Demystifying Culture, with Chris Ihrig

February 17, 2021
PRODUCED BY POLLY YAKOVICH

Chis Ihrig is founder and CEO of Fired-Up! Culture, a leadership development and consulting firm with offices in Puyallup, Seattle and Southern California. Chris' passion: igniting the best in people to build our future together!

With over twenty-five years of corporate executive leadership experience, Chris has a proven success philosophy that advances people and establishes corporate vision around the creation of dynamic and Fired-Up! organizational cultures. Chris provides visionary leadership with action principles to ignite the best in leadership, build amazing teams and unleash organizational cultures that engage and delight both internal and external stakeholders.

As a gifted team facilitator who brings energy, fun, focus and strategy to team development events for groups over 2500. Chris has successfully led thousands of team building sessions across North America and Globally.

Chris has been married to his wife Kris for 28-years, raising 4 kids who have just about all left the house. Finally! He holds an MBA in Organizational Change and a BA in Social Service Administration. He has been a member of the Puyallup School Board of Directors for 6-years.

What you’ll learn about in this episode:

  • Why culture matters, and why leaders should begin intentionally working on the organization's culture regardless of the size of the business
  • How Chris and the team at Fired-Up! Culture have defined culture and how they help clients identify where their culture is today and how to get where they want to go in the future
  • Why an organization's leadership is responsible for creating a space where every team member feels empowered to affect the company's culture
  • What key "aha!" moments Chris's clients experience when reviewing their company culture, and what painful truths leaders sometimes experience
  • How business leaders can help navigate their teams through change, and how a strong culture can empower employees and put the chaos of change into perspective
  • Why many people struggle with being a leader instead of a practitioner, and how this sometimes leads to surprising realizations for Chris's clients
  • What advice Chris has to share around self care and dealing with the unprecedented challenges in the world today, and why creating "margin" in life is crucial

Additional resources:  

Show Transcription:

Intro:

Welcome to A Brave New podcast, the podcast all about how brave entrepreneurial companies are unlocking their business potential using inbound marketing. Here is your marketing expert and host, Polly Yakovich.

Polly Yakovich:

Welcome back to the podcast. Today I'm excited to introduce you to my friend, Chris Ihrig. Chris is the founder and CEO of Fired-Up! Culture, a consulting firm that works with organizations on culture change, executive coaching, HR, and more. Chris and his team just finished helping companies like ours through the challenging year we all just experienced, and he has a lot to share that I think will truly encourage you. I think one of the most amazing things Chris and his team do is demystify this idea of culture, how to measure it, how to be intentional about it, how to improve it and how to engage employees in the right way. I think you're really going to love this conversation. I'm excited to welcome my good friend, Chris Ihrig to the podcast today. Thanks for coming, Chris. 

Chris Ihrig:

Thanks Polly, it's great to see you.

Polly Yakovich:

I gave a little intro, but I would love for you to share in your own words, who you are, what you do, a little bit about your journey and how you got to the place where you're doing the work you're doing now, can you share with us?

Chris Ihrig:

Absolutely. I would start by saying I'm a long-time married man of 30 plus years, four adult grown children, that's relevant in this context because a lot of things I've experienced professionally have been mirrored in my personal life as a father and a spouse, but it's also the most important calling card I have in life is how I'm showing up in that space. I run an organization called Fired-Up! Culture, we really do focus in on equipping organizations of all shapes and sizes across the globe to build these amazing places that people want to work and hang out. I hesitate to use the word work, because it's really a community, you're creating a place where people of like-minded values and shared gifts can come together and really get some amazing work done.

So, work can sometimes be a word that gets used way too much, but for me it's how do we create great communities? And our work at Fired-Up! Culture is really about that. On right alongside that is, that only happens when you have leaders showing up well. So, most of our work with leaders, either high potentials, people growing up their future, or working with leaders directly, we work with for-profits, nonprofits, and I have a team of outstanding people across the U.S. who are working with these clients on a daily basis through coaching and facilitation and change management around culture initiatives.

Polly Yakovich:

Yeah. We were first introduced because you came in and did something, I don't know if it's branded, but a culture assessment for a big agency that Josh and I worked at previous to starting A Brave New, and I think that it's a common misconception that you can only engage with somebody to help you with leadership skills in your culture when you're a really big company, but you're also working with us now at A Brave New and we're like 12 people or something like that. Flex is a little bit up and down. Talk to me about, who should think about their culture and their leadership skills. Is that something like, "Oh, when we get to 50 people, then we start thinking intentionally about that." Or how do you advise people?

Chris Ihrig:

Yeah. It changes depending on where you're at as an organization and as a leader size-wise and all, but I think I'll start by saying, any leader who believes their organizational environment, their culture and their people are important, can begin this journey no matter what size organization they're in. Let's say you are a sole proprietor and you're trying to do something on your own, working on developing your own leadership value sets and how you show up as a leader, is a critical spot. So you don't even have to necessarily have this big structure or a team of so many people to work on your leadership skills and your value set that drives you. 

