As leaders, understanding how your employees’ function is critical to overall success. Today, Jesse Cole interviews one of the world’s biggest business thinkers and author of Pick A Fight, David Burkus. Interestingly, David believes that for businesses to cast bold inspiring visions, leaders must rally their team to fight. David expands on that as he talks about purpose as the driving factor of a business along with its misconceptions. He then shares the importance of stepping into a client’s shoes and how stories and artifacts remind employees about a fight they must tackle. With adversity as a vital element, David believes that this can make every fight work for the best.
Listen to the podcast here:
Pick A Fight: Rallying Your Team To Victory With David Burkus
Our guest makes books, gives talks and takes care of us, at least according to his son, that’s what he does. His talks include a TED Talk with over two million views and he has three bestselling books. He’s on a mission to make work not suck. His newest book, Pick a Fight, does that. Fired up to pick a fight, is my friend, David Burkus. David, I’m pumped to jam with you.
Thank you so much for having me. In some ways, this whole thing is your fault. I’m excited to be here and talk to you about this.
Let’s start there because you had this idea before. This idea of picking a fight, I know it was a slaying a dragon before, but let’s go back to where this idea came from because it’s a unique concept for businesses.
I’m an organizational psychologist by training. I studied teams. To use the line from Adam Grant, I study how to make work not suck. I’m on a mission to make it suck a little bit less if I can. After I finished my last book, Friend of a Friend, I was looking at the power of teams, what unites teams, what bonds teams, all of that stuff. It’s a logical extension to a book about networks and relationships. It’s also more of my background. I probably never should have written a book on networking. It just came out of me. My prior books were all about management, teams and innovation. I was doing all of this research and you were one of the first people to get a preview of the idea, which at the time was this idea that one thing organizations don’t take advantage of enough is that outside adversity or outside threats or some something bigger than the business model is what’s motivated people for millennia but we’re bad at communicating that outside threat.
We had this idea called slay your dragon or find your dragon. I don’t even remember. It was honestly too complicated of a metaphor. We had this whole idea. You and I go to the same conference every year. I came to it and previewed it with a couple of different people to see how it resonated. I use that feedback, wrote a proposal, sent it to my publisher and one interesting thing happened. They said no. About three days later, another interesting thing happened, which is I got an email from Jesse Cole that said, “I talked to my whole team about your idea. We’re super pumped.” I was like, “The guy running the big purpose-driven business that’s changing the world, that guy knows a bit more than this guy sitting in a cubicle. I’m going to chase down this path a little bit.” I started writing it. In the process of writing it, I figured out that the metaphor was too complicated because what it needed to be was concise. I’m asking people for a clear and concise answer to a question. I need the question to be specific too.
That is that teams are most bonded, most motivated and most driven. You have an easier time attracting talent, all of that stuff when you can give a clear and concise answer to the question, “What are we fighting for?” A caveat here, the answer is never a competitor. It’s never, “What are you fighting against?” It’s always, “What are you fighting for? What’s that bigger thing that is driving your business?” It doesn’t have to be your business model, but it does have to be a fight specifically seen that way. That’s what creates a huge bond and not only on your team together and can tear down some of those silos and things that develop in large organizations but will also propel them forward.
It’s a different way of looking because of its purpose. Everyone says you’ve got to have a purpose, but it’s being in the way to clear and communicate. What is your purpose in a fight?
I deliberately didn’t want to use the term purpose because it’s overused. To be honest with you, I’d probably be easier to tell people what the book’s about if I use this and we used purpose in the subtitle. The problem with the purpose is twofold. Number one, there’s a misconception that purpose equals a mission statement. Organizations are awful at mission statements. We start trying to craft this thing. We usually come up with a draft. We submit it to a committee or cross-section employees or the board of directors or whatever. Everybody turns into English professors or parliamentarians and starts debating the intricacies of everything. We end up with a super boring thing. We end up with this thing that has to include customers but also shareholders, but also employees and it gets mushy. That’s problem number one to me with purpose and mission statement.
The second thing is often we think that purpose has to be your business model. It has to be specifically what you do or what you sell or how you do it, etc. That’s not always the case. There are times where you are inheriting the leadership of an old organization and you’re not going to be able to change that stuff. There are great case studies of people doing that, but there are other times, one of my favorite companies or favorite leaders of a company ever, is Paul O’Neill who led Alcoa around this real purpose-driven thing. Alcoa makes aluminum. You’re never going to change the manufacturing industry in a short period of time, but he made their fight about safety.You have to be running a business to change the purpose. Click To Tweet
I see it as something distinct and different from the purpose that leverages those same motivators. Oftentimes unless you’ve got the blessing of a board of directors or unless you can make some massive overhauls in a short period of time, mission and purpose or this other thing that you can set aside and think about this answer to the question, what are we fighting for? The other reason I love fights is that you can do them as an individual manager. You don’t have to be running the business. You have to be running a business to change the purpose. You can build that around it. It’s much more applicable to more leaders. It’s distinct from purpose because it doesn’t touch on the business model. You guys are a great example. If you do all of that together, it works more effectively, but you don’t necessarily have to, to get the benefits of motivation and teamwork and that thing.
