Dave and Wendy Ulrich: An interview by Bob Morris

Dave Ulrich

Dave Ulrich‘s work passion has been how to build organization capabilities (systems, processes, cultures) that create value to multiple stakeholders, then to help leaders build intangible value in organizations. Working with over half of the Fortune 200 and with companies throughout the world, he provides seminars, writes books, and coaches leaders to build sustainable organizations by turning customer and investor expectations into personal and organizational actions. He helps leaders move beyond employee engagement to helping employees find real meaning from work. He is a professor of business at the Ross School of Business, University of Michigan and co-founder of The RBL Group. He has written 23 books covering topics in HR and Leadership (the latest (his latest is HR Transformation: Building Human Resources From the Outside In co-authored with Justin Allen, Wayne Brockbank, Jon Younger, and Mark Nyman); is currently on the Board of Directors for Herman Miller; is a Fellow in the National Academy of Human Resources; and is on the Board of Trustees of Southern Virginia University.

Wendy Ulrich

Wendy Ulrich, Ph.D., has been a psychologist in private practice in Michigan for over twenty years. She is founder of Sixteen Stones Center for Growth in Utah, offering seminar-retreats on abundance. Their work with organizations and individuals intersects at helping people find meaning at work. Dave works to rethink and redefine how organizations work and Wendy works to help individuals rethink and redefine their own lives. At the same time, they are committed to the importance of the organization’s responsibility to shareholders and investors as they respond to external conditions. Her published works include Forgiving Ourselves: Getting Back Up When We Let Ourselves Down and Weakness Is Not Sin: The Liberating Distinction That Awakens Our Strengths.

Dave and Wendy Ulrich are the co-authors of The Why of Work: How Great Leaders Build Abundant Organizations That Win published by McGraw-Hill (June, 2010).

Morris: Before discussing The Why of Work, a few general questions. Here’s the first. When and why did the two of you decide to co-author a book?

Dave and Wendy Ulrich: We like working together.  Our kids joke that our family hobby is reorganizing the world, crafting lectures, and preparing talks (welcome to our Sunday dinners).  We found that we had interests that overlap.  Dave studies how organizations create value for customers and investors.  To do this he studies leadership, HR, and organization capabilities.  Wendy studies how people change and heal.  She runs workshops on personal growth.  As we talked, we found that there is a universal need for people to find meaning in their lives and organizations become a universal forum where this can happen.  As we pursued this discussion, we found that when leaders are meaning makers, it makes both sense (right thing to do) and cents (economically viable).  So, we decided to try to figure out how people make meaning in life.  This lead to a multi-year study of how diverse disciplines understand meaning, with a goal of culling diverse literatures for some basic tenets.  Then, we applied those principles to leaders to help them become meaning makers. 

Morris: What specifically did each of you bring to the collaborative process?

W. Ulrich: As a psychologist I look at the personal side of this issue.  I’ve spent a lot of time trying to help people find meaning in some of the hardest and most confusing experiences of their lives so they can heal and move forward, as well as trying to help them create goals and imagine futures that will feel meaningful and hopeful.  I try to capture the personal side of the meaning agenda.

D. Ulrich: I have OCD (Organization Compulsive Disorder) and try to figure out how to redesign, reshape, and renew organizations so that they deliver value.   When I think of organizations, I think of the capabilities an organization has more than its morphology or structure.  The ability of an organization to have a shared purpose and the ability for employees to be productive are critical capabilities for most organizations today.

Morris: To what extent (if any) were there any unexpected problems or complications after you began to work together on the manuscript? If there were, how did you resolve them?

Dave:  We have wall-papered together and nothing can be more complicated than that (plus raising three kids).  But, we have different writing styles.  I like ideas, frameworks, and figures.  Wendy likes wordsmithing and saying things in a poetic way.  We resolved this by brainstorming ideas, Dave drafting, and Wendy editing for many of the chapters.  But we also switched roles for some.

Morris: Of all that you learned from and about each other while writing the book, were any significant surprises?

W. Ulrich: Dave never ceases to amaze me with how quickly he can capture the gist of a complex set of issues and get to the simplicity on the other side of that complexity.  He is really gifted with innovating specific, concrete strategies for implementation; he has such broad experience with so many corporations.  But I am always a little surprised to realize again and again how genuinely humble he is about learning from others.

D. Ulrich:  I like to co-author books to learn from those I write with.  While my other co-authors may cringe, Wendy has unique insights and abilities that make her a great co-author.   She has enormous instinct for how to frame ideas, to tailor ideas to the heart of a reader, and to make sure we are clear about what we are trying to say.