That being said, usually if we have an organization that's less than five people, we do a lot more of the one-on-one kind of coaching direction that I was just talking about, but when it starts to get 10 and above, you start to get some tensions and challenges within the system. I know that both you and Josh are deeply engaged in building an organization that can grow, and as it grows, you start to get up above 20. What worked when you were a 10 person shop, doesn't work as a 20 person shop because you just don't have the foundational pieces in place, the structures in place.

So, as it gets more complex, and most of our clients tend to fall in the somewhere between 15 and 150 range, we have much larger clients than that, but that's usually our sweet spot, and most of them have gone through this growth process and the structures, and frankly, the people side of the business never was thought about and built correctly. So by the time it started to really expand and grow, it started to really, really feel the pressure, because stuff that works when you're small, doesn't work when you're big. So, we work with all shapes and sizes, you start to really feel it when you get into that 10 to 15 and above.

Polly Yakovich:

When you're a growing company, say you bring somebody in like you to help and be really intentional about your culture and leadership as like a 10 person group, are some of those things like one and done, do you set them up and let them go? Or how do you have to intentionally keep paying attention to your culture?

Chris Ihrig:

It's probably the worst question you can ask a consultant because I'm going to ... Well, it's not the worst question, I'm going to give you the worst answer.

Polly Yakovich:

It's a set up.

Chris Ihrig:

Yeah. As a consultant, we really have always valued equipping the internal team members, particularly internal leaders to own their stuff and to grow through that. I don't want you dependent on us, but the work that we're talking about here has so many different layers and new issues arise as you go through these different organizational chapters of growth. That what we find is most of our clients are clients for a very long time, and that's why we actually love our model that has this combination of bringing data from an organizational perspective into the mix around culture, and also equipping leaders, because as you're constantly changing and your environment's changing, I mean, we just came through one of the most traumatic years that, I think, any of us have been through and hopefully we'll have to go through again.

The reality is, those changing factors have to be wrestled with as a leader, and it impacts your culture. So, we'd love to have some stabilizers in that change process, which for us is the data process. We measure your culture, we make it part of your executive scorecard, we encourage you to make it a measurable place just like you do a spreadsheet that shows you how your profit and loss looks like. How's your culture? What's the temperature of your culture? We'd love to have that on a regular basis, most of our clients do at least an annual culture survey, but they also, many of them, do a quarterly check in with their team members, and that all supplements the work that you're doing as a leader, and as you implement new processes and new structures, it impacts, hopefully in a positive way, your culture, but this gives you a firm way to stay on top of it.

Polly Yakovich:

I think that's probably really affirming for people to hear, because I think culture measurement always feels like an esoteric thing, that's just a feeling, and to know that there are some actual tools that can help you see what areas you need to improve or where you're doing well or struggling is incredibly helpful.

Chris Ihrig:

It is. When I started this ... I've been in the HR business for about 30 years, and I would say I'm not that traditional HR person who loves the administrative backend things, but I am very passionate about this side of the business, the culture, the leadership development piece. I, probably about 20 years ago in that journey, heard a lot of people talking about the importance of culture, we have to pay attention to our culture. Then when you really start to ask questions, nobody defined it, it was this big word that had so many different reactions to it, and so early on, one of the things that we did is, we defined culture. We said, "Here's the most important things in the mix that have to be there. 

Then we designed our culture survey to measure that and bring data. I can walk into a room and say, "Well, Polly or Josh, here's what your problem is with your culture." And I can pretty much walk into a room and get a sense of what that is, but the problem is, as a leader, you need more than that, it can't just be my opinion. So, we use the culture survey as a way to get the voice of your team members to the table in a structured way that allows you then to take those results and prioritize, what are we going to do? What do we need to change? Does this that we're currently experiencing represent what we want our future to be? Or is there a gap and how do we address it?

The data is just a place to keep us focused, bring in the voices of all team members into that mix, and then our change management coaching processes are just to help you own it, prioritize it and make some meaningful action happen. Again, back to your earlier question, what that does is, it keeps this cycle of change really productive and allows you to get down to the next layer, and you just keep working through it, and ultimately, it just becomes, as an important part of your organization's health, the same as your spreadsheet profit and loss statement.

Polly Yakovich:

Yeah. I also think what you just said too, reminds me of at least my personal relationship with therapy, right? You go to therapy and you work on some stuff, and then you find some other stuff, and then there's other things that you want to develop about yourself. It's not a never ending cycle, but you just move deeper.

Chris Ihrig:

You move deeper in the other factor. I love the therapy example, it's actually not complicated because it's just you. Right? So you uncover something and you just go to the next thing. The problem is in organizations, every time we introduce a new person, or there's a retirement, or there's a succession plan, or there's a market influence, those all create these ripples of change issues that have to be resolved. I think the best teams over the years have been teams that have been able to be stable through all of those changes, but you still have all those factors. So, it is peeling back the onion as I like to state it as, but it's so dynamic when you start talking about a community and an organization that any factor can throw it off, and so you have to stay attentive to it.