The purpose is big and daunting. When we first met at MMT, we were gung-ho for years on changing the game of baseball because baseball was too long, too slow and the whole industry felt there was a challenge. As we’ve worked through that, the reason why we wanted to change the game of baseball was because of the fans, because of the people that go through the bad experience because we’re a fan too. We were talking about this all the time, “This is what we’re doing.” I even realized it wasn’t as inspirational to the group. Not everyone wanted to change the game of baseball, but they can see themselves as a fan. They can see themselves coming to the game and what we can do. Our fight has changed, but it’s been this driver of why are we doing what we’re doing and making it simple. That’s what I’m intrigued in jamming with you about is simplifying this concept. I don’t know if you want to go into the three fights, but I want to go into how to simplify this to communicate it with someone that showed up at your office and they’ve been working for a few months. How does it matter?
You hit on the third problem of purpose, which is we think it has to be all-encompassing. When you end up with a blank template, you end up with a worse quality product because it can go anywhere, and so it does and it becomes this thing that nobody believes. Specifically, when I say fight, there are three templates of fights. There are probably more. This is not an exclusive list, but I can tell you from the research that I’m aware of that has been properly vetted and replicated. There are three templates or three different types of fights that each motivates in little bit different ways. Rather than say, “You need to find your purpose,” they say, “You need to pick one.” That’s why the book’s called Pick a Fight. You’ve got to pick a fight, but you have to choose one as well from these three templates.
We have the revolutionary fight, the underdog fight and the ally fight. When we started working together, we thought maybe the revolutionary because you’re trying to change the game of baseball. That’s an essence, the revolution. The revolutionary fight. You have it when you say when you can say, “The entire industry says this is acceptable and we refuse to accept that.” That can be that the industry is okay with the game taking forever because it allows more advertising or whatever economic reason. They don’t want to change how boring it is to watch the game.
We sent our whole team to Disney. That’s probably revolutionary because it was changing the way our theme parks were done.
At the time, you had every amusement park in the US was about the rides. The entire US says, as long as you get bigger, better, faster rides, you’ll be fine. We refused to accept that. We think it’s about that totality experience. Disney is an interesting model though because the parks are not separate from anything else. Maybe they’re separate from ESPN, which they also own. Other than that, everything is this ecosystem. You’re exactly right.
They’re changing the way things are done. For someone reading, are you dramatically challenging the status quo of the way things are in the industry? That’s revolutionary. With Southwest Airlines, when they started and changed, are they a revolutionary?
Southwest Airlines is an interesting case study because it wasn’t even changing the industry. I think they were more of an underdog. When you look at what the legacy carriers were doing, their idea was, “You can have a perfectly fine business doing short direct flights in-between places where these legacy carriers are trying to take you around the world. We see an opportunity that’s smaller.” What motivated them, not only was the fun-loving idea and all of that culture thing, but also this idea that they were taking on the big carriers, but they’re flying to the same cities.
This little guy tried to change the way and they became more of an underdog. That’s good. Revolution is that we can see and say, “That’s a revolution.”
One of my favorite ones, and it’s the one I talk about in the book, is the company Ellevest. It’s a robo-advisor. It’s Wealthfront and Betterment and all of that, except Ellevest, was started by Sallie Krawcheck after twenty years working in Wall Street and deciding that the problem isn’t that women don’t fit in on Wall Street. The problem is Wall Street doesn’t fit women. She’ll tell you the stats, 90% of women manage their money on their own at some point in their life. Women control something like $8 trillion at this point in investible assets. There’s a lot of money there, but Wealthfront, Betterment, all of these other robo-advisors assume you’re a male.
When you’re doing the algorithm that assumes your risk tolerance or how many earning years you have, how long you’re going to live. She said, “The entire industry thinks that’s acceptable. We use the male template and women will be okay. No, we need something that’s tailored towards females. We need something that assumes they might have career gaps for caretaking. We need something that assumes they’re going to make less money on the dollar. We need somebody to assumes a longer life expectancy,” and so they created Ellevest. The entire industry believes it’s acceptable to have a unisex one-size-fits-all model, “We refuse to accept that.”
Our friends at Pela Case are my other favorite example of the revolution. They make cell phone cases, big deal, so do a million other people. Alibaba has a hundred different factories that can make you a cell phone case. Their big differentiator is they say, “All of those are made with petrochemicals. All of those are made with plastics that will sit in a landfill for 10,000 years. We found a way to make a moldable plastic out of corn husk and soy husk, and other organic materials that will biodegrade in ten years.” How do you know they’re a revolution? To me, it’s when they started thinking about their business model. They started with a cell phone case because that’s something that is everybody gets a new cell phone every year or two years. There’s this clear wasting there and it was easy to inject and mold. They didn’t go great. “What other accessories and mobile phones or technology or whatever should we make?”
They said, “What’s the next thing made out of plastic that we can replace that gets reused or lost or whatever all the time?” They went to sunglasses. You and I both have a pair. They’re good sunglasses. Next, they’re looking at flip flops. They’re starting with what are the most consumed things that are made out of stuff that does not biodegrade. Let’s make a waste-free version of that, whatever industry we’re in. Logically, business model, competitive strategy, Michael Porter, all of the stuff that I used to teach in business school would say, “Go to your adjacent markets. Expand inside the mobile phone industry, etc.” They said, “We’re not doing that.” Everybody that uses plastics needs to know that you don’t have to use stuff that isn’t waste-free anymore. That’s our revolution. That’s what we’re trying to change.
Revolutionary challenges the norms of the industry.
When someone says, “This is acceptable,” and you say, “We refuse to accept that,” you’ve got the seeds of a revolution. When I’m working with an organization, for example, that’s the big thing that I’m asking. “What are the things that you guys would never do? What are industries you’d never go into? What are the sales methods you would never do? Why?” If you can sense that the industry is over here and we disagree with why they’re doing that, then you’ve got the seeds of a revolutionary fight in you.
