Managers as Culture Keepers with Leanne Elliott (2/2)

Welcome to episode 238 of the Nerd Journey Podcast [@NerdJourney]! We’re John White (@vJourneyman) and Nick Korte (@NetworkNerd_) – two technology professionals with backgrounds in IT Operations and Sales Engineering on a mission to help others accelerate career progression and increase job satisfaction by bringing listeners the advice we wish we’d been given earlier in our careers. In today’s episode we share part 2 of an interview with Leanne Elliott, discussing the work Leanne and Al do at their company Oblong, what culture is and how they became podcasters, advice for those considering a management career, defining what culture means for a company, and how managers / leaders can impact culture and even help their teams own it.

Original Recording Date: 07-04-2023

Leanne Elliott is a certified business psychologist and leadership coach. She founded a consultancy to help owner-led businesses navigate people and culture with her co-founder and husband Al Elliott. If you missed part 1 of our discussion with Leanne you can find it in Episode 237.

Topics – The Work at Oblong, Becoming Podcasters to Widen the Message, Managers Should Expect Challenges, The Keepers of Culture

3:09 – The Work at Oblong

  • We decide to turn the conversation to some of the work Leanne and Al focus on at OblongHQ to foster high performing workplace cultures. John references Truth, Lies, and Workplace Culture Episode 2 – 4 Elements of an Amazing Team.
    • Culture can feel like something very intangible, and there are over 50 definitions of workplace culture in existence.
    • To translate this into commercial outcomes, Leanne says they have tried to distill it into foundations leaders can provide, nurture, and embed within the organization. This covers things like creating a vision, how people do recruiting, how they performance manage, and how people are led.
    • Leanne and Al take practical, actionable lessons which translate to positive employee attitudes and behaviors.
    • They talk a lot about employee engagement because this is the output of culture – things like how engaged people are, the amount of job satisfaction someone experiences, the sense of belonging they experience, how much extra effort they are willing to put into their jobs (dedication / commitment to the organization), etc. These are things we can measure, track, and link to commercial outcomes.
    • More engaged employees at a business usually indicates they will experience less turnover, less absenteeism, have higher profitability, more agility to change, faster speed to market, etc.
    • Most of the lessons tend to come back to employee engagement and insights because they are things that can be measured and things that can be changed / adjusted within culture.
      • For example, putting a ping pong table in the break room might be quite difficult to measure as far as impact on business performance.
      • Leanne tells us what is being done in an organization can often be detached from why things are being done within an organization, and what works in one organization may not work in another. The reason ping pong tables and such were put into organizational break rooms is they encourage people to take breaks, move around, and collaborate / build relationships with colleagues (all of which have a positive impact on employee engagement).
      • To leverage things like the above which encourage people to take breaks requires some intention. People with a massive workload are not going to take breaks and utilize these facilities. It goes back to detachment of what is being done from what it was done in the first place.
    • Nick says the separation of what and why is what we do when we check our V.I.T.A.L.S.
      • Leanne mentions the above is what and why at the individual level compared to what and why at an organizational level.
      • “Organizations are spending money on interventions that they…don’t have any way of measuring the impact on the individual or the organization or…any kind of connected intention behind it like ‘how does this feed into our culture and values? Is there alignment?’ Because any incongruence in that just drives us nuts…. Not being authentic as an organization, not living your values…people see straight through it.” – Leanne Elliott on the importance of keeping actions in line with intention and values
      • It might be better to do nothing than to do something and not know why you are doing it or how it could have an impact on an organization.

