?

  • For meetings, having your camera on, and asking others to do so too, can help everyone feel more connected and present.
  • “Checking-in” at the start of meetings with how we are doing and what we are expecting from the meeting not only makes sure there is alignment on the intention, but can also be used to open up a space for a quick personal connection.
  • How about instituting a once a week sharing of “best practices” with your team about this topic? This can help you connect as a team while at the same time increase your effectiveness and productivity.

5. Get moving!

Considering the limitations of our new situation, I think it’s important to do all we can to stay fit and healthy, both physically and mentally. The way to do it might vary for each of us based on what we like and the restrictions we have, but the need to do something to take care of ourselves remains.
The other day I went for a run outside and realized how much I needed it. There are alternative ways to stay active (and avoid the gym or crowded public places). Here I’m sharing some links to activities that I enjoy and find boost my productivity (and can be done from home!).
Quick yoga to give you a boost:

Stretching at your desk:

6. Take time to calm your mind and release tension

What is happening, is happening. Let’s just accept it. Even unconsciously, the constant stream of news and messages are increasing and generating fear and paranoia which blocks our ability to be rational and effective.
How can we connect to our best selves under the current circumstances, lower our anxiety and connect to great positive energy?
Perhaps you could stop looking at your cell phone and news so frequently? Why not put all our attention on reading a book? Or a movie we can debate afterwards? Fixing that thing at home that has been broken for a while now? Practice meditation and breathing to free up our minds? And what about seeing what you can cook with what you have available?
What we focus on expands and can completely change our mood and energy.
Let´s try to connect 100% with things that help us stay grounded, a few times every day!

7. Let’s focus on the opportunities

How can we make the most of these times where many of us are working from home? One thing that we gain is no commuting time!
This could mean more time to sleep or starting work earlier. Or this could be an opportunity to leverage the time to be with your family, meditate or do some exercise. Whatever you choose, is up to you, but the most important thing is to realize that we do have a choice.
What are you going to choose to do this week during your “commute”? What can you choose to do that takes care of your physical or mental health, and helps you to say grounded?

I’m curious, you are a year or so into this digital transformation/culture change initiative… how’s it going?

Here’s a line of questioning you can use to check on the awareness, urgency, and the alignment of the executive team involved in both the big “T” and little “t” imperatives:

1- Goals. What is the business reason/goal for this transformation? What are the key metrics used to measure degrees of success in the execution of this transformation?
2- Progress. How’s it going? What are you most excited about? What are you most concerned about? How are you feeling about the transformation? Where are you now, compared to your baseline measures?
3- Consequences. What are the business consequences of not transforming successfully? On a scale of 1 to 10, how important/urgent is this? What if you don’t intervene and people just do (think, relate, act) as they have been doing to date? Specifically, if you don’t shift the culture, what is the impact on the two business units that generate the highest revenue/margin?
4- Ideal State. Do the executives who make up the leadership team have clarity about the ideal culture (vision) you are transforming to? Imagine if you woke up a year from now and found that the vision has come true and your goals have been accomplished. What does that look like? When culture change has taken hold, it makes it a lot easier and more likely to achieve your industry-leading/pioneering performance-level goals. How can you tell? What is different? What are some key habits and areas of mastery that you are excited about? What are people inside and outside your company saying about it?
5- Current State. Compared to this ideal, what is missing in the current situation? Do these executives have clarity about the current culture and where you are now? Do you have individual and collective diagnostic tools? From your perspective, how do people need to perform differently in the next X years in order to transform?
6- Culture Plan. Do the executives agree on the gap to close? Do they agree on the plan, priority, and sequence to close it? What have you done already? What is keeping you from closing the gap and shifting to the ideal culture? What are the identified blockers/obstacles?
7- Personal Impact. Why did you raise your hand for this? What matters the most to you? Why? What happens to you if you don’t accomplish the vision? Will you get fired? Will you be disappointed and want to quit?
8- Understanding. Does the leadership team have clarity, shared language, and understanding about how culture evolves and the impact of history on the current state? Have they identified causal factors (e.g., systems, structures) that are part of the work climate? Do they understand how they reinforce and shape the current culture and what may be levers for change in improvement plans?
9- Shared Learning. How well does the leadership team embody the ideal cultural attributes? How are they being supported? Are they first going to create a shared learning environment for both the technical and human dimensions of change?
10- Organizational Impact. How many people in the organization, beyond the leadership team, are being impacted by the transformation?

