Interview with Rick Haller, by Kaylee Somerville
Corporate scandals like Enron or Theranos show the risk of organizations that fail to hold themselves to higher standards.
Rick Haller, one of Riverbank’s executive consultants and the previous President & COO of Walbridge, believes that self-awareness is the first step in building this higher business-standard. Yet, research shows that while most people think they are self-aware, only 10–15% actually are. I had the opportunity to discuss with Rick how to effectively develop self-awareness among leadership teams and its importance not only as an individual but also within an organization.
What is organizational self-awareness?
The standard definition for self-awareness is the “conscious knowledge of one’s own character, feelings, motives, and desires.”
According to Rick, organizational self-awareness is about developing a succinct way to understand who an organization is and who the organization wants to continue to be. “These values are immutable, simple, and easily articulate what is important to the organization.”
“Organizational self-awareness is a clear understanding of your strengths and weaknesses as an organization (your “who” which is more about your “spirit” than about your mission or purpose).”
“Values define the qualities of how you work, grow, and treat others (whether clients, customers, stakeholders, or employees).” Similar to how a riverbank controls the waters’ movement, values frame and steer the quality of action. Values are the SPIRIT of who you are and choose to be. So, in this effort to move toward this outcome of who you want to be, you must hold yourself and your organization fully accountable.
Thus, it is less of a “purpose” and more so principles declaring how you and your organization choose to operate in the world.
“It isn’t necessarily saying, we’re broken, let’s fix it, but instead, “how can we be better?” How can we align everybody to being the best we can be as an organization?”
Why self-awareness is important
Self-awareness hosts an array of benefits for well-being and productivity. If we understand ourselves and our purpose, we have stronger networks, improved profits, better interactions, and richer lives. Self-awareness in business also has a surprising host of benefits. Employees working in organizations with strong values and aligned purpose are more calm, healthy, happy, satisfied with their jobs, and perform better. It also helps develop strategic intent, which is crucial for business innovation.
How does self-awareness help us work better? Research shows that typically, we run on “autopilot”. We become distracted by daily tasks that we leave self-reflection for when things go wrong. For Rick, crises in life catalyzed a moment of deep reflection and later understanding of himself and how he operated. After this reflection, he began to see opportunities for improvement in himself and how his organization operated, inspiring his journey to create clarity of organizational-self awareness and identify organizational values. The organization still stands by these values today.
Look for conflicting values to find what needs to change
The first lesson is to recognize organizational values is to look for conflicting values. Your personal values (how you operate in the world) should be integrated into how you behave at work and home. But often, this is not the case. “Take, for example, transparency, says Rick. “Being transparent with one’s spouse and family is a natural thing. Yet, at work, many discussions happen among leadership groups, and information becomes available only to distinct groups.”
So, in developing organizational values, ask yourself: what feels like second nature at home but feels uncomfortable at work? Why? Asking these questions is a good start to discovering how you believe the organization should behave.
Creating organizational self-awareness is a collective process
“Building organizational self-awareness asks first who you are as an individual. It then brings individuals together to ask “who are we as an organization?”, says Rick.
Do not expect to find unanimous alignment with the rest of your leadership team, Rick warned. For Rick’s team, it took three days in a collaborative leadership meeting to agree on values. “We listed them, debated them, and rewrote them. Our individual views of the company and its future were entirely different from one another. We simply didn’t know what we didn’t know about who the organization was.”
Make values simple
How do organizations effectively teach their values to all the employees in the company? According to Rick — simplicity. “Our values are in our nature. We all have intrinsic, core values that are embedded in us. Take the concept of safety, for example. As humans, protecting ourselves and those around us is a natural concept. Safety, in its simplest form, means to protect ourselves and those around us, and is therefore a natural behavior. When simply put, the values should be so straightforward that you ask, “How could we NOT?””
Rick also mentioned the importance of communicating organizational values in a simple manner. “There is no punishment for ignorance. The first step to holding employees accountable to values is to explain and help the entire organization understand them. The goal is to encourage employees to not only understand the values themselves but why they exist at the organization.”
