Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton: An interview by Bob Morris

Internationally recognized workplace experts Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton are partners in the consulting firm The Culture Works.

Adrian Gostick

Adrian Gostick is the author of several best-selling books on corporate culture, including the New York Times, USA Today and Wall Street Journal bestsellers The Carrot Principle and All In. His research has been called a “must read for modern-day managers” by Larry King of CNN, “fascinating,” by Fortune magazine and “admirable and startling” by the Wall Street Journal. As a leadership expert, he has appeared on numerous television programs including NBC’s Today Show and has been quoted in dozens of business publications and magazines.

Chester Elton has been called the “apostle of appreciation” by the Globe and Mail, Canada’s largest newspaper, and “creative and refreshing” by the New York Times. The co-author of All InThe Carrot Principle and The Orange Revolution, his books have sold more than a million copies worldwide. Chester has been featured in the Wall Street JournalWashington PostFast Company magazine, and New York Times, and he appears in a weekly segment on CBS News Radio.

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Chester Elton

Morris: Before discussing All In, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal and professional growth? How so?

Gostick: We’ve talked about this often. Our parents were our first bosses—they gave us our moral compass, goals, and our first recognition. My dad worked 25 years for Rolls Royce in England. He taught me the value of working someplace where you can make a difference—not chasing money but doing work that you found purposeful.

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

Elton: About 15 years ago now I was working as a consultant with some large organizations in the Northeast. We were working at the time on employee recognition ideas and we were doing some really innovative things. I realized no one had ever written the definitive work on recognition. There were these 101 ways books. Most managers had one on their shelf, but no one ever read them. Just then my firm hired Adrian as its head of communication. We collaborated on our first book in the Carrot line and it really took off. Finally Simon & Schuster contacted us to do a big research book on the subject and that became The Carrot Principle. That book has now been translated in 25 languages and is sold around the world.

Gostick: Over the years since that release our work has taken us to the characteristics of the world’s best teams and now on to culture—something that we are hearing more and more from our clients. They want to know how to build not only a great corporate culture, but effective cultures in each of their smaller teams.

Morris: To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

Gostick: I was able to study 50 years of leadership theory and practicum in my master’s program at Seton Hall, and it has provided the backbone of the knowledge we use every day. My undergraduate work was in journalism, and my early work as a newspaper reporter taught me how to research, write, and rewrite.

Morris: To what extent (if any) does All In in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?

Elton: We originally handed in the manuscript for All In to Simon & Schuster in the late summer of 2011. Four months later it went to press. Those four months were some of the hardest in our lives as our editor threw out half the book and demanded entire new chapters. While we had explained our findings well, we think, she pushed us to make the takeaways relevant for real business leaders. We spent so much time on explaining what a great culture looks like, we had neglected to tell readers “how” to do it. So many business books fall into that trap, and we are so grateful to Emily Loose, our editor, for pushing us to answer that paramount question: “I do what?”

Morris: Recent research studies by highly reputable firms such as Gallup and Towers Watson indicate that in a U.S. workforce, on average, fewer than 30% of the employees are actively and positively engaged; as for the others, they are either passively engaged (“mailing it in”) or actively disengaged. How specifically can business leaders increase the percentage of actively and positively engaged employees within their organizations?

Gostick: First, managers should understand there are some simple things they can do tomorrow that will make a big difference in their culture, but so few managers do them. For instance, the great leaders in our study treated their people like partners in the organization. That meant they created for their people a sense of connection by teaching them how their jobs impact the larger organization. And they showed them growth opportunities, how they can grow and develop with the company.

Next, these leaders also created a culture of rooting for each other with much greater levels of recognition and rewards. And finally, managers learned to create a share everything culture, where they honest and openly discussed issues.

Elton: Simple things really, but powerful. It comes down to opportunity, recognition and communication. Three things you can do right way to see results.

Morris: Given your response to the previous question, to what extent will those initiatives also help to retain valued employees who might otherwise leave?

