Ears are in my way!

Her Ears Are In My Way

Dave Kinnear 1-On Leadership



One of my leadership mentors, author David Marquet, makes it clear that in his experience, if you want to effectively change people’s behavior, you have to change the environment. I learned that lesson again recently when my assistant, pictured here, exhibited unwanted behavior. It was my own fault.

I came home from a photo shoot and put my camera down right where I had “trained” her to sit. She closely monitors what I am working on — whether I’m at my PC workstation or using my laptop PC. Past experience suggests that as long as I have important papers where she should sit (preferably papers I want to use right now), she will sit there. But this time, I put my camera on top of those important papers, so she adjusted to 

accommodate her rather sloppy, inconsistent manager. Her misbehavior was a result of my not being careful about her work environment.

Work Environment

There is, of course, a lot to think about when we think about the work environment. There’s the physical environment — the office, factory, workstations, tools, machines, etc. — and the cultural environment — values, procedures, policies, etc. The trick is, as leaders we have to be able to hold all of that in our minds together, as a system. We can’t just perfect one part of the work environment and not pay enough attention to the other part. It’s a complex systems challenge.

The Right Tool

What tasks do our people need to complete? Do they have the right tools and equipment? In today’s world, that means hardware, software and intelligent machines. And it means frequently updating all of that!

I often use that sound, logical, reasoning with my business partner (who is also my wife, editor and financial controller). For example, I will say things like, “Well, in this situation, I need this camera lens. But in that situation, I will need that camera lens. So I need to invest in both!” It will not be lost on her that the expensive camera and lens is beside our assistant, Amanda, and the photo was taken with my phone. [Editor’s note: Tell me again why you need that camera and lens?]

I’m getting to the point in life where I don’t take on major maintenance projects around the house. But I do still take on some “almost major” projects. For example, recently, we needed to put up some window treatments. The windows are quite wide and so the flimsy curtain rods we’ve been dealing with for more than a decade finally were no longer acceptable. But the much more substantial curtain rods we purchased could not be easily mounted due to the way the windows are recessed into the wall and the wood valences are mounted above the windows.

I won’t bore you with all the frustrations and jury-rigging I had to go through. The point is that after many trips to my tool shed to fetch the correct tools for the job, we got things done. And it’s a much better installation. I’m grateful that, over the years, I have gathered most of the right tools to maintain our home when I need to. [Editor’s note: Without too much sighing!]

The Right Culture

What do we expect of our teammates? How are decisions made? How do we expect to be treated and how am I expected to treat other stakeholders? Does leadership live out the stated organizational values? And do they do so at every level of the organization? Is ours a safe environment? Are we hiring for values and fit, or are we focused mainly on technical competencies?

I believe this cultural piece is the most challenging, and I would argue, the most important as well as the most impactful. I also believe that, because culture is so important and challenging, it is the “one job” the CEO has to do herself — that is, actively manage the organization’s culture. And she has to insist that the rest of her team push those culture values down through the organization as well. But in the end, the CEO is accountable and responsible for the organization’s culture and behavior.


Captain Marquet (Ret.) relates the story of making a simple change on the fast attack nuclear submarine Santa Fe. He insisted that “when at your workstation, your butt is to be fully against the back of the chair.” In other words, NO SLOUCHING! On his submarine, everyone is a professional. On the Santa Fe, everyone is a leader. They are responsible for making sure they understand the vision, mission and tactics to complete their assignment. Everyone is expected to respect their job by acting in a professional manner.

It should be no surprise that by making a simple change requiring people to act professionally and competently, they will become professional and competent. This is especially true if the culture demands that everyone act in that manner. As leaders, that is our most important job — actively manage the culture, provide the tools, and training for technical competency to ensure a productive organization.