The beauty of having clear and simple values is that they are easy to communicate to others and have others hold us accountable to them. Rick emphasized to me that “once organizations develop their values, [leaders] should talk about them at company meetings with executives, spouses, employees, and customers. Expect and encourage feedback from these groups to ensure you are continually meeting the values you set.”
“Life can only be understood looking backwards, but it must be lived forward”. — Søren Kierkegaard”
Thank you to Rick for sharing his insights on developing organizational self-awareness. I learned that similar to individual self-awareness, organizational self-awareness is an ongoing process. Rick concluded that “It is a journey that consists of constant self-analysis and recognizing that we are imperfect beings in constant need of change. Discovering and explicitly stating our values helps us remain accountable to them, but it is ultimately up to us to give it our best to make a difference.” In essence, if we understand who we were looking back and how we want to be now, going forward will be an entirely different experience.
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 High-Performing Teams Start with a Culture of Shared Values (hbr.org)
By Ron May, Executive Consultant at Riverbank, with Kaylee Somerville, Project Manager at Riverbank
We have little control over when or how a crisis occurs. However, we can control the choices we make to respond.
I worked for over 30 years at DTE Energy, the largest utility serving Southeast Michigan, eventually becoming the executive vice president. During the great recession beginning in 2008, like many, my firm had survival decisions to make. As an indicator, two of our major customers, Chrysler and GM, went through bankruptcy, and other businesses and banks were in deep trouble. We were in crisis mode.
Faced with several options, the most obvious being slashing costs and laying off employees, we decided to go in a different direction. We decided to declare no layoffs to our employees and prioritize buying from local manufacturers in support of the economy of Michigan. We chose to respond with strength and positivity. We focused on Continuous Improvement and made employment commitments to our employees, high focused service to our customers and earnings support for our stockholders.
These decisions set the stage for a company that went from approximately $49 a share in 2009 to $120 in 2021. Instead of laying off employees, the leadership team asked the employees for help. They were asked to help the company save costs and build revenue in other ways.
Continuous improvement was vital to this success.
Continuous improvement is the ability for the organization to “pursue incremental and innovative improvements in its processes, products, and services.” Later changes are controlled by the knowledge gained from each previous change.
This process involves focusing on the customer needs, relying on worker ideas and willingness to implement, ensuring leadership support, and, most importantly, driving incremental change. It may seem counterintuitive to focus on continuous improvement during a crisis. However, these principles were our main focus during the crisis and essential in helping us emerge successfully.
The process followed lean manufacturing principles used in the auto industry and followed a scientific method of problem description, root cause determination, setting a hypothesis of how to resolve, and using a plan, do, act, and check cycle. We used this process in hundreds of cases, including fundamental processes in project management and procurement, customer service practices such as low-income support, physical work in power plants, and distribution systems improvement.
Be thoughtful in your decisions during a crisis
Our decisions have signals. For us, it showed all employees that they mattered and had an important role in meeting our financial, engagement, and customer satisfaction goals. In return, as a whole, we received increased engagement, including our classified employees. By focusing our procurement dollars locally, we demonstrated loyalty to the community. In return, we retained their business.
Keeping all employees was undoubtedly a non-additive cost, while providing certainty for the employees’ future. Research shows that providing certainty is one of the best things you can do as a leader. With so much going, we needed something that felt rock solid. Our employees were talking to customers every day who were in turn facing layoffs. This decision provided them with stability and allowed them to focus on serving the customer.
In the end, we couldn’t control much during the crisis. But the choices we made provided the entire community with a sense of “we are all fighting together.”
One of the major reasons for our success is that we defined our “ideal state.” We wanted to be the “best-operated utility in North America.” We decided to measure ourselves against targets definable by others than just by ourselves.
These same principles helped me through another leadership crisis years earlier. As the Senior Vice President of Distribution, I was the person leading the charge in putting the pieces back together after an event in another state caused a blackout of our system. We had no direct procedure for dealing with the situation. We were not sure what the problem was and, therefore, how to restore the system. DTE Energy’s CEO knew that our system was vital to the fabric of society and announced to the press and of course, all stakeholders, that we would restore the power in three days. It was my responsibility to help the organization meet that promise.
