Exploring Forward-Thinking Workplaces with Edwin Miller
Welcome to our interview with Edwin Miller. Edwin is CEO at 9Lenses. 9Lenses is a software platform that allows consultants to digitize their data collection and management so they can win more business and get smarter about the questions they ask and the clients they engage. He is also the author of 9Lenses Insight to Action.
Welcome Edwin, and thank you for contributing to the questions that are at the heart of Container13.
Bill: Edwin, what’s your perspective on how can we create workplaces where every voice matters, people thrive & find meaning, and change & innovation happen naturally?
Edwin: My first reaction is, I would like to believe it’s possible in the future.
Second, I think the generations – Baby Boomers versus Gen X versus Millennials, see this very differently as being possible.
If you’re somewhere between the age of 56 and 66 in America, you’ve enjoyed faster and prolific wealth creation than any other part of society except the generation right before them, over a longer period of time.
Economic growth in the past 18 years for the most part in America, has been flat, in or down. I don’t care what sector you are in. I think the Millennials absolutely see that and are asking, “How do I participate? Let’s just work together, we don’t even need to get paid.” Then, they realized they have a couple of kids, “Hey, can you pay me?” That would be my second reaction around the difference between the Millennials versus Gen X.
The third consideration is, what people have gone through macro economically. If you’re a company like HP, who bought EDS, and you work for EDS, and you’ve been there eight years, then all you’ve seen is the destruction of EDS. You’ve got a very poor view of ever enabling an employee again.
Where you’ve been in life will have an impact on how you react to your question. I think your Myers-Briggs matters big time. I think your spiritual beliefs and how you feel about things in other people, they all play into it, but I also think that where you’ve been economically makes a big difference.
Kadri: Our next question Edwin, what does it take to get an employee’s full attention and best performance?
Edwin: I think getting an employee’s full attention and best performance starts before they become an employee. Inside that job duty, a job family, and, inside that family, you have to have a series of jobs. You have to have the duties align to how you really think that job should perform, and, you really need to do a thoughtful job of matching that person to the role that you hire them for.
I think most companies do a very poor job of that. They hire people based on a resume, or they hire somebody based on how they know them. Think about how most people get hired in the world.
Take a company like GE that has a rigorous hiring process. They hire bright, intelligent, people right out of B-schools, which may give the person an advantage. If they are coming out of engineering school, it is a no-brainer. Because, you can put them in a process job. If they are coming out of Business-school, no-brainer, put them in a finance job. It doesn’t mean they thrive there. They’re matching the education, versus the true and authentic desire of that person, or the capability of that person. I believe it is very important to get that right.
If you get that right, you have a much better opportunity to map the people to something that they’re going to feel great doing, and then it’s about culture formation.
Bill: There was a recent post on LinkedIn that addressed the six most important questions to ask employees. In my opinion, it was in alignment with what you just described. However, I responded in the comments of the post saying that I had worked at several companies that did a good job of asking the questions they suggested but people were still not happy and engaged. It’s a core belief at Container13 that none of this matters if people don’t feel like their voice is heard and if they don’t feel that they can safely share their true thoughts.
Edwin: We’ve got a great culture, we just had three groups come through and do an assessment of different parts of the company from the outside in. We do our own 9Lenses every three months, and our culture always comes back number one. Great culture. However, I still don’t know that everybody feels safe, so I don’t know what it feels like not to be the CEO.
I’ve been the CEO since I was 29, and I’m 46. I’m always telling employees, “Say what you want.” They often respond with, “What do you mean?” “What are you thinking? We’re collaborating here.” In the back of their mind they could be thinking, “What if I say something stupid? I don’t want to not impress Edwin. If I don’t agree with him, should I not agree with the CEO in person?”
There’s so much that goes into being safe versus having the humility with incredible resilience, tenacity, and passion where people can go be and say what they think. I think people think they need to banter at times, or argue, or debate versus just having an open, candid conversation, in a very humble way. Let’s face it, you may be right, and I may be right. Or we may not even understand the real problem.
I think, if you can match people to the right job, have that well-defined, and then create a culture of humility and transparency, that’s the closest that you’re going to get.
Kadri: Tell us a little bit about the organizational culture at 9Lenses.
Edwin: A lot of words come to mind. I think we’re a stubborn culture. Incredibly stubborn. On the other side of that, I think the off-set, the Ying Yang of that would be, a very curious set of people.
It’s funny how stubborn people are. I think that goes back to the fact that we have a very bright average person that is extremely bright here. They’re passionate about learning, evolving, and growing, and they want to be able to inform a business decision. Sometimes, that looks like stubbornness because they won’t just go along, but I won’t either.
I’m not just going along for ride.
I think in our culture, we won’t get in the car and just go for a bad ride. There’s nobody here who wants to do that.
