Randy Grieser on Culture-Driven Leadership: An interview by Bob Morris

Randy Grieser is the founder and CEO of ACHIEVE Centre for Leadership & Workplace Performance and the Crisis & Trauma Resource Institute. He is a visionary leader who, together with a team of employees and trainers, has positioned these organizations to be two of the premier providers of professional development training in the industry. Randy is the author of The Ordinary Leader and co-author of The Culture Question: How to Create a Workplace Where People Like to Work. He is passionate about sharing the importance of creating healthy workplace cultures, and believes leadership requires us to always be intentional about what we do and how we do it.

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Before discussing The Culture Question, a few general questions. First, The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

Largely my peers. I’m not someone who looks back on their earlier career and can easily identify a mentor – although in many ways I wish I could. I do see the value of mentoring relationships, and am intentional about being a mentor to others.

I think one of the most overlooked professional development resources we have at our disposal are relationships with our peers – both those within our organization and out. When I am facing opportunities or challenges, it’s the conversations I have with others that largely help me develop a plan to manage whatever is in front of me. I am fortunate to be surrounded by people I can learn from and whose insights I value. This, however happened very intentionally. We should all be working to intentionally surround ourselves with people we trust, value, and can learn from.

Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

There have been too many to name them all here. Practicing public speaking and competing in public speaking competitions as a high school student was likely my first turning point. The ability to communicate effectively – in front of people – has been a crucial to my success as a leader, facilitator, and now professional speaker.

Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First from Michael Porter: “The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.”

I like this point a lot. I’m often struck by how many times I say no to things. Recently, when considering roles as a senior leadership team, I told the group that I feel one of my most important roles is to say no. Successful organizations have so many options and demands competing for time and resources, and leaders not only need to know what to pursue, but also what not to pursue. To do this well, you need to be crystal clear about what your vision is – it will act as your guide for the future. If an opportunity in front of you doesn’t help you achieve your vision, then discard it. Focus only on what helps you reach your vision and say no to the rest!

From Alvin Toffler: “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

One of my favorite sentiments you will find in my writing and hear when I speak is that leaders don’t arrive – we don’t get there! The moment someone thinks they have it figured out is the moment they become “illiterate.” There are always new opportunities, challenges, and mistakes to be made that one can only navigate through effectively if they have an open mind and a willingness to learn new things.

From Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

In the workplace, there are very few things we do as individuals that really make a difference in the larger sense. Most of the important things organizations accomplish – that truly make a difference – are done in the context of a thoughtful, committed group of people working together as a team.

From Thomas Edison: “Vision without execution is hallucination.”

What’s the point of having a compelling vision with no plan to achieve it? Yes, we should have a meaningful vision, but we also need a plan – a strategy – to achieve that vision.

From Theodore Roosevelt: “People won’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

An organization’s purpose and reason for being must be rooted in something other than being number one in the industry, or increasing shareholder value. If these are your reasons for being, I can assure you that they ring hallow to both your clients and employees.

Our purpose should have a great cause to truly capture the hearts of both clients and employees. At ACHIEVE, our purpose is to inspire learning and improve lives. We are one of the largest providers of professional development training, which happened as a result of our purpose – it was not our purpose itself.

Finally, from Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”

It’s amazing how many tasks we accumulate on our “to do” lists that need not be done at all. For example, I am guilty of double-checking other’s work and reading emails I’ve been cc’d on that I really don’t need to read. I think it’s vital that we take stock of the things we are doing from time to time so that we don’t waste time on what we didn’t need to be doing in the first place.

Most change initiatives either fail or fall far short of original (perhaps unrealistic) expectations. More often than not, resistance is cultural in nature, the result of what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.” Here’s my question: How best to avoid or overcome such resistance?

When it comes to change initiatives, my philosophy is to communicate early and often. If you wonder whether you’ve communicated enough, you almost certainly haven’t – always risk over-communicating rather than under-communicating. And don’t just communicate by email – be sure to talk about the changes in person, and make sure you allow time and room for people to ask questions. When communication happens early and often, many of the initial resisters will get on board over time.

For those who remain resistant, work to figure out what part of the change they are concerned about. Often what appears to be resistance to the entire change is actually an aversion to one or two particular parts of it. And sometimes these are very small and manageable parts. Once identified, leaders can more easily work with the person to address their concerns.

Recent research indicates that, on average, less than 30% of employees in a U.S. company are actively and productively engaged. The others are either passively engaged (“mailing it in”) or actively disengaged, undermining the success of their organization? How do you explain this situation? What’s the problem?

The issue is largely due to unhealthy workplace cultures. It’s no surprise that we see employee engagement increase in healthy cultures – healthy culture and employee engagement go hand in hand.

The problem is that many managers view the issue of employee engagement as an employee issue – there must be something “wrong” with them. They need an attitude change or maybe they need to be fired and we can replace them with the “right” people. This is a misguided way of thinking about the issue of employee engagement.

