Relationships at Work - Your Honest Guide to Building Workplace Connections and Avoiding Leadership Blind Spots.

Why Work Relationships Are So Vital To Innovation And Action

May 07, 2024 Russel Lolacher - leadership and workplace relationship advocate Episode 156
Why Work Relationships Are So Vital To Innovation And Action
Relationships at Work - Your Honest Guide to Building Workplace Connections and Avoiding Leadership Blind Spots.
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Relationships at Work - Your Honest Guide to Building Workplace Connections and Avoiding Leadership Blind Spots.
Why Work Relationships Are So Vital To Innovation And Action
May 07, 2024 Episode 156
Russel Lolacher - leadership and workplace relationship advocate

In this episode of Relationships at Work, Russel chats with author and speaker Bob Chartier on the relationships and practices we need to foster innovation and action at work.

Bob shares his thoughts, stories and experiences with...

  • Importance of relationships in effective leadership
  • Tools  for building relationships
  • "Possibility Action" - how relationships are essential when exploring possibility
  • Empowering grassroots leadership and initiatives
  • Cross-boundary collaboration

And connect with me for more great content!

Show Notes Transcript

In this episode of Relationships at Work, Russel chats with author and speaker Bob Chartier on the relationships and practices we need to foster innovation and action at work.

Bob shares his thoughts, stories and experiences with...

  • Importance of relationships in effective leadership
  • Tools  for building relationships
  • "Possibility Action" - how relationships are essential when exploring possibility
  • Empowering grassroots leadership and initiatives
  • Cross-boundary collaboration

And connect with me for more great content!

Russel Lolacher: And on the show today we have Bob Chartier and here is why he is awesome! He's an author, writer, keynote speaker, artisan. Yeah, I saw a bit of a pot throwing there on his website and musician. You can see a few of the few of his instruments behind him. He's a Renaissance man that Bob, he worked in the public service for 45 years before going out on his own, focusing on leadership through engagement. And his bestselling book, Handcrafted Leadership, the art and craft of building engaged workplace and communities, I could not recommend it enough. It's where we're going to be pulling a lot of the inspiration for our conversation today and he's here. Hello, Bob.

Bob Chartier: Hello, Russel. Nice to thanks for inviting me and congratulations on your, work. It's, work is really important these days to have conversations about the workplace in a, broader scope rather than just in a work, workshop somewhere. It's great.

Russel Lolacher: I really appreciate that. It was always to me seeing leaders, and not blaming leaders, but leaders, not having the tools, not having the support. And feeling like the, they're basically out there on their own trying to do this thing. If I can help in a small way, yay. That's not, a horrible thing.

So let's kick off our conversation with the question I ask all of my guests, Bob, which is... You sir, what is your best or worst employee experience?

Bob Chartier: I've really been thinking about that. There's so many situations. There were both, of course. And... but the one that floats back to me today as I was thinking about it. The one that one, one, one thing that deals with relationships. It was really critical for me was I spent a couple of decades working with First Nations, of course and one of my little legacy pieces was helping transfer 50 schools across Canada to First Nations control. And it was right from the get go, i, had a relationship with, First Nations in the education field and subsequently in, leadership as well, but just a very simple thing.

I ended up taking the principalship of a small on reserve school. And, we were dealing with all kinds of issues and working with a brand new school board and everything, but one of the, one of the issues that schools do is parent teacher days, just as very simple thing, but... And we have mental models about how those things should work and a teacher's mental model about how it works is the kids don't come to school that day, but the parents come in to the school and I sit them on a little chair and interview them about their kids, right? And, we did one, the first one, and it was a disaster. It was, nobody showed up. And, of course First Nations people in those days, first of all, they didn't even think it was their school and they were nervous.

And I don't know, there could have been a hundred reasons why they didn't come to the school. So the next one that we had, the next session, I remember saying to the teachers, we need a relationship with these parents. And and so I'm going to insist that instead of asking them to come to the school, we're going to get in our cars and we're going to drive and we're going to go knock on their doors and we're going to go visit them in their homes.

And I got a lot of resistance, at first from that, but I remember at the end of the day, talking to the staff and talking to people about what their experiences were. And it was amazing. They were of course, invited in, some had a cup of tea. It was one of the biggest moments for them as a staff.

