The Missing Link to Innovation and Inclusion

Dear CEO – Here’s the New Way to Work (aka how to get your mojo back)

By Jackie Acho, Eva Basilion, and Monica Tanase-Coles

Austin Powers mojo

Dear CEO of a Large Organization,

You were raised to believe that cash is king, top-grading is leadership development, and workaholism is something to be exploited.  Your business school competed you against your peers, which was vital practice for the years to come as you rose through the ranks.  You came up when productivity, command and control, and leaning in were all the rage.  You drove efficiency, and you did it well.

But CEO, the old way is not working as well as it used to.  The data show that you struggle with innovation – the kind that has real positive impact, requires multiple viewpoints and novel ideas, and will renew and sustain your company.  Behind closed doors, your homogeneous leadership team recommits – again – to elusive diversity.  And employee engagement is at an all-time low.  The lifetime of a corporation on the S&P 500 is steadily declining.  Do you stay up at night, wondering if your company will be the next one to fail, and will it be on your watch?

Why, you ask, is it so hard to lead innovation?

Because CEO, the world is changing in profound ways, challenging our most basic assumptions about the nature of economics.

“The market economy is far too slow to take full advantage of the speed and productive potential made possible by the software and communications revolutions.  The result is that we are witnessing the birth of a new economic system that is as different from market capitalism as the latter was from the feudal economy of an earlier era. “ Jeremy Rifkin, from Empathetic Civilization.

He goes on to say that an economy based on network systems requires  “economic activity [that is] no longer an adversarial contest between embattled sellers and buyers, but rather a collaborative enterprise between like-minded players.  The classical economic idea that another’s gain is at the expense of one’s own loss is replaced by the idea that enhancing the well-being of others amplifies one’s own well-being.  The win/lose game gives way to the win/win scenario. “

What does this mean for large organizations like yours, if they are to survive and grow?  What does this mean for chemical companies, banks, orchestras, manufacturing companies, universities, etc.?  What does this mean for YOU?

Rifkin again – “If there is an ‘invisible hand’ at work it is that empathy matures and consciousness expands to fill the temporal/spatial boundaries set by the new energy regime. Empathy becomes the thread that weaves an increasingly differentiated and individualized population into an integrated social tapestry, allowing the social organism to function as a whole.”

TRANSLATION:  It means that we must shift the way we are doing business at every level and in every way to steward a currency of empathy, in addition to money.  The very thing that we have avoided in business all these years – leaning into our humanity  – is the very thing that will save your company.

We know, CEO.  It sounds soft and fuzzy and a little abstract.  But stay with us.

In smaller companies, relationships are harder to escape.  Authentic human interactions are more commonplace.  That’s why small companies and entrepreneurs disrupt you. You had been thinking it was because they have brilliant ideas. But why is that?  They have the kind of trust that helps them collaboratively innovate, moving through fear and failure together until they succeed.

That used to be you.  But as you grew, trust eroded and processes multiplied…or vice versa.  The market expects you to continue to improve, but you picked the low hanging fruit years ago.  Your Board hammers you, and you set high expectations for your people, but innovation remains elusive.

We can’t get to an abundant future with the creative destruction that has driven our economy to date.  There is too much money, people, and power tied up in your organization and others like it.  So we need YOU.  We need you to lead the way. We need you to be an intrapraneur and create disruption from inside.  You have no time to lose. How can you get your mojo back?

You must shift the way you are doing business, perhaps on many levels in many ways.  You have to create an organizational system that grows leaders with empathy (ability to get themselves out of the way) and agency (capabilities).  It’s not hard, but it is different.  In 20 years of working with your peers on innovation, growth, and leadership development, we’ve learned that organizations that succeed feel small – like family – even though they are big.  What do they do? 3 things.  See below.  This, CEO, is the New Way to Work.