Polly Yakovich:

Yeah. How do you coach people on the relationship between culture and leadership? Do the leaders create their culture? What's the overlap interplay of developing leaders, and then also developing a company culture?

Chris Ihrig:

Let me expand your question a little bit, because I think for most of us, let's just put on a team member hat. Most of us believe that culture is something that happens to us. So we go into an environment and we experience it, we feel it, we have to respond to it. One of my core beliefs over the years has been, we want to empower all team members, whether in a leadership role or they work in the mail room or they've been there 30 years, or they've been there a week to own the culture, let me give you an example, when I want people to get up in the morning, and as their feet are hitting the floor and they're getting ready to go do this thing that they're passionate about for work, to recognize that they have the ability to influence what a culture experience is going to be all about.

As I've worked through a lot of those issues with people, that place of, I am the receiver of to I have the ability to influence is incredibly empowering. It also brings up this space where every voice has an opportunity to be heard as an organization, how are we going to accept that or not accept that? We just did a webinar last week on the whole diversity issue and inclusion issue, and one of the questions that come up is, "Gosh, if we open that up and we start asking people for their opinions, we're going to have to deal with that." I smiled, because you are empowering people, and people who feel empowered don't hesitate to share their thoughts and opinions. Good, bad, and ugly. Right?

So, to your question, this goes beyond being a leadership issue, it is a all person issue, and I want everybody to feel like they can influence the culture. Leadership however, is what creates that space, leadership needs to take the responsibility on and make sure that they're creating this empowered environment where individuals feel like their voices are important, give them a platform to lean in and engage and share their gifts and talents. Honestly, the only place we ultimately impact culture is at the leadership level. My relationship with my leader, my relationship as a leader with my team members, my relationship with my peers, that's one area that we can influence culture, and then the second, and frankly, the only one is, how we're going to team and work together. Right?

So, how do we have a level of trust? Are we all on the same page? Are we all headed in the same direction? Leadership and teaming are the places that we have the greatest impact on culture.

Polly Yakovich:

So, when somebody engages with you and you start talking about intentionally addressing the culture, whether or not you're building off of strengths, or fixing something that's at pretty bad situation, what is a common aha that you hear or receive from either leaders or teams as you're embarking on that work? 

Chris Ihrig:

I'll share a couple of examples of those moments. So, usually when we start with a new client, we've gotten a lot of story from the key decision maker. "Here's what we're experiencing, here's what we're frustrated with, turnover's high, teams aren't working well together, Joe is behaving badly, whatever." Typically, what we'll do is, go use our culture survey process to get a flavor of what's going on, and that information will come back and we have a process where we debrief with the executives. So we'll sit down, it's usually a couple hours to half day process, usually in context of some other strategy conversations that are going on, but we walk through all that data. 

Inevitably, especially the first one that we do with a client, there's almost this defensiveness that happens in the room. There's this place where people are like, "Oh gosh, that can't be it, there's no way, because now all of a sudden they're getting this voices and the score is less than what they thought, and I'll let them go on for a while, and then I'll close the survey and push it in the middle of the table, and I'll say, "Okay, forget about the data for a minute, forget about what you're seeing and what we're talking about, is this what you experienced when you come to work every day? Are we describing your experience of the whole show?" Nine times out of 10, they'll say, "Absolutely, that's exactly what I'm experiencing."

Just forget about the data for a minute and just talk on the human level, "Is this what you're experiencing?" Again, most of them say, "Absolutely." Well, then we can go back to the data and start unpacking it and figuring out. That's the first thing. The other aha moment that almost always comes up in that process is the moment where leaders go, "Okay, I had my perception of what this experience was about." Because we all show up and we have our story and what we're experiencing, but now all of a sudden, they're getting a much clearer picture of what everyone else is experiencing. It allows them to release it and own it at the same time, release it to say, "This is our collective experience, these are things that we get to decide whether we're going to do something with it, respond to something, have some actions around it, or we're going to choose not to, but it's now in our power to do so.

I love the moment where leaders just lean in and own it, they just decide this is important enough. Where you and I and Josh got introduced, that was a great example of an organization where the CEO was shocked and surprised based on the data, his experience of what his role was all about at this particular organization was incredibly different than the people working there.

Polly Yakovich:

Right.

Chris Ihrig:

My job and my team's job is to close those gaps and say, "No, if one person's experiencing this, are we seeing some themes that we need to address and figure out?" I think that the more you climb the ladder, so to speak, in your organization, the higher up you are in your leadership role, you're only receiving a portion of the information, your experience is really, really different. So now all of a sudden, this process brings voices of everybody into the mix. I don't have to just, as a leader, go with my interpretation of what's going on, but now I can see it much clearer. I love that moment where the lights go on. 

