Turnaround artist Guy Bell shares hard-won wisdom on why and how to establish the right number of rules for teams.
- How modern businesses value processes over people
- The problem with budgets
- Guy’s process for people building
Guy Bell is an executive with decades of experience turning around struggling businesses. He’s also started up new businesses, acquired and on-boarded companies and led green field growth. He has held leadership roles in a wide variety of organizations, including equity-backed investments, public-traded companies and family-owned businesses.
In each of these situations, Guy challenged himself with one simple question: “How can I empower my team to meet their full potential?”
Guy is the author of Unlearning Leadership, which was named one of 10 leadership books that should be on your radar in 2019 by Inc Magazine.
Items Mentioned in this Show:
Guy, thanks so much for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.
Thanks for inviting me, Pete.
Oh, I’m excited to dig into your good stuff. But first, I want to dig into your background. You were previously a singer-songwriter. What’s the story here?
I grew up in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and my big dream, as a kiddo, was to get on stages and sing around the world. But ultimately, at that time, it was Minneapolis. And that was the world I was living in. And I had a real fun experience getting a chance to sing and record out at Paisley Park, Prince’s Studio, and you know, playing his bars in town or his bar at the time and other places, and really enjoyed that early experience. And it really has been oddly foundational for my business experience.
So that was a definitely an early kind of love that I figured at 18 years old. What do we know, right? But I knew then I was going to be a singer for the rest of my life. And here we are.
Well, I’m intrigued. And in what way was that foundational for the rest of your business?
You know, I kind of started off writing about this when I was getting into management. And I just look at the business world through the lessons of jazz, like there are no such thing as mistakes. You just play off of whatever kind of note you’re bending, if it’s not quite as you thought your finger was. And you learn to unlearn.
So in jazz, and when people become the best at their craft, they no longer play scales; they play the feeling, the mood, they know what a key they’re in, they understand the games, the rules of the game, and then they let go of that, knowing if that makes any sense. So that applies to business beautifully, in my experience.
Well, so now, what I love about this, is you’re sharing some things that might feel a little softer, there. But your credentials are pretty smashing when it comes to your work as a turnaround artist. Can you tell us, what do you do there? And what are some of the coolest results you’ve generated there?
Yeah, it is. It is strange, and it does feel soft. In fact, when I first got into managing, that’s usually the feedback I got: it was too soft, and I cared too much. And I needed to learn to toughen up and all these silly things that didn’t make any sense. Because over the years now, as you said, I’ve run publicly traded, privately held, equity-backed companies. And I’ve done it from taking these businesses that were run by people with the school of thought that said, “It’s not personal, it’s just business.”
And I came in at that one, though, it’s wildly personal. And it’s not just business, right? And so, you know, most of my turnarounds really, in this concept of the premise of who’s going to turn this around, but the people doing the work, and what are the common threads of what businesses miss, because they overmanage, they over-process out of fear
and out of a desire to manage risk, kind of overcontroling behaviors, and actions and they create policies to correct behaviors, and all these things that feel normal, because we have a good hundred years of doing this silly overreach for good reason.
Because people do make mistakes. People do take risks that are unwarranted. But what I’ve learned, I guess, Pete, and to kind of put it into a few bite-sized chunks, is I’ve learned something called Four Rules of Flight. And if you look at it from a business perspective, there are a certain number of rules that would relate to if you were flying a plane. So as an example, the four rules in flight are weight, lift, thrust, and drag.
If you take off, and you don’t have four rules, but you put together three rules, you have a car that looks like a plane. And if you’re there, and you add a rule—a fifth rule—you will crash. So when you look at business on a micro, and then on an individual level, and you understand that process matters, that there needs to be enough structure, enough of everything, but no more. What happens when we decelerate or we lose control of our business is, we don’t have enough rules.
And then conversely, which I found to be true in almost every turnaround, is people were over managing out of fear. When we start failing, we start judging. We start judging, we start applying more rules and regulations and structure, and we lose that ability to say when people are unleashed to reach their full potential, to give outstanding service, to come back and authentically say, “This process stinks. It’s not good, it’s not effective. Can we do it this way?” We don’t have those conversations anymore.
So that was one of those signature lessons that are pretty much universal. Another one quickly, and I’ll use what I’ve found to be one of the more controversial companies in America today, and for me, it’s a great lesson, and you could be controversial and still do it, right? And that is Amazon , “Day 1, Day 2”. He said 20+ years ago, if we don’t run this business every day like it counts, “Day 1” thinking, we will eventually become a “Day 2” company, which means at some point, it may take longer for a large company — and shorter for a small company — but we won’t exist because we’ll be managing out of fear. We’ll be keeping people from people.