8:39 – Becoming Podcasters to Widen the Message

  • Why did Leanne and Al start the Truth, Lies, and Workplace Culture podcast?
    • It was about connecting the what and the why.
    • Leanne says they were aware of the impact of their client work on leaders to provide clarity and control over a narrative over which they would historically struggle. They were also able to see the feedback from employees within these organizations and how they grew over time.
    • “It felt like we needed to take this message wider.” – Leanne Elliott, on starting the Truth, Lies, and Workplace Culture Podcast
    • Not every small business can afford to engage a psychologist or consultant to do some of this work to build an internal capability. Leanne talks about reverse engineering what is being done, trying to let go of popular trends, and focusing on the why to help leaders understand some of the things they could do for free which will have a larger impact on the success of the business, its performance, and the performance of the people.
    • Starting the podcast was to bring some of the best practice lessons to owner led businesses so they can start to understand people and culture within their organization, understand what they as leaders could do to make things less stressful, etc.
    • The things they discuss on the show have evolved to sometimes discuss topics talked about in the media and even sensationalized.
      • Leanne encourages us to consider quiet quitting as one example of a topic we might see sensationalized in media. Often times we see this topic pointed at millennials as a group who don’t want to work.
      • “Quiet quitting is disengagement, and that’s been around for decades. We’ve been doing that for decades. Let’s not use gen z and millennials as a scapegoat here. Let’s not do that.” – Leanne Elliott, on trying to set the record straight as relates to topics often sensationalized in media news
      • John mentions the idea of quiet quitting felt new in its name only (not in concept) and seemed like an attempt to fill column space in the news. There is a decade old concept of retire on active duty. At one time there were people classified as road warriors who were doing just enough to not get fired or managed out of organizations, but when someone referred to this as quiet quitting there was outrage.
      • Leanne says there’s even something called loud quitting now that Al and Leanne talked about in Truth, Lies, and Workplace Culture Episode 45: EDI 101 for Leaders: Breaking Barriers & Fostering Inclusive Workplaces.
    • Owner-led businesses are overwhelmed by these topics, by not having enough time, by workforce skills shortages, by seemingly overinflated salaries people seem to be wanting, etc.
      • “It can be very easy and very natural for us as humans to assign blame.” – Leanne Elliott
    • Someone might blame a generation of workers for a behavior / trend they are either seeing or hearing about instead of looking at themselves. Leanne and Al are looking to re-educate people and help leaders take accountability (which can be heavy and is weighing many people down right now).
      • “But we have to wear that accountability. We have to do that. We can find ways to make the load lighter, but ultimately we have to take accountability for how people are thinking, feeling, and behaving in our business.” – Leanne Elliott, on the accountability of leaders
    • John mentions equity imbalance prevalent in smaller businesses where owners might be viewing any missteps as an attack on the equity of their business (which is probably an extreme and toxic attitude to have). Even in medium / large businesses there can be a mismatch in the amount of equity people have in the organization and the expectation for them to be fully invested in the organization (as if they are owners). Is this acknowledged when someone needs to present what healthy workplace culture looks like or solve a problem in that area?
      • Leanne says entrepreneurs typically make poor people leaders. They like to embrace change, have a big tolerance for risk, and enjoy disruption / pursuing new ideas. Leanne makes a joke about Al sometimes chasing shiny things and needing a little redirection.
      • Leanne mentions there will come a time in owner-led businesses when the entrepreneur needs to get out of people leadership. She has seen people who were in operations serving as a right hand / number 2 to the owner take over once organizations reach a certain size to bring balance.
      • “You get to a point of your growth where you don’t want disruption. You don’t want that level of ambiguity. You need a fair level of stability in process, in frameworks, in structure.” – Leanne Elliott, on the point in time when an entrepreneur may need to step down as the organizational leader
      • If an entrepreneur is frustrated that people within their organization do not care as much as they do, it’s time to think on whether someone else would be better served to motivate the workforce.
      • The leader also has to make sure they are not assuming everyone is motivated by money alone. This is not the case as people are motivated by many other factors.
      • We also cannot assume people will work for a company until they retire. People are wondering what they will get from committing their career to an organization for a few years (maybe 2-5 years, for example). It could be fulfillment, development / expanding skills, purpose, money, working on new projects / in new roles, etc.
      • “It’s so simple. It all comes down to asking your people what you want, and within the commercial constraints of your business, try and give it to them.” – Leanne Elliott

