How Do You Lead When Everything Has Changed?
JOSH LEVINE, AUG 5, 2021: A Conversation between Josh Levine and Maryellen Stockton
Tori Marra: My name is Tori Marra, and I am part of Outspoken Agency. We are a speaking agency based in New York City, and we work with speakers just like Josh. While we are living in a pandemic, we thought it would be a great time to connect our speakers with our clients, our colleagues, our friends, and family, to share some expertise in this time of need.
We are excited to have Josh Levine here with us, as well as our guest host today, Maryellen Stockton, to talk about culture and leadership, particularly in remote times. Maryellen is the co-founder and CEO of Work Well Wherever, and she has expertise in company culture, employee engagement, and building teams outside the traditional office.
Maryellen Stockton: Thanks to Tori, and thanks to everybody for joining us. I am so honored that Josh asked me to join him to be a co-host. We have only met one time in person but have built a friendship across the U.S. I’m in Atlanta, Georgia, and he’s in the Bay Area in California. I joke with him that I always have a copy of his book, Great Mondays, close by. I’m going to let Josh make his own introduction, and then we will dive right in.
Josh Levine: Hi everyone. I started my career in corporate brand and design, but I got into culture when I realized that to help more people be happier at work, they need to understand why they are doing what they’re doing. Culture is the tool that organizations need to engage their employees to support the bottom line of the organization. It serves the customers, but first and foremost, it serves the employees.
I think that lines up exactly with what I’m feeling right now. Maryellen and I have had a couple of conversations about how we, as privileged people in society, fit into this moment. One theme we continue to come back to is how important values are at a moment like this. I was recently at a Black Lives Matter rally, and one of the leaders said, “I appreciate you guys showing up today. That’s amazing, but where are you going to be tomorrow?” I think that question can frame our conversation today.
MS: Yes, when we initially started thinking about this, we talked about how to lead yourself, your team, and your clients when everything has changed. Both Josh and I are here to say that your purpose and your values help guide you and your organization when everything has changed. Reflecting on your values helps you to decide how to move forward. At this moment, we need to have these conversations, even if they’re uncomfortable, even if we don’t know all the answers. We need to face it head-on.
JL: Exactly. I wrote my book because corporate culture is a tough thing to understand, and it’s a very fuzzy idea. In the book, I created a framework for understanding culture through six components: purpose, values, behaviors, recognition, rituals, and cues. What you have already said, Maryellen is that that purpose is our North Star. It’s why we exist beyond making money. Values are how we achieve our purpose, and the result of that is our behaviors.
At such an unsettling time, we ask ourselves, “Okay, everything is now changing, we’re working from home, what do we do? How do we make better decisions as leaders?” The answer is that we need something to root and to anchor ourselves in to make better decisions. When your values are clearly defined, you can stand up and say, “This is what I am going to do,” or, “This is what our company is going to do.”
I worked with a client last year to help create their values, and one of them was “run together.” They not only wanted to bring diverse teams together but also have them move forward together. With that value in place, I was not surprised earlier this week when they said, and I’m paraphrasing here, “This moment we are in is important to us, and we’re going to give people time off to demonstrate. We’re going to make sure that everyone is taken care of and that we’re committing resources to this.” Values are all well and good until you are like, “Oh, I have to spend money to deliver on this thing. Is that really necessary?” If you’re serious about your values, it is necessary. They must drive behavior.
MS: That brings up an important point. During this time, if your marketing efforts and your branding efforts are on autopilot, stop. Pause, take a break, rethink. It’s essential to have that space to let your values guide your decisions moving forward.
JL: For me, this brings up a question I’ve gotten many times: what is the difference between personal and professional values. Right now, if there is a disconnect between the two, it’s going to be pretty obvious. I appreciate it when an organization recognizes that your personal values and your company values don’t have to be the same, but they have to be related. They have to connect enough that employees can believe in their organization’s values and want to be authentic about them.
An excellent tool for helping organizations define values is tapping into their culture all-stars. These are the people that represent the best of their organization. We should look to them for examples of how to make the organization better as a whole? I think you can say the same for oneself. Think of a time when you were your best self. When have you stood up and made a big life decision? What values does that decision represent? That’s the question I ask my clients. By articulating those things, we can get very clear about what they need to be doing at this moment. But it’s not easy. You better have conviction around those values.
I was on a call last week, and this question came up: what do we do now that everything is changing — we don’t know what the future of the organization might be? This is one of those moments where you can ask yourself, as an organization, “What is our special place in the world? How can we provide unique value, not just to our customers, but to our community, our employees?” An example of this is Eric S. Yuan, the CEO of Zoom. When the pandemic started, he made the platform free for all K-12 schools. That is precisely the kind of thing that they, a video-conferencing platform, need to be doing at this moment. That is the kind of leadership that is driven by values. Of course, they will lose money in the short term, but it’s the right thing to do at the moment, and it’s going to benefit them in the long run. Both customers and employees will say, “Hey, I’m part of an organization that cares.”
