Chip Espinoza: Part 1 of an interview by Bob Morris

Chip EspinozaChip Espinoza was born in Espanola, New Mexico. His mission in life is to help organizations become worthy of human habitation. Recently, he has focused on the integration of Millennials (AKA Gen Y) into the workplace. He is the co-author of Millennials Who Manage: How to Overcome Workplace Perceptions and Become a Great Leader, with Joel Schwarzbart and published by FT Pearson (October 2015). He is also the Academic Director Organizational Psychology at Concordia University in Irvine.

Chip also keynotes internationally and across the country on how to create environments in which managers and Millennials can thrive. He is a leading expert on the subject of Millennials in the workplace. He consults in the civic, corporate, and non-profit sectors. He has authored several articles on the subject of leadership and is the go-to person for news agencies on the subject of integrating younger workers into organizations. He has been featured on Fox News, CNN, CBS Radio, and in major publications. Chip is also the author of Millennial@Work.

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Morris: Before discussing Millennials Who Manage, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

There were many people at different stages of my development that were key to my personal development. My mother gave me a love for putting words together. She made me do the Word Power activity in every Reader’s Digest. My Grandpa Reggie was my biggest fan. I don’t care who you are — having a committed fan can help you through a lot of failure. The late Dr. Norman Shawchuck inspired me to earn a Ph.D. I know some would put education in a professional development category but it ended being more personal development for me. Norm believed in me before I believed in myself. Dr. Al Guskin was the chair of my dissertation committee. I had always been assertive for others but he taught me to be assertive for myself. Dr. Roger Heuser taught me to think more critically and let go of the notion that I had to master every subject matter. Ken Wayman is an attorney who took me under his wing when I was a young and ambitious. He took me to lunch once a week for years. Oh, and Mr. Allen for kicking me out of band in the 9th grade. Some people are born to make music and others are made to listen to it.

The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

Espinoza: I credit the aforementioned people. In addition, I have a couple of amazing sisters that have inspired me. Cholene attended the Air Force Academy and went on to become the second woman in history to fly the U2 spy plane. She became a Captain for United Airlines, flew for Emirates, and then retired from flying to become a medical doctor. By the way, she took a leave of absence from United Airlines to be an embedded reporter with Fox News in Desert Storm. Valerie worked as an administrative assistant for the Secretary State of New Mexico and then transferred to work in the labs in Los Alamos. She was elected Santa Fe County Clerk for two terms and is currently running for her second term as one of five New Mexico Public Regulation Commissioners. She wins her elections by double digits. I have no doubt that she will hold one of the top three offices in the state at some point of her career.

Rick Newman, my financial planner, challenged me to think bigger and value my time. He has helped me make two professional transitions that paved the way for me to do what I do. My roommate in college, Tim Allen, was bigger than life. He and I inspired each other to pursue higher education, not as a trophy but as a means of serving others. It may seem weird but I am going to mention someone I have never met but whose writing has shaped my world-view with respect to organizations. His name is Dr. Edwin Friedman. He was a Rabbi and sociologist. He wrote on the subject of family systems theory and leadership. I wish I had gotten on a plane to go listen to him when he was alive.

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

I can remember at age six wondering why people show up to their jobs. Seriously, I was in the back seat while our station wagon was making its way through a tollbooth and I thought to myself, “Does that person like their job?” My work on Millennials started in the classroom. I noticed a difference between my students from the 90’s and my students from the 2000’s. In the 90s I would hand out the syllabus and students would stick it in their backpacks without glancing at it. In the 2000s, students would take a red pen out and go line by line through the document. When they would come to the 10-12 page assignment they would ask if 10 pages was a “C” and 12 pages was an “A.” They would ask how many classes they could miss and still get an “A.” They entered the class with the mindset that everything is negotiable. I was teaching an elective titled Emerging Management Theory. I was teaching the students that management is a dynamic subject. I assigned a final where they had to write a paper that finished the sentence—what is coming next in management? In typical Millennial fashion, they flipped the question on me. On the final day of class (2005) they asked me what I thought was the next big thing in management. I told them that generational diversity would be a big issue. Truth be told, they inspired the best work of my career.

