By Dr. Marie Gould Harper  |  11/01/2022

leading forward podcast

Today’s workforce is disparate, distributed, and disconnected. In this episode, APU’s Dr. Marie Gould Harper talks to workforce expert Mitch Zenger about the role that teamwork will play and solutions to drive positive change.

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Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Good afternoon, everyone. Thank you for joining us today. Today, I have a special guest and we’re going to talk about a topic that is near and dear to my heart. And that is Mr. Mitch Zenger. He’s a workforce strategist guru and one of the topics that he is famous for is teamwork, future of the work. Mitch, how are you today?

Mitch Zenger: I am doing really well. Excited to talk to you on this podcast.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Great. We spoke earlier this week and I thought we were going to do the podcast right then and there. I’m so excited about today because the topic that we’re talking about, I love the work that you have done in this area and I want you to share it with our audience and give your take on how you got into this area and where you think things are going to go as far as the workforce in the future. At this time, can you just share some of your background with our audience?

Mitch Zenger: Sure. My background is in consulting. I’ve consulted for a wide range of companies over my 30 plus year career. I’m kind of the outsider looking in, figuring out how to make operations and processes and teams and learning better inside of organizations. And not having direct responsibility, I get the liberty or the joy of kind of assessing what’s not working. As I sort of look at the workforce and changes going on in the complexity of work, it’s very clear to me that we’re shifting from sort of individual performance, individual output to much more complex products that require teamwork. That’s what I’ve been focusing on for the last few years is evangelizing this idea or concept of teamwork.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Now, you said one thing and I think it’s important for our audience to hear. You said that you’re on the outside looking in. I have found that it’s easier for someone on the outside looking in to give feedback to the leadership of an organization. You have no stake in it. You’re providing them feedback based off of what you’ve seen not only at their organization, but other organizations who may or may not be having the same problem. How receptive have you found leadership to be to moving more towards a teamwork environment?

Mitch Zenger: I think the concept is easy for people to understand and agree to and accept. I don’t think they understand how complex it is and I don’t think they understand what they need to stop doing with regard to individual performance to actually enable teams and team performance to be more effective. I think we’re going down two paths at the same time. We keep all of our traditional HR functions and processes and performance reviews all the same as we’ve always done around individual behaviors and individual performance.

But then in concept, we just talk about teamwork and we talk about the need to work together and to have a great team culture, but that hasn’t translated into most of the processes and steps and activities and performance reviews that are also important.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Okay, I totally agree. Let’s talk about the performance evaluations. You are suggesting that based on your experience there has been, I don’t want to say resistance, I would say struggle with the concept of evaluating teams. Would you agree that we as a society have problems with performance evaluations in general even when it’s with the individual? What are some of your suggestions on how we can transition to evaluating teams?

Mitch Zenger: That is a big question. I think all the data and all the research has really shown that performance reviews and performance evaluations are almost counterproductive inside of companies. A lot of big companies are starting to say, “We’re just going to throw them out the door, cancel them,” and then they step back and go, “Well, that doesn’t work because now we have to figure out how to rank our people and adjust or compensate them for top performance, mid-level performance,” et cetera. So, they’re struggling. Nobody’s really figured it out.

I think the reason they haven’t figured it out is they really haven’t made that mind shift of we need to do our evaluation criteria for performance reviews around teamwork and people collaborating and working together. It’s not about me achieving my best performance, it needs to be more about me helping others achieve their best performance. And that’s something we actually want to measure and compensate you for.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: I totally agree. I feel like I’m putting you on a spot with all of these questions, but I spoke about performance evaluations because I, like you, think that’s a key to getting to the heart of the matter. But another area, and you just made a statement alluding to it, is how we have defined people on a team what their roles and responsibilities are, as well as what are the roles and responsibilities of leaders. In an effort to move more towards teamwork, I like diversity of thought. I’m all for teamwork. How do we educate, coach, make feel better individual leaders who feel as though if we move more towards teamwork, there’s no place for them?

Mitch Zenger: Help me understand the question a little better. So, you’re asking?

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: How can we get the leaders to support teamwork since they’ve basically have been in a system that has rated them on how well they are a leader? How can we help them transition and see that there’s a place for them? One of the things that I like to do with leaders is to help them not be the person with all of the answers, but to be a coach, use their experience and coach others to be able to be productive to get the work done.