Morris: Hundreds of thousands of books and an even greater number of articles have been written about how to be an effective executive and yet so many still aren’t. Why?

D. Ulrich: If it were easy, everyone would already get it.  Being an effective leader is enormously complex.  It requires vision to see a future, dedication to make things happen, sensitivity to people who are quirky at times, and personal confidence without arrogance.  In some ways it is amazing we have so many talented executives.  It is a rare and unique set of skills.

Morris: In recent years, even the most prestigious graduate schools of business such as Harvard, Kellogg, and Wharton have been severely criticized. In your opinion, what is the one area of business education in which business schools are in greatest need of improvement? Why?

W. Ulrich:  I have an MBA from UCLA and appreciate the good training I got there, but years as a psychologist have convinced me that being a leader in business is not just about understanding finance or killer marketing.  It is about tapping the enormous energy of human beings who truly believe in what they are doing and want to put their values into action.  Leadership is about making meaning, about weaving a story that helps people see how what they do connects with outcomes they care about. I never had a class in meaning-making in my MBA program, but I’ve sure had a lot of clients who were showing up for their jobs, including their senior level executive jobs, without their hearts or their souls in the game.  And companies lose when this happens.

D. Ulrich: There is an increasing gap between academic research and business application.  Sometimes the incentives for success in the academic world are not consistent with what it takes to run a company.   However, I see top business schools working to bridge this gap by respecting executive education, by having more mature students who proactively draw from faculty what they know they need, and by having faculty who are willing to leave their ivory towers for the murky world of business reality.  Unfortunately, at other times, business professors have little or not interest or savvy about business issues.   

Morris: Gallup research data suggests that, on average, fewer than 30% of those in any workforce are actively and positively engaged. In your opinion, how can any organization (whatever its size and nature may be) increase that percentage significantly?

D. Ulrich: The seven factors we identified complement the engagement literature.  Some of the engagement literature focuses on being there… physically showing up to work and putting in time.  We want to shift engagement from hands and feet to heart and soul, or emotional engagement.

W. Ulrich: There will always be some people who are gifted at making meaning in all sorts of settings, including work, some people who could care less about trying to find meaning at work as long as they are getting paid, and a large group in between who would love to have work feel like a more abundant part of their lives but they need help getting there.  This is the group good leaders will target with the ideas we present.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to The Why of Work. Presumably the reference to “leaders” in the book’s subtitle is not limited to senior management. Rather, it includes those at all levels and in all areas of an organization.

D. Ulrich: Yes, we make the distinction between an individual “leader,” a single person, who takes charge and leadership or the array and depth of leaders within a company.

Morris: Now please explain the book’s title.

W. Ulrich: When it comes to finding meaning, Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning is the classic text.  This influential psychologist honed his work in the fire of some of the worst work conditions we can imagine – a Nazi concentration camp.  He quotes philosopher Nietzsche’s words, “He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how,” reminding us that if we can find a why to work we can probably work with almost any how as well.  We also wanted to make clear that this is a book leaders can use to help others find meaning, and that when they do their organizations will become more successful economically as well.

Morris: What are the dominant characteristics of an “abundant” organization?

D. Ulrich: We searched for a word that would capture the opposite of deficit thinking where options are limited.  Abundance implies plenty and to spare at three levels:  meaning for the individual, value for stakeholders (e.g., customers and investors), and hope for humanity.

Morris: What are the dominant characteristics of an “abundant” life?

W. Ulrich:  Life feels abundant when we focus more on what is right with our lives than on what is wrong.  When we have a sense of purpose and direction.  When we are in meaningful relationships with others.  When we are using the best of who we are to make a difference in things we care about.  When we are stretching ourselves to continue to learn and grow.  When we are in settings that promote civility and delight.  What makes life feel abundant for one person may mean little to another person, but we think we’ve captured many of the levers leaders can pull to bring abundance into a work setting.

Morris: What is a “meaning-maker” and can anyone become one? If so, how?

D. Ulrich: We all seek meaning where we find a raison d’être and a sense of fulfillment in our lives.  Work seems to be a universal place for this universal need.  Leaders who are meaning makers go beyond the motions of leadership to creating emotion in the workplace.  They turn visions into aspirations and stories.  They turn change plans into passionate programs.  They engage the hearts and minds of employees.

