Welcome to our interview with Jon Mertz. Jon is the CEO of Activate World. A modern think tank that explores CEO and business leader activism through a podcast and articles while bringing together the best of business with the best of society.
Jon is one of the Top 100 Thought Leaders in Trustworthy Business and highlighted as a Leader to Watch by the American Management Association. He also is the author of Activate Leadership: Aspen Truths to Empower Millennial Leaders. Jon has a background as a farmer’s son in his formative years, a political appointee during his 20s, and a marketing and business development leader over the past twenty plus years. His work has been in large and entrepreneurial companies like Deloitte, IBM, QuickArrow, and Corepoint Health.
I’m Bill Fox, Co-founder here at Exploring Forward-Thinking Workplaces. It’s my pleasure to introduce you to Jon Mertz today.
Jon, welcome to this forum and thank you for contributing to the questions that are at the heart of Exploring Forward-Thinking Workplaces.
Q1: How can we create workplaces where every voice matters, everyone thrives and finds meaning, and change and innovation happen naturally?
That’s a great question and a question that many leaders need to think through a little more clearly and thoroughly. I believe the first place to start is to think of the workplace as a community. In our communities, we have life and work that happens. We need to get to know our neighbors, and we need to help out when needed. Communities have threats but in general they are places where people feel like they can be themselves. They can challenge others. They can challenge themselves, and they can contribute and share and learn as part of that community.
It’s a subtle mind shift, but we think of workplaces as being more cubicle or office oriented, which are staler and more sterile.
Not only as people working there but as leaders. We start treating people a little differently, and we collaborate a little more closely in the work that we do. Through that we’ll get better results and more innovative solutions as well.
Q2: What does it take to get an employee’s full attention and best performance?
I’ve been thinking a lot about that in a number of ways more recently. I’ve been involved in a doctorate program in interdisciplinary leadership. Right now, the class is on strategic management and the whole idea of how you encourage strategic thinking. I think it’s fascinating. It plays directly to an answer to this question as far as how you get employees more attentive and higher performing.
I think the way you do that is by how do you encourage strategic thinking within your organization? There’s an interesting book that came out a couple years ago called WorldMaking: The Art and Science of American Diplomacy. It was a fascinating read because it showed how different generations worked between each other and how they offered ideas to build a better world together.
Some characters in the book were not big names as far as people that we may know, but yet they did very creative and Innovative work to try to make the world a better place. Part of that was through encouraging strategic thinking within the organization.
If we want to get the best out of our teams in our organization, it goes to how are we really encouraging people to think differently. Or how to think about how they are approaching certain challenges and solutions. Questioning some of that thinking because out of that we’ll get better thoughts, plans, and results.
Q3: What are people really lacking and longing for at work?
I believe it’s that sense of belonging. Everyone is unique, and we can’t try to make everyone the same. That would not be a good thing. So how do we give people an opportunity to have that sense of belonging within our workplace? What is the sense of purpose within that organization? Not just at the high level but even at the project level. Why are we doing this work? How does it relate to the higher goal, mission or purpose of the organization or team?
When we get that right as far as ensuring that we are doing things that are more purpose centered rather than self-centered, and we figure out how to give people that sense of belonging with an organization, then I think it’s an opportunity for them to bring their best self to work. They’ll also collaborate more productively and fully with others in that team.
It goes back to the question of shifting the mindset from workplace to community. Within a community, we need to deliver that sense of belonging, or provide that opportunity to achieve that sense of belonging, and through that we will get much better mindsets and better work within our communities. I think you fall into becoming parts of actions rather than an overall sense of belonging within the overall organization and the mission of the organization or the team. If we can provide a culture that has a better sense of belonging that will eliminate more of those factions and have better collaborative work.
Q4: What is the most important question leaders should be asking employees?
It goes back to the idea of strategic thinking. I think the most important question is, what are you thinking? Part of that goes to what’s on your mind, which could can relate to the organization or the plans or the results that the organization is experiencing at that point in time. But I think a corollary question to that too is why do you think that way?
When we start to dig into why we’re thinking about certain things in a certain way, we start to discover biases in our thinking as well as the mindset that we have or some of the logic that may or may not make sense. It just provides for a much more open conversation when we focus on the thought process rather than the end result. By focusing on how we’re thinking we’ll get better plans and results through that process.
Q5: What is the most important question employees should be asking leaders?
This question has been on my mind for the last year, so my response is really related to that. As the generational shift continues within the workplace, it’s going to become more important. The question is this, what is the role of our business in society?
You could say that it relates directly to the business, but you could say it doesn’t relate to the business. But each organization plays a role within the society. The answer can be very straightforward that we create jobs. We grow by doing that, and we provide a tax base and revenue back to our communities. That’s the role of our business.
But I believe that especially with Millennials and Generation Z after them, they are looking for not only that, but I also think they’re looking for a more balanced approach to how business operates within society. We’re seeing a lot of that shift begin to happen from moving away from focusing solely on maximizing shareholder value to looking at a broader stake of stakeholders. With Conscious Capitalism and B corporations, we’re seeing more of that influence of business as a force for good.
I think the question team members should be asking is, what is the role of our business in our society and begin that conversation?
Q6: What is the most important question we should be asking ourselves?
For me, it goes back to thinking. I think the question is why do I think that way? It goes to mindset and purpose. It’s understanding, why do I think that way? What is the underlying causes of that or mindset, or information, or whatever the case may be?
