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The Why of Work

Podcast with Dave and Wendy Ulrich, authors of The Why of Work

Dave and Wendy Ulrich Dave and Wendy Ulrich

Dave and Wendy Ulrich argue the "soft skills" are really the "hard skills" leaders must embrace to attract and retain top talent to their organizations.

Their new book The Why of Work, How Great Leaders Build Abundant Organizations That Win, challenge management with the following question:

"Before you ask, 'What do my employees put into their work?'...ask yourself, 'What do they get out of it?'"

They organize their concepts in The Why of Work within a framework of seven questions:

  1. What am I known for?
  2. Where am I going?
  3. Whom do I travel with?
  4. How do I build a positive work environment?
  5. What challenges interest me?
  6. How do I respond to disposability and change?
  7. What delights me?

Welcome to a special Leadership Channel podcast on TotalPicture Radio with Peter Clayton reporting. I met Dave Ulrich at the HCI National Summit in Tucson this spring, where he delivered an engaging (and completely revised overnight, I might add), keynote presentation. He told the audience the new talent metaphor was "The Marshall Plan."

Dave and Wendy Ulrich's exclusive podcast on TotalPicture Radio is brought to you by Taleo.

Dave Ulrich: I think there will this Marshall Plan where we say as we come through recovery, how do we learn to work with you so that we can retain our best and brightest people? The metaphor for that and it's going to take a minute to describe because it just captured it for us. We didn't put it in the book. In 2004, a television show was started called The Apprentice and everybody has seen it and knows the basic assumption that there are two teams of 12 each. They go through a series of tasks. The ruler king, if you will, sits by at a lovely desk – Donald Trump in the US – and decides at the end of the show that somebody is fired and then at the end of the series, one of these lucky, lucky people through their gifts and their talents and their ability to beat everybody else is hired. There is one winner.

Well, that's the mindset of leadership I think in the war for talent, and there's one person left standing at the end of the game and they now get to sit behind the table and do the same thing to somebody else. What great entertainment. By the way, it's fine, it's entertaining and it's atrocious leadership.

Questions for Dave and Wendy Ulrich

Dave can you reflect, for a moment, and tell us what you mean? And why you decided, overnight to completely rewrite your presentation?

Your new book, titled The Why of Work, How Great Leaders Build Abundant Organizations That Win, is co-authored by Dave -- a professor at the Ross School of Business at U Mich, and his wife, Wendy; a practicing psychologist. So -- my first question is how did you come to the decision to collaborate on this book?

The Why of Work, How Great Leaders Build Abundant Organizations that work, is co-authored by Dave -- a professor at the Ross School of Business at U Mich, and his wife, Wendy; a practicing psychologist. So -- my first question is how did you come to the decision to collaborate on this book?

What did you learn in writing The Why of Work? What surprised you in doing your research?

Dave, you spend a great deal of your time traveling around the world talking with CEOs. What is the biggest challenge they're dealing with today?

Wendy, one of the obvious byproducts of this recession is stress at work, stress at home, financial stress -- many of the people who still have jobs are doing the jobs of the 2 or 3 people in their department who were laid off last year -- on top of their job. In the opening chapter of your book you write about Vicki, living an all-too-familiar scenario for what I've just outlined. What was Vicki's story, and what are some coping skills?

Abundance is a major theme -- there's a circle graph in your book -- think of a flower -- with "Abundant Organization" at the center; surrounded by smaller circles with phrases like "positive psychology" and "civility and happiness," "growth, learning and resilience," -- I can imagine some of the CEOs I've met looking at this and thinking; "This is a bunch of HR crap. Where's the circle for ROI, or the one that says 'we're going to crush the competition'?"

You also have an abundance summary table, with three categories: Challenges, Responses and Principles of Abundance -- one of the challenges you list is disposability and change -- something you talked about at HCI -- could you expand on this -- and some of the ramifications you're seeing in the workplace?

I'd like both of you to address another table called assessment of individual abundance at work...

Dave, you co-authored an excellent book not too long ago titled "HR Transformation." What I've been hearing from many HR directors is that their departments have been transformed, and not using the tools in your book... but through wave after wave of layoffs over the past couple of years. Teams that took years to build have been wiped out. So as the economy recovers, how do you go about rebuilding?

Speaking about "economic recovery" -- has a unique one-word reflex with many HR leaders and recruiters. The word is retention. You site numerous studies in The Why of Work with the not-so-surprising abysmal employee engagement scores -- do you think there's going to be a mass exodus when the economy gains more footing?

Quoting from your book "Leaders who focus on meaning create an abundant response." What do you mean?

The Seven Questions that drives abundance -- have you found that there are 1 or 2 of these that HR practitioners struggle with the most?

Is it possible to turn a dysfunctional organization into an abundant one?

The Seven Questions that drive abundance

1. What am I known for? (Identity)

The field of positive psychology helps leaders answer this primary question. The traditional approach of psychology to depression, anxiety, and addiction disorders has been to develop models and techniques for fixing what is wrong with us. Few theorists or clinicians also probed what is right. Into this space, Martin Seligman and his associates have inserted the proposal that the domain of psychology extends beyond fixing pathology to probing health and happiness. Positive psychology asks what makes people happy in the long run. Researchers in positive psychology have discovered that when we identify and regularly use our signature character strengths, life becomes more satisfying and meaningful. They further assert that even when we must cope with depression, anxiety, addiction, or other mental illness (and their corporate equivalents), building on our signature strengths fosters creativity and courage for tackling our challenges.