And I think those were the early days when I was starting to realize that the whole notion of your work is not just about doing a job. It's about the relationships. The relationships with each other, the relationships with who's in charge, the relationship with who you serve, the relationship... all, those, that's all relationship based.

And I ended up working with First Nations, of course. I learned early in the piece, you go have tea with the elders, you, open a meeting with a prayer and just different things like that, but were all based on respect and relationship building. And, and so I took that into government as well.

And, the same idea really, except, a little bit more resistance, I guess. And it's something we'll, maybe talk about a bit later, but the, notion of how big organizations tend to still think that they are factories and that there's all kinds of different silos and different kind of layers, and that there's no crossing, crossing in those layers.

And, and so that, I, that's just a one small, simple story, but I mean there's a ton of them. Of things that I remember, thinking that we should be, doing here that would improve our relationship. And, then I got into the whole notion, I went back to school. I did this master's course in learning organizations.

And that's when I started to realize that, hey, the other thing you need for relationship building is a good tool. Like it's not, enough to just Oh we should have more coffee, I remember, just a simple little story. I don't know who taught me the tool or if I thought about it myself, but it was, it's a simple little tool called the standup.

And the idea of the standup is that a team will, before they start work that day, we'll take 10 or 15 minutes. Get in a circle, not sitting down. It's not a meeting. There's no agenda. There's no, and just go around that circle and, and say, how are you? Good morning. Right? Something that we often don't do in organizations.

We just walk in, take our coffee, sit down at our computer. Sometimes we don't even say hello to our fellow team people until 10 o'clock and we see him in the corridor. Anyways, I remember, trying to introduce this and, some resistance about it. And one of the, one, I remember one person told me Bob, I said, it would be good for relationship building too.

In the morning, once a day, at least, eyeball each other and say, good morning, how's it going to go with today? And, one fellow said, Bob, Hey man we always go for beers. At least one we go for a beer. Oh, I said, that's right. You do. You must have the relationship stuff really handled because you go for beers down at the King Eddie or whatever.

Yeah, he says, that's really great. That's really great. I said, are the women there with you? No, they don't come. The secretary doesn't come. And, how about Freddie? No, Freddie doesn't drink. So what they thought was a big, great relationship builder, which was this social thing was actually a clique and it was actually doing more harm in the relationship thing.

So a lot of times we get this notion that relationship building is kind of a social thing. And we just need to have a, a potluck once in a while or go for a beers. No! You need tools and that's why that little stand up tool every morning, that little tool made you say good morning. Made you say, at 10 o'clock today we've got guests coming in and we've got to look after that.

It was a tool that, it was incredible how to improve relationships. And yeah I had to learn from the early days, working with First Nations, it was very informal. But then I got into that stage where I realized that, hey just like a carpenter needs needs some good, a good toolbox, relationship building, communication, problem solving... All those things needed, tools as well. And so that was, really, a big leap for my thinking. And not my thinking, and my practice. I, cause I, I took it on myself to bring that stuff into the public sector, right?

Russel Lolacher: I mean, you're, you're talking to the show called Relationships at Work. So it's not like you're preaching you're basically running exactly what inspired me to start this is the whole point that relationships matter in the workplace and to hear your story working with First Nations and the benefit to your staff and your team, seeing the value in the impact of the work.

It's one thing to talk about relationships. It's another one to get intention, impact and value all connected to that. And that's, and so that's why I want to, pull back a bit around your tools because in your book and the, inspiration for our conversation today is a, term called possibility action.

And a big piece of this show is defining terms. Cause, as much as we throw terms around all the time and buzzwords and synergies here and there, we don't actually say what the hell they are. So I really want, from your perspective, what are we talking about, Bob, when we talk about possibility action?

Bob Chartier: Yeah, actually there's three words in there. It's, a chapter seven in my book and it was a great learning from a very wonderful friend and colleague, Karen Bonner, who became a professional coach. And she's the one that brought this to me. Now, set the context of relationship, there's three words, relationship, possibility, action.