MS: That’s right, and that begs the question, why did he make that decision? It’s probably driven by a critical value of his. Either professionally or personally, he was inspired to contribute to society in the best way he and his company were able to. Many people have begun to question their values, and I would encourage everyone to do that, whether it be for yourself, your organization, or your community.
JL: Values are important because they’re an effort in prioritization. It’s about prioritizing what your organization needs to do at the moment and what they’re stretching towards, and those goals can shift and adapt. To give you an example, I worked with a very diverse tech company last year, and they did it so well. When I asked them what their values are, they named diversity as one, but they had clearly already achieved that. To me, that is an indication that it’s time to identify a new guiding value. Values should help to drive your organization toward where you want to go, not what you’ve already achieved.
An organization should only have three to five values, any more than five, and they start to lose meaning. It’s an exercise in prioritization. What do you care about most? How are you going to do this? What are you working on, stretching towards, and what do you want to be more of in the future? My recommendation for every organization is to look at their values every two to three years to reevaluate what drives them. Maybe your values already align with where you want to go, but maybe not. The world is going through a lot of change, and we need to think about what to prioritize, both as an organization as a whole and as leaders within the organization.
MS: Let’s dive into how the world is changing, not just with the pandemic, but with the Black Lives Matter movement. What are some things that people can do to lead themselves during these times? Let’s say I have already reevaluated my values, and I’ve decided that enough is enough, I’m ready to take action. What should I do tomorrow, and what are you doing for yourself, Josh?
JL: I was having a conversation with a faith leader, and she said, “We have to lead, even if we’re not leaders explicitly.” Now is when we all need to become leaders. It’s about figuring out what we are going to do today to make a change, and I love the sense of responsibility that provides us. What does that mean, though? How is real change going to happen? I think you know that you’re making the right decision or taking the right step if you’re uncomfortable.
How can I, speaking for myself as a cis white man, step out of my comfort zone? One thing I’m doing is donating more than I have in the past. Having a family can mean that any dollar donated is a sacrifice, but if these values are a priority, then it is something we have to do. But what else can you do? Another example from my life is that my spiritual community, The Kitchen, a Jewish community in San Francisco, has a relationship with GLIDE Memorial Church, a non-profit serving the most impoverished neighborhood in San Francisco. It is an incredible organization that does a lot of good. They feed people experiencing homelessness as well as people suffering from substance abuse. The experience of interacting with these individuals can sometimes be uncomfortable, but it’s worth a bit of discomfort to do something helpful for people in need of a little support. I bring my kids with me, and I make sure that they see how important it is to live by your values.
MS: Another thing I’m thinking about during this time, in addition to how important it is to educate and lead yourself, is how important it is to lead your children. I have chosen to shut up and listen during this time, which is hard for me because I’m talkative by nature, but I am also a parent, so I need to have these conversations with my kids about racism and white privilege. And it cannot stop there. Publicly, we should be deferring to voices within this movement who have lived the injustices we’re talking about. Still, privately we must be having these conversations with our brothers and sisters and friends and family. It’s so important to have uncomfortable conversations with your friends where maybe you’ve hesitated before.
JL: So, let’s bring this back to the workplace. What is that uncomfortable moment where you might have to step up and speak up for someone in the workplace? I’ve seen a lot of compelling recommendations around checking in with colleagues and other people of color to make sure that they feel seen and supported in their experiences at work. As an ally, it is important to be present and bear witness to how the people around you are treated. You don’t have to be a savior, “Let me come in and help you,” but use your voice to amplify others. Finally, as a manager, it’s vital to model that behavior. You have to model your values; you have to step up and say, “This is what we’re going to do, and this is how we’re going to make it happen.”
MS: Thinking back to the example you mentioned before, the tech company that excelled at diversity, can they be done with diversity as a value?
JL: No, of course not. What I was trying to articulate is that that company, in a unique way, has done a terrific job. It’s the most diverse company that I’ve ever worked with, and it’s a tech company, which is unheard rare. It’s just part of everything that they do. For them, the general value of “diversity” is too broad — now it’s about taking the next step, whether that’s about engaging with the community or building support among team members. They are ready to build upon what they’ve already achieved as an organization.
MS: How do you think that they have had success? Have they been focused on diversity from the beginning?
