A Positive, Empowering Organiztion

Occasionally there is a story of positive organizing that is so potent it must be told.

On August 12th I posted a list of characteristics for people who embrace the positive mental map. I listed 13, although there are many more. Here is the original list.

People who embrace and live the positive mental map:
• Embrace the common good
• Feel confident
• Seek growth
• Overcome constraints
• Expand their roles
• Express their authentic voice
• See and seize new opportunities
• Build social networks
• Nurture high-quality connections
• Embrace feedback
• Exceed expectations
• Learn and flourish

My daughter recently shared a story with me about a 23 year-old CEO who emulates every single one of these characteristics. I’d like to re-tell her story, highlighting the above characteristics throughout her story to illustrate how this CEO took her vision and created a positive organization. (Follow this link to the original story.)

Veronika Scott grew up with parents who were addicts and not a lot of hope. She was given an opportunity that she seized with both hands – a college scholarship. (seek growth, overcome constraints) It was in one of her classes at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit that the epiphany for her business was born. A teacher challenged them to create a product that would fill a need rather than something faddish. (See and seize new opportunities)

Homelessness is a problem in Detroit so Scott visited a homeless shelter. Her welcome was less than warm, but she persisted in interviewing them, trying to find a need she could fill and building relationships with them. (Build social networks, feel confident) Finally she decided to design a coat that transformed into a waterproof sleeping bag.

One day when she was handing out the sleeping bags, a homeless woman started screaming at her that they didn’t need sleeping bags – they needed jobs. She didn’t get upset, instead she recognized the truth in what this angry woman said (embrace feedback) and it occurred to her that she could hire the homeless women to help her make the coats. (Learn and flourish, expand their roles)

Scott said, “Everybody told me that my business was going to fail – not because of who I was giving my product to, but because of who I was hiring. They said that these homeless women will never make more than a peanut butter and jelly sandwich – you cannot rely on them for anything. And I know my ladies enjoy proving everybody wrong.”

Since late 2010, Scott and her 10 formerly homeless employees moved into a graffiti-covered building in an old Irish manufacturing neighborhood in Detroit where they have made more than 1,000 coats. Most have been distributed to homeless and this year she plans to make four times that many. (embrace the common good) She calls her company The Empowerment Plan.

She is starting to get the kind of publicity to raise real funds – $300,000 donated this year – with a goal of $700,000. These funds will help her hire more women and give warmth to more homeless folks. (nurture high quality connections)

In an interesting twist, she showed her coats at an Aspen fashion show where they generated a lot of interest. Now those Aspenites want the coats too. She is hoping to start a for-profit sister company to design the coats for the retail market and hire homeless to work there as well. (make spontaneous contributions) The Universe has an interesting way of rewarding passion and a focus on the common good. (exceed expectations)

Living from the positive mental map is a win-win. It has created a new life for Scott in which she is thriving. She has invited others to join her and is meeting a need for a large number of homeless people (warmth), and a smaller number of homeless women (jobs). The positive feelings are spreading and people want to contribute to the cause. Not only do they want to contribute, but they want to buy this product because it is a smart design. Scott will have the opportunity to create more jobs for people in need, to make a profit, and to help the larger economy. Truly an empowering plan.

(If you are interested in learning more about Veronika and her company, you can find them on Facebook.)


  • Which of these 13 characteristics are found in your organization?
  • How can you identify and follow your own passion to empower yourself and others?

Consciously Building a Positive Culture

Fortune Magazine lists the best 100 best places to work. For the second year in a row Google has been named number one. Travis Bradberry writes that Google has a number of progressive human practices but there is one that particularly stands out.

For a long time research has shown that people do not quit companies they quit bosses. The ability of managers to effectively lead other people is crucial, yet legions of managers are ineffective at it. Organizations act as if there is nothing that can be done. Leadership is a reflection of human nature and human nature cannot be changed. Google does not buy this conventional assumption.