Polly Yakovich:

I love that too. What would you say is a painful truth about intentionally improving or building your culture that you've experienced?

Chris Ihrig:

It's incredibly hard work. The painful truth is, again, one of those answers from a consultant that nobody really likes to hear. If you really are going to take culture seriously and do something with it, you're looking at an 18 month to three year process.

Polly Yakovich:

Right, it's like a branding process.

Chris Ihrig:

It absolutely is. I think for most of us, we live in a society all about quick fix. Right? What switch do I need to turn on? What button do I need to push to get this resolved? I think sometimes we think about our workplace culture as, just tell me what I need to do and I'll do it. That's not engagement, that's just task. I speak a lot about two words. I want to move away from transactions and I want to move towards transformation. We're still going to do tasks, but what really makes the difference? 

If you're taking the long view, if you're really trying to impact change, make it positive, create the ideal environment, it's going to be hard work, and you can expect that if you really leaning into this journey, it's at least 18 months, and I am more experienced the 24 to 36 beyond, because again, people are going through the multiple stages of the process. This is not a quick fix, it's just really hard work. Some leaders are looking for the transaction, they want to check the box, they got a mandate from somebody they need to solve a problem. Those typically are not our clients because we want to roll up our sleeves with our clients and be willing to do the hard work, but I need people to understand the painful truth is, it's really hard work.

Polly Yakovich:

The other painful truth that you will say more articulately than I will, but that was an aha for me when we first started working together, as you said, people are going to leave, and that's okay, because they don't fit this new culture that you're building. I think for those of us who think like retention is everything, like no one can leave, and every person that leaves is like a mark that we failed them in some way. How do you help people think about and prepare for that?

Chris Ihrig:

In terms of our engagement process, that is typically something that will come up within the law called the business development sales call, and we're meeting with a decision maker. One of the ways I check to see if they're really in or out, or they're just looking for the quick fix or the more longterm as I bring up our experience is that you will typically see 30 to 40% turnover in a staff. So if you're a 10 person shop, half your people will be gone, by the time we're done with this process, if you're a 150 person, you can expect 75 of those 150 to be gone, and it gets people's attention and they're like, "Oh, there's no way, there's no way, our people all love working here, and it's all awesome and fantastic."

Then in retrospect, when we go back and look at it, that's exactly what happens. To your point, there can be a couple of reasons for that. As an organization gets more clear, we recruit differently, we hire differently, people choose to stay on board because they're that much more committed because of the clarity that's coming from the culture change. If you think about it, there's five different places you could go get a hamburger right now. There is a reason you choose particular ones, that could be service, it could be the product, it could be a whole bunch of things. That's a culture issue, right? It's a choice issue.

We see that in our organizations, employee team members will make a conscious decision about where they want to work and where they don't want to work. It's not just about pay, it's not just about benefits, it's about this experience they're having. But there's also the other side of it, which is an organization, you get really clear on your values that you expect from people to live out, not only the work, what they're going to accomplish, but how they're going to accomplish through certain behaviors and so forth. We as organizations have a responsibility to help people leave our organization if they don't fit. That combination of individuals making that choice and leaders managing performance will cause a change, and typically it's that 30 to 40% that we'll see shifts.

Polly Yakovich:

Talk me a little bit about change management, because I think for many of our clients, they're either growing rapidly or they've come out of a startup environment or they've acquired companies and put different pieces together, and it does feel like part of the challenge for them is always being in this, the only constant is change. How do you advise companies and leaders who are trying to build a strong culture to balance that change management with the work that needs to be done and helping employees along that process, and helping them gain skills to keep them flexible and resilient?

Chris Ihrig:

I think inherent, even when we use the word change, people typically have a reaction to it. Right?

Polly Yakovich:

People like me are like, "Yeah, let's change everything over time"

Chris Ihrig:

I grew up with a mom who seemed to change the furniture every Saturday morning, and so I'm very used to change, I consider myself a change agent. But I also recognize that the range of those of us that are on that side of the scale and the other side, which is, terrified of change, is broad and everybody can end up in different places. Here's one of the things that I look for, the consistencies across no matter where you sit in that change scale is, there is always this degree of chaos that comes with change, it's the unknown, it's the messy, it's just not predictable, it's gray, you can throw a bunch of terms in there.

I think part of what we want to empower leaders to own is, how do we take that chaos and find ways to focus up? It's that moment where we make the thing that is big and uncertain and scary and make it tangible, and simplify it and take the chaos and make it something that people can hold. What that translates to is leaders have to take the chaos and say, "Here's where we're going, here's the context of why we're going there, here's what we're trying to accomplish. Here's why we're willing to do the hard work, here's the things that we've identified that we can prioritize, and here's how it impacts your world. Here's how we want to hear from you, not only on a daily basis what's happening, but we also want to empower you to address these things and work through these things."