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

Espinoza: I think the best thing about my formal education is that I learned that it is okay to not know everything. I feel for leaders that are not able to leverage the strengths of their teams because they have to be the smartest person in the room. My take on the value of education comes from another mentor of mine. Dr. Jesse Miranda tells a story of being a young minister in New Mexico. He pastored a church that had several men who were member s of an Indian Tribe. They invited him on a deer hunt and he was reluctant because he was raised in East LA and had never hunted. They assured him that he would be successful. They staged him on a rock at the bottom of a ravine and instructed him to shoot when the deer emerged. He waited patiently and sure enough a doe walked in front of him followed by a couple of small bucks. He didn’t shoot because he had his sights set on a big buck whose antlers would serve as a trophy on his office wall.

When the men who had walked the ravine emerged from the trees, they asked why Jesse had not taken a shot. Jesse explained that he wanted a trophy for his office. The men explained that to Jesse that they did not hunt for trophies but they hunted to feed the tribe. Some people pursue education as a trophy for their office wall. It is a symbol that separates them from others. I have been fortunate to learn from educators who pursued education to “feed the tribe.” I am an academic director for Organizational Psychology and Nonprofit Leadership at Concordia University Irvine. I love the stories of people who have gone through my programs. Many of them are doing amazing things. That is invaluable. You cannot put a price tag on that. I approach all of my work with the desire to feed the tribe.

Morris: What do you know now about the business world that you wish you knew when you went to work full-time for the first time? Why?

Espinoza: I mentioned earlier that I struggled with being assertive for myself. When I was 23 years old I had a boss that demanded that I return to California by Monday for work. I had taken 2 works days off to drive to New Mexico to be with my Father on his deathbed. I called to ask for a couple of more days because my Father’s passing was imminent. My boss said no. I made it halfway back to California when I received the news that my Father had died. I wish I had known that some people are not worth following. I also wish I knew that my time and contribution were valuable. I once had a client that rejected my invoice because they considered my work to be more valuable to them than what I had billed them. They would not pay it until I doubled the amount in the invoice. Those of us who are concerned with feeding the tribe at large will often compromise our ability to feed our own tribe.

Morris: Of all the films that you have seen, which – in your opinion – best dramatizes important business principles? Please explain.

Espinoza: This one is easy! Article 99 is a must see for anyone who wants to examine organizational life. How does mission get put on the back burner for personal interest? How does informal leadership work? How do organizations become dysfunctional? How does money get allocated to the wrong things? How does dysfunction become a pattern? The movie is about a Veterans Administration Hospital. Again, a must see for anyone who wants to understand how incongruent mission and operation can become.

Morris: From which business book have you learned the most valuable lessons about business? Please explain.

Espinoza: Yikes. This one is very difficult. However, Dr. Friedman’s book was on family systems theory and not business so that gives me a break. I would say, Warren Bennis’ work. I loved his book On Becoming a Leader. I had the chance to meet him and produce and interview with him. The line in his book that has stuck with me since I read it, “Leaders are primarily concerned with expressing themselves and non-leaders are primarily concerned with proving themselves.” I had the privilege of studying under Peter Vaill. He wrote Managing As a Performing Art and Learning As a Way Of Being. He is brilliant on negotiating change. I also have to mention Richard Farson’s Management of the Absurd.

Morris: Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-tse’s Tao Te Ching:

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”

Espinoza: I love it! The most important lesson I ever learned from Dr. Shawchuck, “People tend to support what they help to create.” My favorite research methodology is Participatory Action Research. The discipline puts the people who are most impacted by a situation or circumstance at the center of resolving it.

Morris: From Michael Porter: “The essence of strategy is choosing what [begin italics] not [end italics] to do.”