Asking these questions opens myself up to challenging my thinking a little more. It opens me to greater self-awareness of why I am thinking that way. It goes to not getting stuck. Too often even our thought processes get stuck in a certain gear. We tackle everything in the same way or we don’t change our way of thinking about how to approach a problem — or how to solve the situation. So, we get stuck. We become more dogmatic in our approach, which in my opinion is never a good thing.
I think we need to think through our experiences and through those figure out how we can better adapt and grow in how we approach things. How we think about things and challenge ourselves to rise up to not only deeper thinking but better thinking as we move forward.
Q7: You’ve written a book called Activating Leadership: Aspen Truth’s to Empower Millennial Leadership. Why did you write it?
It came out of an interesting intersection point between work and life. Writing was part of my life and at work, I was starting to interview new college graduates to hire. This was the Millennial generation coming in. I’d seen and read all the negative stereotypes about Millennials, and at least in my experience in both through the interviews and working with them, it didn’t match up. Not only that, I didn’t think it was a good thing to be so negative about a developing generation. That was part of it and then second, I was doing a lot more writing around different leadership topics. This all weighed on my mind as far as why leaders would be doing this. Or why others would be putting on a new generation these negative stereotypes.
As with many things when you go out to Nature you learn more than you expect. It’s an opportunity to clear your mind but also an opportunity to have different ideas begin to coalesce around a moment. Why I wrote the book is that moment came among the Aspen trees where how to continue to empower the Next Generation and lead in a more purposeful way sprung from being among the Aspen’s.
Q8: What did you learn from the Aspen trees?
I’m not a skier, and so I was out with my family on spring break. They were skiing, so I decided to go snowshoeing. I went to rent snowshoes and my plan was just to go out of my own, but when I rented them the person there said that that probably would not be a good idea. There were some Avalanches that had happened in the area recently. It would be better to go out with a guide. I didn’t want to do it, but I ended up going with the guide.
As with most things, sometimes the unexpected happens. If I hadn’t gone with my guide, I wouldn’t have learned about the wonder of Aspen’s as much as I did. The wonder of Aspen’s is that there’s just so many elements that are amazing about these trees. For one, you’ll never see just one single Aspen tree. There’re always multiple trees within a grove. That’s because underneath it, they’re all connected through a root system and through that root system they share nutrients to the different trees that need it at the different times.
Another amazing thing about Aspen trees is that they can remain dormant for many years. Underneath the ground you may not know it, but there’s a still an alive root system. Then at some point in time, it could be decades later, all of a sudden growth will spring from that root system again. Aspen’s also help others. Their bark is a salve for animals with an aspirin like quality or even a kind of sunscreen for humans. The way their leaves are designed to flutter in the wind allows them to absorb more sunlight and grow in more diverse places than other trees.
Within those Aspen’s, it became evident to me that a lot of the lessons within that applied to this next generation of leaders. Or any leader as really how do we build that sense of community? How do we collaborate with each other? How do we help others? How do we keep that sense of purpose? And then also, how do we convert what we absorb into more action or better thoughts or whatever the case may be? How do we convert what we do to produce better work? The Aspen’s in my opinion provide wonderful lessons to leaders and more particular very aligned to Millennials coming into the workplace.
Q9: What question is at the heart of your book?
That’s a good question because I hadn’t really stopped and thought about that.
When I was in my 20s, I was full of energy and excitement. I worked hard and thought I had a possibility of a great career ahead. But I never really took a step back and thought about the way I lead, the purpose of my life in work and in life. I think what the Aspen’s share as well as my own life experiences, is that for people starting out in their careers, it’s important to take that step back and really consider how to lead more holistically. Not only within my workplace or my work community but also within my larger community, neighborhood, and society to deliver more fully on mission within that.
Q10: You say in your book that the number one skill to excel in is the ability to convert. What do you mean by that and how do we learn to excel in this area?
To me the skill or talent of converting relates directly to outcomes and results. I can read a book, or I can read an article, or I can write a product plan. I can think it through thoroughly, but if I don’t take the next step of what happens next, then the value of it decreases pretty quickly.
The ability to convert relates to the Aspen’s as far as how do we absorb information in or observe? Then what do we do with what we’ve taken in? It could be going back to the point of thinking a little differently about a problem. It may convert to action steps to take in building a specific plan. It may result in a different strategic direction.
It goes to the point of being focused on meaningful results. Rather than sitting in “over-analysis” or taking new information in and not doing anything with it, if we’re going to be better leaders, we need to understand that we need to change over time. We do take information in, but really the question becomes is what do we do with that information. If we’re not converting it to a better mindset, philosophy, or plan, then we’re missing out on a big opportunity to grow and expand our organization as well.
Q11: What are the key takeaways you’d like readers to get from your book?
There are a lot of different directions I could go, but I think I’ll stay with the simple one and that is — spend time in nature because by doing that you will always learn.
I think what nature brings back to us is encouraging us to be more thoughtful in our approach and re-centers us not to be just caught in the moment but instead determine how we can string moments together to achieve more meaningful results. Not only in our career and our work, but also in our life and community.
It could be simple as simple as go for a hike. Go for a run in the park. Forest bathing is the new thing where you just sit in a forest and absorb it all in. I think nature is a great cleanser, and I think we need to spend a little more time in nature to unplug and to re-center.