It's this combination of taking this chaos and giving people a space to simplify it and focus it and say, "This is what you need to pay attention to, forget about all this other stuff, but here's what you need to focus in on." Then here's your part in how you can help us get where we want to go. I think what that does, to your question is, it allows us to move the needle in terms of the change that we want to accomplish, but also gives people the marching orders on what they should be paying attention to every day in the job that we're asking them to do. It's this combination of the big vision, the big picture, the strategy. Right? Here's where we're going, this is the mountain we're trying to climb, but here's the path that's in front of you, and here's the next three steps that you need to worry about.

As a leader, I think we play the mix. I think we have to do both. We have to create that vision, the mountain and the path, and equip people to take those steps really well. But for me, if I was to take all that and simplify it, I think one of the greatest gifts that leaders can bring to the table here is, that calming influence to take the chaos out of the mix, to take all the emotion out of the mix, and yes, you could study change management the rest of your life and have methodologies to how to do that. But essentially the best way to manage change is to give people a reason why they should consider changing, and then equip them to do their part in that change process.

If we can do those two things as leaders, it tends to really soften and make the change experience much better, and in the sense, change happens and people don't even realize it's happened. I mean, you've been in organizations, in multiple organizations that we've worked with, and you look back where the organization is today compared to where it was three, four or five years ago, and it's so different, but along the way, people didn't feel like it was that different.

Polly Yakovich:

Yeah. I also think giving people, like you said, earlier room to express their feelings and a voice and making them feel like they are a part of having power over their situation helps so much too, because otherwise I think organizations that are changing a lot tend to be like, "Oh, let's not talk about the next thing, because people are already freaked out about the last thing." Then it becomes something that's not really on the table and it is almost more fearful that way.

Chris Ihrig:

That's right. Yep. You're right on with that.

Polly Yakovich:

Talk a little bit about ... I want to pivot just a little bit, we've been talking a lot about culture, talk to me about leadership development, because you also do a lot of, like we said, executive coaching, leadership coaching. When you think about your role and your organization, who needs a coach and what kinds of things are you doing and working on for those people who have never experienced it? 

Chris Ihrig:

Probably about 15 years ago, I was at this point in my own career, I always knew I was going to start my own business and do all that, but hadn't, I was working in an organization and trying to make it work. One of the critical moments for me was deciding where I really wanted to have influence. Did I want to, for example, be a data analytics company who did surveys, and leave it at that? Or did I want to be an organizational consultant who just came in and looked at people's processes and said, "Hey, here's where we go." Or did I want to be a coach? I found myself always being very impassioned about that entire scope of work, and I do believe many of our processes by themselves could be strong.

We could be really a great executive coaching company and not do any of the surveys, not do any of the facilitation, not do any of the change management processes that we've been speaking to, or we could just be a great change management company and not do any of the coaching. But to your question, it's really when those two worlds come together, when an organization is getting really clear on their goals and their objectives, and an individual is really clear on their goals, their objectives, their values, and those two worlds meet, where magic really happens.

I'm a huge Disney fan, so for me, I'll always reference it, it's the pixie dust moment. It's where the pixie dust flies, people are showing up, they're using their gifts, their talents, and they're able to do it in an environment that has the need, that wants it. When that magic happens, amazing results occur. But I find that a lot of folks have been on a career journey that has felt much more like a treadmill than a personal discovery experience. I'm not talking about just leaders, I'm talking about ... you could be a 20 something or you could be a 60 something individual, and you're still trying to figure out what do I want to be when I grow up. I've always viewed our coaching process as that self discovery.

In our leadership development model, we actually start with leading self, who am I? What am I passionate about? What are my values? I just find, as an executive coach, most people haven't spent nearly enough time on that, and when I use the example of being on a treadmill, I was really good at math in high school. My high school math teacher said, "Hey, why don't you go and become an accountant?" I take an accounting class in college, I wake up, I'm 40, and I'm in this accounting job and I hate it. That's on the treadmill, right? I get a paycheck, I'm good at something, but I'm not passionate about something. I'm not engaged in it deeply. I come in and do a good job, but I'm just not offering the best.

It's a struggle to come in and do that over and over, be on the treadmill all the time. That's where I find the majority of people. So, our executive coaching, and frankly, high-potential coaching that we do, sometimes can be done with an individual in isolation of any organization. So, I just started a new client this week, who very much just is on that career journey and saying, "I want to prepare for this next thing that I want to do. Can I engage you and your team for career coaching?" Absolutely, and we don't have anything to do with the organization. That's probably about 10% of the time. Because again, back to my belief system is, all of us, even if we get clear on self, have to find a place to do our best work.

So, it is a distinct advantage as an executive coach to be working with an organization and a team of people within that organization to help that individual find their voice and then exercise it in that environment. So our processes typically we will work with an executive team throughout the entirety of our engagement with that firm or that organization, and we're just working through not only their personal definition of self and leading self well, but also, now all of a sudden I have to work with other people. What are my relationships look like there? Now [inaudible 00:33:18] I'm being asked to lead a team, how do I strengthen and maximize the team?