Mitch Zenger: Lots of thoughts go through my head on that. I think you’re spot on in we need to shift leadership away from this idea that you know it all, you are guiding it all, you have every answer, and you’re directing the team as the parent to what we’re going to go do. It needs to be much more our leaders are there to coach and to pull together the right blend of skills and strengths and capabilities from different diverse backgrounds in the organization to solve problems, enhance processes, get products out the door, keep customers happy, et cetera. It can’t be done with one person.

We need to change the way we incent and motivate leaders and look at their performance. Right now it really is about how much you do, how much you achieve, sort of how great you are, how big your organization is, or how many people you lead and it’s not about how good you are at making other people successful and coaching other people and there needs to be a whole lot more metrics and performance analysis. Your performance review should be around how good you made your people underneath you, not how great you are.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Exactly. I totally agree. I actually think that is a flaw in our system and just as we are going to have to adjust to people working in different settings. It’s no longer the office space. They could either be working totally remote or they can be hybrid coming in some days. I don’t know if you have been reading some of the articles coming out and I’m actually surprised by them and I’m just going to throw out a couple of things that have stuck with me and I want you to share your feelings with me on these particular topics. I just want to give you ideas and then hear what you have to say.

One thing is about surveys that companies have been giving to their employees, especially as it relates to remote work. I’m going to be very specific on that. The organizations have asked their people to be honest and up front. Yet when they don’t receive what they were looking for, they’re not listening to the results of their employees. I think that is unhealthy. I think that leads to the workforce not trusting their leadership and being reluctant to provide future feedback. What have you seen around this area, especially as it relates to companies trying to figure out where does remote or hybrid work fit into their workforce?

Mitch Zenger: My simple answer is everybody is struggling to figure this hybrid work solution out. Yes, we collect a lot of data. The surveys are saying one thing, yet you have old leaders who are set in their way who have this idea that everybody needs to be in a chair in the office in a building to be productive. We’ve proven that’s not required, but they still don’t want to accept that and move forward. Nobody has the right answer yet. Nobody’s really figured out this hybrid workforce model yet. I think it’s going to be really challenging to how we get our people connected and how we get them to trust each other and work well together as teams when everybody’s just kind of isolated and separated.

I think that’s why we see a lot more stress, anxiety, lack of trust between people, et cetera. I mean, a lot of the data say people are working harder than ever and getting more done. Our productivity numbers are going up, yet we’re still pushing… We’re not really adjusting. Everybody just thinks we’re going to go back to the way it was three years ago, and that’s never going to be the case. I mean, we’re never going to see as many people in offices, in chairs on a daily basis than we did three years ago. People need to figure it out.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: It’s interesting that you said that people… I am so amazed just because my personal philosophy about life, but it really blows my mind when I hear people talk about, “Well, we’re going back to how things were.” To me, that statement, it doesn’t even have to deal with the pandemic. It’s like life is not like that. You very seldom go back to the same thing. There has to be some type of change in order for you to grow. With that said, would you say one of the important factors in your work has been to deal with the culture of companies?

Mitch Zenger: Absolutely. I mean, I think culture and kind of that feeling of connection and support and the simple way I like to say it is do the people around me have my back is so important inside of a company. When you feel like your coworkers don’t have your back, your leadership doesn’t have your back, going back to your survey question, “I’m answering the questions they’re asking me, yet my leaders aren’t doing anything about it or changing anything. They’re just trying to do the same old thing,” then you don’t have the trust and you don’t have that connection.

People then begin the mental isolation to say, “Maybe the grass is greener in another job and I’m going to be part of what was the Great Resignation.” We’re not using that term anymore with the things happening today, but people are looking for change.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: It’s interesting that you talk about the Great Resignation. I read an article right before I got on the podcast with you, and it was talking about how people are pessimistic about the job hunt process. That was the title. When I started reading it, it was something totally different than I expected and it went a different direction. It was talking about employees are not too optimistic about any job, even the one they have, and they don’t necessarily believe that they have to get another one in order to have a sense of hope. What they are feeling is that they’re looking at different companies, their performance and their leadership teams and they’re not seeing what they want to see so they’re like, “It’s hopeless.”

I think that’s very sad because that’s like a workforce looking at the leadership of our organizations today post-pandemic and they don’t feel confident in our leaders being able to transition us to the what’s next. Our programs at American Public University, we try to focus on that. We try to partner with individuals, as well as organizations to help them to define what that what’s next, how can we help them, how can we help their employees. Based on the individuals that you have worked with, have you talked about the topic of sense of hope? What would make employees more motivated and have buy-in to what their leadership is doing in the different organizations?