Of course, employees do have an obligation to show up motivated and ready for work, and I actually believe the majority of them do – at least on day one of their employment. However, their engagement may fade over time. Usually this is not their own fault, but rather because something is wrong with their workplace’s culture. For example, who can stay engaged when management doesn’t care about employees, or the work one does is not meaningful or connected to a purpose that matters.

I see the lack of employee engagement in organizations as a symptom of an unhealthy culture and ineffective management. This is a scary realization for managers because it puts the responsibility on them to do something about engagement. Unfortunately, this is too great of a paradigm shift for most, and so employees continue to get blamed as a result.

In your opinion, what specifically must be done immediately to increase the percentage of actively and productively engaged employees?

Focus on improving your culture. The difficulty here is that you will not see immediate results. Culture change sometimes takes years to achieve. Another thing to keep in mind is that culture can be a bit of nebulous term – what does it mean to improve culture? In our recent book, The Culture Question, my co-authors and I outline six key pillars of a healthy workplace culture. These include:

Communicating Your Purpose and Values

Employees are inspired when they work in organizations whose purpose and values resonate with them. Does everyone in your workplace know and understand its purpose and values? Once the values and beliefs are identified, focus on helping employees connect their own work to the organization’s greater purpose.

Providing Meaningful Work

Most employees want to work on projects that inspire them, align with what they are good at, and allow them to grow. How much attention has your workplace given to making sure that everyone has meaningful work? Organizations should be intentional about finding each person’s true talents and giving them work that builds on those talents and provides them with a sense of satisfaction.

Focusing Your Leadership Team on People

How leaders relate to employees plays a major role in how everyone feels about their workplace. Are your organization’s leaders sufficiently aware of how they impact others in the workplace? Focus on teaching leaders to care about staff as people, supporting them in their work while providing healthy levels of accountability.

Building Meaningful Relationships

When employees like the people they work with and for, they are more satisfied and engaged in their work. How strong are the relationships within your workplace? Organizations should focus on building an environment in which relationships can grow and people can connect with each other across teams.

Creating Peak Performing Teams

People are energized when they work together effectively because teams achieve things that no one person could do on their own. How well do people at your organization work together in team environments? Workplaces should focus on helping staff collaborate with each other, building diversity into teams, and capitalizing on collective intelligence.

Practicing Constructive Conflict Management

When leaders don’t handle conflict quickly and effectively, it promptly sours the workplace. How skilled are employees and managers when it comes to working through conflict? Organizations should focus on training people to resolve differences quickly and directly.

Organizations that live out these six pillars of a healthy workplace culture will see employee engagement and productivity increase.

Looking ahead (let’s say) 3-5 years, what do you think will be the greatest challenge that CEOs will face? Any advice?

A common theme of this question has been, and I think will remain, the attraction and retention of talented employees. In order for organizations to thrive, they need talented, engaged employees. They need people working together collectively to accomplish meaningful projects. Equally important is employee retention. For teams to function effectively, they actually need to spend time together to gel. We can’t have teams for the sake of teams – we need people who have a history of working together because we get better at at working together over time. This is a well-known truth in the sports world, and the same is true in the workplace.

Now please shift your attention to The Culture Question. For those who have not as yet read it, hopefully your responses to these questions will stimulate their interest and, better yet, encourage them to purchase a copy and read the book ASAP. First, when and why did you decide to write it, and do so in collaboration with Eric Stutzman, Michael Labun, and Wendy Loewen?

We started the project just over two years ago. We are all involved in leadership at ACHIEVE, and have worked together on various projects over the last ten years. Given our history of working effectively with each other, as well as our shared values and individual strengths, it seemed fitting to write a book together.

The key belief that guides our work at ACHIEVE is that everyone should be able to like where they work. Our training and consulting services are all focused on helping workplaces to be vibrant and healthy. Given our day-to-day work in this realm, it made sense for culture to be the focus of our book.

Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

As a way of adding depth to the book, we conducted a 20-question survey in which 2,400 people participated. When correlating participants’ responses to the questions with whether they identified that they liked where they worked or not, my co-authors and I made an important discovery about establishing trust as a leader. The research revealed the strongest correlation among all the questions to be between leaders who have established trust and leaders who have demonstrated that they care. From this, we concluded that the best way to develop trust is to care about employees.

There are opportunities to show we care about employees every day. For example, you can simply ask about someone’s weekend plans or show an interest in their hobbies or passions. Sometimes, however, there are even more significant ways to show we care. Our encouragement to all leaders is to recognize the connection between trust and caring leadership. When opportunities to show we care come up, we must rise to the moment and show we are genuine in our actions!

The importance here is that when leaders are trusted, they can accomplish their vision more easily because employees are motivated to work towards that vision – not because of external rewards or threats of punishment, but because of trust. Employees will work towards the vision because they are willing to be influenced and inspired. Caring leadership creates trust, and trust results in action.