Now, this was a real crisis. You can’t take too much time trying new things in true crisis mode, but you can envision an ideal state and use your existing knowledge and talent to get there. We leveraged continuous improvement principles to move to resolution of the situation. We asked ourselves, “What is the best way possible to work this issue?” In their collective roles at that moment, I knew that the team was best able to restore their part of the system. I made an active effort to listen instead of giving direct orders. But communication was constant and continuous.
In the end, the power was back within three days, and the entire situation was primarily resolved within a week or so. Most importantly, we leveraged continuous improvement in our “after-action” and set up a team to help continuously improve to avoid future problems.
“At the heart of reengineering is the notion of discontinuous thinking — of recognizing and breaking away from the outdated rules and fundamental assumptions that underlie operations. Unless we change these rules, we are merely rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. We cannot achieve breakthroughs in performance by cutting fat or automating existing processes. Rather, we must challenge old assumptions and shed the old rules that made the business underperform in the first place.” — Michael Hammer
We can’t control a crisis, but we can control the decisions we make during a crisis. Focusing on Continuous Improvement and retaining employees was certainly not the only choice, but it was the best choice. Continuous Improvement is helpful as it keeps you prepared for the next thing: always focusing on doing better each step.
1) Our choices have signals: what you signal to your broader stakeholders can influence how they respond during a crisis.
2) Your employees will be valuable to your success, so include them in your crisis decision-making.
3) Learn while you go: even during a crisis, organizations can solve problems in the best way possible and ensure progress the next time.
 Business Process Re-engineering Assessment Guide, United States General Accounting Office, May 1997
 “The Seven Guiding Principles of Continuous Improvement.” Home. Last modified June 29, 2021. https://www.eonsolutions.io/blog/the-seven-guiding-principles-of-continuous-improvement#:~:text=%20The%20Seven%20Guiding%20Principles%20of%20Continuous%20Improvement,delivered%20in%20small%20amounts%20on%20a…%20More%20.
 Lunn, P. D., Belton, C. A., Lavin, C., McGowan, F. P., Timmons, S., & Robertson, D. A. (2020). Using Behavioral Science to help fight the Coronavirus. Journal of Behavioral Public Administration, 3(1).
 Hammer. “Reengineering Work: Don’t Automate, Obliterate.” Harvard Business Review. Last modified July 1, 1990. https://hbr.org/1990/07/reengineering-work-dont-automate-obliterate.
Interview with Rich Smalling, Executive Consultant at Riverbank by Kaylee Somerville, Project Manager at Riverbank.
For 25 years, Rich led American Innovations (AI), a provider of solutions that help the oil and gas industry comply with regulations and operate safely. With a great team of engaged colleagues, Rich helped grow AI and navigate through difficult challenges. Along the way, Rich became passionate about positive business practices that create thriving organizations and the impact of thriving organizations on society. His new book, “Practically Positive: Practices for Creating a Thriving Organization” was released on August 1st, 2021 and is available here.
The book presents practices and strategies that help create thriving organizations. I was fortunate enough to interview him about his perspective and journey of writing the book.
I was curious, what does positive leadership mean to you?
Rich: “I think [that] is a really long answer. But I think at its core, a great leader cares more about all of his or her stakeholders than they care about themselves. They don’t do it for themselves, they do it for the greater good.”
How did you learn about positive leadership?
Rich: “At a relatively young age, I had the opportunity to lead an organization of people. I quickly learned that the things that I needed to learn were: How do you engage a group of people? How do you create an organization that’s thriving for all of its stakeholders? I didn’t take a single course on leadership, yet here I was leading a group of people. I knew nothing about what good leadership was. So I did what I usually do: I read every book I could get my hands on. And then I would try things with my laboratory full of people. And some things worked, some things didn’t work. So I learned the long, hard way, which is one of the reasons behind the book. I wrote it as a note to myself: What did I wish I knew when I became a leader? Because I was completely clueless.”
