Welcome to our interview with Lance Secretan, Founder and CEO of The Secretan Center. Lance is a former Fortune 100 company CEO and is a pioneering philosopher whose bestselling books, inspirational talks, and life-changing retreats have touched the hearts and minds of hundreds of thousands of people worldwide. He is the author of 22 books about leadership, inspiration, corporate culture and entrepreneurship.
In his latest book, The Bellwether Effect: Stop Following. Start Inspiring!, he proposes a theory that explains how and why leaders are attracted to, and seduced by, trendy ideas, and the process by which these ideas then become mainstream — and how we can change it.
I’m Bill Fox, Co-founder here at Exploring Forward-Thinking Workplaces. It’s my pleasure to introduce you to Lance Secretan today.
Lance, welcome to this forum and thank you for contributing to the questions that are at the heart of Exploring the Forward-Thinking Workplace.
(Editor’s Note: Audio clips for each of Lance’s responses are included below. A few clips include additional discussion.)
Bill Fox: How can we create workplaces where every voice matters, everyone thrives and finds meaning, and change and innovation happen naturally?
Lance Secretan: The first thing we need to understand is to stop focusing on the processes and mechanics of the business quite as firmly as we have and quantifying everything.
We just don’t make widgets. We actually try to do something important in the world and how does that transpire and how does it affect the world? I think Starbucks has done a terrific job of doing that. They aren’t just making coffee. They’re creating a “third place.” That’s their dream.
Bill: What does it take to get an employee’s full attention and best performance?
Lance: That’s funny you ask that question. I’m not sure we need to do that. I think we need to get leaders full attention. If we’ve got leaders full attention, then I think the employees would be fully engaged and there wouldn’t be an issue. I think if a leader can’t get the attention of the employees, that’s a leadership problem — not an employee problem. The leader needs to really understand how to inspire and serve people, which is a subject we’ll talk about a bit more in a minute.
As I said in the book, everybody’s afraid at every level. Leaders are afraid they’re going to get ripped off by employees, get called out by shareholders or by the press or who knows. Maybe they groped somebody 30 years ago and don’t even remember it because they were in high school at the time and so on. There’s no idea how many people wake up today wondering what’s going to happen and would I survive the day. Well, we need to take that away. That’s one of the things that holds us up. You can’t perform at a high level if you’re always frightened.
Bill: What do people lack and really long for at work?
Lance: I think a sense of value and importance mostly. I make a lot of speeches publicly and around the world.
I run this like an auction. I say let’s start at 50%. Do you think 50% is a reasonable number? Immediately people say no, it’s 60%. Then somebody will say no, it’s 70%. Then somebody says no, it’s 80%. Eighty percent is where we always end up.
Just think about this. Our history of—let’s say 100 years—and in particular, 40 years of the leadership development industry has been short. We’re at a place where 80% of the population doesn’t want to go to work. If you ask why is that? Why have we created so many processes and so many environments that are so disrespectful and disenchanting to employees as well for the leaders? The result of this is we’ve created miserable workplaces. And business is one of the three legs of our society by the way—the other two being religion and government. The whole thing depends on business. If we lose business we lose everything. Unless you’re a communist nation.
Bill: What is the most important question leaders should be asking employees?
Lance: How may I serve you? It’s the great question from the Knights of the Round Table. Lancelot would have discovered the Holy Grail if he had asked that question. That was the key. He never discovered where the Holy Grail was but the person who would find it had to ask that question. If they had asked that question, they would have found the Holy Grail. So it is for us in our day to day life. Every leader needs to ask every follower how may I serve you? That’s the purpose of a leader.
Bill: What is the most important question employees should be asking leaders?
Lance: On occasion, my wife would say to me something like “Treat me like a customer.” And I think that’s actually quite a good question to ask leaders. Leaders are asking us all the time to provide top notch customer service. All I really need from a leader is for the leader to treat me the same way that they’re asking me to treat the customer. It’s as simple as that. In the end, we should be treating each other and all of us, not just customers and employees, but vendors, government regulators, unions — whoever is involved in making whatever it is we do happen. We should be treating each other the same way, which is to make sure that we’re inspiring each other.
Focus is an important aspiration too I think, and I think employees get excited by that as well. They like to know what’s going on and where are we heading. What are we trying to do here? A lack of that is very discomforting for employees. Employees like to know there’s a clarity around the direction of the organization.
Bill: What is the most important question we should be asking ourselves?
Lance: I think the most important question is something around, am I doing the right thing for the rest of my life? I’ve just written a blog this week that talks about not giving up on our dreams. I was talking to a young man last week who has given up his college education in order to play music. He has a gig opening for a very big Grammy Award winning band. People are criticizing him for giving up his education. But I’m trying to support him by saying, “You know, you’re following your dream and hardly anybody does that. That’s the most important thing you can be doing.”
Cornell did a big study on this. The biggest regret is between the three personalities: the actual self, the ought self (ought to be doing this), and the aspiring self (my dream). When people get in the later stages of their life, the one thing you’d think they would say is, “Well, the gap between my ought and my actual is too big. In other words, my responsibilities or how I should have behaved as a father, as a provider, as a spouse, etc. But that’s not what they say. The biggest gap is between the actual and how I never followed my dreams. That’s something we want to be sure to ask ourselves, “Am I following my dream?” If you’re doing work that you can’t stand with people that you hate, you’re clearly not following your dream. It’s a miserable life. Stop doing that. Yes, it’s going to be difficult. Yes, you’re going to have to sacrifice. Yes, it’s going to be tough. You’ll probably starve. You probably won’t even have a house to live in, but it will be worth it.
We’re whores when we do that. We’re prostituting ourselves and we’re falling short of our potential. In other words, we’re not anywhere near achieving our potential, and we’re robbing ourselves when we do that. Really, we should not do that at all. Yes, it’s a journey and there’s a price to pay to get to where you want to be. We won’t always make it either. But you won’t always make it the other way either, so you may as well go for it!
Bill: You’ve just written a book called The Bellwether Effect. What is a Bellwether and why did you choose that title?
Lance: The Bellwether is a 13th century word, which describes a ram that has a bell tied around its neck. When the flock gets lost, the Shepard can find the flock because the ram leads the flock, and he can hear the bell. Typically, in the highlands where the sheep roam, it gets very misty and foggy at night. You can’t find your way anywhere, so you’re looking for the bell.
There are companies that essentially are the same. In the earlier era, the 70s and so on, we had companies like IBM, Proctor and Gamble, Honeywell and General Electric. These were Bellwether’s because what they did was set the tone. You’d keep reading about them in Harvard Business Review, Stanford Journal and elsewhere. People would talk about them. You’d see articles in Fortune, so they were always pioneering and coming up with new business processes. The trouble was it quite often worked for them, or at least they tinkered with it, even if it didn’t work. But then a lot of other people would copy them. That’s the Bellwether Effect.
They often copied them without understanding what they were doing. A good example of that is GE which started something called stack ranking, which basically means you rank all your employees then you fire the bottom 10% on performance. Very ruthless, very crude, and extremely violent emotionally for people. But what happened is other companies copied it. At one point 80% of big companies had a stack ranking system. It added greatly to the pain of employee experience. It’s just one of the many processes that we do in business where companies in an unthinking way copy Bellwether companies. As a consequence, they get themselves into trouble.
(Editor’s Note: In part two of our interview with Lance Secretan, we dive deeper into The Bellwether Effect at Inspiring Us All to Dream a Better World.)
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