Mitch Zenger: Yeah, definitely a critical topic, and yes, I’ve talked with lots of leaders about it. I think that the key thing we need to be looking for from leadership is giving a sense of direction. Whether you’re using these objective and key results like, here’s where the senior executives are trying to go and then cascading goals and activities down through the organization so people feel connected to the strategy and the direction of where we’re trying to go, that helps to motivate people and encourage them to feel like I’m connected to the bigger cause or the greater cause.

And then the next key is how do you get people to help each other, support each other, feel connected, recognize each other in achieving those goals. And that comes from being a lot more transparent about what you’re doing, how you’re doing it, what we’re working on and how we’re trying to develop our strengths, and et cetera. And then encouraging and helping. I go back to that statement of you want people to feel like the people I work with have my back.

If that’s not happening in your organization and people are feeling isolated, especially when they’re by themselves in a home office, that’s one of your top priorities is to make a change there and get that sense of connection and support and people here to help each other in your organization.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: You’ve mentioned it a couple of times about that isolation, and every time I read that, that’s been interesting. I think the experience may be tied into how an organization defines remote work. I’ve talked to people who remote work, they may be knowledge workers, so the expectation is that as projects come out, people get them done and have the deliverables ready at a given date and a given time. Then I speak with people who have employers who have set up monitoring devices and monitoring keystrokes because the employees are required to be in front of a computer the eight-hour day.

That’s kind of scary. I share with people, I’ve had three remote jobs before the pandemic and in all of them, I would say they’re knowledge based. Success is defined as how well you’ve done a project that the organization has assigned to you. It’s not I need to keep track of you to find out what you’re doing. Would you say that has had some implications on how successful a company has been with this remote work?

Mitch Zenger: Absolutely. It terrifies me when I read about companies tracking keystrokes and taking pictures of your screen to make sure you’re in front of your computer every 10 minutes or something like that. It sends completely the wrong message. As employees start to understand how their employer is tracking, I think there’s a term, their digital exhaust, is I’m monitoring you and your digital exhaust, I liken it to kind of this parent-child, the babysitter relationship. If you’re treating me like a little baby and you have to monitor my move every 10 minutes, you don’t trust me in the least bit.

You’re just going down a path that is going to come back and bite you. We need to be focused on adult-to-adult relationships, setting adult to adult expectations. There are ways to understand if people are delivering performance without having to track number of keystrokes and take a photo of them every 10 minutes or make sure that they’re moving their mouse every 10 minutes. There’s a new device now that wiggles your mouse on a regular basis. I’m just like, it’s insane.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: It’s almost like, okay, we have to come up with these things. You have mentioned it twice in this conversation. It’s the issue of trust. When I first heard you say it, I was thinking in terms of the leader, I’m like, “Do you have my back? Can I trust you?” But that works both ways. I’ve always said, if you have to have all those systems in place to see whether or not your employees are working, why did you hire them in the first place?

Mitch Zenger: Absolutely. Totally agree.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: It’s almost like it’s a dysfunctional behavior that through the various leadership development programs that we have had, I know they tried to do it with emotional intelligence when that field became popular. But what are your thoughts about how do we assist leaders with transitioning to the new concept of overseeing a workforce that may be with them, may not? Like one of the things I hear is, “Well, it’s frustrating,” I saw this last week, “It’s frustrating. I can’t see them, so how do we collaborate? How do we come up with new ideas?”

I was like, did that person really say that and they’re a leader? It seems like we’ve missed something in the leadership development process, and I’m not sure what it is. What are your thoughts? Do you think we’ve promoted up people who have been experts in a certain field and left out some of the key essential skillsets necessary to be a leader versus a manager?

Mitch Zenger: I absolutely would agree with that. The data proves it. I mean, you have lots of leaders who have very narcissistic behaviors. How do I command and control and force the organization to do everything that’s going to make me look good? And then they get promoted and it just sort of continues this chaotic competition of who’s going to rise to the top of an organization. When that goes on, the employees are the ones that suffer. And that the feeling of teamwork and the supporting and the psychological safety that’s really necessary to happen inside of an organization is gone.

Until you start measuring and saying, “We’re going to focus on our employees feeling that psychological safety, and we’re going to focus on measuring our employees feeling like they have each other’s back and that we’re collaborating well together and we’re doing team related metrics, not rise to the top related metrics of who’s the star performer, and so that’s who’s going to get paid the most and everybody else gets nothing,” that needs to change.