I feel when we look at our business, we see elements of each. For instance, we refuse to accept that you have to have advertising and sponsorship and ads all over our stadium. We eliminated all the ads. We refused to accept that because that’s not what’s best for fans. That’s a revolutionary technique.
It goes back to that it’s not what’s best for fans. Unless knowing the local State Farm agent is what’s best for fans, but I doubt it is. It goes back to that level. I’ll tell you, this is one of the biggest challenges. You were the first to experience this. A majority of leaders like to think they’re a revolution, but it’s not about you. It’s about your people. When we started working, we thought we had a revolution. You took it to your people and you found out, “That doesn’t resonate with them as much as it would,” and that’s what matters. You could still do it by force of charisma when you’re a smaller organization. As soon as you get to the point where the senior leader of the organization, not everyone is a direct report to them, then that’s when you have to worry about company culture. That’s when you have to say, “It’s not about what I want the fight to be anymore. I have 50 people that I employ. It’s about what would resonate with the most of them because that’s going to be more effective than what I want.” That’s what we found with you. It’s a revolution. A lot of people are like that. My dentist, who I talked to about this example, thinks he’s a revolution. Not sure that’s what resonates most with your employees. I know it’s what you want to think you are, but it’s about what resonates most with your team.
Let’s keep going through these and let’s dive in. We got revolutionary and now the underdog.
You’ve got the seeds of an underdog whenever you can say that the industry is discrediting us or doesn’t believe in us. That’s not that we’re too small. It can be that we do things a little bit differently so they think that we’re not going to last. It can be that we’re an untested business model, etc. The idea is that the motivational fire is to prove the critics wrong, to prove the naysayers wrong, etc. I’m personally a big fan of the underdog fight. I was born in Philadelphia. Our greatest sports hero is a fictional character who lost a boxing match. We have statues of that person instead of real sports heroes, so you know we have the underdogs. Rocky is a great example. Remember, halfway through the original movie, he says, “I don’t want to win. I want to go the distance because then I’ll know I’m not a bum.” Everybody’s calling him a bum. Everybody’s saying he doesn’t deserve to be there. It’s about proving that we deserve to be there.
You’re an underdog fight. That’s your fight.As a leader, it's now incumbent upon you to make sure that every person in the organization sees the fight. Click To Tweet
That tends to be what motivates me. I live in a place where you’re not supposed to live when you are a business author, a speaker, etc. You’re supposed to live in New York or LA or San Francisco or you’re supposed to teach at an Ivy League business school. I don’t do any of that. I’m happy in my low cost of living, middle of America, big enough to have everything I want, but not so big that it’s taking my entire salary to keep a one-bedroom apartment here. That comes with some trade-offs. It’s harder to network into that industry, etc. I get pretty motivated by the underdog fight. There are other friends of ours that do this as well. I’ve never told him this, so I hope he’s not reading, but our mutual friend Jordan Harbinger in The Jordan Harbinger Show, he’s a huge underdog. He’s hugely motivated. “Look at what all these other shows that have the same number of listeners than me are doing. They have twenty staff members and their expenses are so high and then we’re this show and it’s three of us, but we’re killing it.
They love the idea that the industry thinks, “We’re not all that legitimate because we don’t have a staff of 40 people, but we’re doing the same number of downloads as them.” That’s when you’ve got the seedbeds of it. There are times where that underdog fight finds you. One of the examples I love to give is that everybody knows the story of how Blockbuster had the opportunity to purchase Netflix. What nobody knows about that story is that Netflix was going out of business when it happened. It’s not here’s a successful business model and we should buy it. It’s not like, it’s not Instagram where Facebook bought Instagram for $1 billion before it turned into a $20 billion organization. It was you all are running out of business because you’re wrong because brick and mortar is the future, which is what Blockbuster believed. Netflix came to Blockbuster and said, “We think you should talk about acquiring us.”
They were like, “Look at your numbers. Even your idea doesn’t work.” The very long flight home after getting rejected, and that’s when you’d take on this idea, “Maybe that’s what we need to motivate our people.” What Reed Hastings and the rest of the senior leaders got from that rejection was an underdog story that fueled them to stay in business and keep working harder. They do it multiple times because then they pivoted to streaming and now instead of going after Blockbuster, they’re going after cable companies. Now they’re making movies, so now they’re going after the establishment of Hollywood. Every time they pivot their business model, they’re still doing it in this underdog thing where they are criticizing us.
They’re thinking, “We don’t deserve to be here and we’re going to prove them wrong by winning Academy Awards,” or “We’re going to prove him wrong by having more subscribers than Cox or Comcast,” or whatever. It started with that Blockbuster rejection, which was a perfectly logical rejection if you’re Blockbuster. What they got out of it was, “The industry doesn’t appreciate us and we’re going to prove them wrong.”
He was interviewed and he said, “We’re still a huge underdog. If you look at the people, we’re only this tiny little percentage.” He’s built that trust, so that’s a great example of an underdog. I want to move to ally.