And so I grew up in those 45 years, I saw a lot of what I would call action heroes. And they were, a lot of times they were men. I'm not saying all the time, but for most part, they were kind of gung ho guys. If they were in Alberta, they would be, Get 'er done! That, get 'er done. And they would come into a meeting, they'd come into the boardroom, slap the table hard and say, hey, I want three action items. That's what I want three action items. And the rest of us are going, who the hell are you? Like we didn't even know you or, and you already want action items, but he had the authority and he, so we would give them three action items and off he would go happy as hell. Not realizing, though, that there were ten people left in that room who thought he was a jerk and who's who won't give him any help on those action items.

He hadn't done anything in that room to establish a relationship with those ten people. All he wanted out of them was his three action items. And so I that really hit me when I started thinking about these characters and the culture that we were developing around action. And it was rewarded!

These people were actually started... they were rewarded for this. And Karen helped me understand about the critical, nature of relationship. Now the word relationship also has some real, it's a word I'm trying to use. It's sticky. And it's, sticky in that it's kind of misunderstood.

I used to talk about, it used to drive me crazy. We talked about soft skills and hard skills. You ever heard that term? Soft skills and, hard skills. Yeah, it's horrible. And the hard skills were the get the the, data, get the agenda, get the financial blah, blah, blah, blah. And then the soft skills were those people things. Oh, that's for the ladies in HR, us guys will handle the hard stuff and they can do the soft skills now. It was insane. And there there was a, bit of a gender thing with relationship and that's a lot of times, men, if you say, how's your relationship with your, fellow staff members, they'll panic, like, what do you mean?

What do you, or if you see, if you just say, how's your relationship? They'll go, you talking to my wife? Like they, they just don't know what is going on here. You talk to a woman and often she'll say we've got some problems here. We got some good things going here. They have a bit of a little more empathy towards the word itself.

That's the first big wrestle, is the word. We've got to deal with that word. Anyways, I'll come back to that. The, there's just some very simple things that action hero could have done to establish one of the, one of the tools that I teach is called the check in. When you have a meeting and you go around the room and everybody checks in where they're at, where they think they're, why they think they're there and who they are and just simple stuff.

And, but then the second thing is possibility. So the action guy came in, got his three actions and left and, But he didn't open up any possibilities in that room. He just went straight to the action. So in my opinion if you have a problem, Oh, let's say if you're working in the forestry department and you want to change the tree planting, I don't know, whatever.

And so you go in and I want three action items. We're going to do this, and this. That's one way. That's one way to do it. With the three relationship possibility action, the first thing you would do is establish a team to look at it. You'd probably take a tool like a workout. The team would work on who we are.

They'd build a little charter together. What's our code of conduct? What's our roles and responsibilities? That's how you build a relationship, is build a charter together, right? So now, you've got, it doesn't take that long. This is not two months of charter it's an afternoon. But that team now knows who each other are.

They know what kind of a working relationship they're going to have. Then, they do they make, now you've got our relationship established. What are the possibilities? on establishing this new forest management thing. What do you do? If you only have 10 people's ideas, that's pretty narrow. So you say let's, do a survey, or let's do an open space.

We'll put a couple hundred people in a room for an afternoon, and ask them, frontline people, what they think. And you do an open space, and you get 120 recommendations. Now, what's another word for 120 recommendations? 120 possibilities. Right? So now you've got a great relationship established with the working team.

You've got a hundred and twenty possibilities. Now you can go into a room and get three action items out of those possibilities. But it has to go that way, Russel. It has to go relationship first, then possibilities, then action. And if you're jumping to action right away, probably losing on the relationship and possibility side.

Does that make sense?

Russel Lolacher: It does. And that makes me ask, okay, so those leaders that dive right into that action, how do you feel they're damaging their culture? How do you feel they're damaging the relationships, their employee experience by approaching every interaction like that?

Bob Chartier: First of all, let me just be really almost aggressive. If you're a leader and you're in a, in constant action mode, and we send you to Singapore to do a deal, you're going to get your ass, sorry, my language, but you're going to get your butt kicked, right? In those, cultures, you've got to establish a relationship.