1.       Align everyone with meaning.   We are built to work for meaning in collaboration with others.  Every major spiritual practice tells us this, including yoga; can they all be wrong?  Doing so brings people together at the most fundamental level – their moral blueprint.  And togetherness is vital because innovation requires incorporating multiple perspectives, which can be threatening and confusing if you’re on different sides.  Innovation also requires change, which is hard for people even when it’s good.  Change brings fear, loss, frustration, and even rewiring of our brains. Knowing we’re not alone gives us the courage to move through it all.

What comprises “meaning”?  A mission beyond profit and shareholder value.  Goals with a human face in addition to numbers…even when the business is making widgets.  With so many things changing around you, the maps become obsolete as soon as they are drawn.  To move through all of this change together, people need a sense of True North and a compass even more than a strategic plan.  And it’s easier to remember and embody True North if it is something people feel good about, something that contributes to somehow making the world a better place.  A majority of employees will even trade money for that juice – 67% of people say they would work for less money in a company whose values and culture they believe in.

Don’t worry, holding people accountable will never go out of style. Nor should it.  And sure, you’ll count money because you need to be financially sustainable, whether you are in business or a nonprofit.  In fact, you’ll need a kickass performance scorecard so you’ll understand what drives value and everyone can know his role in getting to True North.  The difference is that employee motivation will be intrinsic (vs extrinsic) which is essential to creativity.

For-profit companies can learn a lot from successful not-for-profits about the connection between MEANING and innovation.  Take, for example, the Centers for Families and Children.  They touch 20,000 clients, mostly in poverty, with early learning, mental health, and basic services.  They have $42M in revenues and 500 employees.  They’re big.  They go beyond meaning (helping the people who need it the most) to build movements like the 2000 days campaign, putting laser focus on the importance of parent-teacher partnerships in early learning.  They’ve more than doubled under the leadership of CEO Sharon Sobol Jordan.  They run for-profit businesses inside and are financially sustainable in an industry with scarce funding.  They are transforming social services.

For a for profit example, close your eyes, pop a honey-roasted peanut, and remember your last flight on Southwest Airlines.  You may be tired of hearing about their disconcerting success in a beleaguered industry, but you have to admit that a clear True North is part of the secret sauce.  Their mission statement is clear, putting people at the core of the business: “Follow the Golden Rule – to treat people the way you want to be treated, and pretty much everything will fall into place”.

And there are others. The Container Store thinks of itself as a business that helps people have a higher quality of life by providing excellent service and quality products that help people better organize their lives; their motto is “Get organized, be happy”. At Ikea, it is policy that if strict laws concerning chemicals are imposed in a country where it does business, all suppliers in all countries must conform to such laws. New Balance stands by its principles and refuses to pay star athletes for endorsements – a standard industry practice. Bayer Crop Science Bayer abides by the “Bayer Human Rights Position”, to not employ children and not tolerate child labor in their supply chain and it does so in an active way not only by imposing a contractual ban against child labor, but by funding education programs aimed at improving the school and job prospects of disadvantaged children.

2.       Grow people.  We are also built to improve and evolve.  Most employees today are scrambling to adapt to difficult circumstances rather than develop mastery.  There are still some organizations which remind us how to practice the art of apprenticeship writ large.  They do excellent professional and leadership development.  Hint, this is not outsourced “training”; it is semiannual reviews done right, coaches/mentors/champions who really take care of people, and role models who would make your mother proud. The prize for getting it right is servant leaders.  These are people who operate with agency and empathy as two sides of a coin.  They see new truths.  They bring others along, whether they have positional authority or not.  This is what you need, CEO.

Our former employer, McKinsey & Company has been a top source of Fortune 500 CEO’s for years, and it’s not a mystery why.  Their world-class leadership development is so disciplined and strategic that it forces the right conversations.   Like paint by numbers, it’s hard to get wrong.  It’s also more about growth than judgment.  The good news is that those tools can be adapted anywhere.  We’ve done it with clients in manufacturing, chemicals, universities, and the arts, to name a few.

