Sharif Khan asked:
A Journey into the Heroic Environment: A Personal Guide to Creating a Work Environment Built on Shared Values, 3rd Edition
Rob Lebow (SelectBooks, New York 2004 1590790618) $21.95
REVIEWED BY SHARIF KHAN
Living in what Alan Greenspan called an era of “infectious greed” with corporate titans facing serious jail time, Ex-WorldCom CEO, Bernard Ebbers, leading the way facing life behind bars, and sobering laws in place such as the Sarbanes-Oxley Act making ethics and values increasingly important components in every organization, it would do well to learn how to help organizations create heroic environments based on higher standards of excellence. Mr. Rob Lebow, former Director of Corporate Communications for Microsoft, with over twenty years experience helping companies implement his Shared Values Process to create what he calls, a Freedom-Based Workplace, attempts to do just that for readers in his book, “A Journey into the Heroic Environment.”
Resurrecting an abandoned, ‘failed,’ 1972 study, undertaken by graduate students from the social psychology department of a major United States university, with over 17 million survey responses from workers and managers in 40 countries and over 32 Standard Industrial Codes, that was not able to reveal any conclusive connection between job satisfaction and individual or organizational performance, Mr. Lebow’s research team started their own investigation.
Bringing a fresh perspective to the study, Lebow realized that the key to solving the mystery of overcoming cultural challenges to create exceptional levels of performance, was not going to be found in the hard numbers and statistics of the survey, but in the actual, literal comments of all the participants. Using this creative intelligence, Lebow indexed the most often addressed topics in all the discarded surveys by country. And the revelation was that all the surveys from the different countries mentioned the same subjects. This became the Lebow Company’s 20th Century Rosetta Stone that finally cracked the code to the secrets of unlocking high performance that were embedded in the previously undecipherable 17 million worldwide surveys that the original research missed.
Under the scrutiny of this new lens, the Lebow research group discovered that it was Values, not job satisfaction issues, which resided at the core between performance and what managers and workers were really looking for. Lebow’s research suggested that there were eight values that all people respected throughout the world regardless of race, religion, nationality, industry, gender, educational level, or organizational status. Furthermore, the Lebow research group concluded: “that these eight Shared Values…represent the major factors that contribute not only to job satisfaction and employee morale, but to an organization’s performance, competitiveness, speed to change, innovation at every level, willingness to learn new things, and overall operational success. [That] this was the universal Cultural Return On Investment (ROI) linking people to performance.”
While the author does not mention exactly how he came to this revolutionary conclusion, he claims that the correlation between organizational performance and these Shared Values has been tested and validated with over 2,300 organizational sites. These universal Shared Values which Lebow calls The Eight Principles of the Heroic Environment ® are as follows:
1. Treat others with uncompromising truth.
2. Lavish trust on your associates.
3. Mentor unselfishly (and be open to mentoring from anyone).
4. Be receptive to new ideas, regardless of their origin.
5. Take personal risks for the organization’s sake.
6. Give credit where it’s due.
7. Do not touch dishonest dollars. (Be honest and ethical in all matters).
8. Put the interests of others before your own.
So that’s the Big secret? Sounds like the everyday sage advice that a Corporate Yoda would give to his executive team of Jedi knights. Admittedly, this is something we all know and have heard before. They are timeless principles – psychic energy patterns memorialized in the collective unconscious – embedded in human experience itself. But how many of us actually practice these principles?
What makes this work significant is not the list of values which are bandied about at boardroom meetings and showcased on fancy plaques, but the Process (“acting Heroically is a process”) that the Lebow research group has engineered in implementing these Shared Values company-wide through stories, examples, illustrations, charts, graphs, ways of communication, and sequential steps to follow. Lebow provides readers with practical tools they can use to actually practice these principles in transforming their corporate culture into a heroic environment.
So what does a ‘heroic environment’ look like? Lebow gives us a model, a vision, to look forward to: “Imagine what would happen in a work environment if people were given the freedom to act the way they really wanted to act – with courage, creativity, and independence from fear of criticism, or worse. And when people are respected and appreciated, they want to contribute even more, to rise to their true potential. I call that kind of place – a place where people act heroically – a Heroic Environment.”
I was skeptical at first with this rather rosy picture – feeling that employees given too much freedom would slack-off or go into their own little dream-world. But after finishing the book, I felt Lebow had pulled it off, in terms of providing tools that managers, employees, and consultants can use in transforming corporate culture for the better. After all, people don’t get up in the morning wanting to fail; they want to feel significant – knowing they’ve done a job well-done.
One of the main tenets of the book is that the traditional corporate approach of solving problems from the top down is the kiss-of-death. Frontline workers need to be given autonomy, responsibility, and accountability to solve problems themselves, letting the customer’s needs, rather than the company’s policies, drive each transaction. To accomplish this, ‘only hire people you trust, but once you’ve hired them, trust them.’ Management’s role is simply to encourage people on the frontlines to experiment and explore new ideas on their own. The best way to manage is to let go and let great, not stepping in to fix problems or criticizing, but to examine the breakdown of the workflow and empowering frontline workers to make their own decisions and changes by providing them with the necessary resources.
According to Lebow, this is the only way to bring back respect to the phrase, “Made in America.” He recounts how Toyota’s plant workers average 50 changes every two and a half shifts, which would give most American managers a nosebleed. In America, Lebow states, fixing problems is management’s job! In contrast, by empowering its frontline people to experiment, fix problems, and make continual proactive changes without fear of failure, Toyota is now financially worth more than Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler-Mercedes all put together. To put things in perspective, Lebow goes on to point out that it took Ford about nine months to make a change to their production line, while it only took Toyota three and one-half hours!
Overall, A Journey into the Heroic Environment, accomplishes its main purpose in serving as a guide to creating a Freedom-Based work environment built on Shared Values. This is not an academic book or scholarly read, nor is it a scientific journal. Use the information and The Personal Work Style AssessmentÂ™ (included in the book) to formulate your own hypotheses and come up with your own conclusions. The book itself, from start-to-finish, can be considered a case study in corporate transformation told in the form of a business story with a chance meeting b
etween John, a disgruntled assistant plant manager o
f a telecommunications company, and Kip, a mysterious, senior executive mentor figure. The book is simple in its approach, but not simplistic; easy-to-read, but certainly not easy to implement. I highly recommend this book as a path to a rewarding journey that will open up the soul to a brave new heroic world.