In addition to questions like these, leaders need a reliable, MRI level of detailed visibility into the invisible components of culture (and a simple model) to understand and discuss where you are currently as a culture — and where you want to be in the near future. You need to see clearly where you have anomalies of ideal culture success and current culture gaps. To have an effective culture strategy, you can’t afford to use anecdotes or guess about the gap to be closed. Culture isn’t declarative; it’s interrogative.

CXO, you got this.

The idea of culture change is easy; the details of execution are complex. Most of us can only speculate how the organization is actually going to respond to change and why. Enterprise level “cascading” plans are unlikely to succeed. When leaders use the word “cascade” in the context of culture change, they are referencing an old corporate communications/change-management paradigm that is useful for communications but NOT useful for the real work of culture change or adult development. Few leaders truly understand how culture works — a new approach is needed to support leaders responsible for shaping culture.

No you can’t “cascade” culture change… but you can scale courageous culture attributes.

The CXOs ideal, courageous culture vision may or may not be possible yet — especially in certain pockets of the organization — and for good reason. Only in the midst of executing an expert culture change prototype can we begin to learn more about what’s possible re: the three, big “HOW-TO?” questions:
1- How to define the way teams should connect to superiors/subordinates to be most effective? Why ? Under what circumstances/situational context?
2- How to break down the silos and unite cross-functional teams? Why? Under what circumstances/what situational context?
3- How to build versions of progress (prototypes) that demonstrate value to the organization. How to define and measure which new prototype elements work/don’t work? Why? Under what circumstances/situational context?

Then we can more strategically explore how to translate that incremental learning into value more broadly and how we might scale these desired, constructive culture attributes.

But before solving the complex execution details mentioned above… we need to focus on understanding/clarity and get alignment around what’s really going on in our culture.

  • What aggressive/defensive norms are working against us? Where are the anomalies working for us? against us? Under what circumstances/situational context?
  • What passive/defensive norms are working against us? Where are the anomalies working for us? against us? Under what circumstances/situational context?
  • What causal factors provide the greatest leverage for change? Why? Under what circumstances/situational context?


If you don’t first get the clarity & alignment…. you’re screwed. You’re not gonna scale or cascade anything besides culture incompetence.

Are you ready for the clarity & alignment?

I think you’re ready. CXO, you got this.


This past year, I met with hundreds of senior executives across the globe for the sole purpose of getting in some high-quality practice reps—working on our path to emotional mastery together. In many geographies, in many languages, in many world-class companies from many industries, we came together to strengthen our innovation mindsets and muscles so that we can accelerate getting to our individual and collective next levels as world-class Jedi business leaders focused on playing the long game.

These leaders are wrestling with the fast pace of change, asking questions like: What does our next-level business environment look like 10 years from now? What kind of company will we need to be to compete in 2030? Who do I need to BE/BECOME to help lead my company to get there successfully? Will my “current-level” thinking and behaving be enough?
Some sessions were private one-on-ones, some were in learning groups, and more often than not we met in the weekly course of business, during work stream meetings, KPI review sessions, M&A integration planning sessions or weekly team meetings. We met so that we could engage in real-time, “learn by doing,” high-quality practice reps.


We were working mostly on experimenting how to make progress on closing our knowing versus doing gaps. We were not trying to focus on all of them, just the one or two that matter most to us right now.

Many senior executives can clearly articulate what their personal leadership gap is (e.g., “I’m a poor listener,” “I don’t ask enough questions,” “I typically react aggressively,” “I display passive-defensive reactivity,” “I am known for my technical abilities, not for developing trust/relationships,” “I don’t overtly walk the talk when it comes to our company culture or company values, but I run the No. 1 sales region, so I think I make up for it that way”). They’ve heard plenty of consistent feedback over the years from their bosses, peers and their 360s. All of them claim to have good intentions about closing those gaps.
Unfortunately, though, many are NOT very intentional about doing the personal work needed to actually close the gaps. They are all sincere (THE GOOD NEWS), but not all serious about it (THE BAD NEWS). Many executives are instead operating out of a default modus operandi, merely working on mitigating the impact of their gaps (after the fact), setting up damage control and disaster recovery/cleanup protocol versus upgrading their ability to deliver their desired next-level performance on the front end.
I know this because I privately asked them some very direct questions like: “You said you’re working on neutralizing your tendency to bully people in meetings (and instead engage them in a way that leaves them feeling strong), but you just talked over three people in the meeting we just had. Did you notice that? How exactly have you been working on closing this leadership gap?”
When they replied that they didn’t actually have a plan or a protocol for practice, I asked, “Why not? Why haven’t you asked for help?” They didn’t have a reason. They usually seemed surprised by the question and obviousness of what I was implying—that they knew what to do but weren’t doing it. When I ask them the follow-up question, it usually sinks in… “So, who are you BEING now that you know what to do and yet are still choosing not to do it?”