It's only when we get through those three levels that we get to the culture conversation that we've been talking about, lead self, lead others, lead team. Now we can start talking about culture. So our process is similar, have some data components where we bring some different assessments into the process. How are you doing in your leadership role? Who are you as a person? Help the individual get some good sense of what that is in their own life and what they want to own, the themes that they want to get better at. Then we as coaches just come alongside them as they're working through all of that, it has a formality and a rhythm to it, at the same time it's very fluid, and it's not a curriculum, it's really a come alongside partnership.

I think our clients really do appreciate that because the coaching experience molds to where they're at in their life and their journey. At the same time helps them be successful in whatever they decide to undertake, whether it's in an organization or the next thing.

Polly Yakovich:

What is a common pixie dust moment when you're working one-on-one with somebody in leadership coaching, what are the ahas where you're like, "Oh yeah, they're starting to get it or change their mind or pivot, or feel like they have more power over their journey?"

Chris Ihrig:

In organizations, we are really good at promoting people who probably should not be leaders.

Polly Yakovich:

Fascinating.

Chris Ihrig:

So there's this moment in the discussion and the discovery process where our clients need to ask themselves, "Am I really built for leadership? Do I really want to be a leader?" I don't think there's any percentage that pulls it one way or the other, but I do think the aha moment for leader is, well, I can either be an exceptional practitioner and continue getting really good at being a practitioner, or I need to have some art and science to the leader that I want to be in this world, and making the decision on which career path I really want. One of the bigger aha moments in the process is making that decision.

Polly Yakovich:

That's fascinating.

Chris Ihrig:

And I see a lot of people struggle with that, again, because the organizations, we tend to promote technical people who are really good at getting the job done into leadership roles, and then those leaders become less of a practitioner and more a leader of people, and they don't like it. They're not gifted at it, they're frustrated by it, they do their best because it's a means to an end. Bigger paycheck, bigger responsibility, sit at the right table, but they don't have permission to step back and go, "Is this something I really want?" That's one of the bigger aha moments.

The other aha moment actually ties to where we've been going is, that there is typically this moment where the individuals really seriously asking themselves is this the environment I really want to continue to work, given my clarity and my discovery, my value set, what the organization saying, they want to have accomplished? Is this a good match? It's almost like stepping back in a dating cycle and saying, "Oh, is this really a person I want to hang out with?" You usually get a really deep commitment at that point. "Yes, it is. Let's go, let's make it happen. Or no, I now need to shift my focus to my transition, to move on to something else, to go somewhere else."

As a coach, that's the tricky spot because often we're hired by an organization to work with executives or a team of people, and there is this reality that as you get clear, people are going to make different decisions. I feel a personal responsibility as I do my team members to help an individual get clear and then move, once you get clear. Figure out, if it doesn't work for you, we don't want you to stay in that space. It's tricky because the individuals, often the person not writing the check. But here's what happens in that process is, organizations really do, at the end of the day, appreciate having people on their team that really want to be there.

Polly Yakovich:

Of course.

Chris Ihrig:

So, it is a win for everybody when we work through that process. 

Polly Yakovich:

Yeah. That's so tricky because I've struggled with this for a while, and you know me, I am also a little bit of an individual practitioner. I really like to put my head down and be really excellent at something I love. I'm in a unique position because I do get to create my own destiny to some extent as an owner, but I think the corporate trajectory is very much like if you want to move up and if you want to make more money, you have to follow this path. Do you see that changing at all? Or is that something that organization by organization people have to grapple with? 

Chris Ihrig:

I do think organizations have to decide, "Are we okay with honoring really strong practitioners and creating a space that you can be as successful at being a strong practitioner versus being a leader and essentially creating two tracks of career development within an organization?" We started this conversation by talking about organizational growth, that will tend to show up when you become that 25, 40% shop, where you have space for people to be either or, and you have a need for people to be either or, and so for our clients part of the structure that they often have to ... again, philosophy they have to wrestle with is, "Will we really honor both?"

I'm a firm believer you can honor both and create this space where if you want to be a really solid practitioner, we have a space for you and you're welcome here. But you can still be a great influence on others, but you don't have to have the responsibility to lead a team or even have any direct reports. While in the flip side is, if you want to be a leader, we're going to equip you to be a really solid leader, because that's the other thing that starts to shift. I think organizations tend to inherit people walking in with other leadership experiences, they kind of show up. I was a manager over at this organization, so I learned my skills of that. Now I'm in this new organization and I need to do it.

I want our client organizations to say, "Well, what's our leadership brand? What do we expect from our leaders?" Then to equip those leaders to really live out that brand. I think that, as organization matures through this whole culture process and growth process, that becomes a critical factor for most organizations to wrestle with.