JL: The company is PagerDuty, and the CEO, Jennifer Tejada, is an incredible leader because she has a well-honed sense of empathy and powerful conviction. For this organization, it was an explicit decision that they were going to start bringing on people of all backgrounds. People saw others who had similar experiences as them and got excited about working there. That’s the representation we want to see. It is a welcoming organization that has built support groups for veterans, people of color, and members of the LGBTQ community (among others) to ensure that everyone at PagerDuty feels supported. As the company grows and current employees move up, I have hope that even at the highest levels, we will see that same level of diversity.
MS: That’s interesting because I always feel, when it comes to diversity and inclusion, it is hard to drive change from the bottom up. It has to go in both directions, and leadership must be open to it. People have said during COVID, you see what brands mean and what companies value. As companies continue to work from home, and they’re kicking off these virtual business meetings, are they addressing what’s going on in our world right now?
JL: You and I, we have direct relationships with our clients, and I think that’s an opportunity to be leaders. In preparing for this conversation, we were talking about what our role in the world is now that we’re all working remotely, and there’s been an incredible surge in unemployment. We were discussing what organizations can do and how we can be challenging our clients to do those things.
Every organization, whether for-profit or non-profit, is built to inspire a certain action. The best of them have a great purpose, and at some point, there’s going to be an exchange of value, usually in the form of cash, but not always. But now we need to reconsider what it is that we can do. How can we inspire our clients? How can we lead our customers? It is our role as organizations to step forward and say, “Look at the scale that we have. Look at all these people. We can inspire our employees, so how do we mobilize them? How do we take this moment and create lasting change?”
MS: That’s a lot, but it does go back to being a little uncomfortable. There was a lot of talk about privileged people staying silent when there is injustice, and I am guilty of that myself sometimes, not knowing what to say. I have a new company, a small brand, which gives me a platform to use my voice, which I must do, even if just to say, “I love you. I support you, and I hope that we can continue these conversations because it’s meaningful to me, and I’m willing to listen.”
One of the things that I was thinking about is how complicated white privilege is. There is a lot that intersects with the concept, but on a very basic level, never fearing that when my child leaves home, to walk, to take a run, that something might happen to him. But people of color, our brothers and sisters, they have to think about that reality. Our culture is such that people of color live in fear every day. Why did I never think about that before? What they fear is me.
You don’t have to be a leader to be a leader.
Bringing it back to leadership, you don’t have to be a leader to be a leader. Now is your time. Whether you lead an organization, whether you lead your family, whether you lead your church, whether you lead your neighborhood, whether you’re just leading yourself, it is the time to rise to the occasion and practice thoughtful, intentional leadership.
JL: One of the other components of culture is rituals. Rituals are how we build and strengthen the synapses of culture. The synapses of culture are relationships, and that’s as relevant today as ever. I realized this when I started talking about culture, and a lot of organizations here in the Bay Area have questions about scaling up. They say, “How do you scale culture? Scaling culture is really hard.” What I found was that there was a breakdown at a certain point in these relationships — there are only so many people with whom you can have a real, deep connection.
What happens is that, as an organization grows, barriers form. Now there are more barriers than ever in our lives because we’re no longer in an office. We’re spread across the world, and we’re in different time zones. We have to be very empathetic and acknowledge the gaps that exist between us and other people. It could be race or gender. It could be someone who sits in the San Francisco office versus the Atlanta office. So, how do you build and strengthen these relationships? What are the rituals that you can put in place to help accomplish this? It’s about getting work done, and now it’s also about bringing people together.
MS: Which I think goes perfectly with the question that’s being posed right now from one of our attendees in our chat window, which is, “How do we manage a variety of balances, now that we’re all working remotely, and maintaining a number of personal crises as well as navigating the external crises?”
From my experience, culture and knowing your values helps drive connection and strengthen relationships. When you go virtual, it’s even more important. It’s harder for people now because we were thrown into this situation, and a lot of organizations had to start from zero. If you don’t have values and rituals in place, what are you going to turn to?”
Then building on that, creating these rituals, and creating an intentional community is how you can connect virtually. But navigating personal and external crises is hard as hell. I have told people that sometimes if you just get one thing accomplished today, you win.
JL: What we have to do, and what we are being forced to do, is to decide what is essential. I have spent my life just learning how to be more and more productive. When COVID came my productivity fell off a cliff. What I needed was compassion for what was possible in these new times. I was on a call with a client yesterday, and they said, “You know honestly? We didn’t get very much done this week. It has been a hard week.” I think we have to let go of the expectations of pre-COVID and recognize that it maybe wasn’t a realistic expectation in the first place.
MS: Exactly. I’ve seen the stats from people saying they’re more productive at home and they’re working 12-hour days, but that is not the point. I don’t want people working 12-hour days and not taking a vacation.