Can I tell you a quick story about how I learned that, the power of that? I was doing that Master's program and I was in a class where he put us into pairs and the pair of my partner and I, we had to take a problem, an urban problem, and then we had to come up with some solutions and then we had to sign a contract. As if we were both consultants, how we were going to do it. And so I was paired with this guy, a Chinese guy, really great guy. And we got along well, and we were hardworking and we got our project done, except we didn't sign a contract. And he seemed to be reluctant to sign the contract. And I kept needing to know. Let's get that... oh, not. One day he said, Bob, he says you're bugging me about that. He says, we should have lunch. I said, sure. He says, you ever have Chinese food? I said, of course I've had those balls of purple sauce. No, he says, real Chinese food. This is in Toronto. So he takes me to this wonderful little Chinese cafe on Spadina. We go up these back stairs and there's, steam and ducks and, I mean, it was, it's wonderful. And we have lunch and we are telling stories about my dad, the Saskatchewan plumber and his dad, the Hong Kong policeman. And we're just having a great time. Halfway through, he stops me and he said, Bob, let's sign that contract.

And I said, what's going on, man? Like, I don't understand. He said, I'm just trying to teach you something, Bob. I said, what are you trying to teach me? He says, my friend, if you're ever going to do business with Asian people, you're going to have to get a relationship first. Now that we've eaten together, told some stories together, got to know each other, I can now work with you.

But I, I would be a faker if I signed that contract without doing this work. And that just hit me like a ton of bricks. Oh my god. And yeah leaders, that don't understand that in other cultures, I mean, I knew that from First Nations cultures that I had to establish, really, but it's all over the world.

And so if you're working in some little government department, you think you're the smartest guy in the world that can ask for three action items. You are, you're going down a bad road.

Russel Lolacher: And any leader in that situation might also start using words like diversity, equity, inclusivity, and...

Bob Chartier: Yeah.

Russel Lolacher: They are kind of ignoring those if they approach everything as an action item, because they're not taking anything else into consideration other than what they want and what they need or what their boss needs that they're trying to serve...

Bob Chartier: Yeah.

Russel Lolacher: in that moment. I can see...

Bob Chartier: Yeah,

Russel Lolacher: that absolutely fracturing.

Bob Chartier: Absolutely. And I mean, this whole, I mean, we are now moving into a different world that I didn't grow up in, even though I worked in a diversity world, but I mean, the world that I worked in was a world where you didn't focus on how different we were. We focused on how we were the same and how we had the same problems and how we were going to work together and what kind of a relationship we needed together to make this work. I sometimes, I don't know the how that all, that work is going, that diversity, inclusive, all that stuff, but it feels a little to me as an outsider now that it might be sort of driving us a bit apart. And we have to be very careful. I think with that work that we make sure that it's about relationship building, not catching you for saying the wrong word. Right? That's just an old man talking here but, you know what? If you want to talk about relationships, relationship is about empathy, and how we are the same, and how we can work together, and kind of those old fashioned ideas. About work and getting things done in a society.

Russel Lolacher: So how do you move the needle with that, Bob? If you're going into an organization as a leader and you're noticing the culture is a little too action oriented and you as a leader want to go, where's the relationships, where's the possibility before we get to that action, what are the steps to a culture change of that magnitude?

Bob Chartier: Well for those and those that have the power and the authority they got to do the hard learning first. Because if they don't see that, I don't know, I don't know how you really. I mean, they're the godfathers, right? If the godfather doesn't give the blessing, it's pretty hard. But you, if you follow my work at all, one of the things that I am a rebel is that I don't believe that leader comes with manager.

You can be a manager and have the power and authority to do all that. But that doesn't mean you're a leader. Leadership is a practice, not a a title. And I I developed this corner of the desk idea where everybody can be a leader, but your leadership might be very small.

You might be just the person that facilitates meetings every once in a while, or your leadership might be that you look after the plants in the building, but it's something. Everybody takes a leadership role and that's, what's going to save us from leaders, big, managers. Let's call them the big shots that don't get this work is that we can still do it at our level.

We can take up a leadership practice ourselves, and we can develop what I call communities of practice, communities of practitioners and, start to affect change in that way. That's, a big story. That's bigger than the relationship thing. But, I do think, that the senior people have really got to have some serious conversations.

Russel Lolacher: I want to jump back to some things because your focus a lot is tools that leaders can use to be better at this relationship thing, at this impact, this intention thing. So you were mentioning 'corner of your desk'. How is that a tool that can help with action and possibility?

