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Michele Hunt Headshot

It's Time to Rethink and Reshape Our Organizational Cultures

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Attracting and retaining the best and the brightest, and achieving extraordinary results is simple; create a great organizational culture -- A Culture For People. One of the most important jobs of a leader is to create and manage the organization's culture. To create a culture of greatness, a leader has to create an environment that unleashes the minds, hearts and imagination of its people, to enable them to achieve the organization's mission, vision, values and goals. The lessons of the David Gergen ring true today:

"A leader's role is to raise people's aspirations for what they can become and to release their energies so they will strive to get there."

To navigate in our rapidly changing world, corporations and organizations everywhere have had to adapt many of their business strategies, practices, and actions, at a dizzying pace. I believe the one area where change has been far too slow and too shallow is organizational structures and "human resources" practices and polices. This has resulted in many organizations devolving into low energy, mediocre cultures that stifle people and consequently, they cannot keep up with the ever changing, demanding pace of today. This is a tremendous cost to companies, organizations, people, families and communities around the world.

There is a rich reservoir of individual and collective genius lying dormant in every organization, ready and able to help. The mind-set shift to tap into this reservoir is the understanding and acknowledgement that people are extraordinary. While the leaders at the top struggle with how to change and what to change, we often fail to recognize that many of the answers we are seeking rest within the people in our organizations. After work, these are the same people on the internet looking to create the next great thing; the same people that are working in their communities to make them better and the same people raising families under tremendous challenges. These are great problem solvers and innovators. But then they come to work and we box them in; we expect them to compartmentalize their minds, cover their hearts and oppress their imagination. When we fail to recognize and utilize the tremendous gifts people can bring to organizations, we unintentionally dampen their spirit and drain their energy. This causes people to feel frustrated and undervalued. Frustrated, undervalued people cannot give their best; this is a lose/lose scenario.

It is time to rethink and reshape our organizational structures, "human resources" practices and the way we lead people. Most importantly, it is time for leaders to consciously and deliberately shape organizational cultures. This is the job of the CEO and the leadership team; the "HR" leader cannot do this alone. The leadership team needs to give (at least) the same time, attention and resources to the development of their people and culture as they do to the development of their products, finance, strategies and facilities.

Many of our leadership and human resources practices were designed for a very different time in history -- a time when things were more predictable and "time" moved slower; a time when people were not as educated or informed. That was a time when people were given a task and simply needed to follow a set of predetermined steps to accomplish it -- they complied because they had no other choices. In the past, innovation belonged to the research and design departments, and managers functioned as overseers and problem solvers. Today we need innovators and problem solvers everywhere in an organization and we need shared accountability and ownership from everyone. The past was truly a simpler time (but not a very exciting time). And yet we hold on to these outdated organizational designs, human resource systems and outdated leadership practices rather than finding the courage to change them. We have made interim adjustments and fallen prey to "in vogue" programs at great cost and little results.

Our times require that we authentically transform our organizations into environments that are integrated and aligned with the organization's mission, vision, values and goals. Why not design the new organizations with the mindset that people are extraordinary and that form follows function? I have been a part of, and learned from, organizations that consciously created organizational cultures on these two foundational beliefs.

These two bedrock values led Herman Miller, a global Fortune 500 office furniture company, to phenomenal success. I had the privilege of serving on Herman Miller's senior leadership team for eight years as Corporate Vice President For People, under the leadership of Max De Pree. When Max first gave me this title, I objected; I felt it was frivolous and a little corny. When I expressed my concerns, Max told me, "People ought not to be regarded as human resources, money, facilities and equipment are resources -- people are the heart and soul of this company". It took time for me to understand the deep meaning and awesome responsibility inferred by that title.

After many years of success we were challenged with an alarming number of global competitors, who were ready and able to make our products "faster, cheaper and better". The world had changed, we had not. We learned the hard way that nothing fails like success. We had become arrogant and complacent -- a sure sign of atrophy. Max De Pree was a wise, insightful leader -- he called for a total company renewal. He challenged us to change and align everything to serve the company's mission, vision, values and goals. We engaged every team in the organization worldwide in this challenge. We listened, learned and we changed. We designed an organization that was integrated and aligned with our goals. The people in our organization were our greatest innovators and collaborators. Within 18 months we moved from navigating in dark perilous times to soaring with what felt like grace and beauty. The transformation I experienced felt like a metamorphosis and the results were amazing. The people of Herman Miller collectively achieved the following:

Fortune's Most Admired Company
• Best Products by BusinessWeek
• One of Fortune's top 10 Best Companies to Work For
• Best Company for Women
• Best Company for Working Mothers
• The Best Managed Company in the World -- by the Bertelsmann Foundation.
• Most Environmentally Responsible Corporation -- from Fortune and The White House
• A return to double-digit growth; we even enjoyed two stock splits in the following three years.

Most importantly, we created a high-energy, high-performance, highly innovative corporate culture. The greatest change for me was how we, the leaders, engaged and valued the people of Herman Miller. Innovation was popping up everywhere and we could not control it. We learned we did not need to control people because they were invested and committed to the mission, vision, values and goals.

I remember one day picking up the New York Times and reading the headers of two of our international employment ads; one read, "Our Goal is to be a Place of Realized Potential," the other read, "My CEO Believes that Trust Begins at the Top." I was thrilled and disturbed at the same time. I was thrilled because the ads were right on -- they reflected Herman Miller's vision and values. But I was disturbed because I, the Corporate VP For People, was not consulted on the ad campaign changes. After climbing out of my ego, I realized I did not need to be consulted. The recruiters were spot on!

The Herman Miller experience reinforced my belief that people are extraordinary. The companies I have worked with since have confirmed that when we mobilize people around a compelling vision, born out of our deeply held values, and we align our organization to enable people to contribute their ideas and gifts -- amazing things happen. Herman Miller was ahead of its time. It gave me the opportunity to understand how we need to successfully lead in the future to attract and retain the best and the brightest. Today, the future is here.

There are compelling reasons for organizations wanting to attract the young, bright innovators of our time. These young people expect to have the opportunity to "play in the game" and to have their ideas valued. Social media has created a culture where expressing oneself and being heard is the norm. My 31-year-old daughter and her peers feel empowered and collaboration and teamwork is a given in their world. Most importantly, many of them have developed a value system that compels them to strive to create something great -- something that truly matters. They have evolved past the mindset of simply going to work to make a living -- they work to make a difference. For many young people these basic human rights are non-negotiable. We are witnessing this in our current reality; the multitude of social and economic justice movements occurring today, are lead by young people.

I believe that leading our organizations with shared vision and values and liberating people to contribute their gifts is more akin to igniting a movement than managing people. The energy and ideas that flow from and through people in a movement has the potential to create greatness. I am looking forward to the time when we have many companies, organizations and communities seeking greatness and making a difference by tapping into the extraordinary minds, hearts and imaginations of people to make their shared vision a reality. I want to be a part of that world.

"A movement is a collective state of mind, a public and common understanding that the future can be created, not simply experienced or endured"
Max De Pree