JL: Work has been creeping into our regular lives for decades now. As soon as we started being able to email from home and then email from our phone, suddenly, we lost balance between work and life. I have been thinking a lot about how to achieve a better balance, and what we have to do as individuals is to take responsibility and get good at establishing boundaries. It’s even harder now.
MS: That’s where leading yourself comes in again, and driving yourself makes you more capable of leading your team. Maybe some people were ecstatic about the 12-hour day when they heard about it, but I was saddened. That is not what remote work is about, especially with your kids at home. An author that I like (almost as much as you, Josh) is Erica Keswin, and she wrote a book called Bring Your Human to Work. One of the things that she says is to look at your calendar and ask yourself if the way that you are spending your time reflects your values.
JL: I love that. That’s great.
MS: It’s so great. It’s so simple. I can tell you that when I looked at my calendar, I was sad. I started this company to have more time with my family, not less. I didn’t want 12-hour days. You need to look at your calendar and ask, “Are you making time for the Zoom call with your family? Are you adding ten extra minutes to your virtual call with your team just to check in and hear how they’re doing?” I’ve said this from the get-go: to build relationships remotely, you must be intentional about staying connected.
JL: You don’t have the relationships when you’re not in person. The way we’ve learned and grown-up, the way humans relate, is in person, and you can’t substitute that. We have to understand that everything has changed. What does that mean? We can’t continue doing work, and I would argue, even after a vaccine, we can’t continue to work the way that we were working. We can’t go back to the way we were doing it, and that, perhaps, is the silver lining.
There’s a lot of different stresses, but there has also been an opportunity to realign work-life. What do you value? What is important for you to do? Set aside time to read, set aside time to write, set aside time to take care of yourself and exercise. I heard someone saying that this is kind of a return to, like, the 1950s lifestyle, and I think that’s a fascinating parallel.
MS: God, I hope not. I’m out.
JL: You’re with the kids a lot. There’s less of that outsourcing. You’re cooking at home. I don’t want to go back to the 50s either, but there is a shift, an experience that we’re all having together, and so I would challenge everyone to be thoughtful about what you’re going to bring back to your work experience. What are you going to bring forward from this moment? Don’t just snap back to how things were. We, as humans, are adaptable, and if we want to make a lasting sustainable change, now is as good a time as any.
MS: I know what you mean, but there’s a tradeoff. There is this simplicity, while, at the same time, people are getting overwhelmed with this technology that you can’t turn off. Now is the time to find what matters to you. And frankly, all this awful stuff that has been going on in our country — the racism, the white privilege, along with everything else — brings a sense of clarity about what moves you and what drives you. If you’ve ever thought that you wanted to use your voice, now is the time to stand up and shout.
I wanted to share a quote that offers some perspective on our time. Below is an excerpt from Austin Channing Brown’s book, I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness:
“As we said [your name] aloud, we loved it,” she continued. “We knew that anyone who saw it before meeting you would assume you are a white man. One day you will have to apply for jobs. We just wanted to make sure you could make it to the interview.”
When I read this, I was shocked. The way I see it, companies can no longer give the excuse of, “We just don’t have diverse people apply here.” I say it is their responsibility as a company to seek out diversity.
JL: I’ve heard about stripping names and educational institutions from resumes because there are biases that come into play. Whether we like it or not, we use names and schools as shortcuts because we have a limited amount of energy. “Oh, you went to my school. I know you’ll be a good employee.” Or, more sinister, “This name sounds like you are a man with Black skin, I know what you’re going to do.”
If we can at least become aware that these things are happening, that we all have implicit biases, we can make better choices. Ideally, if someone’s name sounded Black on a resume, it wouldn’t matter, but removing those names is a step we can take to protect against our biases.
MS: Absolutely, yes. I read a stat that said less than one in five Asian and Black people were able to work remotely. I was disappointed to hear that because, at least in theory, working virtually should make inclusion even easier. But knowing that gap exists, how do we help bridge that gap so that there is still the opportunity, whether it’s technology needs or something else?
Did you have any other thoughts?
JL: There’s a lot to learn, and I appreciate everybody showing up. Hopefully, this discussion instigated some thinking. Thank you all for allowing us to step forward and share. It was enjoyable. I’m always interested in hearing from other people, so please find me on LinkedIn or go to greatmondays.com. There’s a bunch of free resources there, which you can download to help build and change the culture of your organization.
TM: Great. Thank you both so much for this engaging conversation. I know that this content can be difficult. It can be a little daunting, and it makes us all a little vulnerable, but it is essential that we do the work as we’ve been called to task to do after all this. I appreciate our speakers, Josh and Maryellen, doing that today, and I thank everyone for showing up and listening in and being a part of this conversation.
To learn more about culture programs visit greatmondays.com or call josh at 415–577–6667