Bob Chartier: First of all, when you look at when I talk about the desk, let's talk about it as a metaphor. Right? 90 percent of what's on your desk is your job. And the job has very clear protocols. You get paid for your job. You get performance managed for your job. And you do the job for the organization, right? And the organization gives you the job. And you've got to be hired for the job and you're paid for it. But for example, a simple little thing like facilitation, what we do in our organizations, what we used to do anyways, maybe we don't anymore I don't know, but we would hire consultants, experts to do things like facilitation or coaching or conflict resolution, or all kinds of these, what I call practice, leadership practices. My argument is, hey, I know, and I can think of this woman right now, she works on the third floor, she works in finance, and she became very interested in facilitating.

And we taught her we, how to do it. She started her own little practice. And within a couple of years, she was, Hey, it's Thursday afternoon. I'm going over to the blah, blah, blah department. I'm going to do a facilitation. And what she, did it for no money. There was no performance management.

It was a gift, a volunteer gift, like my old great men, not mentor, but Mayor Nenshi here talked about volunteerism. We need a spirit of volunteerism in our organizations where people can take, they get 90 percent for their job, but what they could give back is 10%. And volunteer work. And then that woman that did the facility, she started working with other people and they built a little community of practitioners.

They saved the organization thousands of dollars. They were proud. They were so happy. Like, not only did they have a job, they now had a practice, all at 10 percent at the corner of their desk. I think it's a major, breakthrough in leadership thinking. That everybody can be a leader. Not everybody can be a manager or a boss, but they could be, they can do it, take a leadership role in the organization.

So that's the corner of the desk.

Russel Lolacher: Even with that 10 percent though, Bob, you're giving them purpose.

Bob Chartier: Oh!

Russel Lolacher: You're giving them impact. You're giving them... and that just fuels the bucket for say 90 percent that is the job. Maybe it's not great every day, but that 10 percent helps overcome that because it's also something they have additionally to look forward to. I love that. I absolutely love it.

Bob Chartier: I wrote a book called Bureaucratically Incorrect, Letters to a Young Public Servant. And, one of the things that I remember saying to a group of youngsters, young public servants was, I wish when I was 24 and in, in going into public service, somebody would have told me about... bob, not only will you have jobs, but you could have a practice.

And if I would have developed my practice at 24 instead of 60, I would have had years of develop, getting real good at that practice. And then the other thing those practices, the practice does. You can use those skills in the Girl Guides. You can use it in your community. You can use it after you retire.

I mean, it's a why wouldn't you want to develop a leadership practice, and yet we, I've even had managers say to me I can't afford to give somebody 10%. They got to be a hundred percent on the job. And I'm going my friend, you've never heard the phrase, it's a wonderful phrase. I forget who said it. But a leader's job is to create more leaders. That's what we should be asking a leader at the end of the year, how many leaders did you create this year? Not how great you were. I don't give a rat's whatever about how great you were. I want to know how many leaders you created in your organization, because that's, what's going to move that organization, not you.

Russel Lolacher: So what's the benefit of having a practice? We've talked about it being great, but I'm, I mean it from a benefit standpoint of that 10%. How does it influence the 90%?

Bob Chartier: Oh, a couple of reasons. One is a lot of people have accused me of being sort of anti consultant. And and I'm not. But the way we used consultants for 50 years was to get them to do our work and what, they should have been used for is to teach us how to do work better.

So I'm skipping that. I'm skipping, I'm going, let's go straight to the front liners. Let's make them into practitioners and we'll create pride and retention. People will stay in your organization if they get a chance to do a practice as well as a job. And they'll just, they'll blossom and we'll save thousands of dollars, which is a big deal. Saving money. And, but we support those practitioners with incredible consultants who come in and teach them tools and practices on how to really be good at what you do. But I got really tired of us always looking outside the organization for help instead of looking inside the organization.

Russel Lolacher: How does being a practitioner tie into the whole relationship possibility, action piece. I can see that I can definitely see it from a, if you're doing something you love, you will give it more passion, more effort. You'll be looking forward to it. I just, for me personally, every time I'm in that mindset, I'm immediately thinking, who else can I work with?How can I collaborate?

Bob Chartier: That's it.

Russel Lolacher: Where's the innovation for this?

Bob Chartier: There you go.

Russel Lolacher: Well, so I'm thinking from the possibility standpoint, how have you seen it work?