2. Where am I going? (purpose and motivation)

Social responsibility and environmental activism are fields that speak to the importance of addressing society's biggest problems while investing in corporate citizenship. In order to manage scarce resources and rebuild organization reputations, many leaders have begun to pay attention to a "triple bottom line" of people (values and reputation), profits (financial return), and planet (e.g., carbon footprint). Environmental activists help corporations audit their carbon footprints and reduce energy consumption. Other organizations demonstrate a caring heart as they invest in philanthropic initiatives. These citizenship efforts underscore values of stewardship and accountability that help employees see how their personal values align with corporate values to make a real difference in the real world.

3. Whom do I travel with? (Relationships and Teamwork)

While leaders must attend to teamwork in complex work settings, the concept of abundant organizations goes beyond teams that produce and perform their tasks well to teams that engender a kind of passion that allows for creativity, focused energy, trusting connections, and mutual respect. High- performing teams come from high-relating people. Research on successful marriages suggests patterns and stages of effective long-term committed relationships that can be applied to teams in organization settings. The best teams work through these stages and use these patterns to combat "organization divorce" characterized by burnout, turnover, and lost productivity. When leaders help their organization "families" move beyond superficialities of getting along to struggle through conflict and understand one another's strengths and weakness, they can approach the kind of synergy that occurs in the best of human relationships. They gain a competitive advantage over a less relationally sophisticated competitor. This means that leaders need to learn and model the skills of building good relationships at work. Lynda Gratton has captured this sense of team cohesiveness with the term "glow", which includes a cooperative mindset, jumping across boundaries, and igniting latent energy.

4. How do I build a positive work environment? (Effective work culture or setting)

Leaders who engender positive work environments promote good communication, development opportunities, and pleasant physical facilities to ensure a positive culture at work. Instead of building routines and patterns that encourage self-reflection, honest sharing, and the kind of consistency that brings people together, many of us build habits, addictions, and compulsive patterns that serve primarily to block out other people. Or, we build few routines at all, leaving us untethered in time and space and making us unpredictable to those who want to connect. Routines and patterns driven by our deepest values help us stay grounded in what matters most and available to those who matter most. When leaders support individual and policy-level routines that help work work, they create a positive environment that both not only sustains productivity but that fosters connection.

5. What challenges interest me? (personalizing and contributing work)

The study of talent has evolved from a focus on employee competence (ability to do the work) to employee commitment (willingness to do the work). Employees who are competent but not committed will not perform to their full potential. Commitment comes from building an employee value proposition that engages employees to use their discretionary energy to pursue organization goals. Commitment or engagement grows when we work in a company with a vision, have opportunities to learn and grow, do work that has an impact, receive fair pay for work done, work with people we like working with, and are offered flexibility about terms and conditions of work. 

6. How do I respond to disposability and change? (Growth, learning, and resilience)

Research on personal resilience and learning organizations offers exciting insights into what helps people and institutions endure in the face of both suffering and setbacks. By studying what helps POW's survive and thrive, how Navy Seals can be trained to stay calm under attack, and what abused children who become successful have in common, we get hints about how leaders encourage learning under conditions of stress and challenge. Unlike the assumption of disposability that governs so much of modern society, resilience and learning principles challenge us to "repair, reuse, and recycle" people, products, and programs rather than tossing them.

7. What delights me? (Civility and happiness)

The hostility rampant in modern life is itself under fire these days. The cry for tolerance demands that we outgrow our racial, religious, political, ethnic, and gender stereotypes. The cry for civility also calls upon us to outgrow our we-they, win-lose, right-wrong, blame-and-shame mentality. As we move away from hostility and blame toward problem-solving, listening, curiosity, and compassion, simple civility greases the skids. Delight often comes in small packages, and when money is tight it helps to know that small and simple pleasures spread over time have more impact on our sense of well-being than grand one-time gestures.

Dave Ulrich Biography

Dave Ulrich has been ranked the "#1 Management Educator & Guru" by BusinessWeek, selected by Fast Company as one of the "10 Most Innovative and Creative Leaders", and named "The Most Influential Person in HR" by HR Magazine for three years.

Ulrich has written over a dozen books covering topics in HR and Leadership including Tomorrow's (HR) Management, Human Resource Champions, Results Based Leadership, The Leadership Code and HR Transformation: Building Human Resources from the Outside In.

Ulrich is Professor of Business at the Ross School of Business, University of Michigan and the Co-Director of Michigan's Human Resource Executive Program. His teaching and research address the question: How do people create organizations that add value to customers? Dave Ulrich studies how organizations change, build capabilities, learn, remove boundaries and leverage human resources activities. Professor Ulrich also studies organization capabilities of talent, speed, collaboration, accountability, and leadership. He has helped generate multiple award winning data bases that assess alignment between strategies, human resource practices and HR competencies.

Wendy Ulrich Biography

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.

Today's podcast with Dave and Wendy Ulrich is brought to you by Taleo. Leading organizations worldwide use Taleo on demand talent management solutions to attract, develop, motivate, and retain their workforce for improved business performance.

Taleo combines software, best practices, and services so organizations can increase process efficiency, improve quality of hire, reduce risk, and return financial results. Know Your People. Grow your business. Visit Taleo on the web at Taleo.com

Peter Clayton

About Peter Clayton

Peter Clayton, Producer/Host, is an award-winning producer/director of radio, television, documentary, video, interactive and Web-based media who has created breakthrough media for a wide array of Fortune 100 clients.


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