And those kinds of philosophies have governed for better or worse, depending on how you perceive their culture, but it’s one thing above all else. And that is authentic. He knew that then, and he’s applied that year after year after year in his growth, and it’s a signature to his success.
I’ve found the same things to be true in every business that I work in, where we get caught up in belief systems that are unproductive, but they keep us from undue risk. And therefore we keep trusting that process more than we do the people, and that equation doesn’t work.
Wow, Guy, this is riveting stuff. And it really feels like you’ve got your finger on something quite real and important and sensible in terms of just the reactionary with, you know, failures and mistakes leads to judgment, into fear, and to rules and processes and policies.
And so could you maybe share with us a story of a turnaround you went to, in terms of where were they, kind of in terms of financially, and the lay of the land? What did you do? And then what did they end up with financially in terms of results afterwards? Just because I think there’s some listeners who think this sounds almost too good to be true. Yeah, so add a dollar sign to this, please.
Yeah, so if you don’t mind, I’ll give you a bite of a couple of different situations. So one of the turnarounds—I was brought in was equity-backed investment. They were losing money and didn’t know to what extent. I was brought in to help them grow the company. And as it turned out, within a month or two, they weren’t ready to grow; they were actually ready to fold. And so for the first six months in that business, what we did is we got our arms around, “Do we have the right people in the right seats? Are we working on the right marketing strategies?” and you just go through the nuts and bolts of the business.
And we made adjustments to include the CFO, who was unwilling or incapable — probably a bit of both — to give us timely penals. And we were missing, you know, elementary parts of the business. So it’s really very tactical in that way, where you just kind of look through all the systems processes, you ask the question of, “What are we missing?” What are you missing that you need to get from us as an investment to improve or as support to get the right information at the right time, accurate, complete, decision making-ready?
So we did that. We turned it around that time. I won’t name the equity firm, but they were managing $3 billion, we were a small investment, they were ready to leave it and walk away because it was frustrating. It was losing money. As I mentioned, we turned it around and sold it for $64 million within two years. And so the keys of that, you know, turn around, our signature. And I’ll give a couple of examples that play out the same way.
I was asked to turn around a nonprofit university, 150-year old university based out of San Francisco. And when I came in, at first, it was a nonprofit looking to sell or exit out of being a nonprofit, because it was not having success. And for whatever reason, they believed that somehow selling would magically make it successful, as opposed to getting the right management team.
So I came in to that organization, after several interviews, and same thing, we couldn’t make payroll. We were a $75 million company, couldn’t make payroll. And so I went to the board and just said, “Look, nothing personal. And it’s not my ego saying this; it’s really just true. I need to have control of your marketing right now.” And at that time, I was hired to help turn around the company, but it was a role as a vice president or Senior Vice President of Operations.
Anyway, fast forward, we got the front end fixed, which is usually one of the problems, getting the marketing right-sized and getting the sales process in place. That was required to improve results. And in both cases, we got a better cost per successful acquisition. And we improved performance broadly over the 10 businesses, and specifically by individual, because we just looked at the darn data, right? And we didn’t go after chasing numbers.
We actually built into every person, which is a real shift in in most businesses, is they start managing to a number which is by itself stupid. They’re nice people and smart, but they’re making a stupid decision. As I learned over time, there’s some of the smartest people I’ve worked with that use a budget to kind of “drive performance”, as opposed to understanding the input, what is happening by individual salesperson to be effective. And how do we, as professionals, help each other, in that case, individual, improve their performance?
If there’s five kind of points of workflow, do all five work for that person? Are they effective at all five? And that is the work. And so we have to look at that accurate data every single day — sometimes, throughout the day, to ensure that we’re coaching, developing, understanding our business at the incremental level.
So fast forward, all of that to include kind of rebuilding into the talented people that were at that particular model. And actually, this is true, in almost everyone: the people that were kept from being effective leaders, whatever the work could be, just above an individual contributor, all the way up to running a business unit, what usually kept them from their potential was threats.
People were afraid at the executive level, of the critical feedback or whatever that caused this disruption, this ease of relationships. And so you just went back out and met everyone and re-engaged on a human level, rebuilt some trust pretty quickly, and unleashed them, you know, just said, “Look, I trust that you’re going to get this done the right way, let’s just do it transparently. And together. And there’s no judgment.”