I challenge them to first reflect and get clarity—get specific about what different results they want (but are having trouble getting with their current-level approach), get specific about the WHY or the motive for wanting it and then get some expert help to experiment on “getting there” (closing the gap FASTER) by practicing differently. The treatment is simple: deliberate practice, an experimentation lifestyle, test and learn.
“THE JEDI PADAWAN ON THE PATH TO MASTERY” looks and sounds like this: “I’m getting expert help (sometimes challenging + sometimes loving support); I have an explicit/tangible performance goal; I’m engaged in consistent, deliberate/expert practice (mostly with others); I’m seeking out consistent/ objective feedback (testing, learning, game filming); I’m focused on learning to love the process of learning (and sharing that learning with my team).”
I need the same kind of challenge, support, reminder, clarity and awakening to help me be more congruent with my walk/talk. Only then can I determine if I am indeed on the path to mastery (overcoming the gap) or if I am making the all-too-common “dabbling/hacking” (approach to learning) mistake.
“THE DABBLER/HACKER DEFAULTING TO PLAN A” looks and sounds like this: “I’m working on it (mostly on my own); I’m trying harder (when I have time) to not be so reactive, but I’m too busy right now to stop and train; I need more self-discipline to train consistently; I know what needs to be done, I just can’t do it in the moment; I think faster than most people; and, yes, I can get pretty impatient frequently—that’s why people think I’m mad and yelling at them…but I’m not mad, I’m just passionate and moving fast.” 
The “dabbler/hacker” orientation does NOT support effective follow-through on closing the gap. The dabbler/hacker orientation is apparently satisfied at the current level of performance. If they were consciously dissatisfied or suffering enough at the current level, they would approach closing the gap differently. That usually is the telltale sign that we aren’t ready to change, yet. When will we be ready? Don’t worry…there will always be more suffering. When we are done suffering, that’s when we will be ready to change. With that new level of awareness, openness and curiosity, we will be ready to experiment with a new expert approach and a new expert system to find ways to close the gaps more effectively. Then, and usually only then, we can see past the DOING gap and get to work on the root cause: the BEING gap.
Yes, there is an expert way to accelerate our own readiness. Just trying harder doesn’t work.
In some cases, the awareness will come too late and the unnecessary suffering will lead to permanent damage. In some cases, the stakes are too high to allow suffering and permanent damage. Even then, unfortunately, we often approach these kinds of high stakes domains that we say we care about (e.g., taking care of others and taking care of ourselves) so unconsciously that a game film replay of our lives would show us that sometimes we pursue the less effective “dabbler/hacker” approach, even when it matters most.
None of us would say that it is OK to be a “dabbler/hacker” when it comes to our important relationships, right? Is it OK to approach our health with this “dabbler/hacker” orientation? Is it OK to approach our leadership development with this “dabbler/hacker” orientation?

Is it ok (for world-class professional leaders) to approach our leadership development with this “dabbler/hacker” orientation?

Of course not. There’s too much riding on it. There are too many people counting on us to BE a “next-level” leader already, and maybe we’re behind schedule. Taking a mastery approach in the leadership domain will have an exponential impact on all of the results we get, in all of the dimensions we care about most (e.g., career, physical, mental, emotional, relational, spiritual).
To succeed in a time of building agile/adaptive businesses, the most effective leaders are UN-LEARNING the outdated, top-down, “leader-knows-best” success formula and are instead LEARNING to hold themselves 100% responsible for the fate of the company on one hand…and on the other hand hold 0% (absolutely no) responsibility for controlling the choices that need to be made by other people. Let’s read that again…

We leaders are 100% responsible for the fate of the company on one hand…and on the other hand, we assume 0% (absolutely NO) responsibility for controlling the choices that need to be made by other people.

