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Interview: Gretchen Anderson, Coauthor of ‘The Critical Few’

I recently had the opportunity to chat with Gretchen Anderson, coauthor with Jon Katzenbach and James Thomas of The Critical Few: Energize Your Company’s Culture by Choosing What Really Matters, which I reviewed for this site.

The book lays out a proven methodology companies can use to identify the traits, behaviors and people that matter the most in their culture. We spoke about the genesis for the book, the work of the Katzenbach Center at PWC Strategy& around organizational culture and leadership, and why having an evolved, engaging company culture is so important.

What prompted you to write this book?

Jon Katzenbach and I have worked together for nearly fifteen years, and have directly collaborated on writing projects for the last seven. Seven years ago, Katz (as we call him) had a “breakthrough” realization while working with a client, about both the importance of a “few behaviors” and “a few people,” and saw the connection and theory very clearly.

Since that point, we’ve been working with a large network of people who have taken this theory into practice, and continued to evolve and refine it through real work over time. James Thomas, our third coauthor, has done some of our most breakthrough work leveraging this theory, and joined our efforts about a year and a half ago to put this all down on paper.

Can you break down the ‘Critical Few?’

“The Critical Few” refers, broadly, to the process of evolving your culture by being selective and coherent. We believe that cultures are massive, complex organisms, self-reinforcing and slow to change. Paradoxically, we believe that it is possible to encourage them to evolve, and that doing so — and getting quick wins right away — demands that you focus on the elements that are most important — the critical few traits, behaviors and people that matter the most

Can you talk about some of the research behind your methodology?

The book is based on real work with clients, across geographies and industries and over time. We paid attention to what the most insightful leaders did intuitively, and then thought about how to connect that, and to make it more disciplined and consistent, less reliant on serendipity.

We were asked, Why focus on this now? In a recent culture survey we conducted, we found that eighty percent of two thousand business leaders around the globe say their organization’s culture must evolve in the next five years for their company to succeed, grow, and retain the best people.

What is the most important thing a leader should do to start a cultural shift in the company?

Paying attention to the emotional undercurrents in the organization – the things that seem to cause a lot of turbulence — whether that’s positive energy like pride and excitement, or negative energy like disenchantment and frustration. And asking themselves, does this somehow seem misaligned with what I expected? What am I missing here, about what matters to people and why? This will tell you where the energy and motivation lie in your company — as well as what gets in the way of these natural forces.

Talk about Alex, the hypothetical CEO. How did you manage to create such a compelling and believable character — in a business book?

We describe Alex, in the book, as a composite of every CEO we ever worked with, but the truth is probably a bit more specific than that — we definitely thought of four or five of the most inspiring and compelling leaders we’d known, and we thought — what might they have been like, early in their career? Before they learned to “follow their intuition,” when they were struggling with those early days of how to manage and lead the messy, human side of their businesses?

Fun fact: In early drafts, within that small group of four-five great leaders we thought about, one or two were women — and we wrestled with what gender Alex should be. We purposefully chose a name that could be a man’s or woman’s — and even toyed with the idea of never specifying that fact, but found it became a bit too cumbersome in telling the story.

In the book you write, “complexity is distracting; comprehensiveness is wasted energy.” Can you explain?

Culture is a topic that raises a great deal of fear in people because it is messy, often illogical, and resistant to the traditional lines and boxes through which it’s easiest to understand an organization. Many leaders simply ignore it, complain about it, and hope it will resolve itself. Then, there comes a day when they realize that’s not going to happen.

So, understanding the problem is complex and multi-dimensional, they think that a theory, model or approach that is equally complex will fit the bill. Or, understanding that culture is about “everything,” they try to make a way to fix it that takes on every aspect at once. These are natural reactions! It takes courage to be simple — the courage of making decisions, selecting down.

Isn’t culture, at its essence, just about an emotional connection?

At its essence, yes. But it’s a bit more precise than that. In the book we touch on what every worker wants at their core – to feel that their organization cares about them, and that their daily efforts line up with some greater collective objective to move towards a goal. Frustration, disengagement, attrition, poor performance — are all the clear signs of a culture that is misaligned.

They are indications that individual needs are not being met. If you want people to feel connected, satisfied and happier in their roles, it’s important to build a culture where the right behaviors are rewarded and recognized.

What are some simple ways any company can improve their culture? 

A simple place to start is with identifying the sources of natural pride that people have in the organization. Asking questions of a few people who you trust to really understand what matters — since the devil is in the details.

Sample questions:

  • What do you like about the work?
  • What do you tell people when you meet them about why you do what you do?
  • On the worst days, what gets in the way of people’s pride and sense of belonging?
  • How can that be reduced? What should more people do more of, every day?

For more about Gretchen Anderson, Jon Katzenbach, James Thomas and their book, The Critical Few, visit their website.

About Patricia Gale

Patricia Gale has written and ghostwritten hundreds of blogs and articles that have appeared on sites such as Psychology Today, Forbes, and Huffington Post, and in countless national newspapers and magazines. Her "beat" is health, business, career, self-help, parenting, and relationships.

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