Google and General Mills pay attention to the emotional intelligence of their employees through well-established meditation and mindfulness programs.  Trader Joe’s accelerated employee training develops people through a multi-prong approach: (i) formal training in their Leadership Development Program and Trader Joe University, (ii) on-the-job mentorship and coaching, and (iii) fostering a culture of multi-tasking without regard to job description (think store manager jumping in to sweeping the floor, stock shelves or man the register). Wegmans puts great faith in their employees who have wide latitude to do whatever is necessary to ensure that a customer leaves the store fully satisfied – without consulting a manager. When a customer messed up the dinner she was cooking for guests, a Wegmans employee sent one of their chefs to her home to help.

3.    Let people be whole, even as they grow in leadershipWhy?  Because people who are not worried about loved ones are fully present at work.  Because people who build authentic relationships at home will do it at work. Because people who invest in the community are networked and resilient.  Because growing children is serious conditioning for the marathon of growing into a servant leader, not to mention that it orients you to the future.  You have all the technology your employees need to integrate work and home.  We are not just talking about moms; in fact, if they are the only ones balancing “work” and “life” in your company, you’re in big trouble.  Partnership at the highest levels has got to be part of the solution too, and we see these models at some of the most innovative organizations.  If you have done #1 and #2 well, you have nothing to lose and everything to gain by letting people be whole.

Still, it’s tough to find great examples of leading and being whole.  Just Google “work/family balance” and the 179,000,000 hits tell you how much we’re still sorting out.  Moreover, being whole means so much more.  It means employees – women, men, black, white, gay, straight, parents, nonparents who would say:  “I can manifest my entire self at my workplace, and contribute with all my skills and creativity to our mission, even if it is outside of my direct job description. I feel compelled to give my best, as the company cares for me and its stakeholders.  This is more than a job; it is my professional home.”

Isn’t it fascinating to Richard Branson running an innovative company while blogging from a boat near his island home?  Here’s a little secret – most of us who work independently blend our personal lives like that – minus the private island.  It’s more fun than working in your organization, CEO, and we make a good living.

But back to you, CEO of a large organization…
Another example you may be tired of hearing about is Zappos, but let’s learn from their success on this dimension of helping people be whole.  The popular online shoe retailer grew in 10 years from inception into a $1 billion a year revenue when it got acquired by Amazon. The company stands out for its customer service, with 75% of its customers being repeat clients. Its CEO Tony Hsieh, believes in the importance of work-life integration for the employees:  “We want the person to be the same person at home or in the office because what we’ve found is that’s when the great ideas come out, that’s when their creativity shines and that’s when true friendships are formed – not just coworker relationships. When people are in that environment, that’s when the passion comes out and that’s really what’s driven a lot of our growth over the years.”  Under such leadership Zappos employees must be a fulfilled bunch, as the company consistently ranks as one of the best places to work.

At the industrial design firm IDEO, employees are encouraged to take an afternoon off every now and then and see a movie or ball game, allowing them to develop a distinct sense of identity; unplanned breaks are the norm, and so are diversions, silly pranks, field trips together, indoor mini golf.  Patagonia and New Balance offer flexible work schedules allowing parents to be home with their children after school. Google grants employees the right to spend 20% of their time at work on independent projects of their own choosing; this is how new important offerings were developed, this is part of why Google is so innovative.

Do you do these 3 things?

1)      Do you align everyone with meaning?

2)      Do you grow people?

3)      Do you let people be whole?

Do you do them all at once so they reinforce each other?  Taken alone, they don’t work any magic.  Do your results in innovation (e.g., %revenues from new products and services, profits) and inclusion (e.g., diversity in leadership) show that you have this flywheel of humanity working in your company?  Do you know what it takes to do these 3 things really, really well?  We do.  With a series simple tools, systems, best practices, and/or choices for how you relate to one another, you can do this.  Focus on these and  you can forget about everything else. Stop wasting time and money, and especially talent.  So many people entrust you with their talent.

