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Q&A with The Critical Few author Jon Katzenbach and co-author Gretchen Anderson

Jon Katzenbach and Gretchen Anderson discuss their new book, The Critical Few: Energize Your Company’s Culture by Choosing What Really Matters

What initially sparked your interest in organizational culture?

Katzenbach: Back when I was growing up in the little farming town of Brush, Colorado, my father ran a movie theater. And on the weekends, all the farmers and their families would come to see the latest picture. I remember my father sat the Mexican-American farm workers in one part of the theater. I found that puzzling since many young farm workers were friends of mine. So one day, I asked him about it, and he said: “It’s just the way things are here, Jon. These folks don’t like to sit with one another.” At the time, that seemed like a pretty simple explanation, but what was happening was actually a cultural phenomenon, a set of behaviors that were self-reinforcing. I didn’t realize it then, of course. But as I went through my 50-plus-year career — consulting with McKinsey, Booz & Company, Katzenbach Partners, PwC, and other firms — I kept thinking about that childhood experience, wondering how many similar twisted knots of self-reinforcing behaviors were actually hidden within the business challenges I encountered.

Anderson: When I joined Katzenbach Partners about 15 years ago, Katz’s book, Why Pride Matters More Than Money, was released. I loved his ideas about connecting emotion to business results, and I’ve been working on these issues ever since.

Why did you decide to write this new book together with James Thomas?

Katzenbach: Our basic premise, which took me nearly my entire career to learn, is that cultures don’t change very much very fast, because they are complex and largely emotional. They evolve slowly. So amid today’s many business complexities, we wanted to explain why it’s better to realign a few elements of existing corporate cultures than to try to completely change them. That’s the mind-set we’re pursuing in this book. We’re sharing a practical approach that we’ve been using with clients for at least 10 years.

What do you mean by the “critical few”?

Katzenbach: There are three dimensions to that phrase. We believe you have to be targeted when it comes to culture. To be successful, you have to narrow your focus to a critical few parts of the culture where you can activate a set of important behaviors, and work with a few existing positive emotional sources of energy. That’s really what helps you determine how people feel about what they do and how they could be made to feel positive about what you want them to do. The “secret sauce” is simply enabling people to feel good about what you need them to do more of.

And how you do that?

Katzenbach: First, you select a few key behaviors you want to change. Second, you identify a few emotions to make people feel good about the new behaviors. Third, you get help from authentic informal leaders throughout your organization and those in middle management. These people are essential in any cultural realignment. Then the last step is integration. You need to recognize that you’re not replacing anything, but instead aligning formal and informal change efforts.

How have you seen this work in other organizations?

Anderson: Recently, we worked with a midsized organization where people didn’t feel trusted. It was broadly agreed that this lack of trust was a real impediment to innovation. The leadership team wanted to catalyze behaviors that would demonstrate more trust. Through conversations with the authentic informal leaders, they surfaced an idea for an experiment: What if we threw out the rigid formal dress policy that was an emotional trigger for people and adopted a new, more contemporary and flexible dress code policy? This would send a strong message: You are being trusted to make decisions about how you show up for work, and you have the discretion to determine what’s appropriate for a day when you see clients or a day when you’ll only see your internal colleagues. And the team encouraged any issues or questions to be directed to managers, rather than relegated to human resources. Doing so made the change part of a broader conversation about how leaders at all levels were looking to demonstrate (and earn!) trust. It sounds like a small change, but it was a massive, emotionally resonant symbolic act. It worked because it was something that mattered to people and it made them feel valued. It connected to a deep human need.

How do you hope this book will help other leaders?

Anderson: I hope it makes people feel heard and acknowledged. If you’ve ever thought about culture issues before and found yourself frustrated by the inability to come up with a quick and easy fix, this book acknowledges that challenge. But by cutting it down to size, and applying a kind of radical selectivity about where to start, we’ll give you a path forward, and that path comes through simplicity and listening.

What advice can you offer others interested in organizational culture?

Katzenbach: Cultivate great working relations with people you and others truly respect at all levels of an organization. And remember my motto: It’s not about the money.

Anderson: Always ask yourself: “What’s obsessing me?” In any situation you encounter, whatever that question or issue may be for you, that’s where your passion lies and that’s where you’re going to have impactful ideas. Focus on that.

Read an excerpt
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Jon R. Katzenbach   Jon R. Katzenbach
The Katzenbach Center
James Thomas   James Thomas
Partner and Middle East lead
The Katzenbach Center
Gretchen Anderson   Gretchen Anderson
The Katzenbach Center

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