The book has a structure of three parts. First, foundational practices, then accelerator practices, and finally the 1–2–1 process. The later portions talk about different tools leaders can use. I’m curious, are these tools magic bullets? Or do they work best in combination?
Rich: “None of those accelerator practices or maintenance practices in section two and section three are magic bullets. They’re really intended to be applied by whatever the leader thinks might be [right] for them to implement. The foundational things are like what makes a car. You have four wheels and an engine and the steering wheel — if you don’t have those things, it’s going to be hard to get from point A to point B. But the middle section is really the stereo, the heated seats, the big screen, the NAV system. Any one of those things might appeal to you, depending on your situation. You might say, “Boy, that Culture Council thing sounds great”. You can implement it on its own without anything else in the book.”
So, what is your favorite strategy from the book?
Rich: “The one that I didn’t realize would be so beneficial is the user manual. It’s so easy to implement at first. It’s not hard to sit down and write a few paragraphs about what drives you completely bonkers at work. A lot of folks never even think about how they should be operated best. But the more you think about it, and the more you think about the idiosyncrasies of you. And the more you dive into what your particular strengths and passions are, and weaknesses and where they came from, the better versions of you will turn out throughout your life. If you can explain to other people [how you work best], it just can unlock so many other things..”
What was the most difficult strategy to implement in your organization?
Rich: “I think people have complained, since the dawn of man, about performance appraisals. They’re always being done “to them”. They’re not pleasant experiences. For most people, it’s their manager telling them, “Here’s how you did”. Oftentimes, the manager might be the least qualified person, unfortunately, to say how you did. So we tried to flip that around and say, “You were there for the whole thing. You tell me how you did. What did you learn? Where did you fail? Where did you succeed? What evidence do you have of that for yourself?””
How did you help your employees overcome it?
Rich: “It’s still a work in process. We’re getting there. I think, also, we’re fighting a little bit against how business has worked forever. But we want that to be a separate thing where we’re not going to take the rating and do anything with it directly to salary at all. The rating is really for you.”
What are your hopes for the future for the book?
Rich: “When I started to write the book, it was it really was like: “What do I wish I knew when I was younger?” After encountering Bob Quinn, Jane Dutton, and Kim Cameron, way too late in my career, I was kicking myself because they were there when I was there. If I would have just listened to them and spent more time there, I would have been better off. So if there’s anybody out there that I could hand these lessons to, it may help them skip ahead. There are so many people that don’t get any sort of leadership training.”
To summarize, Rich left me with a quote from Conscious Capitalism, an inspirational book for Rich:
“Authentic, soul-satisfying happiness comes from living a life of meaning and purpose.” — John Mackey
Thank you to Rich Smalling for taking the time to chat with me about his new book, and sharing how he brings meaning and purpose to his leadership. Make sure to get Practically Positive at Amazon here.
Want more insights on positive leadership? Sign up to receive custom content delivered to your inbox quarterly, from Riverbank: http://eepurl.com/g_rewX
Ethan Kross remembers that at a young age, his father taught him to introspect when things went wrong. It became a valuable tool throughout his childhood and adolescence, helping him process challenges and rejection.
It wasn’t until he began studying psychology that he learned about when introspection goes wrong. For many, turning inwards can make things worse, leading to depression and anxiety. Kross became passionate about using science to solve this problem, which Kross coins “chatter.” Ethan has spent the past 13 years at the University of Michigan learning about chatter, which is now the topic of his new book.
As part of the Center for Positive Organizations’ Summer Series, Kross discussed chatter with colleague and friend David Mayer (John H. Mitchell Professor of Business Ethics, Michigan Ross), sharing insights on how chatter works, how to overcome it, and how to lead others to do the same.
According to Kross, chatter refers to the process of getting “stuck” in a negative cycle of thinking and feeling. As a visual, Kross likens it to a hamster on an exercise wheel — the act of trying hard to get somewhere but not making progress.