Or they don’t.  They check out mentally, if not physically.  They leave large organizations for entrepreneurial ventures.  Or not.  They just leave.  And, yes, these are often the women who break your heart by leaving after you groomed them for leadership.  They are also often the ones with the most to offer because they practice the most poignant form empathy  – that with their children, ground zero for empathy.  It’s not too late to get them back, but you have to change how you do business, perhaps on many levels in many ways.  The New Way to Work will help Complete the Revolution for this generation and their children.  This, CEO, is a collateral benefit of the New Way to Work.  We’ve left you out of this conversation far too long.

Millennials want all of this also.  You need to figure this out, CEO.

We invite you to take a survey which will lay bare exactly what YOU need to do on each of these 3 dimensions to get your mojo working.  Please contact us to be involved at,, or

What do you have to lose if you do? What do you have to lose if you don’t?

Since we started this blog over a year ago, it’s become popular to write about empathy and innovation.  But you have to do more than implore leaders to be more empathetic.  Empathy is not the same as asking someone to be nice.  Empathy requires getting yourself out of the way and this is something you have to work at. You have to create an organizational system that grows leaders with empathy and agency.  It’s not hard, but it’s a New Way to Work, and we need YOU to lead it.

25 Responses to “Dear CEO – Here’s the New Way to Work (aka how to get your mojo back)”

  1. Steve Carlotti

    Very interesting piece. I run a small organization but certainly work with some large ones. I’d offer a few thoughts for what they are worth.

    1. On having meaning, yes but I’m not sure that means that the meaning the employee gets needs to be driven by the entire corporation. Said differently, the employees of the corporation could find meaning in many different things. I think the notion that corporations who have a single north star of meaning are the right to copy is likely to be a model that most large companies cannot follow.

    2. Growing people is very important but it feels like you have two concepts inside the point – growing people (making them better) and trusting people (to make the right choice). In my view, these are different but related concepts. It’s interesting to me however that you do not address the largest barrier to growing people, namely removing other people. Organizations in my view are like arteries. If you have a lot of static people clogging up the artery, the organization cannot be helpful. To grow your best people, you need to be willing to give up the rest. This is particularly true in slowly growing organizations (which most large companies are).

    3. Letting people be whole is also an important concept but I’m not sure there are that many organizations that prevent people from being whole. You seem to be talking more about forcing/encouraging them to be whole. These again are different concepts it seems. I also wonder whether it’s important to realize that everything is about tradeoffs. If I choose to emphasize some things in my life, I will (of necessity) deemphasize others. Few people give their all to work. Most folks make tradeoffs. It’s important to have a culture that emphasizes outputs and inputs appropriately but I don’t think it reasonable to assert (maybe implicitly) that “being whole” is always a positive sum game – note you may not have been trying to say this.

    Anyway, it was a very interesting piece. Thanks for writing it.

    • jackieacho

      Steve – when we write something that captures your attention, we know we’ve done something right. Appreciate all of your thoughts which merit more discussion, especially removing static people who impede growth of others. We agree, but couldn’t fit everything into this post (although it sure looks like we tried!). Thanks much for taking time to comment. Look forward to continuing the conversation.

      • Harvey Lang

        The model you are suggesting appears to be a merger between Fuedal- vassel loyalty and maybe nurturing; and hard capitalism…possibly Japan migrated from one end to the other and is more “stuck” in the American model then we are!. Remember how sucessful Japan used to be.

  2. jackieacho

    Very interesting perspective Harvey! Sorting through these economic constructs is so important. Your points about Japan are well taken. I’m sure there are differences in what we’re designing here, and we’ll look into the history of the Japanese economy and culture to really understand what they are. Perhaps it will come down to this: the end game of our system is “everyone a changemaker/leader” in collaboration with each other, regardless of what positional authority they have. This allows for innovation. In the Japanese system, loyalty is more of a top-down construct with employee fidelity (to the boss, to the system) being of primary value. This is a wonderful mode for productivity and efficiency and consistent quality, which were hallmarks of Japanese progress during their ascension in the automotive industry, right? I was born and raised near Detroit, so this is my memory coupled with a little experience working with automotive clients, more than a studied response to your excellent question. Thank you for pointing us this way and taking the time to comment. We look forward to more.