Elton: The number one and number two reasons key performers leave an organization: one—I don’t feel in on things, and two—I don’t feel appreciated. It’s not money, it’s not job growth, people most often leave for reasons that are absolutely in our control as managers.

Morris: What do you know now about the business world that you wish you knew when you began your first full-time job? Please explain.

Gostick: When I first became a manager, I didn’t realize that there were people who did a good job but who were toxic to the culture. I waited much too long to get rid of those people.

Morris: Here’s a hypothetical question. If there were a monument honoring business leaders comparable with the one honoring U.S. Presidents on Mount Rushmore, sculpted by Danish-American Gutzon Borglum and his son, Lincoln Borglum, which four would you select? Please explain each choice.

Elton: I’ll give you one. One of our favorite leaders is someone most people have never heard of: Scott O’Neal. He’s president of Madison Square Garden Sports, and he’s the best leader we have ever met. One thing Scott does with every new hire: He asks them where they want to be in five years, and then he commits to help them get there if they promise to give 100 percent to him every day. And people do it, and in turn he’s helped business leaders all over the sports world achieve their dreams. He lives up to his promise.

Gostick: Here’s another one: Doria Camaraza. We feature her in chapter three of All In. Doria is the general manager of American Express’ 3,000-person call center in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. She is simply amazing. She seems to know every one of her employees, and spends her days making people included and recognized and wonderful. Her call center has employee turnover that is one fifth the national average and has the best efficiency and productivity numbers in the call center industry. My favorite activity she does is called “Tribute,” when she gathers all her employees together once a month and the leaders come out dancing to Lady Gaga or Aerosmith and then she recognizes a dozen people for living the core values of American Express. It’s really powerful and there are a lot of tears.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to All In. When and why did you two decide to write it?

Elton: We’ve had this idea for several years now.

Gostick: Our clients were asking us to help with their culture, and not just their big corporate culture. They realized that if the culture wasn’t working in their Cincinnati office, for instance, then nothing was working. We spent 12 solid months researching and writing. We were able to tap into Towers Watson’s 300,000-person database of high-performance companies, and we spent time in more than 30 outstanding companies studying how they worked.

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

Elton: The core finding—and it was a surprise—was that in the highest-performing cultures, leaders realized engagement wasn’t enough. They not only create high levels of employee engagement—strong attachment to the company and a willingness to give extra effort—but they also create environments that support productivity and performance, in which employees feel enabled. And finally, managers help employees feel a greater sense of well-being and drive at work; in other words their people feel energized.

Gostick: For years we’ve been preaching employee engagement to companies, but people are getting burned out and they don’t feel they have the support they need to succeed.

Morris: To what extent do you develop in greater depth insights introduced in previous books?

Gostick: From the research emerged a manager’s practical guide to developing a team culture where people buy in. The steps include:

1. Defining your burning platform: Instilling a sense of urgency about threats on the horizon and define mission and values with great clarity.

2. Creating a customer focus: Helping employees focus like lasers on customer needs, which helps employees take initiative on their own.

3. Developing agility: Capitalizing on new opportunities.

4. Sharing everything: Becoming a place of truth, constant communication, and marked transparency.

5, Partnering with your talent: Having a sincere desire to create opportunities for employees to grow and develop—retaining the best.

6. Rooting for each other: Providing much greater levels of peer-to-peer and top-down appreciation and camaraderie.

7. Establishing clear accountability: Turning accountability from a negative into a positive.

In our previous books we focused on elements of some of these, but this is a manager’s holistic approach to creating an outstanding work environment.

Morris:  Here’s a follow-up question. To what extent do you break new ground in this book?

Elton: One interesting finding was about agility. The new data we published showed that in this struggling economy, high-performance organizations are vastly more adept at helping guide employees through the vagaries of the marketplace—and that can lead to stunning financial results. In fact, our researchers found the most agile of companies report revenue growth a whopping three times higher than their high-performance peers. Such agility started with managers who were considered “authentic” by their people. That meant leaders at all levels provided a clear sense of direction and made decisions promptly, they treated employees respectfully and took action on issues their people raised, and finally they behaved in alignment with professed values.