Although some may feel that introspection is a nuisance they want to shut off, introspection is an important capability for healthy living. According to Kross, the inner voice helps simulate future moments (e.g., preparing what to say in a presentation), shape experiences, and better understand the events that happen.
“Chatter zooms us in really narrowly on our own problems…and we lose sense of the bigger picture. Doing so can cause people to feel that they are not in control, negatively impacting our work performance, relationships, and physical health,” says Kross.
Kross’s book presents several evidence-based strategies to help overcome chatter, including temporal reframing (mental time travel), mindfulness, and talking to yourself in the third person. Kross notes that there is no single magic solution and that people who use combinations of tools fare best.
In addition, Kross provides advice on how to help others overcome chatter by being a “chatter advisor” — a friend or mentor that can help process problems. He emphasizes that an important aspect of being a “chatter advisor” is not only listening, but helping others reframe the experience, so they can zoom out and see the bigger picture. We can also help others overcome chatter “invisibly” in ways that do not threaten their sense of autonomy. For example, leaders of teams should avoid singling employees out and providing ways to give feedback/improvement collectively (e.g., team workshops). Kross also recommends helping personal relationships by proactively doing things (e.g., tasks around the house) when we know our loved ones are stressed.
As the world returns to work, understanding Chatter and how to harness it will be helpful in experiencing continued uncertainty. Kross notes that: “Despite [chatters’] critical importance, we’re not talking about this at the dinner table with our kids. We’re not talking about this at our team meetings with our employees. Given the amazing things that it can do for us, I think we should be talking about it. Because there’s a whole lot of science to bear that documents not only its importance but also how it can be harnessed and usually relatively easy ways to make it work for us rather than against us.”
Ethan Kross, PhD, is one of the world’s leading experts on controlling the conscious mind. An award-winning professor in the University of Michigan’s Psychology Department and its Ross School of Business, he is the director of the Emotion & Self Control Laboratory.
About the Center for Positive Organizations
This story is a collaboration between Riverbank Consulting Group and the University of Michigan’s Center for Positive Organizations (CPO), an organization dedicated to building a better world by pioneering the science of thriving organizations. It is based on an event presented by CPO, which you can watch here.
Every vehicle has a “crash test rating.” Since 1959 this score provides details on vehicle safety to help consumers make better vehicle purchases. But what goes into this score? To develop each rating, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety evaluates:
the “crashworthiness,” how well a vehicle protects drivers/occupants, and “crash avoidance and mitigation” how the car can prevent a crash or reduce its impact.
Essentially, the score dictates to what extent the car will “bounce back” after a crash. The manufacturers can choose what elements to include in building a vehicle that might improve its rating.
The “crash test rating” is what Pat Fahey thinks of when asked about resilience. Pat is the Senior Director Energy Resources at Springerville Generating Station, and I recently had the opportunity to connect with him about culture transformations. As an electrical engineer by trade, he’s led his team through significant culture transformations, where he himself had to change his habits to build his team’s resilience. I learned was how vital resilience is to help leaders in communication.
Recent research shows that “effective leader communication” remains an essential leadership skill. Yet, often leaders fail to communicate effectively and risk doing damage to their team or broader stakeholders. Why is this the case? Through my conversation with Pat, I learned how much work it takes to improve one’s communication style and why resilience helps strengthen communication skills. We also discussed how to change one’s communication style, why it’s important, and how to build resilience as a leader and a team.
Here are the lessons learned:
1) Effective leadership communication starts with self-awareness
For Pat, it was only after his company underwent a significant cultural transformation that he became self-aware of his communication style. He learned that while his employees were good at their work, they worked not because they wanted to but because they felt they had to. Knowing this sparked his revelation that he was not truly listening. In any conversation, Pat mentioned, he “jumped ahead to “recommendations” instead of taking the time to hear the other person.” Recognizing this habit sparked his journey of changing how he communicates, creating visible results for himself and the organization.
Everyone has different communication styles. “A leaders’ job is to understand their team and become flexible to individual communication style. Self-awareness first asks, “who do I want to be as a leader?” and then asking “does that person come across in how I communicate?”