That needs to change in our compensation systems, in our reward and recognition in the way we measure things, our pulse surveys, all of those types of things need to change and they kind of are, but nobody’s looking at it holistically and changing all these interconnected systems at the same time with the same vision and strategy.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Yeah, I totally agree. How I word it is I think there are certain systems that we have used across different productivity events in the world of work. As we have transitioned from styles, we never looked at our systems.

Mitch Zenger: The systems are back in the Industrial Era is the way I like to put it. Our metrics and our measurement performance management is all around getting the most number of widgets out the door in a manufacturing supply chain kind of a way. It’s not the way we develop products. Products are developed these days much more complex. It’s not one person making one Hostess Twinkie and putting it out the door. It’s a whole bunch of people working together to get a very complex product out that customers want.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: I totally agree. Some of the things that both you and I have been discussing, they’re around complex issues, processes, strongholds that have been around for years and it’s not going to be a quick and easy fix. Because not only is there going to have to be a shift in the way that we do work, but also a shift in the mindset. Now as I introduced you, I said the workforce guru. I’ve been asking questions and you have definitely been providing responses that are things to think about. But now I want to give you the opportunity on the whole topic of work post pandemic.

What are your thoughts? What do you think employees need to do? What do you think organizations need to do? This is your time to just give your plug for, here’s the big picture of what we need to do. We want to get your voice out there.

Mitch Zenger: That is a big question. I think I’ll go to one of the latest articles that I wrote that I think you saw on LinkedIn that sort of spurred our connecting and having this conversation today. And that was I made this analogy of the Maslow hierarchy of needs that most companies are stuck in this individual need, get individuals to become self-actualized. We have to meet their basic compensation needs, meet their basic psychological or physiological needs, and then they can self-actualize and become great individuals. The evolution has been we’re now getting much more complicated. We need to work together in teams.

I put together this very different set of hierarchy of needs that has similarities, but it’s different. When you’re looking at self-actualizing and me becoming my best self, it is all about me. When you’re looking at team actualization and my team becoming their best self, it’s a very different set of steps. It’s really built upon; we need to be compensating teams around teamwork in a very different way. We need to be making sure our teams and the collaboration are working well. We need to be getting teams to learn together, understand complex problems, sharing their ideas, sharing their understanding of what’s going on inside of companies together, and then recognizing team and teamwork.

One of the key things or questions I like to ask companies is when it comes to recognition, are you measuring how well your leaders are recognizing other people? It’s not recognizing themselves, but are they good at recognizing and rewarding other people? Almost ask your employees to give feedback on the feedback that they’re receiving. You want to promote those leaders who give the most valuable feedback and recognition to their employees because that’s how you get performance and companies to build that great culture together is when they work well together and collaborate and feel like I’ll go back to your employees have each other’s backs.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Right. You just said a couple things too, and I just think about myself. I was having a conversation with someone, and they were asking me about my leadership style. One of the comments that I made, anytime that I walk into a different situation, I like to see who my team members are, and then I like to assess their skillsets. Do you have to always be a superstar? We talk a lot about high performing teams, but it’s like, what do you contribute? I think I’m more of a sports team person and it’s like, we can help each other just have diversity of skills. I get into group think.

If I develop a team that everyone thinks the same, what happens if something comes out of left field, and we’re blindsided and everyone’s thinking the same? That’s why we need diversity of thought on the different teams. But what I have struggled with, I’m comfortable with it as a leader, but I’ve seen peers struggle with it, is when you mention so many leaders have been trained and conditioned by classification and compensation systems that they have to make themselves look good. Where that’s not even the definition of a leader. The leader is, in my head, the performance of my team is a reflection of how well I did my job.

If my team’s not performing, can they perform even when I’m not there? I mean, that’s my litmus test. Can you still operate everything if I’m not there? Have I done my job with explaining how I think, how I would do things if I wasn’t present? The best compliment that I ever received was when someone made the comment, “You weren’t here. I wanted to do this, but I knew what your expectation was.” I think that was a good example of trust in a relationship among different team members. I think that’s what we’re missing, but I don’t know how to get there. I’ll be honest. I think that’s why I like talking to you, because it’s good to just shoot out different ideas based on our different experiences.

Mitch Zenger: I loved what you said about this idea of different strengths, different personalities. It kind of goes back to understanding emotional intelligence and who are your natural strategists and who are your natural people, relationship developing type of people and who are your execution and delivery people. Success really is bringing the combination of those skills together on your team so that you get people to work together and complement each other. Unfortunately, most people’s natural tendency is they hire the exact clone of themselves. If I’m an execution guy, I’m going to hire a whole bunch of people who are execution people. That works in some functions in an organization.