The ally fight is, it’s not about our fight at all. It’s about our people’s fight, our customer’s fight, our employees’ fight. It’s about some other fight that we help. That’s what we found resonated with you the most with your people is the idea that we’re fighting for the fans. It’s about the fans. It’s about the fact that I’m a dad of two. It’s incredibly obnoxious to have family entertainment. Just to go to the movies, it’s $50. You go out to an amusement park, you go to whatever, this is awful. There’s that idea again, baseball is a pastime. We want our kids to love it, but then we’ve got these large multibillion-dollar organizations trying to bleed each dad for $8 for a refill of soda. It’s ridiculous. That’s an idea. What they’re fighting for is this. They’re fighting for something that brings their family together. They are fighting for certain things and then we help them by bringing them that experience, it says, “No, it’s about you. It’s about etc.”
Other examples that I love of the ally fight are in the book I talk about Kaiser Permanente, which is their health system, and it’s easy to say, “You’re in an ally fight because of your health system.” The challenge with a lot of organizations if you do the ally fight is that as a leader, it’s now incumbent upon you to make sure that every person in the organization sees the fight. We usually don’t do that. In Kaiser Permanente’s case, doctors and nurses know that they’re helping patients who are fighting with diseases, fighting cancer, fighting obesity, fighting whatever. Receptionists don’t know that. Call center workers don’t know that. Medical assistants, the people that take you from the waiting room and tell you to take off your clothes and sit on that cold table, they don’t know that. They don’t see that. What Kaiser Permanente did is they started this program called I Saved A Life, which is whenever you notice something in a patient file that flags your attention. Usually, it’s when you notice that they haven’t had a preventative screening, “You’re over 40 and you haven’t had a colonoscopy yet,” or over 45 or whatever the number is or your female patient, “I haven’t had a mammogram in ten years,” and you recommend that.
Whenever you notice that, you flag it and you get them scheduled for that and then they find something. They find cancer or they find that your blood sugars are high because you haven’t had A1C in six years. That’s considered a life saved. The person who is awarded is the person that noticed. Even if you work in a call center and a patient calls because they need to talk to an ear, nose and throat doctor and you say, “I noticed you haven’t had an A1C exam in five years and your last one was a little high. Maybe we should get that scheduled too. Would you like me to schedule that?” That’s considered a life saved. It’s celebrated as much as if you’re the doctor that did the surgery that took out cancer or whatever.
Kaiser said, “It’s incumbent upon us to make sure that everybody sees the fight that we’re in or the fight that our customers are in.” You can also be that idea that we’re fighting internally. “I thought I had a candidate with me because I was fixing something or WD-40 is one of my favorite companies in the universe.” Garry Ridge has made a great example of the fact that like, “We sell oil. We sell lubricant. It’s not all that exciting. What are we fighting for? We’re fighting for each other. We’re fighting to create this culture where people can thrive and be supportive. We’re fighting to resist the urge to be that normal upper out kill or be killed corporate structure.” If you ask Garry Ridge, “What are you fighting for?” He’ll tell you, “I’m fighting for my tribe.” They use the term, tribe. I love that idea. It doesn’t necessarily have to be that our customer is the person that we’re fighting for, but in some capacity, it’s not about what we do. It’s some other stakeholder that is important, that is fighting for something and by existing and doing our business, we are helping them win that fight.
For the tangible, the practice, it’s a big question for a lot of businesses because they are like, “What are you fighting for?” It’s so inspirational but how do you get it in? For us, we’ve started talking even more about it. What do we stand for? We stand for the fans. What does that mean? Whenever any of our customers, any fan walks in, we stand like the president’s walking in. When they walk in our office, they walk in, we stand. It’s a little uncomfortable. I go, “It will be at first.” It’s a cool symbolism. What do we see? Who are we here? Who’s writing our checks? What are we doing? That’s why we go to undercover fans. We try to put ourselves in their shoes. We have shoes now that our fan shoes will say, “Put these on and put yourself in a fan’s shoes.” We’re fighting for that. We’re fighting for the fans that have been nickel and dime, that boring experiences that aren’t able to get together with their families and friends and bring them together. I’m still working on clearly clarifying it but the value to businesses is how do you clearly see it? If everyone’s reading doesn’t realize, “We need to know what our fight is,” you’re missing the boat. What does that next step? How do you go about doing it?
First you have to find it right. We talked about a couple of questions around the revolutionary fight. We didn’t do that. I was like, “Give me the quick and dirty for finding it.” Because remember, it’s not about what you think you’re in, it’s about your people. The quick and dirty is to ask two questions of as many of your people as you can. The two questions are, “What do we do here? How does what you do help us do that?” If the answer is, “We sell lubricant,” you don’t have a fit for the WD-40 tribe, which is good. It may not be their fault. It might be your fault for not communicating that properly. “What do we do here?” “We’re a Minor League baseball team.”
We didn’t do a good job reminding you of what we are. If you don’t have a lot of clarity around what it is, you’ll hear that people give a lot of different answers and that’s okay. In that diversity of the answers, you’ll probably be able to sort them into people talking about the industry and how we’re different from them. That’s a hint that it’s might be a revolution. People are talking about how we’re growing or how we’re taking on. That might be a hint of the underdog. If they talk about customers, which is what a lot of your people do, that’s a hint that it’s the ally. That’s how you find it. Once you do, the next step is embedding it in culture. There’s a bunch of different models that I’m going to portray all of them in terms of organizational behavior, literature and studies that people don’t read.
For the average person, when you’re thinking about culture, you’re thinking about stories and artifacts. Artifacts are great examples like the shoes, or in the case of WD-40, you walk in their headquarters, there’s a big teepee, which is culturally insensitive, but you get the idea. What artifacts are you pointing to that is capturing that example? It could be rituals or a form of artifacts. There are stories. What stories are you telling? If you are the ally fight, like you all are, then you need to think about what stories from the fans we need to capture. The story of the father. It was a father who lost his wife and the kids. I’ve heard you tell that story four or five times. I get chills each time.