2) Good listening requires resilience
It became evident to me early in our conversation that Pat is a patient leader who works to communicate well. So, I asked Pat if this comes naturally. “I am NOT a patient person,” he replied. “As an engineer by trade, I have high confidence in my ability to fix just about anything. So, to NOT solve the problem right away was challenging and required patience.” Over time, he developed strategies to help overcome these problem-solving tendencies, including:
1) Seek to learn the type of conversation you are having. Begin with asking: “Is this a problem-solving session or a listening session?”. Defining the expectations of a conversation is crucial to ensuring a positive outcome for both parties.
2) Remind yourself to go last. Pat mentioned that he regularly reminds himself “don’t talk, just wait” and waits till the end to say anything. Doing so helps him ensure all parties feel heard. He also recommends using a notepad during conversations to keep from speaking prematurely — he jots down “thought bubbles” to remind himself what to discuss at the end.
3) Check your “listening assumptions.” Pat warns against assuming you have “heard correctly.” He advocates for “three-part communication,” which involves: listening, repeating back what you’ve heard, and receiving confirmation from the other party. Other mechanisms he uses include probing questions, such as “Well, tell me more about that.”
3) Know when you’re not ok.
We are human: we have bad days, things go wrong, or people that frustrate us. I asked Pat how he remains resilient in his relationships on these bad days.
1) Have an outlet. “All leaders need a safe place to discuss frustrations. For me, it’s members of my leadership team and my wife. I go to these individuals when I am tired or annoyed and discuss how I feel in a healthy manner, instead of unleashing these on my team members.”
2) Have “hold-off moments.” “Simply communicating “Now is not a good time for me to have this conversation” does wonders,” says Pat. He warns against putting yourself in situations where your employees might experience negative outcomes and recommends delaying conversations as a powerful strategy.
3) Embrace vulnerability. For Pat, the most critical lesson in improving his communication was embracing vulnerability. He now shares with his team when he doesn’t know something, when something upsets him, or even when he makes mistakes. “Showing that I make mistakes doesn’t give the impression that mistakes are acceptable, but instead allows others to feel safe to share them so we can solve the problem as a team.”
4) How you communicate dictates the strength of your team.
Pat’s journey of being resilient in his communication was a long, difficult process that is still ongoing. I asked him, “why even bother?”. His answer: “I like to think of it like a basketball team. You have five players on the court — a point guard, a shooting guard, a small forward, a big forward, and a center — five unique individuals on the team — not one more important than the other. So, if it’s late in the game, and one player gives up, the whole team is done. That’s where resiliency comes in.” It’s imperative to ensure the team’s safety and be aware of when your team is struggling. Part of being a leader is picking up the employees when they aren’t resilient but doing so in a patient and encouraging manner.
“It’s easy to fall into the belief that because we are in formal leadership positions, we are automatically leaders. This isn’t the case. The truth is, learning how to lead takes work. As a leader, it is not my choice to lead my team. It’s their choice to be led by me.” — Pat Fahey
Effective communication is the first step to building this resiliency — and it takes work — but with time, you can develop your team to pass any crash test.
Overall, I learned from Pat to:
1) Become aware of your communication habits — both good and bad. Ask yourself — do these reflect who I want to be as a leader?
2) Be intentional, resilient, and relentless in improving how you communicate.
3) Don’t expect perfection — give yourself an outlet on bad days, and embrace vulnerability.
According to Pat, “no matter how good your product, manufacturing process, or operations are, it’s people that make things happen. That’s why it’s worth taking the time to develop and improve relationships with your people to help the entire organization work better, safer, and happier.”
Across the country and the world, we will differ in our pandemic experiences and our views of how to manage the pandemic. When asked about how these skills will be useful in the future, Pat emphasized the need for us to develop respect for differing views and learn how to resolve conflict in this emerging era. Being resilient in how we communicate dictates how we “bounce back” from this crisis. Taking the time to listen, be patient, and encourage vulnerability will help us emerge as a stronger nation.
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 15 Common Leadership Communication Problems (And How To Correct Them) (forbes.com)