Polly Yakovich:

Yeah. I really think coming up in the agency space, I think I tend to push against all structures, but I've always pushed hard against this idea that there is this growth path on the agency side that used to force people who are really good at their job, say you were a really good account manager, you might not be the best AE, why can't you also be rewarded for your expertise and keep you, or project manager, keep you in a place where you're rewarded for doing that in an amazing way, but you're not forced to lead client meetings, which may be totally uncomfortable for you just to get a pay increase? So, I think it's really something for people to grapple with if they can, obviously finding a place that will reward what you're wanting to do, is a challenge.

Chris Ihrig:

Not to go too deep into the subject, but back in my history, I worked in a large organization, we're talking a billion dollar organization, and I was a senior HR person, so doing internal HR consulting, and I had specific teams that I was working with. I tended to get assigned the most difficult senior executives. I don't know what that trend was all about, but in this case, I spent a couple of years coaching and essentially trying to help a leader be successful, who more often than not left a lot of dead bodies on the side of the road, they just were terrible manager. People didn't want to work for them, it was very painful, a lot of [inaudible 00:41:15]

So, one day I walked into the president's office, who this person direct reported to, and I said to the president, I said, "Do you see value in this person?" "Yes, I do." "Okay, but we see a track record of this person not being a good leader, but they offer other values to the organization." "Yes, absolutely." I said to the president, "Are you willing to have this person move out of a leadership role and just help them be a really excellent ambassador for the organization and be a fantastic practitioner?" This president really had to think about it, and yet he came back and said, "Yes, I'm willing to do that." It really was the first example of the shift that we've been talking about, even in a billion dollar organization, it was one of the first major shifts.

He gave me the okay, and so we made that shift and the person went from leading a team of 15, 20 people down to just himself, and one administrative assistant that helped him do his work. Literally, this was 20 years ago, Polly. Last year before COVID, probably the last time I was at Sea-Tac airport, I ran into that gentlemen, we made eye contact and I said, "How are you doing?" He said, "I am doing fantastic, I am doing great." I said, "What's going on in your role?" Then he said, "I'm in the same role as 20 years ago, when we made the shift." He said, "It's so life-giving, I feel like I bring real solid value."

The fact that he's been in that role for 20 years, will tell you that organization is getting what they need out of it as well. Think about all the turmoil and challenge that the organization didn't have to deal with because this person wasn't leading a group of people.

Polly Yakovich:

That's incredible. This has been so rich and I want to briefly, before I reluctantly let you go. You recently did a presentation for our team that had some really great takeaways on just individually, how to approach coming out of a very challenging year, even if your job was safe and you didn't have to worry about putting food on the table, just like a mentally challenging year. Then coming into another, a little bit grinding mental year where it's like, "Maybe relief is going to come at some point, but who knows when?" And we're all in this kind of preserved and jello right now. Can you just give us a couple high level takeaways for people listening about how you recommend mentally caring for yourself and approaching 2021, whether you're a leader or working somewhere?

Chris Ihrig:

I've been doing a lot of reflection on 2020 as we talked about earlier. It was a traumatic year for so many people. One that none of us would wish our best friends to go through, and at the same time, the amount of loss and frankly, just fatigue to get through the routines, nothing was simple anymore. Right? The things that we used to do to take care of ourselves and the processes, all of a sudden we're thrown out the window, and as I reflect on last year, I felt like our organization ... and we did find, we actually, as an organization were very solid, our financials were great, but more importantly, our work was, I think, probably the best it's ever been, but it was a shift from being long-term strategic, and it was felt much more like a counseling [crosstalk 00:44:48]

Polly Yakovich:

Yeah.

Chris Ihrig:

We felt like we were talking to a lot of people away from the edge most days. So, a lot of the themes that came up for me in that process were, people were really struggling, they were just exhausted, they were tired, they were surviving, but certainly weren't thriving, there wasn't much hope to the future. So we got a lot of requests for team conversations around this idea of, "How do we go into a new year and regroup?" So as we did that process with a lot of different organizations, there were couple real specifics that came up. I mentioned earlier our model of lead yourself well, it came down to that. How do you equip people and give them permission to lead themselves well?

In that process, one of the things that ... there were several things that came out of that, but one of the things that was the most awakening for most people was this idea of, we need to get in our lives, back into our lives, the idea of margin. We talk a lot about work-life balance, right? Well, now all of a sudden we're all working from different places. You didn't know when you got on this call today if you were going to see Chris at his office or at home or his office at work or whatever, and I think for most of us, our lives have become very, very much thrown into the same pot. 

When I talk about margin, it really is counter to balance. You can't have balance in life. There's too much change, that's like juggling all the plates at the same time consistently. I just don't think that that's possible, but what we can create in our world is margin. In other words, what's our capacity? What's the load that we're trying to carry? The difference between those is, what our margin is. What I found coming out of 2020 is, most people had exhausted their margin, they had nothing left. So, our encouragement was, what's it going to take to get margin back in your life? Doing the right things? Simplifying on the right areas? Looking at your relationships? What do we need to do to strengthen those? How do we get your health back both mentally and physically, even if there's some constraints about where and how you can do that?