And you know, 18 months later, we sold it. 18 months after selling it, they sold it again, for $275 million, I believe. And when I started it, it could have gone bankrupt in the next three months. So, really good outcome there, in both fronts, and in terms of the first sale and the second sale.
And I guess I could go on for a few more. But ultimately, I could even tell you a story where it didn’t work, if you like, but when it does work, the basic elements are, you know, pretty common.
So it is very detail-oriented, it is very kind of, what is in the weeds of every individual. I use a concept called “Every person counts, every day counts”. And when they don’t count, you have one too many people. Or you have the wrong person. So don’t hire one too many people. I don’t care how successful you are. Everyone wants to count. So therefore, for crying out loud, why not set the scene to make damn sure they do? Does that make sense?
Yes, that’s good. That’s good. All right. So that is well-established in terms of reporting to some true results here, from these perspectives and philosophies. And so then, I want to hear a little bit about that perspective of not managing to a number, but instead of building into a person. Can you unpack that concept for us a bit more?
Absolutely. I mean, one of the crimes was—I was working in a publicly traded company. And there was — and this is common, but I’ll just use this example. So there was a board budget that had cushion. And then there was a top upper management executive plan that had a little less cushion. And then there was an operating budget that had no cushy. And in some cases, if we wanted to drive, “the result”, we made it really difficult to achieve their goals, which by itself, is one of the fundamental flaws of why budgets are nothing other than predictive ways of understanding the cash flow for investment.
But having said that, that kind of mindset of doing that makes it virtually impossible and demoralizing to an operator, often not always. But when it does, that, by itself is a really silly model to use as a performance model. So I say just all that crap away, and work on every individual, every single day, on whatever those process, key elements of success are, whatever the sales process is, and stay with them. You will get the outcome that you earn by the activities that you produce. You will come to those activities you produce with a kind of on-fire, more excited approach, when you’re coached on getting past the routine of memorizing a script, or doing what I tell you to do.
But instead, taking what we talked about, that is important because we know what works and making it yours. And that just takes more investment. It takes a little more time, it takes really good listening and studying that person to say, “Gosh, they stink at the memorized script in their voice. Their approach isn’t going to work the way I want it to work.” So let’s figure out another way to approach this part of that sales funnel communications to ensure that they’re authentic, coupled with they’re getting the right result for them.
And then ultimately, I’ve learned, I show people the budget, I talk about our goals, and then I teach them how to throw them away in a sense of what the baseline is. Now go after every single person, every single one…that we were off 20% over our budgets or routine basis, when they were decently laid out. And I would fight hard in those situations where I wasn’t the one making the decision, to ensure that it was rational, so that we could actually overachieve when we do what they don’t see, because that’s not how they think about budgets and performance. But we do. And we would outperform them routinely.
When it was my decision, I didn’t purposely give a lay down in the budget. I just said, “Here’s what we need to accomplish, we need to see some growth in these areas, and then we train into the fact that we want you to be successful. We want you to exceed what we need to invest, to reinvest what we want to see out of our growth this year based on macro data.”
So I hope that’s helpful. But budgets have a whole host of problems that we need to kind of unlearn and relearn the real value so that we can incrementally build into talent, into the business process, into authentic engagements. And I found that to be difficult to do when people feel like, “Dang, I gotta hit my number, I’m getting on a call every day or every Monday and getting beaten up, because my people are not performing the way that they should.” And it’s all driven around hitting a number versus kind of building the individual up.
I see. And so then it sounds like if you’re focused mostly on the number, that’s not really helpful in terms of having a person improve. So I guess if it’s like, “Hey, I need you to have, I don’t know, 40 new customers.” “Yeah, got 31.” “Get better!” That isn’t quite as handy.
“Okay, so here’s the five activities you need to undertake in order to acquire these customers. Well, let’s take a look at each one of them and see how it’s going.” So could you maybe give us an example of how it’s done in practice? Maybe it’s with sales, or maybe it’s with another type of contributor, but I think I get a taste for a breakdown and the process of doing some people-building in that way.
Absolutely. So I’ll give you a couple of examples. And I’ll stay with sales for now. One is I took over a company that was losing money. We ended up selling for six times EBITDA, which was a nice exit for a group.
They were losing money, we turned it around pretty quickly, we did it on the back of this exact idea. So we were converting an inquiry to revenue, basically help it be agnostic. So any model can apply their own kind of metrics. But we’ve converted, we’re converting at about 5.3 or 5.4%. And in this business model, there are five numbers, and you can play games with them all day long.
But ultimately, you can’t play games with as you spent this much money, and you have this outcome. And so what, with this money…
This outcome we’re talking about, like a marketing investment, correct?