Espinoza: Interestingly, Millennials get that intuitively. They really struggle with process (to do). I was in a meeting today that was dominated by the “to do.” I continue to be amazed at how organizations invest in the “to do” without defining the “what”. I would say Millennials concern themselves foremost with what and why.

Morris: From Richard Dawkins: “Yesterday’s dangerous idea is today’s orthodoxy and tomorrow’s cliché.”

Espinoza: I get it but I find it interesting that, from a management perspective, so many of the so-called “yesterday’s ideas” have yet to be implemented. Perhaps one of the greatest management minds, Peter Drucker, died disillusioned with corporate America. He was disappointed that organizations did not embrace the importance of the human side of work. In the 1920’s, Mary Parker Follett — a social worker turned organizational theorist — wrote on making organizations non-hierarchical and power with the workforce rather than power over it.

Millennials would have really resonated with her work. Douglas McGregor wrote in the 1950s about two types of managers (X&Y). He suggested that there are managers who think employees are trying to do the least amount of work and therefore they need to be kicked in the butt (X) and there are managers that believe that employees want to add value and they need training, encouragement, and opportunity (Y). One hundred years of great management ideas have yet to be fully embraced.

Morris: From Isaac Asimov: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds the most discoveries, is not “Eureka!” (I found it!) but ‘That’s odd….’”

Espinoza: Great research begins with curiosity. While the subject may seem heady to many, there are many great researchers out there that will never earn a Ph.D. but they will make a contribution to humanity nonetheless.

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

Espinoza: Who is going to disagree with Thomas Edison? That said, sometimes vision can help us overcome the regression of imagination (being stuck). The regression of the imagination happens when we cannot think of anything ever being different from what they are today. I think vision has powerful properties and potentialities that have a value unrelated to execution.

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

Espinoza: There is room for the efficiency/effectiveness conversation. This goes back to process. There are organizations that consider their core competency process. Unfortunately, addressing disrupting technologies and competition require more than doing things right. They require doing the right things. Many an organization has greeted ruin for choosing efficiency over effectiveness. Whenever an organization falls in love with what has got them to where they are at the expense of exploring what can get them to where they want to go—is doomed. Millennials are often maligned for criticizing processes but I see it as healthy and an infusion of a fresh perspective.

Morris: In one of Tom Davenport’s recent books, Judgment Calls, he and co-author Brooke Manville offer “an antidote for the Great Man theory of decision making and organizational performance”: organizational judgment. That is, “the collective capacity to make good calls and wise moves when the need for them exceeds the scope of any single leader’s direct control.” What do you think?

Espinoza: I totally agree. In management theory it is called distributive leadership. The human narrative on leadership is skewed towards the Great Man Theory. It is easier to credit President Ronald Reagan with the fall of the Berlin Wall than grapple with the following questions. Did the Berlin Wall come down because East Berlin’s Communist Party leader Günter Schabowski mentioned in 1989 that the border would be opened for “private trips abroad”? How much did Gorbachev’s “glasnost” tour stop in Germany affect things? Or Reagan calling out to Gorbachev two years earlier with his infamous, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this Wall!”?

What was the effect of the 120,000 nonviolent demonstrators who gathered in Leipzig, Germany, for peace prayers on October 16, 1989, chanting political slogans like “Free elections,” “We are staying here,” and “We are the People”? And, one certainly cannot discount the sacrifice of Chris Gueffroy on February 6, 1989. He and at least 100 other people were murdered at the wall. Some, like Gueffroy, gave their lives. Some gave speeches and some prayed, but they all contributed to bringing down the wall. Such is the case when significant change takes place in any organization.

All levels affect change. All levels play a role in change. Too frequently, too much focus is placed on formal leadership actions, and not enough attention is given to the variety of activity taking place at other levels of the organization.

Morris: The greatest leaders throughout history (with rare exception) were great storytellers. What do you make of that?