It really was this idea of taking care of yourself and getting margin back into your world was one of the things that really resonated with folks. Because again, you can't go into relationship with other people, whether it's a one-on-one relationship or a team of people, if you haven't taken care of yourself, if you're mentally not in a good space, you're not going to show up as a great team member. If you are self-focused, when you go into a team environment, you're not going to look at the needs of other people, you're going to be trying to grab resources for yourself, or just be really attentive to your to-do lists, not the needs of others.

So, in the process, I think, one of messages around this margin was, start with yourself, prepare yourself to go into really solid relationships, and at the end of the day, that's what we want you focusing on, take care of yourself really well, and focus on your relationships, because all this stuff we've been talking about during our time today, around culture, frankly, boils down to solid relationships, and if we can get to a place of solid relationships where the best of every person can show up, we have a good culture.

Polly Yakovich:

Yeah. That's really impactful. It's so funny, I've sent you share with our team, I've just had this word margin, like hovering in the back of my mind all the time, and it's really changed how I'm thinking about myself. The other thing that you said to our team, where everyone just took a deep breath and it was a hard truth, but they realized it was true is that, nobody's going to take care of you except yourself. So you have to do it for yourself and you have to make time to deal with that for yourself because other people as well intentioned as they are, aren't going to carve that time out and force you to do whatever it is that feeds you, that you need.

Chris Ihrig:

My wife and I, I mentioned at the very front, we've been married 33 years. I'm very blessed.

Polly Yakovich:

Congratulations.

Chris Ihrig:

Thank you. I have a great house that we've lived in for a long time, and being at home in 2020 and doing a lot of work that way worked fine, it was awesome. But one of the things that happened is that my world started to merge. So, pretty typically on a Monday morning, if I was working from home, which is one of the places I typically work from home is on Monday, my wife would put out the vacuum cleaner and say, "Could you vacuum today?" Well, I put on my CEO hat in one room and now I'm vacuuming in the other room. I had to reconcile that, I had to figure that out. But what I appreciated, to your point is, I appreciated my wife saying, this is what I need. This is what would be helpful for me today to keep my balance, keep my margin, keep my sanity, keep things moving in the right direction.

Mentally, obviously I had to make some shifts, I can't just be a CEO, I can't just be an executive coach. I also am a spouse. There's a vacuum cleaner sitting in the middle of the living room, I need to do something with that. Right? I think that one of the key messages that I think you just brought up was, people have to have a deeper level of self-awareness and be willing to ask from others around you what you need in that process. The same is true in our culture work. If you are a leader who find yourself in a position, struggling, ask for assistance. 

You had asked the question about who is eligible, who should be considering coaching? I think every person should be considering coaching, because all of us have needs, and we're all in different places, and coaching is one resource that can help you move through that. So, if you find yourself struggling or you find yourself not living the life that you would prefer, let's craft that vision, get some support around you and help you grow into it.

Polly Yakovich:

I think people are going to be so encouraged by our conversation today. I want to ask you my last question, which I ask every person, which is, what is your super power? What do you think makes you uniquely gifted and able to do what you do?

Chris Ihrig:

You gave me a heads up that that question was coming, and of course I kick into my whole incredibles. Gosh, what am I going to be? But honestly, my answer is, I think my greatest superpower is, I love to discover and see and react to potential in people. So, I tend to always look at, not where a person's struggling or what the current reality is, but I love to see the potential. This is probably goes back to my days of coaching Little League Baseball, and seeing a kid that is really struggling and then offering them to step on the mound and pitch for the first time, it's going to be a really hard spot for them, but to see that potential. Then by the way, 15 years later see them in college pitching, I'm going, "What is that to me and my superpower? " See the potential in people and then find ways to invest in them.

Polly Yakovich:

That's amazing. So, where can people find you, get in contact with you, read, you have amazing blog and email newsletter, how can people keep up with you and hear more of your wisdom on the regular? 

Chris Ihrig:

Well, a lot of different places, but LinkedIn is probably the personal way to me directly, but the firedupculture.com is our website, we put a lot of energy into taking all the things we've talked about and creating great content through a blog, through a newsletter, lots of book reviews up there. We get questions about, "What books would you recommend, stuff?" So, visit firedupculture.com, you'll be able to see all those resources and we just open it up to everybody, you don't have to do a lot of registration to get access to that, and then reach out, love to hear from you, either the contact form, drop me an email, reach out on LinkedIn. We'd love to get into conversation with you.

Polly Yakovich:

I'll put those links in the show notes as well. Chris, thank you so much, always such a rich time, I feel like it's just been helpful for me.

Chris Ihrig:

Polly, you're awesome. Thanks for your time, I enjoyed it. It was great.

Polly Yakovich:

Thank you. Have a good one. 

Outro:

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