Correct. Yes, this investment of $20 million earns 9,525 new customers. So there is an equation there, and then ultimately, in this case, it turns out to be about a 5.4%-ish conversion rate. So that wasn’t great. Maybe even, you know, weak. Then there’s another factor where we’re buying, you know, eyes and ears and interest. But we also want to earn it through relationships, right? So we built a model quickly, and we trained on it, to talk about the keys to making kind of this process work better.
And we budgeted to say if we don’t get any better at that equation, meaning the conversion from a cost of acquisition, to meeting a customer, new customer and marketing, to a revenue, we made the decision to say, “Well, let’s keep it at the 5.4.” We may have put in two tenths of a percent, whatever we did, but something small when getting the 7.6%, purely on not focusing on 7.6%, or hitting a number.
What we did is we shifted the entire process. We weren’t using the data, right? So we put the exact data in, we understood it on an individual basis. Throughout the day, throughout the week, every call we had, we reviewed it, we’ve talked about the building blocks. We didn’t talk about… we had them learn to, say, if your funnel of five key metrics are working the way you want, or aren’t, what are you doing about them? And what are you doing them about them by individual?
And it’s just that process of learning to talk about that engagement at a deep level. And as you do that, people are kind of learning new muscles, learning to practice in a little bit more concrete way, versus, as you jokingly said, Pete, but it’s the truth. I’ve seen it, unfortunately, too many times where people are like, “If you don’t hit your number, we’re going to have to let you go.”
And so what kind of training have you been doing? And most people insist, “Well, I’ve done a ton of training,” and they said, “Well, let me sit on the next one.” And they think it’s trading, right? But they’re not really getting into the weeds of sitting down and listening to that part of the process. So let’s say it’s a phone call converting to an in-person, converting to a “I’m in” and they sign a piece of paper saying I want to do this.
And then it converting into, you know, revenue, which is there. They’ve stayed for five days in our business, and they’re excited to be with us, right? So in that business process, we get caught up in in too many things that are trying to get to that number, because I’ve got to make sure that 8 out of 10 of them show up, and that they stay for whatever number of days are for the requirements to hit their number.
So getting out of that mindset to, say, when you set the right stage, you do it the right way. You sit with people individually, and you understand how this works, and you get them excited about doing it right. And when they do, — and I know — the results improve. They may not improve the same for everyone. Of course, they never do almost. They improve for that person because you’re helping them get better. And once that success happens, which in most sales cycles, if you’re unlucky that your sales cycle is a year, then it’s pretty difficult.
But if your sale cycle is daily, weekly, in a month, you can really see shift in the thinking quickly, just by the evidence alone. But usually, people at first resist a little bit, because they’re the smart person and they want to do it their way or they feel like they’re a little vulnerable, because they’ve never really gotten into the weeds and sat down with an individual and had to shift their thinking of what should be done because they were good at it before. “You should be doing what I tell you to do, not with naturally you’re coming to,” right?
So it’s just going to help them do that over and over again, you know, measuring how they do it, saying, “Hey, it looks like you haven’t really made any improvements here. Let’s talk about it,” and you kind of go through it again. And then when they have a success, then you give them the praise. And you tell them, you know, they deserve to be here. And that is it’s working.
So stay the course and they get a couple wins. And now they’re heroes. A few cases. One case in particular, there’s a guy in Ohio that was mathematically successful, and yet, just under his number, because he was managing two numbers. So he wasn’t my direct employee. But I brought a team out to sit down with them. And we walked through each of his team members and their performance.
And we talked about, you know, what’s working and not working. And he felt threatened at first, because he felt like, “Well, gosh, I can see what the company does. Why are you coming here and talking to me?” And so after we get done, he had his numbers for the next six months. So it wasn’t about hitting the numbers. It was about, don’t stare at the number, because you just miss it all the time. Does that make sense?
Oh, yeah. But what’s so intriguing here is that… but this doesn’t sound like revolutionarily brilliant. It’s not. Like this is sort of what we’ve always should have been doing. But soon enough… it really is cool. This brings me back to one of my favorite cases when I was consulting at Bain and Company.
I didn’t think it would be a fun case, but it really was quite fun. There were call centers, and they had a problem with attrition. The call center representatives were quitting way too fast. Now, attrition is high in that industry, because that’s not a really fun job for most people. But it was way higher for our clients and even sort of the industry norms and standards.