Espinoza: It stands to reason with respect to the previous question. The oral tradition is the oldest form of communication. As human beings, we are searching for a narrative that simplifies and makes sense of our experience. The narrative need not be eloquent to resonate. Storytelling can also be done through the written word and the arts. One of the most emotional experiences I have ever had was watching Les Miserables. It was the scene where the Bishop vouches for Jean Valjean after stealing church silverware. I believe the line was, “Jean Valjean my brother you no longer belong to evil. With this silver, I have bought your soul. I’ve ransomed you from fear and hatred, and now I give you back to God.”

Morris: 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?

Espinoza: I believe it is natural to want to avoid or overcome resistance but the truly great leaders embrace resistance. Gary Yukl suggests hat there are three outcomes to leadership influence: commitment, compliance, and resistance.

Many people see resistance as the opposite of commitment but in reality, compliance is the opposite of commitment. Resistance can be anywhere in relationship to commitment. Resistance is usually a precursor to commitment. Compliance will never be close to commitment. Resistance represents a desire to do something about a situation. The truly great leaders embrace resistance for the purpose of clarifying vision and executing mission. Maslow was best known for his motivational theory “Hierarchy of Needs” but his theory of “Rising Expectation” should be required reading for every leader. He suggested that leaders not be pre-occupied with discontent but the quality of discontent.

If people in your organization are complaining about lower order needs, you have a problem. If they are complaining about higher order needs, you should feel good. The point is that leaders think they are doing well when nobody is complaining. That is not an indicator of a healthy organization. Discontentment can lead us into a better future.

Morris: When and why did you become so interested in Millennials?

Espinoza: I kind of jumped the gun on this question earlier. As a professor, they intrigued me. I see them as engagement ready—plug-n-play if you will. They want to contribute in the classroom, the workplace and to society. I noticed that my professor colleagues misinterpreted their behaviors and I hypothesized that the same was happening in the workplace.

Morris: To what extent has your association with Concordia University facilitated, perhaps even accelerated your research on Millennials? Please explain.

Espinoza: The classroom experience affords me a front row to observe Millennials. The university has sponsored me to speak at young professional groups and they encourage me to write. I also believe that being connected to Concordia gives me credibility on an academic level.

Morris: The term “diversity” continues to buzz around discussions of healthy organizations. My own opinion is that diversity has more to do with values, perspectives, and points of view than it does with gender, age, and ethnicity. What do you think?

Espinoza: I like Donna Hicks work on dignity. It goes beyond respecting one another. Dignity is different from respect in that it is not based on how people perform, what they can do for us, or their likability. Dignity is a feeling of inherent value and worth. Millennials embrace the concept of diversity. I would challenge you to find a male Millennial who won’t work for a woman or any Millennial who would be against inter-racial marriage or discriminating against someone due to sexual orientation. My concern in the diversity world is that the Baby Boomer narrative on diversity is being superimposed on Millennials. Diversity is something Baby Boomers are trying to do and GenX and Millennials are already doing. To your point, GenX and Millennials see values, perspectives and world-view as the diversity discussion.

Morris: As you already know, major research studies in recent years indicate that, on average, less than 30% of the workforce in a U.S. company is actively and positively engaged. The others are either passively engaged (“mailing it in”) or actively engaged in undermining their company’s success.

Here’s my question: How best to increase the percentage of those who actively and positively engaged?

Espinoza: Organizational theorists have known how to engage employees for almost a century. It is about executing what we know to be effective. Many managers juxtapose results with valuing people. You can value both at the same time. Here are a few things Millennials want (from my earlier book Millenials@Work) from their organizations:

o To have more opportunity
o To be listened to
o To be accepted
o To be rewarded for work
o To know how they are doing
o To have a say in how they do their job
o To be recognized

Ironically, in my latest book, Millennials Who Manage, older employees managed by Millennials claim to want the same things.

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

Espinoza: Talent acquisition, knowledge transfer, generational diversity, and retention will continue to be serious concerns. I think the golden thread is equipping management to work with Millennials. Let’s face it. We are going to see organizations needing to replace 40% to 60% of their workforce. Management has never been more important!

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

His website link

Concordia University link

LinkedIn link

Twitter link

FT Pearson Press link


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