Google seeks to turn every manager into an effective leader of people. They have done extensive analysis of what leadership characteristics lead to success at Google. With the criteria in mind, they train people to lead. They then measure performance on the criteria and look for continuous improvement. This means they are not only training people, they are also building a positive culture centered on the expectation that everyone can be a great leader. The result is a company full of teams in which people produce great results while personally flourishing at work.

Two things strike me about this account. First positive organizations can be created. Google is not on top of the list by accident. A positive company is seriously invested in creating a positive culture. It does things others will not do.   Second, leadership can be taught, measured and improved. While other organizations make superficial efforts, Google shows a deep commitment. The results demonstrate that a culture of positive leadership can be created.

People respect Google as an organization, and desire to imitate their success.  We see this in articles about their culture that are focused on their great cafeteria and free lunches, on free rides to work and free massages.  We see companies willing to follow their lead with foosball tables and dry cleaning on campus.  This kind of change is good but cosmetic.  Real culture change means changing the underlying assumptions on how to operate together.  It is reflected in the willingness of Google to hold leaders to the highest standards.

It is understandable that other companies copy the cosmetics.  It is understandable that they do not copy the deep change efforts.  The first is easy.  The second requires courage and commitment.

Let’s think about all this from an alternative perspective.  In medicine doctors are sued for malpractice. Given what we know from research, I would suggest that most companies are guilty of malpractice.  If managers have teams of people who are not flourishing and exceeding expectations, if people leave because they have a toxic boss, it is a sure sign that senior executives are unaware, uncommitted or both. While they are not currently sued for their failure, a price is being paid. It is time for every organization to consciously build a positive culture.



Have I ever seen a toxic boss?

What would it be like to work in an organization without toxic bosses?

How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

Organizations of Autotelic (internally driven) People

Gina Valenti is the VP of Brand Culture for Hampton.   She and her colleagues have heavily invested in building a positive culture. The key notion for employees is “Hamptonality Starts with ME!”

This is the kind of effort that a skeptic might question.   Yet there are many indicators that “Hamptonality” matters.  Gina shared one example with us.  She recently became aware of a blog post written by a celebrity guest named Mike Rowe (host of the Discovery Channel show Dirty Jobs).   Mike was in the process of leaving a Hampton Inn so he could go jump out of airplane.  He noticed a man on a ladder working on pipes in the ceiling.   His name was Corey Mundle.   Mike introduced himself and asked Corey what he was doing.  The following story was written by Mike:

 “Well Mike, here’s the problem,” he said. “My pipe has a crack in it, and now my hot water is leaking into my laundry room. I’ve got to turn off my water, replace my old pipe, and get my new one installed before my customers notice there’s a problem.”

I asked if he needed a hand, and he told me the job wasn’t dirty enough. We laughed, and Corey asked if he could have a quick photo. I said sure, assuming he’d return the favor. He asked why I wanted a photo of him, and I said it was because I liked his choice of pronouns.

“I like the way you talk about your work,” I said. “It’s not, ‘the’ hot water, it’s ‘MY’ hot water. It’s not, ‘the’ laundry room, it’s ‘MY’ laundry room. It’s not ‘a’ new pipe, it’s ‘MY’ new pipe. Most people don’t talk like that about their work. Most people don’t own it.”

Corey shrugged and said, “This is not ‘a’ job; this is ‘MY’ job. I’m glad to have it, and I take pride in everything I do.”

He didn’t know it, but Corey’s words made my job a little easier that day. Because three hours later, when I was trying to work up the courage to leap out of a perfectly good airplane, I wasn’t thinking about pulling the ripcord on the parachute – I was thinking about pulling MY ripcord. On MY parachute.

I am reminded of a concept called autotelic personality.  The Greek roots are auto and telos.  Auto refers to self and telos refers to goal.  An autotelic person is internally driven.  They learn to find purpose in what they do and that effort brings meaning and growth.  Csikszentmihalyi makes the following observations about autotelic people:

An autotelic person needs few material possessions and little entertainment, comfort, power, or fame because so much of what he or she does is already rewarding.  Because such persons experience flow in work, in family life, when interacting with people, when eating, even when alone with nothing to do, they are less dependent on the external rewards that keep others motivated to go on with a life composed of dull and meaningless routines.  They are more autonomous and independent because they cannot be as easily manipulated with threats or rewards from the outside.  At the same time, they are more involved with everything around them because they are fully immersed in the current of life (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997: 117).

