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Kevin Kruse on recognition, AI, and sparking 100 million leaders

Noted speaker and entrepreneur Kevin Kruse is the CEO of LEADx and the NY Times bestselling author of Employee Engagement 2.0. He has written for Business Week, Fast Company, and Business Insider. Kevin was a guest on the Work From Home Show podcast. The following is an edited version of Kevin’s conversation with our host Nikki Weisgarber. Hear the complete podcast.

 

Please tell us about your company, LEADx, and how you got interested in artificial intelligence (AI). 

I started LEADx three years ago. I've got about 30 years’ experience in human capital management leadership in the e-learning space. When I sold my previous company, I took a bunch of years off to raise my kids and write some books and things. But when I heard about how artificial intelligence was starting to be used for things like mental health and therapy, I wondered how we could use that technology to help people be better leaders. I wondered how we could create executive coaches instead of mental health coaches and therapists. So, three years ago I decided to do another start-up and put the team back together again.  

A “crazy” idea: sparking 100 million leaders  

Then it was off to the races. We've got this crazy idea that we're going to spark the next 100 million leaders around the world. That's a big number. And we would have no chance of doing that just through books or speeches or even e-learning or videos. But we might have a shot if we can create an AI leadership coach, release her out on the Internet, and over 10 years, maybe we'll make an impact on 100 million people's lives.

You recently worked with IBM Watson, the questioning and answering computer system. Tell us about that.  

Three years ago, we started using the IBM Watson platform to drive LEADx’s Coach Amanda (who is the personification of the coach). There is a chatbot component to it, but we're more interested in replicating the coaching process. A human executive coach will talk to their clients and give them some kind of assessment and help them with their action plan and provide resources. We're using IBM Watson in several steps in that process. We’ve already trained Watson and coach Amanda to deal with traditional leadership and management topics such as how to hold people accountable, employee engagement, employee recognition, feedback, innovation, and diversity – all the normal topics.  

When COVID-19 hit we very quickly saw the world was moving to a forced work-from-home situation, and we realized that that is going to be the topic on which we could help the most people in the short term. So, we got subject matter experts and looked at how you lead remote team members. How do you optimize work-from-home productivity?  How do you increase resilience, for yourself and for your team?  

Meet Coach Amanda – she knows what makes you tick  

We quickly created behavioral nudges, action plans, and dialogue assessments, all powered by IBM Watson. That’s what's in the background, but now Coach Amanda also has more information that's relevant right now.  

The result is LEADx with Coach Amanda, which is a coaching app (available for Apple iOS or Android). You can use it as an individual, but we're working with companies to deploy it to all their managers. When you open up the app, the first thing that the coach experience will do is offer you a personality assessment. It can also offer you a resiliency assessment or a growth mindset assessment. Once this is done, Coach Amanda knows a lot about you and what makes you tick and will automatically suggest content and topics and action plans that you can adopt.  

Let's say you want to get better at leading remote workers. Coach Amanda will send you a message (like a text) telling you one thing to do each week to get better as a leader. You could be following an action plan where you do one thing in a week to get better on a topic, Amanda will check in with you, on a Thursday for example, and say, “Hey Nikki, it's Amanda here. Did you get a chance to do that thing you were going to do? If so, give me your takeaway or reflection on the activity. If not, what got in the way of your progress?” Then you write back to coach Amanda in a little chatbot that goes in your coaching journal. Amanda becomes your accountability buddy to keep you on track with that action plan. She will also recommend book summaries, micro learning videos, and webinars to help you get stronger on the topic.  There’s also a menu (like a Netflix menu) where Amanda will make suggestions on what you need most or will be interested in; then you can do things like micro learning activities.  

The connection between personality and productivity

You mentioned a personality diagnosis. How does that link to work from home productivity? 

Self-awareness of your personality is so key. Even in regular circumstances, our behaviors are primarily driven based on personality. The actual personality assessment that psychologists use is called the Five Factor Model. There are five major personality traits or domains that most people have agreed on.  

The first is openness, it’s about whether you like to learn new things or are more of a traditionalist. The second is conscientiousness, it’s about how detail-oriented you are and how much grit you have with your organization. It looks at whether you are a big picture thinker and perhaps not so good with details. The third one looks at whether you are an extrovert or introvert. The fourth is agreeableness, which deals with whether you care more about relationships or truth. And the fifth one is negative emotion, dealing with how much we feel stress.  

Four of these five factors are directly related to our experiences working from home.

For example, if you score high on openness and you've been told, “Hey, you've got to go work from home and you're going to learn this thing called Zoom and here's a new laptop you have to learn,” you might have fun and be excited about learning new things and advancing your skills. But if you’re traditionalist and you like things to stay the same, you might struggle at learning new tools and processes. However, if you know that about yourself you can adjust and put extra time into it. And if your manager understands you, they can also make adjustments to help you. 