This key leadership polarity may seem counterintuitive, but it is more effective when it comes to exceptional, sustainable results. Successful leaders today design and grow cultures where diverse groups of human beings can bring 100% of their individuality, creativity, courage and curiosity to bear on the most complex problems of the times, and cultures and systems where there can be leaders at all levels making better, faster, more collaborative decisions. That’s how you “fit in here.” You speak up, ask for help, test, learn, make mistakes, etc.
We can’t fake that kind of next level leadership. That’s a BEING fix, not a DOING fix. Who we are (BEING) determines what gets traction at the DOING level and then ultimately determines the results we get. That’s why New Year’s resolutions don’t usually work; they are approached from the DOING level.
I hope 10 years from now I will become the kind of leader that is capable of BEING more conscious and deliberate than I am right now. I’m much further ahead of where I was a decade ago, but I still have a long, long way to go.
I didn’t start the deeper work on my BEING level until I became a parent. I wish I had started much sooner. But that’s when I started to get more serious about waking up and choosing to focus on becoming something better. I finally saw the glaring dissatisfaction I had with my current level and realized WHY I wanted to become a better version of myself. That’s when I started engaging in the mastery of next-level practices and eventually started seeing the next-level results.
What are you focused on learning? What do you want to experiment on in 2020? Let’s get specific. Let’s celebrate noticing our gaps. Let’s build our 2020 plan. “The question we all need to think about is when and where to play a long-term game. A good place to start is with things that compound: knowledge, relationships, and finances.” –FS
This post is an invitation to myself and others to notice where we might be taking the dabbler/hacker approach versus the necessary mastery approach. Use this list of reflection-provoking planning questions below. Modify them, make them your own, or use a different list of questions to capture your thinking for an increased likelihood of BEING successful in 2020. Once you have this clarity, then you can more effectively plan your weekly sprints (experiments) and quarterly goals.
• What did I love most about 2019? When was I happiest?
• What am I most grateful for from 2019?
• Which three moments were most meaningful?
• Where did I really use my strengths?
• How did I live out my values/purpose?
• What were my biggest disappointments? …frustrations? …failures?
• What were my biggest inconsistencies with my values/purpose/priorities?
• What still makes me feel angry? …sad? …anxious? …scared?
• What is the most honest thing I can say about my disappointments?
• What is the most compassionate thing I could say to myself about my disappointments? (reframing)
• What momentum did I start to build in 2019 that I want to take forward?
• What do I love to do that I want to do more of in 2020?
• What core values are most inspiring to me?
• What priorities do I want to focus on in 2020?
• What would be most inspiring for me to accomplish in 2020?
• What would be my heart’s desire or biggest dream?
Click here for access to the downloadable PDF or email me at raff.viton@axialent.com if you would like a PDF of the full 2019 REFLECTION/2020 PLANNING DOCUMENT.

You already know this…burnout is caused by poor workplace culture; poor workplace culture is caused by ineffective leadership who can’t yet create an environment of escalating performance, work/life integration, connection and purpose in the face of escalating change.

“Poor workplace culture leads to a 157% increase in the incidence rate of moderate to severe burnout.”

While some companies are trying to improve the employee experience, most are missing the human part of employee experience and its intrinsic connection to workplace culture – and so our wellbeing is continuing to suffer beyond what’s reasonable.
79% of employees are suffering from burnout:

If your company culture has been reporting high employee burnout, chances are its still getting worse not better. Burnout is still causing many employees to leave. “The likelihood to leave an organization for a similar role, pay, and benefits at another company actually increased to 59%.” Most cultures are not yet strong enough to cause employees to stay.

The 2020 Global Culture Study report (O.C.Tanner Institute and Human Synergistics)one of the largest organizational culture studies in the world, showcases a very holistic view of workplace culture and employee experience. Burnout exists when one or more of these factors are present: exhaustion, futility and/or avoidance.

Outdated approaches to culture development just don’t work and employees view the employee experience differently than organizations.


OPTIMIZE YOURSELF: Transform burnout into meaning, focus and innovation advantage. YOU are the most important innovation project at your company and the most valuable investment in the employee experience. 
Let’s not wait for the company to fix your personal burnout let alone your company culture. Let’s fix our own burnout, take responsibility for our team’s micro-culture and/or let’s leave a bad culture for a better one. We have more than enough capacity for change. Everything we need to be UNSTOPPABLE and to get to our next level of performance (whatever we decide that is) is already inside of us.
Don’t focus on changing – just focus on learning – experiment and learn (test & learn) what new sustainable practices work best for you to help you optimize your life. Think about yourself as the most important lean-start-up initiative ever: “I AM AN INNOVATION PROJECT”. Don’t just train alone – ask for help and train/practice/get the reps in together. Training together is how adults accelerate and deepen learning. Don’t just try harder – experiment & train with NEW, emerging best practices and expert tools. Practice with deliberate focused training, clear goals, immediate feedback, expert coaching and progress measurement. Practice like your health/wellbeing, relationships and success depends on it. Train and experiment on the things that matter most to you – not your company.