And so we found a lot of the same steps in terms of, first, we had to clean up the data. Like we didn’t have reliable attrition data. It was it. So no one believed it or trusted it or regarded it. So it could always be sort of just put to the side, like, “Oh, you can’t trust those numbers.” It’s like, “Well, let’s make it so we can trust them.” And so that was kind of my roles. Like we were just getting down to these details. “Alright, day by day, every day, someone is going to tell me, ‘I need these six call centers; how many people quit?’ ‘Month by month, this is what the attrition numbers look like.’”
And then all of a sudden, it’s like, “Hey, you had a great month, what did you do?” “Oh, well, we tried this incentive thing.” It’s like, you know, what, we realized was that we had some supervisors who were just real nasty, and quit way faster than the other supervisors. So we noticed, and we replaced them. And yeah, it was just sort of like, there wasn’t like one magical silver bullet we discovered in terms of, “Oh my gosh, people love candy Fridays.”
But there’s just lots of little things, like, “Hey, what are you doing? Oh, that’s a good idea. Maybe we should do some of that. It’s a great job.” Those numbers are really moving somewhere. And they trusted it. And they had visibility, because more and more people, it was kind of fun that they kept asking to get added to my list. It’s like, “Oh, sure, thank you. I am the keeper of the attrition numbers,” which is funny because we’re an outside consultant. Like, they didn’t have their own attrition numbers they could trust.
And so, it’s amazing how I hear you. I guess the resistance is, one, it’s a little bit more time, it’s a little bit more detail that you’re getting, maybe an executive doesn’t feel that he or she should have to get into this level of weeds or whatever. But you’re saying, “Yes, in fact, you do.” That’s how it’s done?
Yeah, you have to. And what everyone has in common, even the smartest of the companies with PhD analysts and people that you used to work with, and probably are just fantastic at gathering data. But are we getting the right data in the right way? Are we testing? Are all the other links broken? Are they not broken? And can we not do it? Does that person know where to go when someone’s watching, to say, “We’re pulling data from 15 sources, inevitably, and every 90 days, if you don’t test it, something breaks, and all of a sudden, you have to visually catch it,” versus having some way of making sure that your data is your life?
And when it’s accurate, it does change radically. So it’s not a very soft thing. But it is the beginning. You have to make sure you’re looking at the right information exactly to your point. And you said something that is just absolutely the truth. And what I find to be kind of fascinating is we over engineer, we overthink so many things to the point where, “Well, we got to figure out a way to save on costs and get a better process. And let’s go analyze,” we brought in, you know, companies like your old company, and we spent 10 million bucks.
And we learned the same thing: some of us already knew not to say that it wasn’t smart. It was smart, but you can’t decentralize a few things. But you can on the numbers, meaning, if it’s a high-touch business component, the business process, you’ve got to know the difference on some level, you got to make a bet on something. And I would say that’s where we lose traction.
Often in business, around efficiency is when we overthink the power of the human potential, the power the human being. And we try to find a kind of a Tayloristic Ford Model back 100 plus years ago that, now, is agile workflow. And all the amazing feats we have now is just outstanding process analysis and distribution of this great wisdom. But it only goes so far, if that makes sense.
And at some point, you have to be human again, to kind of really understand the power of that detail showing up in a conversation, in a kind of a lengthy understanding, of you know who we are and this and that, then it’s very easy to discern. Do you fire someone? Do you say goodbye? Do you move them somewhere else? Or do you stay the course?
And to that story with that 5.3% go into the 7.6%. So were there was it kind of the same kind of a concept? Like there wasn’t one or two silver bullets? Like, “Aha,! We just have to do this.” But rather, maybe dozens of tiny discoveries associated with when you follow up. Don’t say this, but you say that it wasn’t like that?
Yeah, absolutely. And in fact, you know, I replaced a few people, as you know, often happens. But in this case, one of the most brilliant minds I’ve ever worked with, because he could do all the coding, he could study all the data, he could go in and write code, he could get into the back end of the website. All these things that were important, but I couldn’t do it myself, I don’t have all those skills. But he did. He would trust the data at the cost of the people.
And then I had a salesperson that would trust the people at the data. So yes, it was a dance, and we all learned, in a very fun way, when we kind of respected each other’s gifts and talents. We learned that this dance of it all matters. If you take any one of these things out, it does hurt the business. And you know, in some cases, I know how they perform after I leave. And I know a little bit, not always, but often, about what happens once they move on.
We stay the course of getting better and better at that. There’s been multiple exits since I’ve left some companies, and that’s exciting. But often, what happens is they go back to the behavior that is all data, or all hitting a number, or all kind of one-dimensional, because what should be this way? “There it is there. Therefore it should be here.” And they oversimplify, and then God only knows why they come to those conclusions. But it’s wrong. It does take a whole host of different subtle elements, and the data will point. But it will not do as you know. But you gotta get good data points, because it does help with time.