Somebody’s going to say, “Hey, this is really stupid. Please don’t get in the car.” I think that epitomizes our culture. I think we’re customer centric. And, we want to do a great job for our customers.
Bill: The news, business, press, and social media are filled with stories about the low rate of employee engagement, what’s behind this? What do people really lack and long for at work?
Edwin: I think that’s a macroeconomic problem that’s littered with a ton of answers. I’ll start at the macro level and go tiny.
Macro-economically, we are teaching people daily that wealth is bad, leaders are bad, and big corporations are bad. Think about the media or watch the news, all you hear about is the bad news. The police are bad, the Commissioner is bad – because they hired the police. The Mayor is bad, because they hired the Commissioner. The people who elected the mayor, they’re stupid, why did they do that, right? I think if you consistently keep telling people that, then we’re the bad guys.
We give $1 trillion away a year. More than any other nation, but we’re bad. I think number one – employees don’t want to work for something that they feel is bad. I just don’t believe it. I think the heart, the spirit of the human, gets up every day, and wants revived value in what they do.
If you are being told on your way to work – you work for a bad government, you work for a rich guy who runs a corporation. You’re not going to want to engage. I think it starts there. And, you can’t change that without true leadership at the top of our media organizations, who want to actually say something different, because there’s a ton of good going on, they just don’t talk about it.
The next question to ask is – are people really engaged and what do they lack and really long for at work? I don’t think they have the structure to be successful.
Unfortunately, I think most leaders don’t care about the people, they care about the top and bottom line, or at least that’s what comes through. It’s hard to manage that, because you do have to care about the health of the business, and if you do it’s a better outcome for everybody, it’s part of the business, but it’s hard for somebody in the cog of the wheel to understand that and have that perspective, because they never had to do it.
I had an employee who was brilliant. Very opinionated, high IQ, lower on the EQ scale. Over the course of 2 1/2 years, no matter where I put him, he always found a way to go head-to-head with whoever he needed to be up with. It didn’t matter whether it was product management and development, or him and customer, or the analyst group with the sales group, he always found a reason that there was a problem.
I would tell him, “Hey, it’s a business, you are impacting the business right now. You’re impacting another person right now.” If I tried to bring it back to a money conversation, because he has stock, he would say, “Well I don’t care about money.” How do you have a conversation with someone, with this in an economic, capitalistic environment, who doesn’t care about money? Doesn’t care about his stock? He just wants to do good work, cool work.
I gave him the ability to take another role, I was going to keep coaching him, and he didn’t want that role, so he left the business. Two weeks later I got an email. I can actually get my computer and show you the email from last night. He said, “You know what, I can’t believe how selfish I was, I apologize.” He said, “I tell my kids all the time, you can be selfish, but don’t be a brat. I was an absolute brat, and selfish, I apologize.”
I don’t think most leaders have the ability to communicate that way with people and be that transparent. I don’t think most people when they’re the cog in the wheel, can get an understanding of what they’re really doing, because they’re doing their thing, so I would say that that leads to a lack of engagement.
Kadri: What is the most important question management should be asking employees?
Edwin: My number one that I go to immediately is, Is what you’re doing today, do you think it matters to what the company is doing for our customers?
If they believe what they’re doing matters for the customer, they are likely going to want to do a better job.
I’m always asking everybody in the company, “If you’re doing three things today, is it going to make a difference for the customer? If not, you need to ask somebody, should I be doing these things?” That’s my answer to that.
Bill: And what employees, what question should they be asking?
What should an employee be asking? The same thing. I think management should be asking that, but I think employees should be asking, “is what I’m doing helping the customer?” If it is, economically, were going to be fine.
Bill: How can we best leverage 9Lenses to help us discover the best questions management should be asking employees, and employees to management?
Edwin: I think this happens over time. I’ve said since 2012 that I think we have the opportunity to become the Google of business questioning.
There’s a big void in the world. That is why I started with the 9Lenses schema. Which is – I’m going to ask a question, how do I correlate that question and answer to someone else’s question and answer in a schema?
I don’t need the one question to ask you, I need to ask 15 about market size. I need to ask 1,500, or 3,000 about culture. That would give me a more informed view of my culture. The research experts of yesterday, or you, believe you need to get to the one question to ask before it becomes science. I believe you need a meta data model that’s connected, and you can ask 15 and correlate the questions and answers.
That will let you, over time, understand the right question at the right population. At the end of next year, we’ll start releasing technology in the platform, that when you start forming a question, it will tell you, it’s already been asked, it’s been asked 100 times already last year, here are the responses.
Here is the population that actually responded, here’s the one that never respond. Don’t ask them, or find another way to ask them.
That’s the thinking we’re doing around algorithms right now.
I think the smarter the people informing, or curating content on our platform get about how to question effectively, the smarter the platform is going to become.