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Changing Culture, Growing Leaders

| October 22, 2019

by Jim Bruce

Today’s Tuesday Reading is an essay by Monika R. Dressler. Director of Academic Technologies, in the LSA Technology Services group at the University of Michigan’s College of Literature, Science, and the Arts. She is an alumnus of the MOR Leaders Program. Her essay first appeared as a program reflection earlier this year. [Monika may be reached at <[email protected]>.] 
My colleagues and I have been thinking a fair amount lately about how we develop a culture of enthusiasm and leadership among all members of our organization, a culture where everyone is excited and engaged, eager to find and implement innovation, and empowered to own and lead their part in the work we do – leading themselves, leading others, leading teams, confident in themselves as leaders regardless of official titles. We’ve brainstormed numerous times on how to create such an environment. There are suggestions for mentoring programs, professional development, job sharing, rewards for those who are successful examples for others, and more – all of which entails a leader or manager doing something to the staff members to lift them up and build them up and the staff responding. We need to change the culture away from one in which lower level staff wait for someone above them to set direction and tell them what to do. Changing a culture, as we’ve learned, is neither easy nor fast.

Last summer, my nearly-14-year-old nephew came to Ann Arbor for the University of Michigan’s Soccer Camp and we got to spend some quality aunt-time searching out Ann Arbor’s best food. Over dinner one night at Zingerman’s Roadhouse, we talked about the student council leadership camp he would be attending later this summer. My nephew argued that good leadership couldn’t really happen without a good team. He’s never read Jim Collin’s Good to Great1 where the first steps are to get the right people on the bus in the right seats, nor did my nephew know anything about our MOR Leadership Program discussions about needing to hire the right people and using the Performance/Potential chart to identify next steps in professional development, but he was right.

The problem is that in my unit most of the people we currently have on the bus are the right people and they are in the right seats. They really are great and have incredible potential. So many of them, however, have never been in an environment where they haven’t been put in a box and told specifically what to do. They don’t really know what to do with the freedom. We need to change their perspective and mindset. They need to really believe it, when unit leaders say we want them to lead from their positions regardless of rank; that we really want them to take initiative and run with new ideas; and that we really mean it when we say that they shouldn’t be afraid to risk. 

And then it happened. While my nephew and I were having this discussion, we saw Ari Weinzweig (founding partner of Zingerman’s Community of Businesses) at the Roadhouse and two revelations hit me.

First, seeing Ari reminded me that we shouldn’t hesitate to look beyond our ivory tower for creative solutions, and while Zingerman’s mission may be to sell food that makes people happy, give service that makes people smile, etc., there is relevance to our work in technology in higher education. The very issue we were struggling with, “everyone’s a leader” is central to Zingerman’s philosophy and fundamental to the work culture for every Zingerman’s employee at every level of the organization.

“I think that getting everyone who works here to buy into the belief that leadership belongs to them (and not some amorphous, often antagonistic ‘other’) is huge. … Successfully getting our staff to ‘buy’ the idea of leadership means getting them to believe that each of us owns responsibility for the effectiveness with which we all lead. … The commitment to being effective leaders has to be a part of what we expect from every single person in the organization, regardless of seniority, job title, or anything else.”2 

Yes, Zingerman’s gets the right people on the bus by hiring people who understand they will be expected to participate in a unique and inspired organization. But they also recognize it isn’t magic (or as Ari jokes, it isn’t in the “Magic Brownies” they make at the Bakehouse), an organization can develop a new culture. Ari and his partners have created a 5-step recipe to build and/or change a culture: Teach itDefine itLive itMeasure it, and Reward it.

The lesson for me and for my colleagues is we aren’t on our own trying to brainstorm individual solutions; rather we have a clear recipe that we can follow and combine with our own good ideas to start creating the new inspired and participatory culture we desire. If we commit to the steps, we have a pathway by which to create the new organizational culture and inspire employees to join in.

[Note: Ari is sympathetic that creating a new culture is challenging and changing a culture is even more challenging. “There’s no quick fix that begets cultural change in a matter of days, weeks or even months; it’s infinitely easier to rewrite a system than it is to change the culture of an organization.”3]  

Second revelation from seeing Ari: While eating amazingly delicious food and discussing leadership with my nephew, I got to personally witness something I had only ever read about and which illustrates about how leadership is actually “Lived” at Zingerman’s. When we saw Ari Weinzweig — founding partner of Zingerman’s Community of Businesses (Deli, Creamery, Bakehouse, ZingTrain, Coffee Roasters, Candy Makers, Roadhouse, and other successful businesses) and 2006 recipient of James Beard Foundation Award for Who’s Who of Food and Beverage in America, he wasn’t eating dinner or holding court or having people scurry to meet his needs. He was there filling water glasses and delivering food to tables. My nephew was shocked. “He’s the owner and is probably super-rich; but he’s doing the lowest job at the restaurant. He doesn’t have to do that. Why would he choose to take on those jobs?”

