TOP 50 STL Person of the Week: Les Landes

Brian: Today we welcome Les Landes, President of Landes & Associates. Les, welcome to the program.

Les: Well, I’m glad to be here. Thanks for having me.

Brian: Landes & Associates specializes in building brands and winning hearts and minds of people inside and outside an organization. Les, I’ve seen how important it is to make sure the front-facing, public persona matches the behind-the-scenes operations of any business. Can you share with us a little bit about why this strategy is so important and how you go about implementing it with your clients?

Les: So, for us it all begins with this notion that everything comes down to trust. Whether you’re talking about internal relationships or external relationships, it’s all about trust. In fact, on our website we have a phrase that says we’re creating great organizations where people love to work and customers love doing business. And you can’t have that unless you have this cornerstone of trust. The definition of trust for us is a belief that people will do the right thing, in the right way at the right time. If you believe that, you’re going to have a significant amount of trust. Now here’s the key to this connection between the front facing and what’s going on inside the organization; if you don’t have trust first and foremost within the organization and all of the relationships within the organization, it’s going to be really hard to build that kind of connection with the marketplace and the customers and the people that you serve in a way that really fosters that kind of trust. In fact, we used to do some surveys and we asked three main questions: The first one was, to what extent do you believe that the quality of the relationships inside the organization have an impact on the quality of the relationships that you have with people outside of the organization? On a scale of 1-10, after doing this for years, the average came out to about an 8.5. Then, the next question was to what extent do you believe that the quality of the relationships that you have within your organization and outside your organization is related to trust? And that’s a 9.2. Then we asked the people, if I was to ask your employees right now what’s the level of trust in your organization on a scale of 1-10, what would they tell me if they were guaranteed anonymity? So the average is about 4.5. So, people get it that it’s so critical to have that connection between the trust that you have inside the organization and what you’re doing to build trust-based relationships inside the organization. But, when they actually come to putting in a place that’s where they have a lot of problems and that’s where we bring in a lot of our employee engagement work.

Brian: I think employee engagement is one of the most underutilized tools in the world today although it seems to be catching up a little bit more each year. I worked in an organization for years that had an old school mindset. Basically, you need to show up, keep your head down, do what you’re told and if you put in a little extra effort, you might get rewarded. Can you speak a little to the differences in what I would call an old school mindset as opposed to a more enlightened approach?

Les: So, first of all, I’m not sure we’re making that much progress in organizations, to be honest with you. There’s this famous survey that’s done every year that’s called The Gallup 12 Engagement Indicators and they’ve been doing that since about 2002-2003. Every year they come out with a percent of people that are actively engaged, the percent of people that are actively disengaged and who all is in the middle. In those last 13-14 years, the difference has been very marginal. It’s roughly 30% of the people are actively engaged, roughly 20% are actively disengaged and everybody else is in the middle. And it costs a lot of money, we all know that; they even calculate what that amount of money is. But, it’s sort of making me scratch my head about, what is it that’s keeping us from making this leap, and what I believe is that we lack three main things: We lack the right mindset about people and organizations, we lack the right heartset about people and organizations and we have a totally misguided notion of what kinds of systems and processes are required in order to put those principles into day-to-day operations. One of the things that we tell folks is that you’ve got to avoid the program trap. It’s so easy for us to fall into programmatic kinds of one-off things like pizza parties, employee luncheons, an employee of the month award, all of this kind of stuff. I’m not saying those are bad things necessarily, but until you make fundamental changes in the basic systems and processes by which you’re operating, that you’re operating with. Until you make some changes in the fundamental way you look at the values and vision of the organization and until you make changes in the way that you think about the management credibility factors that are required in order to make a connection with people, you’re not going to be able to create the kind of organization that you want that’s going to generate that employee engagement that’s going to generate that level of trust that’s going to make that connection with the marketplace.

Brian: Those are some really wonderful insights to see how impactful this type of work can be especially at the organizational level, but also on a much larger level as well. I know it’s important to assess the habits and innate personalities of the people you work with. For my capstone project at WashU when I finished up my MBA, I launched a start-up concept called Pathfinder that was meant to match young adults, basically from high school to right out of college to an educational or career path that was better suited towards their natural abilities and inclinations. Honestly, I think matching people to work that’s engaging could lead to the next great wave of productivity in the world. What do you think about that?

Les: So, the answer is yes and no because one of the problems that we have, let’s put it this way, the good thing about a job description is that it tells a person exactly what they’re supposed to do and how they’re supposed to do it. The bad thing about a job description is that it tells a person exactly what they’re supposed to do and how they’re supposed to do it. So, we get pigeonholed and categorized into a very specific way of thinking about who it is we are in the workplace, what it is we’re supposed to do and we don’t have a whole lot of wiggle room. Well, if we really want to take advantage of the innate capacity of human beings to use their free will and their imagination to come up with great ideas and implement ideas, you’ve got to create systems and processes, going back to what I said before, you’ve got to have systems and processes and a mindset that doesn’t define people by their job descriptions; it defines people by their innate nature to want to do more, to contribute more, to excel, to have today be better than yesterday and tomorrow to be better than today. We’ve got to tap into all of this stuff, we’ve got to do it with systems and processes, not just good intentions and kind management behavior. So, if we really want to break out of that, we really want to tap into what it is that people can do and what they’re able to contribute, get away from this pigeonholing, make sure that we’re really looking at, as you point out, what are the things that really resonate with this person’s capabilities and, you know, it’s far broader than what their job description says.

