A Healthy Workplace Creates Better Jobs

leaderBy Kevin Owyang

Employee health and rising costs are major concerns at many corporations.  But a different kind of health may be the key to better jobs and a more productive workforce.

A healthy workplace balances “what is good for the organization and what is good for the people working within it,” says Dr. Robert B. McKenna, advisory board member of Excellent Cultures who works with the highest levels of Toyota Scion Division.  As Chair and Associate Professor of Industrial/Organizational Psychology, Seattle Pacific University, McKenna mentors the next generation of executives, authentic leaders capable of creating a culture where the triple bottom line just happens.

For Gen Y, career is life and life is career. “But with a lot of the organizations I work with there’s this false division between what’s happening in [the] workplace and what’s happening in the rest of the world,” said McKenna in an interview. Tomorrow’s leaders want to manage those tensions better and a record number of candidates are vying for admission to his program.

Unlikely partnerships

The Center for Leadership Research & Development (CLR&D), an intrapreneurial endeavor started by McKenna, likes to turn classroom structure upside down and blur the lines between instructors and students. One class uses a Startup Weekend-like concept to shape the syllabus. Participants pitch topics and form teams around favorites.

The course takes a diverse group of participants and levels the playing-field – faculty pitch in competition with students, administrators, alumni, and business executives. “We tried all types of things to better engage students and alumni, like picnics and events. But for this course, people pack the room. Busy people: Boeing executives, seasoned managers, and university leadership,” says McKenna with humbled pride.

Each class opens with a “fishbowl” – a roundtable in which participants, chosen at random, share their experiences around tough questions.  CLR&D likes to explore topics like, “what do joy, suffering, and hope have to do with the workplace.”

This isn’t a game. And real-world leadership challenges emerge in real-time. In one class, students asked the past-president of the University, “How do you know if students and faculty really respect you, or just pretend to?” And he answered, on the spot, mustering authenticity for an audience expecting nothing less.

Jumpstarting with social innovation

Unconventional methods force students to probe tough questions from day one. This year’s candidates will attend the premier of Undivided, a film produced by Jeff Martin about a few social innovators who inspired SouthLake Church to save a school, and created a movement to enlist 300,000 organizations to serve 100,000 schools. “We have a unique opportunity to show up, ask the simple question ‘How can we help?’ and then stay,” says the church’s pastor Matt Woll, calling for broader community and business partnership in serving the public school system.

McKenna continues, “We tell this lie about the division between parts of our world. And that lie causes us to separate what’s me from what’s them and what’s my responsibility from what’s not.” And at the root of this division is the same lie that divides career from life.  “The question isn’t what does this have to do with leadership, but what does it not have to do with it?”

The social challenge of training leaders

“Every university we compete with says they train scientist/practitioners – people who can go out and be a consultant, or work in strategic human resource management, or to do organizational development at the highest levels,” says McKenna.

But if someday you, as a consultant, need to explain leadership shortcomings to an executive, “The instrument of change is you,” said McKenna. “That’s why we do a deep dive into who you are. You have to know all your hot buttons, what you do really well and what you have to work on.”

Paradox has been central to McKenna’s career. As a Ph.D candidate, his dissertation was on the leadership tension of “providing control and direction while empowering people to provide their own.”

Back then, most research examined one dimensional aspects, like how empowering people increased job satisfaction. “Yet every leader I [talked] to was in constant tension between two things,” he says describing the struggle to be transparent and authentic.  

Breaking preconceptions

It’s a model that works for the right students, some of whom forego full scholarships at other universities to enter McKenna’s program. “This place changes everything about the way you think about your world,” he says passionately. “If someone just wants a degree and classroom stuff, I would tell them go elsewhere.”

CLR&D trains leaders to build workplaces, “where people can be themselves.”  This isn’t about nap rooms, free lunch, or innovation time. It’s about empathy and embracing all the insecurities and risk of being a leader who is truly authentic.

So for example, “in our field, there’s decades of research on why goals work,” says McKenna. “But our students explore what goal-setting has to do with hope. I tell them look at People magazine. There you’ll find people who set a bunch of goals and achieved them, yet they still feel hopeless and depressed.”

“Most line managers are afraid of conversations like hope,” he says acknowledging how trivial it sounds.  “But what responsibility does a leader have to communicate hope, sometimes when they don’t feel it themselves?”  These are the kinds of challenges that CLR&D poses to students so they develop into thoughtful, authentic leaders ready to embrace a world where life is career and career is life.

Entrepreneurial spirit breaks the mold

As a graduate level chair, McKenna is responsible for funding his department’s needs and managing a profit and loss. “I have to be an entrepreneur. If we don’t find different ways to create financially sustainable systems, we won’t be around.”

The son of a university president, McKenna is familiar with the traditional model of administration in higher education.  But he possesses an entrepreneur’s mindset.  “I start by asking: who am I, what resources do I have, and what can I do with that.”  So when colleagues said he needed a $1 million grant to start a center, he looked for ways to bootstrap the CLR&D without one.

CLR&D’s latest project is called YRU (Why Are You?).  It challenges people to ask tough questions about why they have what they do, yet lack what they don’t. And, it pushes them into that uncomfortable, naked position of having to share those thoughts with others.

McKenna explains poetically, “I assume we are all jars of clay.”  It’s an historical reference to ancient water containers that often had cracks; merchants would sometimes hide the cracks with ornamental glazing so people would buy them, even though they leak.   “I wanted to create a safe place where we can all be cracked jars of clay together, without the glaze.”

“When I started YRU, I wasn’t quite sure what it should be, or if it would even succeed. Yet it’s taught me about delegating to volunteers.”  And the unleashing of empowerment is incredible.    “It’s been inspiring to watch these young leaders step up.  Doctoral students, with crushing workload, who volunteer an additional 20 hours to do this.”

As it enters year two, YRU’s benefit is becoming clear. “Leaders are really afraid of creating spaces where people can be themselves,” says McKenna, “they say ‘I’m not qualified to go there because this is business.’” Yet I think there’s a real value proposition in creating workplaces where people can share what they’re afraid of, and workplaces that invest in making people more employable even though they’re afraid those people might go somewhere else.”

What’s McKenna’s answer to creating a culture where the triple bottom line just happens?  “Create a place where people know their leaders saw them.”   And that starts with leaders who themselves are courageous enough to be seen, cracks and all.  What do you think?

Kevin Owyang is Founder of B Jibe.  B Jibe reports on people and companies that “Give Back.”  B Jibe is a not for profit project of Avolusis, LLC where Mr. Owyang is CEO.  Previously Mr. Owyang held various executive level positions in technology and telecommunications and was Executive Vice President, Risk Management at Kinder Morgan Inc.  You can read more about him here.

[image credit: Brand Management Conference: Flickr cc]

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