No one is completely autotelic.  There is a continuum.  At one end are people who seldom experience meaning in what they do, at the other end, are people who often experience meaning in what they do.  A positive organization attracts people to the latter end of the continuum.

With this idea in mind I think there are two points worth noting in Mike Rowe’s story.  First, Corey is fully immersed in his work.  It is not dull and meaningless but intrinsically motivating.  He seems to have an autotelic orientation.

Second, Mike is inspired by Corey and chooses to more fully identify with his own work.  This suggests that people can be influenced to become more autotelic.

The last point gives rise to two questions that are seldom considered.  First, how do we design organizations that increase the likelihood of autotelic experiences?  Second, how do we lead people in ways that increase the likelihood that they become more autotelic?  While skeptics may scoff at such questions, people like Gina spend their lives trying to answer these two questions.  As they do, they build positive organizations.


Who is the most autotelic person I know?

When have I been in an autotelic state?

How could we use this passage to become a more positive organization?

Taking Your Personal Passions to Work

Many of us have talents that we express at home. We then go to work and leave them behind. My son-in law wrote a passage in his gratitude journal. In it he told a story I think we should all consider.

“Yesterday I met my friend Daniel for lunch.  He and his wife just bought a house a few months ago and we swapped stories of being first-time homeowners.  Near the end of our conversation, I asked for any wisdom he had for making the transition into working at the Department of State in DC.  He mentioned that his mentor had encouraged him to bring his passion to his job.  He clarified that this did not mean finding passion for his job but rather taking things he was already passionate about and finding ways to inject that energy into his work.  He gave an example of how in a training for translators, he started each day with a poem–something he loves to do and which made the translators laugh and immediately brought energy to the training.”


What passions and talents do I leave at home?

How could I use one of them at work?

How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

Zingerman’s: Spreading the Vision

If someone aspires to create a positive organization they almost immediately confront a problem – their colleagues.  The people they work with cannot imagine a positive organization or how to create it. The image violates the assumptions they have acquired through conventional experience. Telling people about positive organizing seldom meets with success.   Changing people’s beliefs is often easier done by showing than telling.  A wise leader might create experiences that allow people to learn their way into a new mindset. Consider an example.

A CEO attended The Positive Business Conference at the Ross School of Business. He went home determined to create a positive culture. His direct reports wanted to be supportive but had great difficulty grasping the message. After much talking and little success, the CEO took another path. He flew some of his people to Ann Arbor, Michigan and spent two days visiting a company called Zingerman’s. Zingerman’s is a nationally recognized business considered by many to be the epitome of a positive organization.

The company was founded in 1982 by Ari Weinzweig and Paul Saginaw. They started with a deli and a passion for producing great food. They organized around a genuine commitment to the community, to customers, and to employees, and intensely pursued the commitment at all three levels. In a relatively short time, Zingerman’s became recognized as one of the best small businesses in the United States.

Based on their success, outsiders encouraged Weinzweig and Saginaw to franchise the deli. Instead, they invented in a new business model. Seeking to preserve their purpose, vision, and values, they began new but related businesses in the Ann Arbor area. Today, they have the deli, a bake house, a creamery, a training company, a mail-order business, and other kinds of restaurants.

In terms of leadership, they go to extraordinary lengths to make a difference. Their stories of employee, customer, and community engagement are legendary. The people at Zingerman’s love what they are doing.

After the visit to Zingerman’s, the CEO and his people were scheduled to visit me. I assumed that I would need to overcome resistance. I was wrong. I did not need to explain anything about positive organizing because the people were “on fire” with their own ideas.

Telling is less persuasive than seeing and doing. The CEO was unable to “talk” his executives into understanding and pursuing the creation of a positive organization.  Given their assumptions of reality, what he was calling for did not make sense. It was a foolhardy dream.  His people were locked into the constraints of the conventional mental map. Seeing an example of a positive organization allowed them to open up to new possibilities.