All right, well, so given this thorough backdrop, What are the four rules of flight?
Yeah, weight, lift, thrust, and drag. Yeah, that’s the flight in business. If you look at it at a micro and macro level, every business has one thing in common when it fails. And that’s too many policies to correct behaviors. Free people up. And the only way you can do it, there’s only one way, is you have to trust that people are going to make mistakes, and that the mistake isn’t going to kill the business. That therefore it can be one less, until it’s that business killer. Again, back to there’s no one solution; every industry will have different rules. But if someone doesn’t pay attention to that, it is the beginning of the end.
So I would argue, one of the most important positions possibly in business is not someone that’s an executive, or a manager, or even an individual contributor. They’re all important. But maybe the most important thing to learn about four rules of flight is someone needs to say, “I give a shit—” excuse my language, “—about four rules of flight, and our business model, of whether it be oil and gas or education or retail, and it’s digital and ground.”
Some of them ensure that we’re staying true to the fact that we want to make the biggest decisions possible at the closest point to a customer that we can. And if we stay true to that someone, better yet, say, we’re going to tell the lawyers that are saying, “No, no, no, we had that risk. And it cost us X number of dollars because we had three lawsuits based on that behavior. Therefore we’re creating a rule, and then we kill the potential of making a mistake,” for sure.
But we also kill the potential of changing a customer situation, for sure. So to me, we measure the wrong things. It gets ridiculously complex, when you try to measure all of this additional kind of wonder state of what happens when you don’t know the unintended consequence. You may take your 55 lawsuits, which is usually what I walk into, and bring them down to zero, but at what cost? And 55 lawsuits came from, in their minds, too few rules. Not always the case, but often, there are too few rules, or they’re not the right rules. And perhaps they’re just simply bad training.
Perhaps you’re not setting the right stage to say when you have the freedom to make that decision, individual contributor working on a customer engagement, and they say, “As a customer, I’m not satisfied with this experience.” And you say, “Well, let me help you resolve it.” When you have that power, do you really know how to resolve it? And the answer is often no, but don’t give up on it; get better at resolving it, so that the customer gets a just-in-time answer.
The employee gets to expand their talents and contribute at a higher level, and therefore feel really good about solving something. This day and age, we often say, “My manager needs to talk to you,” and then no managers there. You know, all the goofiness that takes away their power? That’s just crazy.
I hear you there. All right, so the four rules of flight then is not rather, “Hey, here are four key principles,” but rather the concepts that are in flight, they’re exactly four rules. And obviously in your operation, you should have exactly the right number of rules, correct? Not too many, not too few. Okay, most have too many. So we talked about budget troubles, what are some other rules or policies or traditional practices that you often see, just need to go?
Don’t create a culture; there’s no such thing. There are people that have PhDs in some form, and they consider themselves to be culture experts. What I’ve sadly learned, because I’ve made that mistake more than once, is a culture is a reflection of us leaders. And this is ultimately, even on a macro scale, a reflection of all of us. So we co-create culture. Culture is primarily driven in companies by behaviors at the top. And the irony of those four rules, kind of lessons, the four rules of flight, it would be, you know, one, too many policies. Two, your thoughts need to match your words, need to match your actions.
And when they’re misaligned, your business will fail. It may not fail tomorrow, it may not fail obviously, but you need to be aligned. And most companies choose to have a boardroom mentality, meaning what we think, and in the boardroom, most executives are less than kind. But you know, the kind around results that are positive, but not always. But they get down fire about, hitting our numbers, hitting our quarterly results, whatever these things are. And then we go sell the customer on the other side, a story of our business that…tries to make everyone feel good.
And then we go tell our employees a story that an HR department or an OD group comes in and says, “You know, well, they’re not too happy. Let’s go create a happiness poster.” That’s not the way it works. And it may be, you know, a good selling point for a minute or two years or five years or 10 years. But ultimately, either don’t have any of that crap and, you know, walk your walk, meaning if you’re an owner of a company, get a stable top management. It starts with them. They need to be able to say, “You know, what do we believe firmly?
“What are we communicating to our team? And so they can believe in it with us. And it’ll inform our execution, if we do that beautifully, elegantly. Regardless of if we’re kind of driven and we’re dehumanizing or not, the greatest people in the world, then damn it, stay the course.” Be who you are, as a company, as an individual group of owners, leaders, whatever that structure is the top. And then I would say, conversely, another really big mistake is not empowering everyone to become an expression of what that is, once you have a clear definition of, you know, by practice of how you look at your customers, how you’re kind of looking at one another and interesting in the conversation and empowering or not, right?