Another significant result from the survey is the connection between people who like where they work and organizations that have a meaningful purpose. Our research shows that 98% of the people who like where they work feel their organization has a meaningful purpose. And while this is important, we also found that it’s critical for that purpose to be communicated in meaningful ways. Many organizations do have a meaningful purpose, but it is rarely talked about or connected to daily tasks.

To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?

We had original intended to write this book for both leaders and employees. Yet, as we started assessing our research and interviewing people, it became clear that we needed to target the book towards leaders. The reality is that it’s very difficult for employees to greatly influence culture change. Cultural change initiatives must have the buy-in and be driven by leadership to be successful and sustained. That doesn’t mean employees aren’t important to culture – they are! But, as we developed our thinking, we found that our writing was speaking to leaders more than employees.

Which business thinkers had the greatest influence on the development of your own ideas about culture? Please explain.

A big shout-out to Daniel Pink and his groundbreaking research and insights in the area of motivation. His book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, is one of the best out there on the topic of motivation and employee engagement. We heartily agree with most of his insights and conclusions.

Opinions are divided (sometimes sharply divided) about the importance of charisma to effective leadership. What do you think?

Inspirational, yes! But I don’t think being inspirational and being charismatic are the same thing. When I hear the term, “charisma,” I think of someone who is extraverted and loud. In leadership, I don’t think this is required at all – and sometimes it’s even a hindrance to being an effective leader. I have seen many inspirational leaders who are quite introverted and yet are highly respected and effective.

Do you think leaders are born, developed, or both? Please explain.

This is the age-old question, isn’t it? I do think there are some attributes that make it easier to be a leader. For example, actually enjoying being around people and an openness to admitting mistakes will both make it easier to be a better leader.

However, there are some things that have to be developed – these are challenges that need to be overcome and future mistakes that need to be learned from. So, it’s really both – most people can learn to be an effective leader, but those with certain attributes will have an easier time of it. Yet, for those who already have solid leadership attributes – who think they don’t need to learn – they will struggle in leadership because they feel they’ve already arrived. Leadership development is an ongoing process that never ends. There’s always more to learn!

Jackie Huba and Ben|McConnell wrote a book (published in 2002) in which they explain how to create customer “evangelists.” In your opinion, how best to create employee “evangelists”?

Happy, motivated, and engaged employees are our best ambassadors. When it comes to hiring new employees, some of our best applicants come from friends of employees who have heard we are a great place to work. Be a great place to work and employee “evangelists” will follow.

Of all the revelations that the “Cultural Health Assessment” (Pages 216-218) can generate, which seems to be of greatest value to business leaders?

This really will be different for any given organization. The reality is that there are no two cultures that are the same. We’ve identified six key areas that are required to create and sustain a healthy culture. Some organizations will be doing better in one area than the other, and vice versa. The Cultural Health Assessment tool is really designed to help organizations pinpoint which of the six areas (possibly all) need the most attention.

Let’s say that you have been retained to help an organization to establish and then strengthen a healthy workplace culture. Where to begin? How would you make that determination?

First, we need buy-in from leadership. Are they really willing to do the work required to make a change? Are they committed to providing the time and resources needed? If so, we need a culture change team – a committed group of people who will lead the change. While it’s imperative to have someone from senior leadership on this team, it’s also important to incorporate a cross section of your workforce as well.

Given how difficult it is to change culture, organizations must be intentional and focused when going through the process. To help organizations change culture, we have developed a framework involving four phases. Here is a summary of these phases:

Phase 1: Assess your current culture. Clarity about the present situation allows you to more easily plan for change. Talk with and listen to everyone in your organization. Consider your current strengths, as well as the aspects of your culture that are holding you back.

Phase 2: Envision a desired culture. What would your ideal culture look like? What elements would be added, and what aspects of your current culture would you remove? Be sure to invite everyone to contribute to this process – employees and leaders alike.

Phase 3: Share and teach the culture. Once you have defined what a better culture might look like, share your vision widely. Start showing people what the future will be like once the change has been made. Provide training for the behaviors that are needed for the new culture to thrive.

Phase 4: Monitor and provide accountability. Changes to workplace culture are usually fragile at first, so monitor the changes, check in with employees, and offer coaching. Pay attention to signs that people are reverting to past behaviors, and address these issues quickly.

Which question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?

Usually when I give interviews about workplace culture, I’m asked about the role of perks in creating places where people like to work. By perks I mean things like free food, massages, and fitness rooms.

While these sorts of perks are indeed nice, I don’t believe they are important for creating workplaces where people like to work. And that’s good news for those working in government, schools, not-for-profit organizations, or businesses who simply can’t afford them.

Through my own experiences, research, and interviews with others, I’ve found that a far better measuring stick for determining what makes a workplace great is culture, not perks. Perks are perks – they are enjoyable to have, but they are merely band-aid solutions in the absence of a healthy workplace culture. For example, all the perks in the world won’t make up for having a manager who treats employees poorly.

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Randy cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:







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