And, on an organizational level, these agile companies faced competitive market pressures head-on through innovative product development, a customer-focused culture, and integrity in dealing with their clients.

We found that agility is more important in sustaining above-average business results than clever strategy, compelling product mix, or the other typical focuses of leaders. Today, employees feel a heightened need for their leaders to help them adapt. One employee we interviewed put this very clearly: “I have my head down doing my work. We’re going two hundred miles an hour here. I need my leaders to be looking to the horizon.”

Morris: It may be possible but I think it highly unlikely to get “all in” from all employees but the percentage of actively and positively engaged employees can be increased substantially. How?

Gostick: Even Jim Collins says it’s impossible to get more than 90 percent of your people in the right seats on the bus. You aren’t going to achieve perfection in your level of engagement, enablement and energy, but you get people to start buying-in by doing the simple things we spoke about earlier and by following the seven-step process we outline in the book—all built from this new research.

Morris: Based on what you have learned from research and personally observed, what do supervisors do – and not do – that prevent their direct reports from being engaged, enabled, and energized?

Gostick: A few common problems. For example, managers focus on short-term goals versus opportunities or challenges coming down the road.

Elton: Or they allow their teams to compete with one another, fault-find, and backstab. That kind of disruptive behavior kills ingenuity and productivity.

Gostick: Another is failing to admit your shortcomings. For instance, negative client comments are hidden from view, and managers think everything is pretty good the way it is.

Elton: We could go on discussing the negatives forever.

Morris: Why do the CEO and other C-level executives tolerate such behavior? To what extent, in fact, does their own behavior serve as a model? Please explain.

Elton: Short answer: Because they are busy, really busy. They have shareholders, customers, and other pressing demands. Somehow they forget their first charge is to help their people to serve their customers with energy and excitement.

Morris: You introduce the “Seven-Step Road Map” in the first chapter and then focus on it in Part 2 (Chapters 4-10). Is what you characterize as a “culture of belief” a journey, a destination, or a combination of both?

Gostick: We don’t know any great leaders who feel they have completed their journey yet. There are some very, very good ones we’ve studied, but managing people is hard. To do it right, you must keep working at it every day. The best managers we studied spent 75 percent of their time on the floor with their people every single day.

Morris: Are the seven steps sequential or completed simultaneously? Please explain.

Elton: They are somewhat sequential, but it’s not like the managers we studied sat down and said, Okay, step one, I need to define my burning platform—what is our noble cause? But in the research we found every great manager was very good at each step—whether consciously or subconsciously they achieved each step. The road map is for the rest of us, to help us follow in their footsteps.

Morris: My own opinion is that what you characterize as “steps” function, in fact, as core principles that guide and inform change initiatives. What is your response to that?

Gostick: Absolutely you can call them principles. Principles are timeless and true, and it’s a great term. We call them steps because the managers we work with are looking for how-tos. As one said to us after we presented the E + E + E data. “I get it. Now, I do what exactly?”

Morris: This may seem silly but as I worked my way through Chapter 7 (“Share Everything”), I was reminded of what Robert Fulghum affirms in All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten: “When you go out into the world, watch for traffic, hold hands, and stick together,” for example,“ as well as “CLEAN UP YOUR OWN MESS” and “Don’t take things that aren’t yours.”

Elton: We have a knack of boiling down complex business ideas down into very simple terms like “Share Everything.” And yet this was actually a term we heard first from the president of a very large, very union-based organization. He was dealing with teamsters everyday, and he used the term with pride. His organization’s core values were Best Your Best, Share Everything, and Root for Each Other. As you can tell, some of his language made it into our final work.

Morris: In your opinion, why do so many executives find it so difficult to accept, if not embrace, simple truths such these?

Gostick: That’s the “$64,000 Question,” and it’s why we have jobs! It would be nice to be put out of business by the time we retire, but that doesn’t seem to be happening. Managers seem to get promoted and then forget what it was like in the trenches—where so few in management share with you, recognize you or listen to you.