So whatever those variables are, that is the culture. And then from that place, really, how do we get into the individual contributor, a way that they can relate to it, however they are, wherever they sit, whatever they do? They matter, they have to matter. As I mentioned, if it’s one too many people, then don’t have them there. But if they’re there, they matter. So the culture is their expression in that exact same way with a different impact, but an impact all the same. So that’s one of those rules where I routinely… I’ll use an example.
I write about this, you know, you look at a company that everyone would have bet that 20 years later, Whole Foods would have been the most lovely place to work and the most beautiful culture because of how it began. It was the first of its kind, too unskilled to do what they did. And then you look at Amazon, who purchased them, was not known for being the most interesting guy to work with in terms of, you know, happy culture, and you know, feeling good about ourselves, but he’s executed at a very high level. And for better or worse, to my knowledge, they’re pretty well-aligned.
And so, two years ago, when I was watching this acquisition go through, and I kept thinking, because I know a lot of Whole Foods folks and I’m a consumer of both products. I quit consuming from Whole Foods, because it just became an experience that I felt, as a customer, was out of alignment. And I consumed more, frankly, from Amazon, who I felt like, you know, I read the articles, and I knew some of the backstory about what it was like to work there and stuff.
But it was authentic. No one walked in wondering what the experience was going to be like. And I remember reading an article that the founder and owner at the time of Whole Foods, said he met with Jeff Bezos, and we’re excited to come aboard. And he said, “Really, the difference I learned from Jeff and his company, was that I cared too much about people.” And I thought, “Dude, you have it totally wrong. You just you had it on a bunch of posters that you cared about people; you didn’t actually care about people.” And I’ll give you one more example of that exact lesson, I was running a publicly traded company.
And the CEO was an executive. The CEO came up in front of everyone in the management team and said, “You know, guys, we’ve got to get this turned around. We need to get people to feel like we care about them.” And I said, “Then just care about them.” And he said, “Well, what’s the point? What point do you want to you make?” And I said, “You said you want them to feel like we care about them, then don’t say that you don’t care about them. But if you really want to care about them, just care about them.” And he looked at me like, “Who are you?”
And we got to know each other well after that, but what’s happening is, I want you to feel like you have a voice. Do you want to have a voice? Do you really want respect? Either way, you don’t get to choose it. So that kind of thought process crops up, and then all of a sudden, it becomes you know, Whole Foods failing miserably. Because the thousandth time you say you care, but you don’t care, people trust their limbic resonance. Their body screams, “Man, this dude is not here for me. He’s not the person that created this company. I’m sure he’s a fantastic guy on a personal level, but he got caught up in something that was a concept not embedded into the fabric of that company in a way that everyone learns over time to trust the truth beyond our words,” right?
So aligning our thoughts, our words and our actions are critically important, too. Everyone counts; not some people, everyone. If you leave that, you’re in trouble. And then another one, it always starts with you. Always, not sometimes, not most of the time. So that means every janitor, every kind of entry level employee, everybody counts. And starts with you. You can change a company, you can change an experience, you can change a process. You’ve developed ways, but ultimately, you have to come in and say, “I’m not going to blame anybody. If I do that, I’m going to leave. But if I’m going to be here, I’m going to invest fully in what I have control and power over. And then I’m going to try to influence what I can see, feel and experience. And I’m going to do it in the most positive, affirming way. But I’m going to do it.”
If we can get to those four points, you know, four rules apply to many policies. Our thoughts, words and actions match. And then two, everyone counts in. One, it starts with me. That’s probably the closest version I can get to using that four concepts to simplify it.
That’s good. Thank you. So when it comes to the caring, I’d love to get your take on it fundamentally, what is your top tip or suggestion when it comes to caring?
Wow, I love that. I would say the worst thing we can do is create the candy days in the lunches, where we go take a bunch of pictures and post them and make everyone feel happy, and that concept.