If I’m supply chain focused, you need people who deliver. But if I’m doing product development, it really is you need to go against this natural tendency of hiring the same as me and really encourage and almost measure and force different cultures, different ideas, different personalities, different styles that complement each other and then get people to understand how to leverage those strengths and the different team members. Don’t tell me to go do the execution because I hate that stuff. I’m the strategist. I’m going to tell you; I do the problem solving. Bring me in when you want to problem solve and I’ll help figure it out.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: There was a time that I call it piece meal. We had people working on individual things, whether it was their strength or whether that’s how the organization was structured. Looking at 2022 and beyond, what would be your suggestions, recommendations on how we could set up systems to put in place to assist workers with developing their true selves, if that makes sense? It’s almost a self-awareness, like you understand what you’re good at, what you’re not good at, and you can focus in on what you see as your sense of purpose, whether it’s your strengths or your weaknesses.

Mitch Zenger: I have a lot of thoughts around that topic. A lot of people have done like Myers-Briggs or StrengthsFinder, or all these different personality assessments and we do it and we learn from it and then we put it in a drawer, and we never really ever go back to it. Nobody else ever sees it. I envision a day when we’re in a digital age, that personality style I can share as much as I want with my teammates so that people understand me and understand what I’m good at and what I’m not good at. And then almost through technology, we figure out based on what our teams are working on or what we’re doing, who do we need to be pulling in?

Your goal as an employee is really just promoting who I am and what I’m good at and making sure I’m getting more assignments and projects that focus on that. It’s almost like call it a public reputation or a performance reputation. I have this digital reputation that people can see of what I’m good at and I publicize that and then people learn from that and give me more assignments based on what I like doing, not what they need to have done. They know I’m good at certain things, so they force me to do stuff that I may not be as comfortable doing, but I’m a high performer so I can do it. That needs to change.

The more you can get people doing what they love doing and what they’re passionate about doing, the better off and more successful your teams will be in the long run.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Yeah, I totally agree. I could hear the passion start to come out of you on that one, but that’s an area that I am interested in too, to the point I think we’re coming to a close to this episode, that’s another episode for us to go into because I think that’s part of the answer to the question of, where do we go now? What’s beyond the veil, and how should we position ourselves? I think those companies who are destined to be successful, they’re going to figure it out. The ones who are dragging their feet or digging in, they may not be here. It’s just about are you going to evolve with time.

Mitch Zenger: The world is changing. If you ever think we’re going back to the way it used to be, you’ve just failed. Everything’s evolving. Everything’s becoming more complicated. Everything’s becoming more global. I think there will be a day where we are seeing billion-dollar companies that literally don’t have… I think we’re already seeing it, but I think we’re going to see a lot more, billion-dollar companies that have no headquarters. They have no central office. They’re all distributed workforce. Even a large percentage may be contingent workforce, contractor type of folks.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: A lot of people have been saying that for a time and I think that scared some people. But based on what happened after the pandemic, in my opinion, I think a lot of people reassessed what’s important to them. I think there’s not that fear that it used to be years ago with our parents, the baby boomers. I think the two youngest generations, they have a different concept of what the world of work is about. Some of the older generations may say they’re lazy and stuff, but I think it’s just what’s important to them. We get ready to go on another topic.

I’m going to say, Mitch, thank you for joining me today and sharing your expertise. I really do think we need to do a couple more episodes because I think we’re onto something and I think people will enjoy hearing. You and I talk about just about our experiences and what we see, you being external. I do work for an organization right now, but I do have the opportunity to be in your role, look from the outside and just share what I see. Thank you so much. Do you have any closing words for us?

Mitch Zenger: My closing words is thank you for this opportunity to talk, and I would love to come back and continue this conversation. It’s been a pleasure.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Okay. We can help someone. We have been speaking with Mitch Zenger regarding the role of teamwork in the future world of work today. This is Marie Gould Harper, thanking you for listening to our podcast today.

About the Author
Dr. Marie Gould Harper
Dr. Marie Gould Harper

Dr. Marie Gould Harper is the Dean of the Dr. Wallace E. Boston School of Business at American Public University. She holds an undergraduate degree in psychology from Wellesley College, a master’s degree in instructional systems from Pennsylvania State University and a doctorate in business from Capella University. She is a progressive coach, facilitator, writer, strategist, and human resources/organizational development professional with more than 30 years of experience.

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