Some companies are investing in culture and employee experience in new and more holistic ways – visit IamAnInnovationProject.com or NoMoreDyingAsCaterpillars.com to see new programs like “LEADING DISRUPTION & INNOVATION” – “OPTIMAL ME” (created by and in collaboration with J.Oseas Ramirez Assad) and others that have been piloted and are now being deployed across very special, Fortune 500 companies. These companies are investing in helping individuals override the entrenched socially-defined norms of the system by taking the focus off of the system and focusing deliberately on the individual. Most companies will not invest in you quickly enough – or deeply enough – so you need to optimize yourself. Your success & wellbeing depends on it. You already know this – I’m just reminding you that you know this.

CXO you are, after all, known as a courageous individual & the culture is a reflection of the leadership (past and present).
Years of expertly-executed reorganizing and cost cutting have recently been exchanged for retooling and future-proofing the company against disruption, uncertainty and change. An increased ability to anticipate, adapt and respond more quickly will drive greater advantage for the organization, keep us healthy and strong for the road ahead.
For many months, the board and the CEO have been focused on a more generative and healthier balance of efficiency, velocity, flexibility, long-termism, sustainabla-bla-bla results, strengthening core yada-yada values, human capitabla-bla and clarity of purpose + profit bla-bla-bla. (Even if you believe in these “buzz words” – we all recognize that they can be a trigger/distraction.)
The organization is DOING a lot in the name of change with regard to strategy, vision and business process. And your company has already invested millions in new product development/innovation, agile processes/structures, office design, change management protocol, new internal communication campaigns and many town halls. You even built beautiful digital centers of excellence.
Meanwhile, new competitors are growing rapidly and creating a significant threat. Despite all the changes you have made, the market is telling you that you are not executing fast enough and the transformation is not happening deeply enough. Your brands and digital channels are growing X times slower than your competitors. Even your newer executives, hired from companies that were “born agile and digital” are experiencing surprising difficulties and unexpected blockages from within the organization.
You strongly believe that the company culture is what’s causing the lag, drag and counterproductive friction. Culture is unintentionally undermining the execution of your growth strategy. The organization is not moving forward in terms of the performance improvements expected by now. Your leadership team wants better results. Accordingly, you committed to your pioneering CEO that you would Transform (with a capital T) your company into a courageous and adaptive, high-performance culture — one that is fully engaged, agile, creative and collaborative…one that is more capable of digital-yadayada, customer-centribla-bla, etc.
“Transformation with a capital T, which we define as an intense, organization-wide program to enhance performance (an earnings improvement of 25 percent or more, for example) and to boost organizational health. When such transformations succeed, they radically improve the important business drivers, such as topline growth, capital productivity, cost efficiency, operational effectiveness, customer satisfaction, and sales excellence.” –Bucy, Hall and Yakola (McKinsey & Co.)
Your C-suite peers and report directs are likely somewhat cynical about the idea of culture Transformation being successful at your company (and justifiably so) — not because they think you are insincere, but because they are convinced that the system “is what it is.” The system always wins, and the system itself lacks the objectivity to be fixed by the system.

Our traditions are usually stronger than our intentions to change.

Plus when the other execs talk about being on board with fixing the culture with transformation efforts, whether they are aware of it or not, they are likely talking about transformation with a little “t.” In the spirit of Bruce Lee, rather than being in such a hurry to fix it, we’re better off if we first focus on enriching our understanding of it. Most executive teams lack a shared language and understanding of this complex topic. Most HR and change management functions don’t have the expertise to best support the executive team with an effective orientation to the topic let alone help them make a conscious choice about committing (or not) to a strong plan to develop cultural empathy and lead the way. (The strong HR execs that do have the expertise, are often caught in a very tough spot, because they are viewed as part of the system themselves.)
Most executives are unaware of how unaware they are when it comes to leading Transformation and shaping culture. We are often unaware of our own contribution to the very thing we complain about. When it comes to the big “T,” we (leaders) are often the limiting factor. Here is what I mean: Many senior executives and their peers don’t really know how culture works from a socio-technical systems (see image below) standpoint. Most don’t know the difference between organizational culture and climate. Most don’t have a clear understanding of the levers for change, the sequence of steps, the essential versus important, etc. Most don’t have experience experimenting (and learning) with emerging best practices in adult development.
You and your peers have earned the benefit of the doubt — that you are sincere about change (+ you have more than enough courageous) — but only you know if you’re serious about the deep (identity) work of Transformation necessary to change your individual and collective BE-ING level.

