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.
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