16:50 – Managers Should Expect Challenges

  • The above from Leanne may have described the role of a good manager.
    • “Your job as a manager is to enable the performance of others.” – Leanne Elliott
    • A manager is there to facilitate and make people’s jobs easier and show empathic concern. Perhaps it’s changing a process to make it better, allowing people more flexibility in the how and where they work, etc.
    • There will always be some kind of constraint for the manager (budget, culture, leadership expectations of where and how we work).
    • “Listen to your people. Don’t judge. Have empathic concern, and try and make their lives a little bit easier.” – Leanne Elliott on advice for managers
  • What about those things the person seeking to be a manager needs to think about before stepping into the role? What are some of the things you cannot see before you get into doing the job?
    • Leanne tells us that water runs downhill, and there will be things one did not expect that happen after getting a role. Middle management can be one of the worst positions to be in because you can be hit with challenges from every side.
    • The key to this is working on yourself. Leanne recommends seeking to engage a coach to help you develop in areas like self-awareness, emotional intelligence, and understanding your values.
    • “Do you want to be a manager because you want to manage people and you want to have this role where what you do will impact other people? And you have to take responsibility for that, but you also reap the rewards of that….Is that the role you want, or is it just because that’s the next role up the ladder to get more pay?” – Leanne Elliott, on the motivations of those seeking to be managers
    • “Being a manager is really hard, and unless you just fundamentally want to be in that people leadership role, I’m not sure it’s worth it to be honest.” – Leanne Elliott
    • Those seeking management / leadership roles need to understand there will be many challenges that come at you and many times you make mistakes. It’s about how you respond to those challenges, and there may be / seem like more days you’re a bad manager than a good manager. People are going to judge the way you respond in those moments and may judge someone who makes mistakes along the way more kindly than someone who costs through as an amazing people manager.
    • It’s important to invest in yourself. Leanne encourages looking at your own mental health, well being, and where you gain energy. No matter the strength of your desire to be a people manager, it is going to be stressful and take a toll on you. Consider how you will recharge and disconnect from work because the middle manager needs this to build resiliency.
    • For the new manager expectations will be high, and support may be fairly low.
    • Nick asks about the concept of “hiding the wires” mentioned by Leanne in this episode of Truth, Lies, and Workplace Culture.
    • Leanne had a mentor named John who told her in her role as a manager she would experience stress but that managers do not want to pass that on to their team.
    • “Putting that stress on other people is completely counterproductive. You need to hide the wires. You need to create an environment where all they need to worry about is doing their job and they have your support to help them do their job well.” – Leanne Elliott on advice for the manager / leader
    • The above sounds easy but is difficult and stressful.

20:44 – The Keepers of Culture

  • Nick heard recently in a training that “managers are culture keepers,” which seems true based on the discussions with Leanne.

    • Leanne’s personal favorite definition of culture is from John Amaechi. He defines it as “the worst behaviors tolerated.”
    • Suppose you’re a manager claiming to create an environment of respectful treatment among employees. If you observe someone being disrespectful and do not take action (i.e. do not deal with that behavior in an appropriate way), tolerating this bad behavior will define your culture.
      • The above is true regardless of what may be marketed to candidates about the company’s culture, what senior leaders say, or what may be written in company values.
      • “Bad behaviors that are tolerated, even that smallest pocket of toxicity, that’s what defines your culture. And you’re right. That’s why managers are culture keepers.” – Leanne Elliott
    • John says this is powerful but difficult.
      • Becoming skilled at having those difficult conversations and managing these confrontations is a practical skill managers can learn.
      • There are a number of practical skills building courses and tools we can put in place for managers to support them. Leanne tells us it will come down to empathy / emotional intelligence and authenticity.
      • “The two things, when they marry together…you create managers and leaders that people tell stories about.” – Leanne Elliott on the importance of empathy and authenticity in leadership
    • Setting culture for a team as a manager is difficult because the team is made up of individuals who change slowly over time. John walked in as the new manager of his team, for example.
      • Hopefully the new manager can set a tone for their team and only make small changes over time.
      • It is challenging to confront conflict / toxic behavior in the moment without feeling like one may be coming down too harshly or exercising too much role power.
      • And with the implementation of small changes, it’s about how you implement them to ensure you come across as changing things for the intent of improvement.
      • John says it’s hard as a manager to hide those wires when you’re asked to do something that doesn’t make a lot of sense.
  • Leanne says she has been there as a manager and been asked to do things that don’t make sense. It depends on your relationship with your manager as to how much you can question or push back. Some things that worked really well for Leanne were:

    • When asked to do something you think is silly, take a minute to determine whether it’s you that thinks this or it’s your team that thinks this. Get some feedback from the team on what you have all been asked to do. Some members of the team may believe it is silly, while others may not.
    • Depending on the amount of freedom you have to implement a change / operationally, you may be able to tweak it to work better operationally. A good senior leader will want to know this so the change is more effective and more sustainable for the team.
    • When Leanne was at Pinnacle People, she talked with her team early on about what the organizational values meant to them as a team, how they thought the values translated into what the team did, the behaviors they would want to see from each other, and what behaviors would not be tolerated.
      • This exercise was used to create a team charter.
      • It might seem too formal, but Leanne tells us this type of reset moment that helps everyone understand what is and is not acceptable. It’s something that came from the entire team and not from Leanne only as the manager.
      • Celebrate the positive behaviors team members exhibit in their work because positive reinforcement is more effective than negative reinforcement. Provide specific examples to recognize good behavior, and tie it to the impact on the person and on the team.
      • Over time the behaviors get embedded in the team.
      • “So if somebody does engage in a behavior that isn’t tolerated, you won’t need to tell them. The team will tell them.” – Leanne Elliott
    • John says this is a powerful model to go through, and the challenge is in the details like trying to do it with a specific team with a specific group of personalities.
    • It’s important to know what the motivation for something being handed down and its intent / how it aligns to the company values. Without that, there is ambiguity.
      • It could be a change is coming down to solve a problem happening in the majority of the organization that isn’t necessarily a problem for your team.
      • Maybe the change helps prevent a future operational problem, etc.
      • “Without the context, things can be really confusing.” – John White
    • Leanne says this comes back to connecting the what and the why.
      • It’s ok to question something as a manager or ask senior leaders for clarity on the why behind something you need to implement.
      • Leanne gives an example of a time at Pinnacle People where the size of a specific contract quadrupled inside of a month. The team lost track of some of the people they were serving through the contract.
      • Leanne spoke to each coach about their case load to determine what might have been slipping through the cracks in the support provided to the customers under each coach’s purview. It may seem micromanagerial, but it was necessary because the team had lost control over the situation. Leanne let people know the reason for this was the rapid growth and getting control back and not anything any one person did.
      • Over time, they kept this process in place, and it became part of the coaching sessions Leanne had with her direct reports to help brainstorm solutions to problems. People understood how they were being measured and knew how to predict their performance as of the first day of each month. They would bring problem situations and challenges with customers to these discussions with Leanne, and she helped them figure out a path forward.
      • The company picked up this process and rolled it out to every other contract within the business. And each job coach was wondering what they did wrong to make their manager want to go through their case load with a fine tooth comb. It seemed like they were being micromanaged.
      • “You’ve lost the intent. You’ve lost the why. It’s not what we do. It’s why we do it. That’s why it’s important. It comes back to connecting those two things.” – Leanne Elliot, on connecting what and why as a manager
      • John says from now on ping pong table for him will be short hand for having what disconnected from why.
  • If you want to follow up with Leanne about this episode…

  • Mentioned in the outro

    • We wondered when we spoke to Al Elliot in Episode 235 and Episode 236 we wondered if Leanne would disagree with anything Al said.
      • It seems like Leanne agreed with most of what Al said in terms of entrepreneurs making good / not so good leaders. The high risk tolerance of an entrepreneur may not match what you as an employee working under them are comfortable with. But remember they may be entrepreneurs out there who can be great leaders and have a deeper understanding of the risk mismatch with employees working at the company. What have you observed in your career? We would love to hear from you!
    • Did you know there were 50 different definitions of culture out there? The crowdsourcing of acceptable / unacceptable behaviors creates a lot of ownership on a team and spurs team members into action when something is contrary to the team’s culture of acceptable behaviors.
    • Nick feels hiding the wires can apply to all of us and that it falls in line with Brendan Burchard’s mention of emotional control being one of the most important qualities for leaders.

Contact us if you need help on the journey, and be sure to check out the Nerd Journey Podcast Knowledge Graph.

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