Where do conventional assumptions come from?

Where do assumptions of excellence come from?

How could we use this positive passage to get better?

Shattering Illusions

Today’s blog is taken from the message I shared in my monthly newsletter.

I read a compelling article in Wired Magazine.  It is the story of a middle-aged North Korean defector named Kang Chol-hwan.   As a child, Kang spent 10 years in a prison camp with his family.  When he was released from the prison camp he was given a radio receiver that he figured out how to re-wire, allowing him to listen to unofficial programming.  He began to relearn the entire history he had been taught about North Korea.  Eventually he was found out, and he barely managed to escape by bribing some border guards.

Soon Kang was touring the world and visiting with heads of state.  Thousands listened to his story.  When he returned to South Korea he found little support for his desire to change the North.  The president of South Korea had just won the Nobel Prize for his policy of compromise with the North.  Many people intellectually and emotionally supported Kang’s cause, but few were willing to take action.  Kang was a threat to the stability of the regime.

In 2005, when Kang realized that there was little hope that anyone would act against the North Korean government, he did what internally directed leaders do.  Kang took a unique path.  “Change, he decided, would have to come from within, through the same life-altering education he had received from his illegal radio. He flipped his strategy: Instead of working to tell the world about the horrors of North Korea, he would work to tell North Koreans about the world.”

Kang has spent the last ten years smuggling contraband into North Korea.  His organization gets 3,000 USB drives, filled with information about the world, into the North every year.  He believes that this injection of information will eventually lead to the overthrow of the Kim dynasty.  He sees the USB drives like “the red pill from The Matrix: a mind-altering treatment that has the power to shatter a world of illusions.”

There are many lessons in Kang’s story.

1.  Organizations can intimidate and constrain their people – like North Korea.  People can become disengaged and afraid.

2.  People can react conventionally, and accept the assumptions of their leaders.  Or they can respond like Kang and seek new information and new avenues for creating a positive solution.

3.  We can all be like South Korea and other countries that were unwilling to “rock the boat.”  Fear may keep us from making the kind of deep changes that are necessary in the long term.  We often choose peace and pay in our organization.

4.  Kang internalized 5 characteristics that I believe are critical to creating a positive organization:  communicating authentically, illuminating the highest purpose, focusing on the common good, seeing possibility, and trusting and embracing the chaos and risk that is inherent in the emergent process.

I’m sure there are many more lessons that can be found in Kang’s story that are applicable to your situation.  I hope that like Kang you will find ways to inject positive ideas into your organization (and life), and that you will use those ideas to start conversations and shatter old illusions.

Transcend the Conventional Logic of Business

We took our friends to visit art galleries in a coastal town.  We ended up in what I believe was the best of the many galleries. My wife was impressed with many of the displayed works. The curator, George, told her the stories behind the pictures.   In listening to the stories I could tell that George was an unusual man. I made it a point to hang around.  When he was alone I asked George, “Why is this the best gallery in town?”

He studied me for a moment then he opened up.  For the next twenty minutes he talked with passion. He told of his professional life mission.  He only displays the work of artists who labor for the love of art and who are not hungry for fame or fortune.  He said that when people enter his gallery they feel something special.  When he greets people he explains the art, but he does not do it to sell the art.  He does it to bring the power of the art into the lives of his customers.  He told many stories of people who were transformed by some experience in the gallery.

Then George made an extraordinary claim.  Since he opened his gallery many years ago, he has seen 15 other galleries open and then go out of business.  He says he flourishes because he never varies from his professional life purpose.

Experts in selling art give him advice.  They tell him that a gallery cannot sell fine art, glass art, and prints.   Successful galleries specialize in one of the three.  He said, “I violate that logic and yet I still prosper.”

George is a deeply fulfilled man who is spending his life doing what he loves.  In his gallery there is a positive culture. People feel it and are moved. Positive cultures transcend the conventional assumptions of business. In them people flourish and exceed expectations.