Bob Chartier: I think you almost answered your own question there I mean, that's exactly what happens when you got... In the B. C. Forest Service, we created a community of over 200 practitioners in the B. C. Forest Service, and the impact on that organization is still, the reverberations are still felt. And people said that was the most meaningful thing, but it was also my community, and I, I had relationships with 200 people and then those relationships were with we, go and work on for an afternoon with a finance group and now we had relationships with them and they didn't have a relationship with a consultant.

They had a relationship with us, inside. So we were going across boundaries we were breaking down silos with these practitioners, right? And we were doing it from the inside, not from the outside.

Russel Lolacher: I want to tap back into something you had mentioned earlier, and you said it might be too high level. And I disagree because you were talking about community of practices, plural. And I think looking at it from a larger standpoint might be more beneficial. These practitioners becoming these communities of practice. And having a very positive impact to a larger organization. How do you feel that could shift cultures if we start looking at communities of practice from a higher standpoint?

Bob Chartier: It's the only way to shift cultures. It's the only way. You got to do it from the inside. You can't go in with a strategic plan to shift a culture and, say we got some experts that are going to come in and shift your culture for you, that's not how it goes. One, one moment that I'll never forget, I was in Regina with F Division of the RCMP.

And the guy that brought me in was a practitioner. His name was Russ, Russ Morasty. He was the first Cree Indian to become, he's now Lieutenant Governor of Saskatchewan, Russ. And he was one of my practitioners and he brought me in because he was head of F division and he, wanted me to do that open space with the 250 frontline cops.

And we did, we spent an afternoon. And again, 110 possibilities, 110 recommendations came out of that little two or three hour session was amazing. And the brass took me aside. They went out for dinner and they said, Bob, what the hell just happened there? A hundred? We didn't...? And I said, look, you guys. You're cops.

You can tell me where every hooker, every wino, every drug deal is going on in F division, but you can't tell me what your own people are saying. And the penny just dropped in that room. They had no idea what 250 frontline people were thinking because they never asked them. They never put them in a room.

And that's what practitioners can do, is they can open up these floodgates and, that was 250 cops that were talking to each other like they've never talked to each other before, because they were all in their little, groups. So that's, the power of this practice based work, yeah, for sure.

Russel Lolacher: So what's getting in the way of all of us, not embracing this in our organizations, Bob? Like it sounds like the way to go. It sounds like, why wouldn't you want to fuel motivation and innovation and collaboration? What is getting in the way?

Bob Chartier: I don't think anything's getting in the way, Russel. I think, except ignorance. A guy like Doug Konkin, the Deputy Minister of, of B. C. Forests. I said, Doug, how come you like my work so much? He was a deputy minister that just loved it. He said, Bob, I dream now of running an organization of 3, 500 people where 3, 500 people had a job and 3, 500 people had a practice. And my heart just stopped. My God, he got it. And the only reason he got it was he learned. He gave me an opportunity to teach him that. And that's all that's getting in our way now. That's why learning organizations, that's why learning organization was one of the most critical theoretical models.

Peter Senge at MIT, you've got to have, you've got to at the core and we've got CEOs and that who haven't got a clue about how to engage and engage thousands of people and you do it by getting them to do it, right? Yeah. You get them to do it.

Russel Lolacher: So I'm going to wrap this up with a question that I've heard my favorite word used a lot in this conversation, which is relationship. So perfect question to wrap us up, Bob. What's one simple action, an action here that people can do right now to improve their relationships at work.

Bob Chartier: Oh my God. I'm going to follow up on what I just said. Learn more. Don't assume you know everything about relationships. Learn more, read a book, ask people, take a, do anything, but and at the core, don't take a course or a workshop that isn't going to promise you at the beginning, at least five tools to do it. That's, I spent all my years I said, I'm not a, I hate motivational speakers, I hate workshops that give all these big theoretical ideas, but they don't give me a Monday morning actually how to do that and that's what I would say your action should be folks if you're listening. Get your learning up to speed on this work and make sure that it's attached to tools and practices. Theory without practice is kind of like benign.

Russel Lolacher: That is Bob Chartier. He is an author, keynote speaker, and the author of a bestselling book you should really pick up called Handcrafted Leadership. Thank you so much for being here, Bob.

Bob Chartier: Thanks Russel. I really appreciated this. This is you're doing good work.