W. Ulrich: Current research on the brain is yielding some fascinating discoveries about how human beings come to make sense out of life in the context of close relationships.  Many people today have learned from parents and others how to work hard and make work meaningful, but many have not.  If you think about the kind of work you really enjoy and invest in, chances are someone taught you (consciously or not) how to stick with that work when it got hard, how to organize the work to get it done, how to see yourself as successful in that work, and how to connect that work to who you are and what matters to you.  They may have done this by talking to you about how they made sense out of work, or by engaging you and drawing you in to the work, or just by finding meaning in that sort of work themselves and letting you watch and listen.  Most successful people have learned to make meaning at work somehow, but they don’t always know how to make that process explicit for others.  We hope to bring this process into the open so it becomes more explicit and conscious.

Morris: Much has been said and written about how difficult it is to “balance” what is most important in one’s personal life and career. Can that balance be achieved and then sustained? If so, how?

W. Ulrich:  Balance is a dynamic thing, not something you find once and then just have to hold on to.  It is constantly shifting in response to changed circumstances and needs and wants.  Marshall Goldsmith reminds us that the trick is not to assume that we will never have to make hard trade-offs, but to make peace with the trade-offs we have made in creating our lives.

D. Ulrich: No balance is not possible.  When we try to excel equally at personal hobbies, work, family, and church, we find that we generally can not do all of them equally well all of the time. I have learned that I need to connect the activities (make work my hobby, which is not always good), or do them in sequence (when our children were younger, I spent more time with family).  Trade-offs among good things are inevitably difficult.

Morris: Here’s the question, first to Dave and then to Wendy: What is the most challenging of “paradoxical goals and values” that most people encounter? How to cope effectively with each?

D. Ulrich: I have had to learn when to satisfice, or learn that not everything worth doing is worth doing well.   Sometimes, things just have to get done.

W. Ulrich: I think the most challenging paradoxical goals are usually in the tension between what matters most and what matters now.  Because we cannot readily see into the future, what matters now often wins in this tension.  There is certainly much value in living in the moment and making the most of today.  But the ability to delay gratification today in order to reach relevant goals and objectives tomorrow is one of the best predictors of long-term success.  That means being willing to take the risks of short-term embarrassment or failure in the service of long-term learning and relating.

Morris: For those who have not as yet read The Why of Work, one of the recurrent themes in the book is a “search for meaning.” Where do people tend to search for it and what specifically do they seek?

W. Ulrich:  People have traditionally sought meaning in relationships, in religion, in learning, and in hobbies.  We are looking for a way to make sense of our lives, set and achieve goals we care about, figure out how to make decisions we won’t regret, have feelings of happiness and well-being, and cope with disappointment, loss and failure.  We want our lives to count for something, to leave some sort of legacy that says we were here and we made a difference.  Work is generally a primary source of identity, purpose, and relationships.  Work is a major place to enact our values, use our skills, learn, connect, and make a difference.

Morris: Here’s a personal question. To what extent have the most valuable life lessons you have learned also proven to be among the most valuable business lessons?

D. Ulrich: I find a large overlap of personal and business insights.  I try not to impose my personal beliefs on others or on business settings, but I learn a lot of business from interacting with my family, from participating in sports, and from observing life around me.  There are some universal principles that apply in personal and business settings.  For example, I have served in leadership positions in our church and have learned a great deal about the personal side of leadership from work in this setting.

W. Ulrich:  One of the most valuable life lessons I’ve learned is that if a thing is worth doing it is worth doing badly – rather than not doing it at all, or while we learn to do it better.  This is certainly true in business as well.  Things that are worth doing in a business setting are often not easy to measure or innovate. They require risk taking and resilience and learning from setbacks.  This doesn’t mean we are doing something wrong.  It just means nobody learns to play the piano without making mistakes, and nobody learns to do anything of real value without messing up more than once.  The important thing is to not bring a lot of blame and shame into this process but to reward people who have the humility and courage to try hard things, admit mistakes, and learn.

Morris: During exit interviews of highly-valued employees who have decided to work elsewhere, one of the most common complaints is that performance expectations were never clearly explained and that performance evaluations were inconsistent, unfair, and of no practical value. What are your thoughts about this?

W. Ulrich: Making expectations clear and performance evaluations truly helpful is frankly not that easy to do.  But it is one of those things that is so important to do that it is worth doing badly to start, and then working hard to get better at it.  Frankly, no one likes performance evaluations much unless they are uniformly positive.  And many jobs are not that clear cut, especially in the current economy where many companies are scrambling to get more done with fewer people.  But taking a little time to ask questions about how people are perceiving things, to make sure evaluations feel fair and constructive, to clarify where people are confused rather than blame or ignore – this can really pay off in the long run.