“Most are not serious about change because it requires senior managers to change their behavior. You know how corporate bosses can be. This is not always a very welcome method. I’ve been kicked out of plenty of boardrooms.” Eric Ries (author of The Lean Startup)

Unlike Mr. Ries, I am actually not advocating that you should (or shouldn’t) be serious about it. (No need to kick me out of your boardroom.) I believe it makes total sense if you’re not ready yet. I believe it depends on your business context and it depends on what you/your system truly value most. If you (and your system) value control, obedience and compliance to old norms – then it is a mistake to promise new standards of courage, collaboration and creativity. It is a mistake to make promises about the big “T” when you are only ready for the little “t.”
How do you know when you are ready? Typically, readiness doesn’t come until you have suffered enough trying to fix it the old way – just focused on the doing & trying harder. Once you are dissatisfied enough with your current-level results, then you are ready to consider expanding the goal beyond executing/DO-ING the little “t” and instead work on the big “T” = the BE-ING. Our biases/norms today cause us to react to change with a disproportionate reliance on the “DOING” (technical domains/hard skills, e.g., technology, behaviors) versus securing the path to value by also focusing on the “BE-ING” (human domains/soft skills, e.g., mindsets and identity). Devaluing serious attention on the human domain (in favor of the technical) has historically been the default protocol for most corporations. To succeed at the big “T”, we need both at full strength; we need to upgrade both.

While you may be pitching the big “T,” the majority of the executive team may only be agreeing to the little “t.” Despite the frustration and burnout, if they are not yet ready to agree to the big “T,” then be patient. They will be ready soon enough. For now, “no” is the second-best answer to “yes.” At least then, you can all make that choice consciously/more deliberately. Again, they will be ready soon enough to choose readiness. Change is a chronic condition. It is persistent and long lasting. There will be plenty more suffering. Eventually, once the suffering becomes too great…those of you that stuck around will collectively be more ready to courageously experiment with the deeper, more effective work of the big “T” together.

It’s not your fault if you’re not collectively ready for the big “T” right now – but nonetheless it is your responsibility.

Here is a sampling of consistent leadership team quotes from executives (in various states of individual readiness) across many different industries:

Many executive teams approach culture change with the wrong mindset and a limited set of tools. Few ever get to the real work of Transformation.
We often hear root-cause explanations (for why it’s so hard) that sound more like “blame-centric” perspectives and worldviews, suggesting that specific people (e.g., millennials, old-timers) “who just don’t get it” make the culture work difficult. Many of us get too caught up in the drama of focusing on where/who to blame for the lack of progress. The analysts/media will blame the brand (for being exactly what they said it was — sleepy, stuck in the past). The board will blame the C-suite. The C-suite/leadership team blames the board, and now they blame you, the CXO (but not to your face). The leadership team blames each other. The leadership team blames HR. The leadership team and HR blame middle management and their inability to “get with the program.” Middle management blames leadership and their unwillingness to listen. The frontline employees blame their direct manager and the corporate ivory tower. And the suffering continues.
This response is a reflection of the current culture. The culture is a reflection of the current (and past) leadership. This tendency for blame and persecution will only stifle improvement + learning & development efforts and make it even harder. I like to say, if it’s hard for you… then chances are you’re doing it wrong. There is a much more effective response available when the team is ready for it.
It’s good that you are courageous. Unfortunately, courage doesn’t scale from an individual act. Courage is a group behavior. Individual heroics are distracting and represent a VERY misguided storyline when it comes to building a courageous culture. The reality is that most courageous individuals often appear less courageous when they are working in a low trust environment. Lencioni’s work showed us that when the environment is lacking trust then the consequence is a paralyzing sense of bystander-ing that occurs from a fear of conflict, fear of speaking up and fear of making mistakes, lack of commitment, etc.
Usually, at least one leadership team member (avoiding ownership of the trust issue altogether) will say something out of desperation to bring the focus back to courage like:

“I just want courageous people who will try new things and charge up the hill on their own; I want generals, not soldiers waiting for me to tell them what to do. They should know what to do by now. They’re either soft, they’re lazy, they don’t care or they don’t get it. People need to know we are serious about this transformation. Maybe we should fire some of the cowardly people to make the rest move faster.”


