One day last week I walked into the neighborhood sub shop to grab some lunch. I dropped off my laptop at a table and went to the counter to order. Nodding to my appearance, an older gentleman behind me said, “Now there’s someone with the right idea – this guy’s taking the day off!” Perhaps my shorts and un-tucked shirt sent a message of casual relaxation. Maybe it was my calm demeanor. Or it could have simply been that fact that I was out and about midday. Whatever it was, something about me said: This is not a guy at work. Ironically, that day had already brought about more than one work-related fire, a new client pitch, and a paper that needed finishing. I turned around, smiled, and replied, “Man, I’m always working!”

And so it is: We are in the midst of a full-fledged work-life revolution. Everything’s starting to look different, to feel different, and slowly, to actually be different. Work and life are morphing – both things happening in both places. People have been “bringing work home” with them for decades. But more and more, people are now bringing home to work. Just because they go to an office, people don’t feel the need to leave “who they are” behind. In fact, who people are is becoming an increasingly important ingredient in many successful companies.

While culture and change are typically defined and disseminated from the top-down based on things like market conditions and investor pressure, this radical shift is bubbling up from the bottom. The fact is that people are beginning to care less about money and more about lifestyle. They’re willing to trade some amount of compensation for more happiness. “This is how we’ve always done it” doesn’t do it anymore. Rewarding people for thinking and doing things the same as they always have does not result in forward motion. Organizations are beginning to recognize the value of creativity, thinking differently, and challenging the status quo – all to the benefit of new and revitalized company cultures.

It’s quite the antithesis of how our parents and grandparents worked. Shorts and sneakers did not fly. That “old guard” believed you dressed the part and you clocked in and out with pride; work was for work, and home was for home. Today, however, there’s a whole different set of values and motives for workers. Driven by the individual and enabled by technology, corporate cultures steeped in “old guard” mentalities are being challenged and transformed to accommodate the rise of this “new guard.”

Characteristics of the Shift

How do we know? Here’s what we’re seeing:

  • Flatter organizations: Hierarchy is so last year. Progressive companies are adjusting to a flatter way of working that puts the onus on the individual to deliver what they’re there to do, knowing they’re motivated because being with the company is a choice, not an obligation.
  • Fewer and fewer meetings: If everyone is there because they want to be, they understand and believe in the culture, purpose, vision, and mission of the organization, which is reflected in the results. Things are accomplished, work is delivered, customers buy, and revenue goals are reached. Is it really necessary to constantly meet about it? Let’s just do our thing, and the rest will come.
  • Asset-light workplaces and lifestyles: Do you really need that big 500-CD rack anymore? Or multiple bookcases to display your reading conquests? These former cultural badges of honor are now causing people to ask themselves, “Is it necessary to carry all of this around?” Consumption patterns are changing with cloud services and digitization of media. Everything is essentially accessible anywhere via any device. Living lighter is a reality – and people are using that to their advantage at home and at work!
  • Flexible everything: With Boomers leaving the workforce in droves and Millenials taking their place, the very way people work and define work products are shifting. Work can be done anywhere there’s a computer and an Internet connection. As a result, employees are pushing for flex time, flex space, and flex jobs. They want more balance. And they want to love what they do. Progressive employers are seeing the value in happy employees and the results they get when people feel in control of their time, their lives, and their deliverables.
  • Rock-star quality vs. perfect resumes: Many people may suit a job description quite well, but will they fit in the organization? Do they hold the same values? Will they thrive with the people and attitudes already in place? This BusinessWeek article says it best, citing Northwestern professor Lauren Rivera from her research published in American Sociological Review: “…companies are making hiring decisions in a manner more closely resembling the choice of friends or romantic partners.” Rivera found that traditionally irrelevant questions have become central to the hiring process, saying, “Whether someone rock climbs, plays the cello, or enjoys film noir may seem trivial, but these leisure pursuits were crucial for assessing someone as a cultural fit.” If someone fits, they can always learn what needs to be done. What is not teachable is one’s natural state of being.

What now?

Companies need to acknowledge that no business model is forever, and no leadership team is forever. If the old guard doesn’t self-attack and invite the new guard to the party, then the company will suffer the consequences. Where do you draw the hard lines, the guidelines, and no lines?

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Is our old guard too stodgy to invite the new guard in? What does that mean for our business?
  • Should that be changed? If so, how?
  • Are we capable of self-attack in the spirit of continuous learning?
  • How can we effectively probe our business for performance shortfalls and better results?
  • How do we look at the potential disruption to our business as a pathway to success?
  • What complexities are getting in the way of our productivity?
  • What are we willing to give up to build the next generation of leaders?
  • Can we forsake some control and power in the interest of improving our culture?
  • What have we stopped doing in the last 30 days in the name of a cultural evolution?
  • Who’s going first? Who will step up and say, “We don’t have all the answers, but I am willing to put myself out there to figure out what’s best for the business”?
  • What is the risk of not doing this?

Innovation isn’t just about technology anymore; you need to innovate to drive culture change in your organization. If you look around, there are people waiting for this to happen. You can harness all of their pent up energy. Make it ok for them to create some discomfort, to challenge the status quo, to push the company in a new direction.

Calling all old guard leaders… The stage is set. This is happening whether you like it or not. The groundswell is only going to grow. To keep the good people, go and meet them where they are. You might be surprised what the new guard can do for your culture, your company, and your business outcomes.

February 26, 2011


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