There’s a great article in which Ari describes the benefits of “Managing by Pouring Water”.4 It’s a quick read and the management lessons are great with nice examples of good business practices, but there is also something profound about Leadership — and more specifically, Servant Leadership, when Ari fills water glasses.

Under normal circumstances, filling water glasses would be on the low end of the “Doing-Managing-Leading” continuum. We’ve all seen businesses where the staff is stretched so thin, that the managers can’t manage because they spend all their own time “doing.” [It’s something I’ve been working on with one of my managers all year to address.] But in filling water glasses, Ari isn’t actually “doing” the filling water glasses, he’s leading. He’s reinforcing the Zingerman’s culture: Leading with Water Glasses.

He’s giving people his own personal time outside of his regular job and relating to the employees and customers from within their own experience on their turf. He’s teaching staff that he does actually mean that everyone is part of the team, that everyone lives their values and mission, and everyone means everyone. He isn’t just spouting platitudes or inspirational internet memes. He’s demonstrating commitment to his beliefs physically, by showing up, by grabbing the water pitcher and plates of food.  Through the humble act of filling water glasses, he demonstrates how much he values serving – serving his customers, serving his staff, helping those around him, making the experience for staff and customers the best around.  

He is living the culture in which everyone gives and receives feedback and reinforcing that he does actually want to hear that feedback. He’s getting the in-the-moment candid feedback of facial expressions as people eat and drink and talk and engage with the staff, as well as from patrons directly when he fills a water glass and asks them how they are enjoying their evening. He is also demonstrating that he is genuinely curious about what the staff are actually thinking but which they might not be communicating on staff pulse surveys. He’s encouraging staff to make suggestions for improvements and is building their respect for and trust in his encouragement to participate in the business beyond their current positions. Through his willingness to experience the work on their level, he’s communicating care and deep connection to their work and to the business, and he is strengthening the relationships the staff have with him and with the business. 
So now, when he says, Zingerman’s has a culture in which everyone leads and they as Founding Owners, Managers, and Supervisors will teach it, define it, live it, measure it, and reward it, no one doubts it. Every staff member believes that they actually mean it. “If leaders at Zingerman’s need to be ready to step onto the dish line to help when the dishwasher’s feeling a bit overwhelmed, then my anarchist orientation clearly dictates that, conversely, dishwashers also ought to be prepared to step up and help lead if and when a manager starts to slide off course. We are, after all, all in this together: knowing what position we’ve each agreed to play is important, but at the end of the day, it’s all one team. Regardless of title, we all need to lead.”2 

So, because of dinner and conversation with my nearly-14-year-old nephew, these two revelations helped set the path for what my colleagues and I need to do to build the culture in which everyone leads. First, I need to find my own equivalent of Water Glasses. I need to find something that might seem simple or mundane but explicitly demonstrates my commitment to the culture in which everyone leads, and everyone’s position is respected and that the staff recognizes as genuine. And second, my colleagues and I need to make the 5-steps of the recipe our own: Teach itDefine itLive itMeasure it, and Reward it.

If we are lucky, someone else’s nephew or niece will come to Academic Technologies within LSA Technology Services in a couple of years and be just as inspired by staff commitment and daily living of the principle that everyone leads.


Monika has said this well. If the culture of your organization needs a makeover, it needs to start with you! Find your equivalent to Ari’s filling the water glasses, and begin to do it. Create the example you want to see in others and help it spread by acknowledging what you see that is good and nudging what isn’t quite right towards a better approach. And, don’t be impatient. Change is almost always slow, examples have to continue to be put forth. But, when it does come, the result can be astounding.
Now is the time to get started. Find a place to take that small first step.

And, make it a great week for you and your team.  .  .  .  .  jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates.  He previously was Professor of Electrical Engineering, and Vice President for Information Systems and CIO at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.

  1. Jim Collins, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t, Harper Collins, New York, 2001.
  2. Ari Weinzweig, Zingerman’s Guide to Good Leading, Part 2: A Lapsed Anarchist’s Approach to Being a Better Leader, Zingerman’s Press: Ann Arbor, Michigan, 2012, pp.95-96.
  3. Ari Weinzweig, Five Elements of Building an Organizational Culture, Blogpost (undated).
  4. Ari Weinzweig, Managing by Pour Water, Blogpost (undated)