The overwhelming majority of your employees aren’t lazy and they aren’t cowardly. They aren’t stuck; employees do get it. Your employees are delivering on exactly what you/your system still values most. They are actually delivering on the current, unwritten norms of the culture = conformity.
Inside an organization, courage is not something you DO alone.
As the existential, humanistic psychologist/philosopher Rollo Reese May famously said (alongside Viktor Frankl and other major proponents of existential psychotherapy),

“the opposite of courage…is not cowardice; it is conformity”— it is the need to fit in. 

Courage, like conformity, has to be the group’s agreed-upon way of BEING – a group identity – for it to be scalable and sustainable.

We have to learn to make courage an act of conformity – not an act of valor. 

The expert way to do that, is to learn-by-doing – with the explicit intent of becoming. (check out this multi-dimensional example of “courage as a team sport” illustrated by the SPURS)

So if courage is a team sport, how do we make courage a cultural act of conformity?
Psychological safety is the answer, according to Amy Edmondson research from Harvard. Her work illustrates how great performers who find themselves in fear-based, aggressive-defensive and passive-defensive cultures will likely behave like they are afraid to make mistakes and therefore don’t take risks and don’t pursue learning new things as energetically (or as wide-spread) as courageous cultures. The same employees, once they transfer out of the fear-based environment into a constructive culture, will behave courageously in the face of new challenges and changing circumstances. The same goes for adaptability and agility. Most organizations learn in the long run that it is not simply about DOING courageous/agile stuff; it is about BEING courageous/agile. Transformation with a big “T” is a team sport. Transformation happens more quickly and more deeply in community. Culture = the visible and invisible norms (e.g., systems, symbols, behaviors) of our community. Culture is about learning what it takes to fit in—beyond the poster on the wall and the verbal and nonverbal messages.
Culture is about decoding the way we get stuff done, successfully around here – historically, currently and ideally. Leaders have to be crystal clear, aligned and exquisitely consistent about their approach/curiosity to explore those gaps.

Leaders need a reliable, MRI level of detailed visibility into the invisible components of culture (and a simple model) to understand and discuss where you are currently as a culture — and where you want to be in the near future. You need to see clearly where you have anomalies of ideal culture success and current culture gaps. To have an effective culture strategy, you can’t afford to use anecdotes or guess about the gap to be closed. It is easy to check. “Check” means the expert use of qualitative and quantitative tools. “Check” also means ask. Just ask. And your openness to receive the answers matters. Culture isn’t declarative; it’s interrogative. Here’s a line of questioning that I use to check on the awareness, urgency and alignment of executive teams involved in both the big “T” and little “t” imperatives:
I’m curious…you are a year or so into this transformation…how’s it going? What are you most excited about? What are you most concerned about? How are you feeling about the transformation?

  1. What is the business reason/goal for this transformation? What are the key metrics used to measure degrees of success in the execution of this transformation?
  2. What are the business consequences of not transforming successfully? On a scale of 1 – 10, how important/urgent is this? What if you don’t intervene and people just do (think, relate, act) as they have been doing to date?
  3. IDEAL STATE: Do the executives who make up the leadership team have clarity about the ideal culture (vision) you are transforming to? Imagine if you woke up a year from now and find that the vision has come true and your goals have been accomplished. What does that look like? When culture change has taken hold, it makes it a lot easier and more likely to achieve your industry-leading/pioneering performance-level goals. How can you tell? What does that look like/feel like? What is different? What are some key habits and areas of mastery that you are excited about? What are people inside and outside your company saying about it?
  4. CURRENT STATE: Compared to this ideal, what is missing in the current situation? Do these executives have clarity about the current culture and where you are at now? Do you have individual and collective diagnostic tools? From your perspective, how do people need to perform differently in the next X years in order to transform?
  5. CULTURE PLAN: Do the executives agree on the gap to close? Do they agree on the plan, priority and sequence to close it? What have you done already? What is keeping you from closing the gap and shifting to the ideal culture? What are the identified blockers/obstacles?
  6. PERSONAL IMPACT: Why did you raise your hand for this? What matters the most to you? Why? What happens to you (personally) if you don’t accomplish the vision? What happens to the council?
  7. Does the leadership team have clarity, shared language and understanding about how culture evolves and the impact of history on the current state? Have they identified causal factors (e.g., systems, structures) that are part of the work climate? Do they understand how they reinforce and shape the current culture and what may be levers for change in improvement plans?
  8. How well does the leadership team embody the ideal cultural attributes? How are they being supported? Are they first going to create a shared learning environment for both the technical and human dimensions of change?
  9. How many people in the organization, beyond the leadership team, are being impacted by the transformation?