Telling those stories again and again. If it’s the revolutionary fight, then you need to tell stories about how the industry is wrong. You need to tell stories that make your people angry. If it’s the underdog fight, you need to be careful about what stories they’re hearing. I had somebody send me this after they read Pick A Fight. I wish you would’ve found it in the research, but the University of Alabama. I’m an OU fan, so I’m not a big fan of me even talking about this team. Alabama football, Nick Saban was hugely careful to make sure that his players never caught the hype. Most of the stories from papers and things that he would share with his players and still probably still do, were about people in ESPN saying, “Alabama is overrated this year. They’re not going to go as far this year.”
He was like, “No, I don’t want you to hear the stories complimenting you.” This is the University of Alabama. You shouldn’t be the underdog, but the stories that you tell are powerful. The way to level up those stories too is to find a way to make it not you telling them. There is a little bit of research around whether or not people better perceive those stories from a senior leader versus from a peer or from the actual person or what have you. To the extent that you can make sure you’re not telling the story, you’re bringing the story to life and you’re letting them hear it or letting it get circulated around the organization. Those are more powerful, but stories and artifacts, that’s the two big things. Once you’ve found the fight, you have to say, “What stories are going to help us tell that we’re in that fight? What artifacts are people going to see or interact with on a regular basis that will remind them of that fight?”
We went through this and you were shocked. I videoed everyone on our team. I would say, “Katie, jump over here. We’re filming you. I’ve got to ask a question. What do we do here? What service do we provide?” I interviewed everyone. We only had twelve people on our team. It took me about 30 minutes. What was the most telling for me was their complete clarity. Did everyone say the exact same thing? No, but they did not say anything about baseball. They didn’t say anything about the sport. They said, “We entertain our fans. We deliver fun. We do fans first.”
It was a fantastic experience. That was the term you guys were throwing around a lot.
Katie said, “We provide a fantastic experience,” which again, using the fan word. Fans came up to everyone, so you’re right. We found it. Now since that talk, the artifacts, the other thing I thought about is we’re replacing box seats. I want to take one of those blocks, put it on wheels and have it in every meeting and to represent that in every meeting. Howard Schultz did it in Starbucks, but that’s an artifact from our statement that fans added every year, every game. That’s going to every meeting plus these shoes. That’s the next step with the stories. I see how it’s becoming inspirational. The key is how you find out what. Like you’ve said before, what are the sacred values apart? It was that same thing how you find those sacred values, like what people are saying?Adversity is the revolution, the fight for the underdog. Click To Tweet
It’s a matter of what will resonate with them. When we’re asking what we do here and how does what you do help us do that? What you’re looking for hints are what resonate the most. You can still declare what those sacred values are. For you, it’s writing this manifesto, which I probably shouldn’t have said on air because now people are going to be like, “Jesse sent me an email,” and I ruined that because it’s not done yet. You get to pick what they are. They’re the reason sacred values have to do with the reason that I use the language of a fight. I get the caveat, it’s not that we’re fighting our competitors. It’s funny to watch for as much as Apple and Microsoft when they’re selling, trying to differentiate themselves in the consumer’s mind. I’ve spoken at Microsoft and half the audience was typing on Apple computers.
I’ve been to Apple and I’ve talked to people at Apple. They don’t care. It’s a great marketing gimmick, Coke versus Pepsi, but not a lot of people at Coke care. There’s that idea that it’s never your competitors, but the reason fights bond is because they reinforce those sacred values. If we can say in the case of Alcoa that we’re trying to be the safest manufacturing plan, we’re trying to be zero accident company, then that reinforces the sacred value. That creates a sacred value on a safety reinforces that idea that we’re all in this together, that community feel, which is the first thing that fights do is that sacred values piece.
They also provide a group identity. If it is us versus this bigger thing, we then immediately have a group. This is where we were with slay your dragon when I was still kicking the idea around. If you can point to that outside adversity and you can say, “If we don’t take this on, there are stakes to losing this battle.” We don’t take this on. Something bad is going to happen either us to our fans, to whatever it is. That’s the sacred values and group identity piece. You get to pick in terms of the word what that sacred value is, but your hint, the reason you’re asking this question from a lot of people. There are larger exercises that we can do if you’ve got a bigger team, but if you’re a small business, that’s the quick and dirty way to do it.
“What do we do here? How does what you do help that,” and then you’re looking in those answers. In your case, that word fan came up so many times. It normally doesn’t come up that often. It came up so many times, we were like, “Let’s not even develop new sacred value. Let’s use that one because that’s the one everybody’s already using. Let’s talk about fan and how many ways can we say that it’s about the fans?” I love, by the way, the standing for the fans thing because it’s so corny, it would work. Picture coming in with my tickets and everyone stands up. I’m like, “Why are you doing that?” “We stand for our fans. We’re corny.” I will never forget it.
I thought of it in the sense when the president walks in a room, you stand because of the utmost respect. When we were in Cabo, what did all the people do on grounds when we walked by? They stopped, stood and saluted us, “Buenas Noches.” It’s out of respect. You mentioned this find your adversity too. That’s interesting because it’s a challenge to find the adversity. How does that go into finding the fight?