  3. Alexis A.

    Love the piece. I wonder what proportion of our population could thrive in the picture you paint here. How do you navigate through the (artery clogging) managers that cannot be easily removed or the employees that, for whatever reason, inappropriately take advantage of the system you’ve created? You hire all the right people – yes? But where do all of the losers end up? Some kind of empathy purgatory!?

    • jackieacho

      “Empathy purgatory” – that’s great. We recently got the question – “empathy is fine and good, but what do we do with the evil people?” So, if you’re evil and incompetent, don’t apply! The way to think about this is perhaps more like parenting. With good parenting/good apprenticeship, people grow up well. Yes, of course, there is nature vs nurture, and there is a transition period. Still, we’re much less worried about the handful of truly evil and incompetent people than we are about the many people who are having their humanity and empathy sapped (and not getting any real apprenticeship in their craft) in our existing organizations. The damage they do daily and especially as they rise in leadership is more widespread and more pernicious. Fix the system and we stop growing leaders with near 0 empathy. I believe the vast majority of our population would thrive in the picture we’re painting, and we’d generate fewer “losers” and “evil people” along the way. So, empathy purgatory would become less necessary over time.

  4. McMurphy

    Arrived at your blog via your response to Tom Friedman’s column, and as someone who occupies a unique role (ghostwriter, essentially) in the global marketing division of a global consulting firm, I can… empathize with these ideals, though I fear, as with Friedman’s column, that they are more Platonic than actionable. I work in an atmosphere of almost total freedom, or “wholeness,” in that my supervisors are in other cities, I can work from anywhere there’s WiFi, which means I can (and do) respond to colleague emails and deliver on projects at any and all hours and from anywhere. Yet my preference is for the structure that enforces a certain sense of being “on watch.” That means that even when I’m not being productive, it feels valuable to be at my office, dressed for work, reachable there and “being” there for the typical workday, so that the borders of life/work are defined with a certain traditional discipline without which I think I would lack “wholeness.” Others in my organization work almost entirely from home, I should note. Global virtuality is pretty much our paradigm, yet there is an emptying out of meaning, I believe, born of our physical disconnectedness. While we deliver projects efficiently, with much grace and fellowship via conference call and Web, our efforts are realized, it seems, in an atomized, digital silence. Much professional work has been headed in this direction, willfully, for years, I realize, and the necessity to control cost makes personal meetings less and less frequent. Innovation does not thrive in friction-free environments, yet there seems to be a strong aversion to friction in today’s workplace, despite vaunted notions such as Google’s 20-percent policy, which remains the exception that proves the rule. Interaction by email, text, post, joining calls via cellphone from the airport: this paradigm of personal control has become something of a narcotic norm, in that it plays against friction much as drugs play against displeasure. I wonder, with Friedman and yourself, about the sustainability of our paradigms, and fear that “work entrepreneurs” are not so much an answer as a sop to the unsustainability of our becoming, or remaining, essentially invisible to each other. I suspect that is the theme we are really struggling with, or against, or not against, and I think Dave Eggers is hitting upon it his recent books, “A Hologram for the King” and “The Circle,” though as an artist, his questionings are enough. But for those of us in a “workforce,” they are not.

    • jackieacho

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments. We agree with you that innovation (and empathy) is a contact sport that must be balanced with working in a way that allows us to be whole. The flexibility piece is only part of the framework we’re proposing, and not necessarily the most important part. It’s the part people argue for often, but it won’t work unless an organization has underlying meaning and systems for growing leaders. The problem we have now is that people are rewarded and rise for behaviors that are narcissistic (or otherwise 0 empathy), at home and at work. It foments fear and organizational empathy deficits that stunt innovation. You’re absolutely right, we cannot be invisible to each other. What we need to be is visible in the most present and true way, whether we are in the same room or not. We’ll check out Dave Eggers. Thanks for that reference, as well as your time. Please keep following and let us know what other thoughts come to mind. We value the blogosphere for the innovative space it is, when people come honestly in search of the universal human truth, contributing their perspectives…as you have.