Morris: I commend you on the provision of a “Step Summary” section at the conclusion of Chapters 4-10. It captures key points and will expedite, indeed expedite frequent review later. Is that its purpose?

Elton: We don’t want the summary to become the only thing a manager reads, but it should serve as a quick reminder later of the concepts. We find ourselves turning to the summaries when we are explaining a concept to a new client.

Morris: Decades ago, I became convinced that all organizations need effective leadership at all levels and in all areas of their operations. In your opinion, why do so many people below the C-level refuse to accept the authority and responsibilities of being a leader and many will even refuse opportunities to develop those skills?

Gostick: Ha! That’s a leading question Robert. To counter a bit, I think that many managers we meet do take their roles as leaders very seriously and do a lot for their people. And they try to hone their skills by reading books and attending training. But then again, the number one problem is we get busy. We tend to forget that collectively we can accomplish more than we could ever do alone, and we need our people to feel a part of a positive, productive culture.

Morris: For those who have not as yet read All In, once again you demonstrate a unique talent for devising especially appropriate chapter titles as you also do in your previously published books. Please explain the meaning and significance of a few now. For the first chapter, “Get in the Wheelbarrow”

Elton: The term we coined “Get in the wheelbarrow” comes from a terrific story that we don’t want to give away, but it involves the first crossing of Niagara Falls by an infamous daredevil. It’s a fantastic story that’s 160 years old and is as applicable today as it was then. One of our favorite chapter titles is the last, “In the company of believers.” The point of this chapter is we need to develop believers around us—believers in our strategy, ideas and mission. We don’t need our employees to be watchers, but active participants in our journey.

Morris: Ben McConnell and Jackie Huba have much of value to say about how to create “customer evangelists.” In your opinion, how can business leaders create “employee evangelists” within their organization?

Gostick: Follow the road map we outline. It will take some work. As a leader it will take you personally away from your customers and your deliverables, it will force you to become a coach and no longer a player, but the results are exponential as you learn to harness the full power of all the people in your care.

Morris: Many of the same companies listed annually as being the “most highly regarded” and “best to work for” are also ranked among the most profitable in their industry and have the greatest cap value. My own opinion is that this is not a coincidence. What do you think?

Gostick: It really is exacerbating, but many leaders think their companies are already good places at which to work. As human beings we have a tendency to filter out information that does not match up with our preconceived beliefs, including the supremacy of our organization.

Morris: For those who have not as yet read your brilliant book, you recommend 52 specific ways to “get people all in.” How did you arrive at the number 52?

Elton: One a week. The idea is, any manager can better engage, enable and energize their teams, just try one simple idea each week and see if things don’t improve.

Morris: You explain a four-step process to follow when embarking on “a culture- or brand-improvement effort: Evaluate, Plan, Communicate and Train, and Reassess. Of the four, which do most business leaders seem to have the greatest difficulty completing successfully? Why?

Gostick: This is our culture model we introduce in the Appendix. When The Culture Works takes a company through a cultural enhancement process, we follow those phases. It’s hard to say which leaders have the most problem with because it depends on the company. Some leaders want to jump right to planning and fixing their issues, without understanding exactly what the problems are. Others want to skip the training phase since it means pulling people out of their jobs. The point is, each phase is important to enhancing culture and driving real change.

Morris: For more than 25 years, it has been my great pleasure as well as privilege to work closely with the owner/CEOs of hundreds of small companies, those with $20-million or less in annual sales. In your opinion, of all the material you provide in All In, which do you think will be of greatest value to leaders in small companies? Why?

Elton: The nice thing is, we wrote this book not for giant corporations—though we do feature quite a few—but for every manager in every size organization. We feature success stories of entrepreneurs and small-and mid-size businesses. The process we introduce works no matter your circumstance.

Gostick: Every leader can get more passion, ingenuity and energy from their people, and every employees wants to feel connected to a great cause. When this works, it really is amazing to see.

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Adrian and Chester cordially invite you to check out the resources at these websites:

The Culture Works 



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