It’s about stakes. This is why I like the term, to fight, more than the term, purpose. Facebook believes its purpose is to connect to the world. If you’ve been watching Facebook and people’s reactions to Facebook, you can very clearly still have that purpose and have people be like, “I’m not comfortable with how you want to connect the world.” The beauty of a fight is that it outlines the stakes. If we don’t accomplish this purpose, this is the future that we’re going to be looking at. The fight hinted that an adversity idea in Alcoa.
Adversity is whether the revolution, the fight for the underdog.
It adds that element of stakes that a lot of companies don’t have. This is a great example. Give me a second to nerd out on this, if that’s all right. One of my favorite companies in the world for a couple of different reasons is the company, Hershey. Not only because I grew up outside of Philadelphia and we would go to Hershey Park and all that stuff. They’re a great example in this case. I didn’t write about it mostly because I didn’t want to bad mouth them, but I have one share of Hershey stock hanging. Hershey has the worst mission statement I’ve ever heard. Their mission statement, “Undisputed marketplace leadership.” That’s it. There are no stakes there. However, they have a larger fight. They leverage the ally fight. Not a lot of people know this. Milton Hershey and his wife, when they were married, building out the Hershey empire and they couldn’t have children of their own, so they started to adopt. His wife had I forget the exact disease, but it left her barren, but it also claimed her life early. She died a lot earlier than Milton Hershey did.
When that happened, Milton, in the most amazing active grief, decided, in her honor, “I’m going to set up a school for orphans.” Rather we adopted these orphans, but I’m going to set up more. He set up the Milton Hershey school. It still exists to this day. Graduates about 1,000 to 1,100 kids, K through 12. If you’re, a societal or biological orphan, you can get invited to get in. I’ve been to this campus. It is like the Ivy League-level school. Whatever the fanciest private school in Savannah is, it’s that. Except it’s totally free to these kids, including living in a house with house parents, the house is capped at a certain number. You still feel you have a family. All of that happens. Why does this still exist even though it’s been decades since Milton Hershey died? It’s because when Milton died, he set up a trust for the school and gifted his shares of the company to the trust. This isn’t corporate social responsibility. It’s not they take 3% of their profit and they give it to the school.
The school owns Hershey Foods, the school owns Hershey Park. They are still the majority shareholder in the whole thing. They can get away with a crappy mission statement because everyone who works in Hershey, Pennsylvania sees the school across the road from their offices and knows what they’re fighting for. They’re fighting for those kids by doing their business. I love that. They don’t use the term fight, but they know stakes. They know that “If we don’t manage this right, that thing over there is going to suffer.” There’s a weight there that undisputed marketplace leadership doesn’t do. No, the adversity is not different from the fight, but it is why the fight works. There is a feeling that if we don’t do this, the future is not as bright is. Sometimes even non-existent for certain people. That’s what we’re fighting for.
You need to first know what it is. No one wants to work for a company. They want to start a crusade.
It’s not about the firm, it’s about the fight. They don’t care about competitors. They care about this larger crusade, this larger revolution, this reformation or whatever term you want to use. I have gotten some negative emails about the term fight. Ironically, it had been from people that were defense contractors, which is funny.
It’s okay because that’s what it is. You’re fighting something and if it’s worth fighting for is the terminology they use. First, know what you’re fighting for. Next, do you have the artifacts? Do you have the stories? You can start telling them and then people can feel it. You got to feel it. You’re right. Not about the family that died and the mother that died, but also a guy with a mustache coming up to me after day and season ticket holder giving me a huge hug and saying thank you. He said, “My mother and I haven’t bonded for many years, but she came up to watch the players dance, had the time of her life and now we sit together every game.” That story is now being told not just by me, it’s told by other people on our staff. We’re doing this to bring people together in a fun way. It’s so important. I want to go into the ally fight that you mentioned about Adam Grant, the study with the three groups of recipients. What is the important piece to find out how you get this?
The reason I narrowed it down to these three fights is that each of them used beyond adversity. It used a little bit different and motivational lever. There is research that suggests that underdogs win more often than they should because of motivation to prove people wrong. For example, the ally fighting contrast leverages what’s now known as pro-social motivation. This is different than extrinsic motivation or intrinsic motivation. There is a real human desire to help others that is a form of motivation that they’re researching. Adam Grant talks about this a bit in Give and Take, but it’s interesting because most people take away from that book is, “I should be a nicer person to everyone.” That’s true, but we should also talk about how we leverage pro-social motivation to give people a sense of purpose so work sucks a little bit less. One of his first studies, he was still a PhD student at the University of Michigan when he did this study. Did you go to a state school?
Did you go to a big school? I went to a small school for undergrad and I went to the University of Oklahoma for graduate school, which is tens of thousands of personal organizations. Most of the state schools and larger schools have this well-developed donation system. It’s a call center where literally student workers who are getting a scholarship are getting paid money to do this. They are smiling and dialing old alumni asking for numbers. The first call I ever got from the University of Oakland after I graduated was asking for money. They do it at the University of Michigan and it feels any other call center you would imagine, which is what Adam Grant noticed. My favorite thing, he points out that one of the kids making the calls had a sign on his desk that said, “Doing a good job here. It is wetting your pants in a dark suit. You get a warm feeling, but nobody notices,” which is a big deal. He starts thinking, “What are ways that we could encourage people? For a lot of federal reasons, we can’t raise their pay, we can’t do this and that. It comes up with this pro-social motivation. He didn’t use the term of the time because he hadn’t discovered pro-social motivation, but he says, “What if we could share with them how they’re making a difference on a regular basis?”