I think show up as you, and invite other people to show up as them, and let the messiness of life play its role. People are messy; we have bad days, and we don’t have separate lives, whether we like it or not, we’re not a husband, a wife, you know, a spiritual person, and you know, in this bucket, and then a dad in that bucket, it doesn’t work that way. And so what does it mean to truly invite other people into their fullness? To include you know, some of the mess and in that you earn some trust and that people start to kind of live into their fullness in a way that does matter and does get results. But ultimately you’re doing it to humanize the experience. You’re doing it because you care. And when you give a damn, and you authentically give a damn—or if you don’t—practice caring, practice listening, practice hearing everything, and then shift it if you want to go to business and say, well, let’s talk about a business process. I saw What’s going on? What do you think? And you’re four levels above them walking around the office? And they say, Well, I don’t know until Oh, yeah, I really do want to know, let’s talk about a little bit and never said they tell you their thought. And once in a while, you just get totally blown away by something that’s not in their backyard and you earn some trust, because you care enough to say I’ll bet you have an opinion. I’ll bet you see this from a different angle than I do. And then ask and let goofiness and silliness and stuff get in the way. But ultimately, you’re freeing people up to be everything to include transformative to include
You know, passionate, caring person toward the customers towards each other for the good of the company and the good of the community.
That’s good. Guy, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some your favorite things?
Boy, I don’t have a list. So no, I’m good. This is fun. Thank you.
All right. Thank you. Well, now, could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?
Geez, I like Buckminster Fuller’s quote, and I am not going to get it exact. But it’s something to the extent that to really change how something is working, you have to start over. You can’t just add on. And so I use it a lot at the end of my speeches. Of course, I didn’t memorize it. I think Buckminster Fuller, pretty much everything he kind of has come to and shared, that we’re now aware of his lexicon of ideas, is helpful.
I don’t tend to use too many quotes, though. Having said that, because I do like the idea of more expanding into kind of what is the complexity beyond the quote’s point, but I like the rich complexity to that end. I wish I had a better ones to share with you, but I do find the ones where it’s teaching us to free up our thoughts. You know, there’s all kinds of wonderful thinkers that have, over the years, over the centuries, talked about what does it mean to be a free thinker. So I enjoy any one in the field of philosophy and or economics that talk about free markets and free thought.
Cool. And how about a favorite book?
A couple of them, I recently I read The Innovation Blind Spot. And it’s really a fantastic read. I also read a book, Utopia for Realists, which is from a fascinating young guy from Europe, who is looking at sociological history and kind of challenging modern thought through data. Very smart guy. And then I’ve read a couple books, one called Sapiens and Homo Deus, they’re are all fascinating reads.
And how about a favorite habit, something you do that helps you be awesome a job?
I go to bed, ensuring that I free myself of the day. I used to stay awake all night, when I had challenges at work, or whatever the case would be, and it became a practice of letting go and playing in that field. And then waking up in my first hour, half an hour of every day is a practice of, you know, quieting and reflecting on the on the joy of the day, and I walk into it, then converting that into kind of more mantras and thoughts throughout the day that support the kind of day I want to have.
And was there a particular nugget you share with clients or readers or audience members that really seems to connect and resonate with them? And they repeat it back to you often?
Oh, you know, I think the message of learning to let go of what you know is such a rich and complex story.
But when I get into the details of let go and know, people began to resonate. And yeah, so I get feedback on that message. Another is, very specifically, when people ask for concrete approaches, I talk about policies from the lens of if it’s a rule, make sure everybody knows it’s non-negotiable. If it’s a policy, make sure you’re writing it towards something you want to accomplish, not away from something you don’t want to see happen. And if it’s a best practice, put it out there and don’t make it a point until you need to. And I’ve had lots of groups that are HR-centric, like how simple that is.
So that one’s red, meaning if you want to call it color coded, so that you know those are non-negotiable, they’re laws by governing bodies, whatever it may be. Yellow is our policies; they’re meant to be broken, you need to learn how to break them no more than, you know, whatever your rule is, 5% of the time. And if you do have a conversation, and three, we put out great ideas that your peers have used over the years. And we keep refreshing that it’s a nice, simple way to kind of put some meat on the bones of how to simplify the business without dumbing it down.
And if folks want to learn more and get in touch, where would you point them?
guypbell.com. It’s my website, and you can reach me at my email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
And do you have a final challenge or a call to action for folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?
When you get people right, you get business right. It is really the critical reminder: we are in a time of the fourth industrial revolution; let’s do everything we can to make that work for us. And I’ve seen it both ways where it’s been transformative around working for the company and for the people. And I’ve seen it actually used improperly. So, you know, look at the people, even through the lens of these outstanding AI solutions and deep learning, and we’ll get the best both worlds.
Guy, this has been a treat. Thank you so much for taking this time, and good luck with the turnarounds you’re doing and the adventures you’re having in the future you’re touching. This has been a real good time.
It’s been a pleasure, Pete. Thank you. I appreciate it.