06/22/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

"The Why of Work"

Every decade or so a great book comes along to change how we think about leadership. "In Search of Excellence" was one, "Good to Great" a second, and "The Tipping Point" a certain third. I'm betting the next is "The Why of Work" by Dave Ulrich and Wendy Ulrich.

I won't try to summarize the book in this blog post. It makes more sense to let the authors speak for themselves. Below is a brief excerpt in which Dave and Wendy describe the impact of leaders who listen, learn and build up their colleagues by inviting ideas, as opposed to leaders who lead at the expense of colleagues by habitually demonstrating indifference to employees or finding fault with others in order to heroize themselves.

"A few years ago Dave helped facilitate a town hall meeting in which employees were charged by their business leader to generate solutions to some real business challenges. After employees winnowed their ideas into recommendations, they were to present these ideas to their business leader. These employees spent most of a day generating and filtering their top priorities for sparking and supporting more innovation. When the business leader came at the end of the day to hear their recommendations, the employees were excited to share. But when the spokeswoman for the group shared the group's first recommendation, the leader slammed the table and said, "Is that all you've got to show for a day of working on this? We've tried that, and it doesn't work. I hope you have something better than that!" Needless to say, the employees' enthusiasm turned to silence and the anticipated sharing of ideas quickly evaporated. Without intervention, the work environment in this unit would sour dramatically.

Colleagues have suggested that ideas are the new economic currency. The money of new ideas grows on the trees of imagination and is nurtured by encouragement, good listening, and respect, followed only later by careful, respectful pruning. Leaders who build positive work environments encourage the growth of good ideas by creating listening posts where employees share and discuss options. These listening posts may be a café-type conference area, an electronic blog, or a town hall meeting. Town hall meetings work well when leaders create a positive work environment by acknowledging employee creativity, expressing gratitude for their work, inviting open discussion of new ways to act, and making real-time decisions that demonstrate their willingness to try new things. Being open to new ideas means that leaders ask questions and seek to learn. In contrast, one leader shared his experience with a corporate executive on a two-day tour of the local facility. During the two days the local leader asked countless questions about the executive's background, experience, and suggestions for improvement. The executive, intent on sharing his wisdom and making recommendations, never asked a single reciprocating question about the local leader's perceptions or experience. At dinner on the last evening the local team shared some of its local innovations and awards from the community for its successes with plant operations. The corporate leader was surprised to learn what the local leader had done but did not pursue trying to learn about these local innovations. At the end of the trip the executive returned to headquarters satisfied that he had shared what he knew. But the local innovations were not brought into the rest of the system, and the work environment of the local team was affected more negatively than positively by the visit.

Leaders who listen and learn create an environment where ideas can be surfaced, debated, and tried. One executive is known for the yellow legal pad that he carries everywhere, to note not problems but insights from conversations in which he is always inquisitive and trying to learn. Another leader followed the flow of her product into her customer's hands, starting in her customer's purchasing department and ask- ing why purchasing had chosen her product over others and how they could improve . . . then going to the receiving dock to determine whether her product had been shipped to the customer in ways that made it easy to work with . . . then visiting the assembly area to see how her product fit into the customer's product . . . then following up with visits to sales, marketing, and service, each time learning how her product was accessed and used by the customer. When the leader returned to her organization, she met with each group of employees to share with them the customer's comments, compliments, and suggestions about their particular area. Each group of employees felt like the leader brought fresh ideas that connected them with their customers.

A positive work environment is supported by routines that foster openness to new ideas. Employees can voice opinions and even bad news without fear of others killing the messenger. Leaders ask more questions and become a clearinghouse for innovation. Ideas are valued and sought out."

This is a book worth buying, reading, gifting and lending to colleagues! Also check out their website,

Jon Younger is a Partner of The RBL Group, a firm providing consulting and executive education in strategic HR and leadership. Jon leads the Strategic HR practice area and is also a Director of the RBL Institute. He is co-author, with Dave Ulrich and three other principals at The RBL Group, of "HR Competencies" (SHRM, 2007), "HR Transformation" (McGraw-Hill, July 2009) and many articles, and last year logged client work in 35 countries.