He took all the call center people, randomized them into three different groups. One group got an extra break one day. “You have an extra ten minutes. Do whatever you want.” One group during that break came to the breakroom and read letters that had been written by students who received scholarships as a result of the fundraising efforts. One group showed up in the breakroom and there was a real physical student telling them his story and how he never would’ve been able to afford to go to the University of Michigan if it weren’t for their scholarship efforts. Grant then tracked for a number of weeks afterward and found that the people in the group that got to interact with the person they’re fighting for, the actual student, they made more calls, they had a longer time on the calls. They had more money raised per call, every single metric. Nowhere in these ten minutes did we give people a refresher on sales techniques. Nothing changed other than their will to do the job because now they knew this is the person we’re fighting for. These are the stakes. If I don’t do a good job here, kids like that can’t come to school.
There’ve been a lot of studies since then in what’s known as this idea now of pro-social motivation. How do we motivate our employees by showing them this is the difference that you make? It can be a difference that you make like Garry Ridge and WD-40. It’s a difference that you make laterally to your peers. It can be a difference that you make for your customers. It all comes down to that. That’s why I say it’s about stories and artifacts when we’re thinking about ways to do it. Because it’s not enough to say you can’t put it in your $10,000. This is why we exist. Your employees aren’t going to read it. Before that, the entire world was focused on intrinsic or extrinsic motivators. Extrinsic motivators, rewards or punishments, intrinsic love of doing the job. Not why you’re doing the job but the love of doing the job. This was now the third element of motivation that Grant helped discover.The adversity is not different from the fight, but it is why the fight works. Click To Tweet
A great action step for everybody is how can you bring in someone that you serve to tell the story of how you serve them transformed and helped them? How can you bring them in? How can you find that? Because we had a gentleman named Mr. Willie, 80 years old, started coming to this ballpark. He wasn’t allowed to sit in the regular seats. He is an African-American gentleman. When the stadium first started, he was a young kid. He couldn’t sit in where everyone else sat. Finally, many years ago, he got a seat behind the grandstand. We have a seat for Mr. Willie. He comes every day. He wasn’t sure he was going to make the opening night. We did a video on him and he got so emotional standing ovation to come into this ballpark for 70-plus years. What happened is we took him into our stadium and we made up a nice, almost an artistic mural plaque with a picture of him and his quote. We’re putting it up at the ballpark. We showed it to the whole staff. The whole staff, as they’re seeing it, they’re getting emotional, knowing how much this place means to him. That motivation can be much more powerful. How do we bring that to our people?
There are two things in there. There’s not just how do we find them. You did a great job of finding that story, but the mural is an example of the reminder. You did both. You did the stories and the artifacts. The stories are there. If all you guys ever did was Jesse Cole telling the story about Mr. Willie or telling the story about the family or telling a story about the mustache guy, eventually the story loses its luster it’s like dad jokes. The more you hear them, the less funny that they are. We eventually roll our eyes when we hear it from the leader. It’s about how do you tell the story and then artifacts are those little reminders of the story. The mural is a great example of that. When you do both of those things, you start to get people telling the stories for you to each other or reminding each other of the stories.
What’s great is if this is would be the next step, especially if you’re a larger organization, is after stories and artifacts, how do we bring it into the onboarding process where other employees who are responsible for mentoring that person or whatever are the ones telling people those stories. Especially as an organization grows, senior leadership has less and less of an ability to directly affect culture. You can’t do it by sheer will and charisma. You’ve got to think about what systems do we have in place where those stories are irregularly shared and the artifacts are regularly seen. We try and do this a lot of times with mission statements, but because there’s no story attached to undisputed marketplace leadership, you can hang that plaque as many times as you want. You can hang it in every elevator, every hallway and people will walk right by it and not see it. When you have them both together, you’ve got a lot of power.
Before we get some rapid-fire games, number one, find out what you’re fighting for. That’s the first starting point. Ask your people, “What do we do?” What was the other question with that?
“What do we do here? How does what you do help us do that?” It’s a big indicator. For example, you might know from their answer is, “Yes, this is clearly our fight,” but you might realize that half of those people don’t see it. Your bigger challenge isn’t finding your fight. Your bigger challenge is making sure everybody knows it. That’s why you need both questions.
Finding what your fight is and being able to clearly articulate it within that realm of the revolutionary underdog is an ally.
Those are my templates for you. You might say and you might think, “We’re a little bit different. Let’s go here from these.” The reason I know those works is there are decades of motivational research that support those three. There are probably other ones out there, but there aren’t decades of research supporting them.
Once you get that, which you did, we talked about the manifesto. You referenced it, but you put one in here for you. You’re saying that your belief statements, you’ve finished your whole book with about the Nine I Believes. That’s mostly in the manifesto.
I stole that idea a little bit from that. There’s an old joke in organizational psychology about making work not suck. Grant even talks about it at the beginning of his podcast now, so everybody thinks I stole it. It’s an older joke than that. There’s also a guy named Bob Sutton who publishes this thing. It’s right now Fourteen Things I Believe. They’re all about work and human behavior because he’s a psychologist. Every once in a while, he updates his own personal manifesto. I don’t know that I would call it my manifesto for every aspect of my life, but every aspect of my work needs to tie back to one of those things. The biggest one in there is that work-life balance is a myth because if you don’t do work that engages you, inspires you and uplifts you, you’re going to bring that crap home with you.
