3 lessons on culture from an ex-convict

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The research we conduct for the O.C. Tanner Institute often places us in front of the world’s leading companies and highly accomplished leaders. But, during a recent interview, we found ourselves taking advice from unlikely source. We weren’t talking to a CEO, a guru, or a business tycoon this time. Instead, we were talking to an ex-convict. And, he shed light on something many leaders struggle to wrap their arms around — culture.

“It’s an awesome view,” the man said, standing on the second story balcony, gazing across the San Francisco Bay. “I never thought I’d get to wake up every morning and see this.”

Just a few blocks from AT&T Park, the home of the San Francisco Giants, you’ll find some off the priciest real estate in the world. Along this strip of waterfront called the Embarcadero are high-end restaurants and tourist attractions. And, smack dab in the center is the home of our unlikely interview subject. He’s a former gang member with a lifelong history of violence. His home is called the Delancey Street Foundation. It’s the country’s leading residential self-help organization for former substance abusers, ex-convicts, homeless and others who have hit bottom.

“Coming here, I thought I could manipulate the system,” said the man.  “I thought I could come in, pretend that I’m changing my ways, and get out in two years rather than going back to prison and serving a longer sentence.”

“How long have you been here?” we asked.

“Eight years,” he replied.

“How long do you have to stay?” we asked.

“My sentence was served after two years, but I petitioned to stay longer.”

Shocked by his response, that anyone would want to stay longer than the required two years, we asked, “What made you want to stay?”

“I was necessary,” he replied. “I realized there are guys who need me here. No one else expected anything from me. But here, there were guys here who looked up to me.  I was, for the first time, making a positive difference in other people’s lives. And, in order for this foundation to exist, it needs all of us. It needs us to run it. I had never felt needed before — not in gangs, not at home, and certainly not in prison.”

Most of us have people who count on us. Most of us have families. Many of us are leaders, managers, project or team members, who have people who rely on us at work. Imagine for a second what it would feel like to walk into any situation — at home, in peer groups, or at work — and feel utterly unnecessary. And, even worse, imagine someone telling you, “You don’t make a difference.”

It’s a horrible thought. However, as researchers we know it’s not uncommon. A study conducted by Tony Schwartz and Georgetown Professor Christine Porath found that half of employees don’t feel respected at work. A study conducted by Healthstream of 100,000 managers and employees revealed that 79% of people who quit their jobs cited “A lack of appreciation is a key reason for leaving.” And, we actually had a manager tell us about an employee who quit because he said, “On the last three projects you said it didn’t matter if I wanted to be part of the team.”

People want to feel necessary. And, as leaders, here’s where we can learn some hard-knocks advice about building great cultures from the residents at Delancey Street.

1. Each one, teach one. “The residents at Delancey Street are the staff,” the man told us. “We run the foundation, operate the restaurant downstairs, run a moving company, an auto-repair shop, and a construction company. When residents enter, they’re assigned to maintenance — eleven or twelve hour days of hard labor. But, as new residents move in, it becomes your role to teach them — that hard work pays off, and there are rewards. We become responsible for the success of one another — to succeed and not slip back into our old ways.” Consider what this means in the workplace — where every employee is looking to help another employee succeed. Consider how powerful it would be if everyone understood how their work affected the greater good. It’s mind-blowing to think of a correctional facility with zero employees — the residents handle everything from administration to security. But, imagine that mindset in a company — that if one person doesn’t do their job, the entire culture could collapse. As leaders, we need to communicate to all people how and why every person matters.

2. It’s harder to get in than it is to get out. “I had to petition the other residents to stay here,” the man told us. “The front door is unlocked to get out, but locked so people can’t get back in. I had to prove my value to stay.” Again, it may sound simplistic, but imagine if every person in an organization understood that they needed to provide value or the organization would make room for someone new. This concept has seemingly been lost in the corporate world — where many employees assume that once they’re inside the walls they don’t need to fight to stay inside. As leaders, we need to understand that it’s our job to inspire greatness in people — so they can provide the value we hired them to produce to their teams and the organization.

3. We all want to make a difference. “I’ve watched other residents leave,” the man added. “I wonder if they think about me out there. I hope they do. I hope I made a difference.” All employees want to feel like they make a positive difference. They enter our organizations with the hopes and dreams of doing something great. They want to do work worthy of recognition and, in fact, according to research, they say recognition is the number one thing their boss can give them to inspire great work from them. As leaders, this is huge. We need to be aware that our people want to do great things, give them the opportunities to be great, and cheer them on along the way.

The Delancey Street Foundation might seem like an obscure module to emulate. However, it’s been proving something since 1971 that many of the world’s top companies still struggle to grasp—that culture is the backbone of any organization, and that if you believe in people to accomplish dramatic change, stellar performance, and revolutionary results, they will make it happen — even if, at one point, these people were considered “unemployable.”

This post was originally published on Forbes.

By david sturt and todd nordstrom
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Comments (1)

I understand your points. I know several family members in particular who need to be valued, appreciated and needed to feel good in their positions at work. They get immense satisfaction out of feeling necessary.

September 12, 2017   |   Reply
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