      • jackieacho

        Read the HBR blog. Yikes! Wow. Fascinating. Fiction is a great way to convey universal human truth, and the overall story fits with my misgivings about the virtual lives we lead. We’ll take a look at the book. The most poignant part of the review was this: Maybe, in the real world, a new source of competitive differentiation might come from the oldest one: reestablishing physical contact between people. I’m sure that’s true, and proactively stewarding a currency of empathy holistically would accomplish that goal. Continued thanks for your thought provoking comments.

      • jackieacho

        I have been looking up Eggers (impressive, amazing personal story) and more reviews of the Circle (thought provoking The downside of living a vicarious and, really, narcissistic life on Facebook and Twitter has always worried me. It kept me out of actively participating in social media for a long time, and even now, I don’t spend much time managing “brand” or focused on “follower” numbers. It’s a real risk, and something that drives a lot of our culture now. At the same time, I find it incredibly wonderful how innovative the space can be….that people like you can find people like us and engage in meaningful communication in search of universal human truth. In the end, our orientation to online tools is a reflection of our how we approach human relationships and to what end we connect with each other. All great context for our work. Thanks so much.

  5. McMurphy

    Thanks, Jackie, I appreciate your responsiveness to this. I’ll post more today, some more thinking spurred by these reads.

  6. jackieacho

    H. James Wilson is responsive too I’ve ordered The Circle and will host a discussion about it in my book group, filled with talented executive women leaders. It’s all good and spurred on by you taking the time to so thoughtfully comment. Continued thanks to you McMurphy.

    • McMurphy

      That’s great to hear, Jackie. I agree that the power of fiction, as you say, is a great way into discussions of practical reality, and I would like to point out just a bit more food for thought that might figure into the book-group discussion you’re planning for “The Circle.”

      I think the book’s most relevant antecedent (and something Eggers has to be aware of) is George Orwell’s “1984,” in which the citizens of the dystopia are constantly surveilled by the state by means of the ubiquitous “telescreens” that monitor them. This constant visibility, by which they are never out of sight or unavailable for judgment, has the effect of isolating them from each other and, to an extent, from themselves. Only when the main character, Winston Smith, finds a lover, does he escape, briefly, the technological totality, as they hide together in their forbidden love. At that point, they are being subversive — and, by extension, creative — in trying to determine their fate.

      This is a broad, and kind of Gothic, metaphor, I realize, for our contemporary plight, but Eggers suggests a similar totality, the irony being that the more “connected” his character becomes, through her digital updates, 24/7 availability, the blending of her work with her life and the opening up of her private crises to the group, the more isolated she becomes. The vaunted “empathy” of The Circle management is, more accurately, a form of control.

      For me, then, the question emerges: the more available we make ourselves, blending work and life, and the more we interact through digital media only, are we not entering a subtler version of the Orwellian totality, which makes true empathy less likely and, as we acculturate ourselves more and more to friction-free interaction, less possible? Are we subverting empathy? How can we better manage the byproducts of totality?

  7. McMurphy

    Thanks, I’ve read a number of takes on “The Circle,” and this one I may have missed, but the “1984” parallel is obviously on Eggers’ mind. “The Circle” is getting mixed reviews, it’s not a great book, and I think it’s not nearly as powerful as his previous novel, “A Hologram for the King,” which delivers more believable characterizations and generates real empathy!

  8. McMurphy

    ….but I am a bit fixated, you’ll note, on what I’m calling “the totality.” I may be moving into more paranoid Philip K. Dick territory with this, but conceptually I think there’s something there.

  9. COURAGE | The Academi Of Life

    […] But did it end mine? No. So many of us – men and women alike- have the technology we need now to work around giving children what they need in early childhood, as well as making breakfast, packing lunch, meeting young kids getting off a bus, having family dinner, or being around in case teenagers decide to talk. Entrepreneurship was my out. Intrapraneurship can be too, if organizations realize the value of taki… […]


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