Even if you only work 35 hours a week or whatever, your home life will be worse off because the 35 hours you’re putting in are draining you and it doesn’t magically flip when you pull in the driveway. You drag it back home with you as well. That’s the big one. That’s why we’re on a mission to make sure everybody knows this answer to the question, “What are we fighting for?” Because work affects our lives in ways that we’re only now beginning to understand. That’s why this matters so much.
The founder works on the belief statements, the manifesto and then you develop stories and artifacts for them. It’s the cycle that goes round and round. It is now the truth in dare. What do you want first?
What’s one thing that’s held you back in your career?
Obscurity. We talked about it a bit. I get motivated by the underdog fight, and there are non-work-related reasons I chose to live where I live and do what I do and all that stuff. It makes it harder. It’s a whole lot easier when you live in New York to interact with the people in publishing or speaking industry is etc., or other cities, it’s easier. I always say that my biggest hindrance to the world is obscurity. How do I get more people who don’t know I exist to know that I exist because then I can get them this message and then we can go from there?
How do you stand out when you have the challenge of obscurity? That’s a good thing holding you back. That’s a whole other conversation.
When I solve it, I’ll be back.
Are you ready for your dare?
Yes. Go forward.You have an easier time attracting talent when you can give a clear and concise answer to the question, what are we fighting for? Click To Tweet
We do this at the games. It is called a sing-off. 2,000 fans versus 2,000 fans. When the song stops, you have to finish that song lyric. David, you are singing on this and the song fits what we’ve been talking about.
Here we go, “And all those things I didn’t say, wrecking balls inside my brain. I will scream them loud tonight. Can you hear my voice this time? This is my…”
I don’t know anything after that song part. I know, “A small boat on the ocean,” and I know, “This is my fight song,” so there are only two lyrics I know from that song.
That’s the part I stopped that, “This is my…” and you’re supposed to jam, “Fight song,” and you’re supposed to rock with it.
I’m going to get walked on stage to that song, so I better learn it. It’s Rocky. I’m much more, Eye of the Tiger.
I’ve already done Eye of the Tiger, but I had The Fight Song. I almost did (You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party) by the Beastie Boys.
That would have been so much better.
Quick question time. If you want better answers in business, you’ve got to ask better questions. What’s the biggest question you are asking right now?
I’m a huge fan of Roger Martin who’s one of my intellectual heroes and he has a study called integrative thinking. It is basically when you look at two different models, business models, mental models of the world, etc., that appear opposed, they’re usually not. I’m often trying to see that is when I see these things as two opposing forces, how are they not? How can I get them to work together or how can I get them to leverage the other because often they’re not t? We’re in an election year in the United States for example. We’re going to get into this giant polarized debate between conservative and liberals. In reality, we’re not as opposed as we think. We’re opposed in our methods but not on our goals. You see that in a bunch of different areas. That’s probably the big question that I’m trying to ask in a lot of situations. I think these two things are opposed. How can I get them to not be? How can I get obscurity to work for me? I haven’t figured it out yet. When I do, I’ll let you know. Those sorts of things, you see that hindrance and how can it be a benefit? Do you see that benefit? I’m trying to see when things are opposed, how are they integrated? That’s probably my biggest question.
I’m thinking it’s dramatically different. It’s a great theme for this. What’s something that you’ve done to dramatically stand out in business or life?
I consider myself a writer first, but most of my income was my revenue, etc., is on speaking either inside an organization or outside. In 2016 was the first time I hired a coach on speaking. He came out and did my normal thing and he got super mad at me. He kicked a chair and then it flew towards me because I don’t think he has enough force. He kept saying, “Here’s my biggest problem with you. You get on stage and you try and be smart. When we get off stage and we go to dinner or whatever, I realized that you are a smart guy I could also have a beer with. You need to be that on stage because we have enough smart people and we have enough comedians, but we don’t have smart people that you could go have a beer with.” That’s been my mentality. I’m learning about stand-up. I’m learning about magic. I don’t know if it will help or not, but I’m trying to learn about things that lighten it up, make it a little more entertaining so that I can be that smart guy that’s also funny. The business professor that’s also not boring. That was my 2016 question. I’m still working on it. I’m getting a little better at it. There are still motivational speakers out there that are way funnier. They may not be as smart, but I’m trying to blend those two models together.
It’s working. When I first met you, relatability is huge. You’re relatable. He knows what he’s talking about, but it also is fine. He can hang, he can chill, and that’s what we connect with. We want to be able to connect with it makes them feel like, “This is someone I do want to hang out with, but I also can learn from.”
I learned how to do that in person. I’m still learning and getting better than I was years ago. I’ve been doing that from the stage or in videos.
To wrap it all, this is a serious topic of picking a fight. It’s tough to be relaxed, relatable and serious. It is so inspiring, so motivating. I’ve seen what it’s happened with the staff. I’m so glad you put the book out there and I know it’s in Audible form. You can download it, listen to it. David, from my standpoint, I appreciate you. I’ve seen the difference that it’s made and the team and everyone are fired up because of it. This is something that every company needs to learn from. They need to follow it. They need to put into play. It’s not talking about purpose, it’s getting people inspired every day and finding those stories, finding those artifacts and putting it to work. Thank you for that. Where could people find more about you?
DavidBurkus.com is my website. That’s a weird last name. I don’t expect you to remember it. Type it into Google and let Google auto-correct my name and then you’ll find me too.
David, I appreciate you.
Thank you so much for having me and for modeling what a good fight looks like.