D. Ulrich: When performance expectations are unclear, power flows to the boss because s/he can then make arbitrary decisions about what is good enough.  I have worked in companies without clear expectations and it is a subtle way of leadership power and control at the top.   When employees have a clear sense of what is expected, they can make conscious choices about what to do or not to do.

Morris: In your opinion, what is the single biggest mistake that supervisors make when managing people who possess exceptional talent?

D. Ulrich: It is hard sometimes for leaders to let go and give their employees opportunities to succeed or fail.  Success builds confidence; failure provides opportunities for learning.   In either case, shadow leaders lead from the side.  I like to bike ride and have found that co riders ride faster when I am just behind the “leader” and encouraging from the side.

W. Ulrich: I’d say the biggest mistake is not letting people with exceptional talent know what you value about what they do and that it is appreciated.  We tend to take exceptional people for granted, assume they are already plenty secure, and we may even feel a little threatened by their strengths.  But exceptionally talented folks are generally faking their self-esteem like most everyone else.  They often don’t really know exactly what they are good at because it comes so naturally. They need appreciation and positive feedback just like everyone else.

Morris: For me, some of the most valuable material in the book concerns helping workers to identify and then “grow” their strengths. What can an organization do to support that difficult but essential process of personal improvement?

W. Ulrich:  Just paying some attention to the question of strengths helps.  A lot of people don’t really know what their strengths or values or character traits are unless someone asks the question, shares observations, or encourages exploration.  Many leaders hire people for certain perceived strengths but then don’t let them use their strengths regularly.  Yet this is one of the biggest factors in retaining good people.  When we can use our strengths regularly and meaningfully we get a big boost to our sense of happiness and well-being.

D. Ulrich: Strengths endure when they are used to strengthen others.  The strengths movement often starts (and stops) with recognizing and identifying strengths.  But when those strengths are used to serve others, they endure.

Morris: To what extent have mutually-beneficial relationships become more difficult to establish and then sustain in what Dan Pink characterizes as a “free agent nation”? Again, what can an organization do to encourage and support such relationships?

D. Ulrich: People make ongoing choices about give and get.  When there is equity, either in the short term or over time, the relationships endure.  Free agents who give more than they get back will eventually leave.  Those who get more than they give will not supported.   Free agency works when people find that they have enduring equity over time.

W. Ulrich: Relationships don’t have to last forever to be meaningful.  I have had very close friendships of important mutual support with people I rarely talk to any more because we’ve moved or changed jobs.  But while we were in close proximity these were still very important, supportive connections.  It is important to invest in the relationships that are available now, even if they may not last forever.

Morris: Although both of you have already touched on the subject earlier, I now want you to focus on the importance of establishing and then sustaining a “positive work environment.” Here’s my question: How to do that?

D. Ulrich: A positive work environment come from routines that reflect an organization’s culture.  For example, Apple, Google, and Herman Miller encourage innovation; it is their DNA and it is reinforced by hiring, paying, communicating, and structuring work to ensure innovation.   Wal-Mart, Target, and Costco have a culture of cost efficiency reinforced by the same practices applied to a different end.   Leaders shape a positive work environment by building routines that focus on what is right more than what is wrong and be encouraging the right behaviors more than punishing the bad ones.

Morris: Why is civility so important to the ultimate success of any organization?

W. Ulrich:  It takes so few negative, disrespectful, or hurtful comments to destroy trust and undermine people’s feelings of emotional safety.  When we are always watching our own back to ward off criticism, contempt, or unfair treatment it is really draining.  People won’t necessarily complain about incivility, they will just get self-protective and less invested at work.  When that happens they are not as honest, as creative, or as energetic at work, and employers are not getting their best efforts.

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

W. Ulrich: I guess I keep wondering if someone will ask me if I find meaning at work, probably because the answer frankly is sometimes yes, sometimes no.  The best math tutor is not always the person for whom math comes naturally, but the person who has had to struggle a bit to learn how to solve a problem and who understands the learning process. I know what it means to work at a job you don’t really enjoy, and I know what it means to have some aspects of a job you love that are still miserable. Even the process of writing this book has not always been in my strike zone for meaning.  As a result I think I understand that meaning making is not always obvious or easy.  But I also firmly believe it is possible to get more meaning out of work than we often do if we are willing to invest in it, and when we do everyone wins.

D. Ulrich: We want to reinforce that making meaning makes money.  These ideas are not “rebound human relations” (as one review suggested), but they are moving human relations principles from focusing just inside the organization or the individual to creating value for customers, investors, and society at large.


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