Senior leaders report culture as being critical to business success. A new approach is needed to support leaders responsible for shaping culture.

  • Understand and appreciate the complexity and unique culture perspectives of peers and experts.
  • Understand how culture is created and the impact of history on the current state as well as important aspects of the work climate that shape and reinforce the current culture.
  • Build a common language for understanding the layers of culture using qualitative and quantitative methods.
  • Discover how culture evolves. Identify paths that increase the likelihood of shared learning and positive results with any major change effort.
  • Identify causal factors (systems, structures, etc.) that are part of the work climate. Understand how they reinforce the current culture and how they may be levers for change in improvement plans.

It is always amazing to see what is possible when we engage each other in a newly designed dialogue/mutual learning experience. Some very insightful commentary and shifts of perspective take place. Where transformation is the goal, the unit of work is dialogue.
I am always reminded that we (leaders) have a lot to learn about the complexity of culture change efforts and the impact our own leadership has on keeping the status quo (traditions) in place — despite our intentions to lead change. Perhaps in conversations like these, more leaders can begin to see how MAYBE it makes sense that our people are stuck and confused about what to do with regard to culture change because we (the leaders) are stuck and confused too. Usually, that sparks an environment/energy that is more ready than ever to learn how to shift culture more quickly and sustainably.
The approach and sequence matter. The means is the end.

The idea of the work to be done is simpletest and learn what works (in the context of business) to help deliver better results + build stronger team trust + create stronger sense of individual fulfillment and satisfaction. The details of the execution are complex.

It is about engaging with others differently. It is about how we choose to take care of each other while pursuing excellence, together. Here are examples of journeys, shifts and models (used by Axialent) that are most effective at helping high-performance teams build an even more courageous culture inside of multinational organizations.
“BE agile versus DO agile” (Supporting one of the largest AGILE transformation projects in the world.)

“From Bureaucratic to Innovative” (Supporting R&D teams across the world leverage the potential present in the system.)

We can’t BECOME courageous just by deciding to do so any more than we can just BECOME healthy just by deciding to do so. Deciding isn’t the same as being. If everyone could just BE the better, more effective version of ourselves we would. We would all eat healthy, exercise, meditate and stop doing the old counterproductive habits that trip us up. We aren’t lazy, apathetic, lacking discipline or willpower.  We all have competing priorities – some we aren’t even consciously aware of. We are all at our own current level – working on our own next level. We are all somewhat socially-defined and self-authoring. We are all social beings. We all need to fit in. Courage is a group behavior & a way of working/BE-ING together. A courageous culture unleashes and amplifies our courage – it expands our capability to learn and adapt.

To win today, high-velocity organizations need to fuel unprecedented learning, awareness, people development, cognitive flexibility, complex problem-solving and impeccable coordination of action (at scale). To sustain it at scale, we need to build deliberately developmental cultures (mutual learning environment vs unilateral control) fostering safe, courageous, high-trust, high engagement, productive conflict/healthy debate, mutual accountability and a focus on results.
How will you help your organization become the kind of culture that is even more courageous, adaptive and agile? We (collectively) have to work on BECOMING that kind of culture over time – becoming an environment where diverse human beings can bring 110% of their grit, energy, intelligence, creativity and courage to bear on the increased challenges that face us all.
Change is a persistent, unstoppable, chronic condition (a 21st-century lifestyle) that we’ll always have to live with & embrace together as a group.
The condition is complex, but the treatment is simple. Do more of what makes you stronger: EQ/Mindsets+AQ/Muscle Building. Prioritize and strengthen the muscle groups that upgrade the culture vs fall victim to our unconscious obedience to current norms.
We’re all always working on culture — we’re either helping it become more adaptive and courageous or we’re unintentionally keeping it stuck.
CXO, You got this!?