Brian: There’s so much truth in looking at just more of a holistic perspective on all these things. I think of the way that our schooling systems are really limited in the way that we bring everybody up and everybody has to learn how to memorize things and then spit those things out as opposed to allowing people to maneuver and grow and become what they need to become based on what they’re good at, as opposed to what the system the way it’s set right now has told them they need to be.

Les: Yeah, that’s a great point. In fact, you know, it’s very interesting. A lot of programs, educational programs, are saying what we need is not more people who can recite facts and data, but people who can be critical thinkers and you’re going to have to shift the educational system if you really want to do that. I mean, one of the basic things that I talk to people about is one of the reasons that we arent able to deal with some of the challenges in the organizations that we have is that we have people who really don’t have very good skills for managing conflict. When was the first time, Brian, that you had a course in conflict resolution or conflict management? I guarantee it wasn’t in kindergarten and that’s where it needs to start.

Brian: So, I know you’ve recently done some work with Tom Purcell and the Greenhouse Venture. I’d love to highlight a little bit about this great project for the city and speak a little bit about your involvement with project.

Les: Yeah, I’m not quite sure exactly how it links with the work that we’re doing with organizations in the area of engagement, but if I talk long enough I can probably figure it out. But, let me describe the project. First of all, as you said, it’s called the Greenhouse Venture. It’s an extraordinary and I think somewhat revolutionary, certainly innovative concept in science education. It begins with St. Louis University and a group of professors there who are going to oversee an educational program that is going to involve and include four schools in South St. Louis that come from very different disciplines. They formed what’s called the Urban Education Alliance and it consists of a Catholic school, a parochial school, St. Margaret of Scotland, a language immersion school, St. Louis Public Schools, a Magnet School and Tower Grove Christian. All of them are sort of in the same area and what we’re going to be doing here once we get to the Greenhouse Venture fully developed is all of these kids from these schools are going to be able to come to this one location where we’re going to a state-of-the-art greenhouse, if that’s what you want to call it, it’s much more than that. But, it is a greenhouse that is the centerpiece of a program on urban agriculture. So kids are going to learn about aquaponics very sophisticated concepts of symbiosis between fish and plants how they reinforce one another. We’re going to actually be building, we’re going to be growing crops on the right of way of Highway 44. I mean there’s millions of Acres of right away across the country and if we can figure out how to build crops there, it’s going to increase the opportunity for urban agriculture. We’re going to be growing with solar. We’re going to be doing all kinds of extraordinary things in that whole area. The beauty of this is and the main purpose of this is really three main goals: First of all, we want to improve science education. Lord knows that in this country we’re falling behind a lot of the other developed countries in the world. We’ve got to get kids earlier and get them more invested and involved in life sciences in particular early on. The other thing that we want to do is actually increase the number of kids that are going into the life sciences. We know that if we can them really fully engaged, tuned in and turned on. There’s the connection between my work, ok. Really, fully engaged, then they’re going to be much more likely to go on to opportunities for science education. And the third thing, which is kind of interesting, is that we want to help improve nutrition. An awful lot of kids particularly in urban settings have diets that really aren’t as healthy as they could be and should be. So, the products from what’s being grown in this whole greenhouse venture is actually going to go to ten schools in the St. Louis Public School System where kids are on the lower, free and reduced luncheon programs. So, they’re going to learn about nutrition, we’re going to be teaching them nutritional things that they can then take home and actually cook for their own families and then we’re going to have an actual family market where they’re going to be selling these things so they’ll be learning about entrepreneurialism. So, it’s just an incredibly exciting venture. We’re in the process now of raising funds to build it and our hope is that it’s going to be up and running full-blown full-time by 2019.

Brian: Wow! That’s all I can say is wow. It really is a tremendous project and to me, something that really separates the St. Louis area. It’s such a special space for all the kids in the area. I really want to commend the entire organization for putting this together. We have about a minute or so left and I wanted to take a moment to talk about your book, which I have a copy of and thoroughly enjoyed. Can you give me a quick description of your book and how people can get a copy of it?

Les: Yeah, I’m not sure how I can do it quickly, but I’ll try. The title of it is Getting to the Heart of Employee Engagement and the subtitle is the power and purpose of imagination and free will in the workplace. So, first of all it’s a business novel, it’s a business fable, it’s a story so it’s actually quite a bit more fun reading than the typical business text. So, the fundamental premise behind that again kind of goes back to what we were talking about before. We are so misguided in the way that we think about what we’ve got to do to get people engaged and when I say getting to the heart, it’s really two pieces. We’ve got to get to the real core, to the nut of what is it that really gets people tuned in, turned on and eager to go the extra mile and then the other part of it is it’s a deeply emotional connection. Our definition of employee engagement is an emotional connection that employees have for their work or for their organization that gets them tuned in, turned on and eager to go the extra mile. You cannot get the extra mile unless you make an emotional connection and you cannot get an emotional connection through doing a lot of these one-off things that I was talking about before; these bolt on things. You have to make fundamental changes in systems and processes, in what you measure, how you communicate, how you reward people, learning and development, continuous improvement. All of those things will be talked about in this book.

Brian: That’s fantastic! I encourage everybody to go out and get a copy. It’s a wonderful book. I’ve read it and have highlighter notes all over it. Les, I want to thank you very much for coming on the show today. I know we both share a love for St. Louis and want to see the city and St. Louisans live up to the potential that we see. I’d encourage everyone to make sure that they are engaged in the work they are doing and if you’re an employer please take a look at how engaged your employees are in your mission. It can make a huge difference and please don’t hesitate to reach out to Les for help.

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