If I'm highly conscientious, it's not actually going to be hard to stay focused at home and be organized and make progress. But if my natural order is to be low in conscientiousness, then I'm going to struggle more at home when I don't have the support systems and the normal routines of the office. 

The introvert/extrovert factor is an obvious one. If I'm an extrovert, I get my energy by being in the office and high-fiving people down the hallway, so I might struggle at remote work. If I'm an introvert, working from home is probably how I prefer to work.  

The last one is the negative emotion. While we are all going through the same crisis, some people are naturally not that bothered by it, while others feel like the sky is falling. And so, the more we understand our own five personality traits the more we can adjust. If I know I’m not very organized I can figure out what I can do to make sure I don't drop the ball in the work-from-home environment.  

And if you're managing teams and you know who on your team are the extroverts and who are the introverts, you'll know which of my team members are going to experience stress more than others.  

Addressing remote work challenges

LEADx is a remote-first company and companies that you've started in the past have also been remote. What are some of the challenges you're facing with remote working? 

Even 30 years ago when it was unheard of, I used to tell people if you can get your job done while you're on a beach in South Florida drinking a cocktail, fine. It's about the results, it's not about where or when or the time spent.  

Another thing that I am always coaching my own team members on is that when you're working from home it's more important than ever before to do written communication well. So much more of how we’re communicating – whether it's emails, Slack, or some other project management system – is written, so it’s vital to do it well. 

It’s also important to remember that these are not normal work-from-home conditions. Even a person who normally is an all-star at working from home may face difficulties because now their spouse is also working from home and their kids are running around in the background. 

The 3 agreements for managing remote team members  

You have said that your number one tip for managing remote employees is to get three agreements. Let's talk about those. 

This is for any remote team. If you can get this right, almost everything else can fall into place.  

The first agreement is just an agreement on “when is the workday?” It doesn't have to be the same eight hours as before. You've got to give people flexibility. “Hey, Kevin's an early riser and he might want to start working at 7:00 in the morning but not work so late.” “Nikki’s like, hey, I don't want to start working till 10:00 but I’ll keep working into the evening.” That's a benefit that will let people maximize their productivity time. But you want to agree on the overlap. So, whether it's nine to five, or ten to twelve – we'll all agree to be working at the same time for some period of the day.  

The second agreement is about the expectation of how long it's going to take to get back to each other.  

If we agree that we will get back to each other in five minutes, in an hour, by the end of the day – whatever the answer is – we just all need to be on the same page.  This will often depend on the communication medium. If I message someone, I don't expect they're sitting there monitoring the message – they might be away for an hour doing something like going for a jog or eating lunch – but if they haven't responded in two or three hours that's a little weird. With email you can expect longer times to expect a response. To each their own, but you must have that agreement on how long.

The third agreement has to do with how we let each other know if and when we will be available. If you can’t be available in the agreed upon hours, there has to be an agreement on how you are letting your leader and teammates know. 

Goofing off is not the problem (it’s the opposite)

Some managers might be worried about remote people goofing off. But you say managers should be worried about the opposite. 

That's right. I think weak managers – ones who don't manage results – don't like people working from home because they can't see them.  But if you've hired good people and you're clear on what the objectives are, the real danger isn't that people aren't going to work hard enough, it’s that they are working too hard, which could put them at risk of burnout.  

We used to bookend our days with the daily commute. But now It's really easy to just roll out of bed, start answering emails, get lost in all your to-do’s and the next thing you know it's 11 o'clock and you're still in pajamas. Then you take care of the kids or whatever and then you push through right into dinner or beyond. So, people can be working more than they normally would – including on weekends –   because every day is kind of the same.  So, I always counsel people who are leading remote teams that they need to be setting an example of not messaging before a reasonable hour in the morning and not messaging or emailing after a certain hour.  

And you should be asking people how they're doing, especially now when so many people are stressed out. Let's take care of people’s mental health so they’re not burning out, which hurts us over the long haul.  

Building culture and engagement for remote teams  

What processes or practices can organizations and leaders employ to help build culture and employee engagement during this remote working time. 

I don't want to simplify it too much, but all the research that's out there tells us that the big things that engage people are growth, recognition, trust, and communication. 

Growth means we all want to be learning and advancing. Recognition means we all want to feel appreciated at work. Trust is about feeling like my leadership cares about me – I trust they've got a good plan for the future. Communication, of course, is two-way communication, not just one-way communication. 

All of these still apply whether people are sitting down the hall from each other, or whether we're all working from home. So, one of the keys to remote leadership is thinking about these kinds of triggers. 

As an example, you certainly still want to give verbal and or written recognition, but this is a perfect time to be using a recognition platform like Kudos. In the past you might just think you’ll give a team member a high-five in the hallway. But we're not physically there, and with everything going on it's hard to put recognition into place. What you want is a system. You want to institutionalize recognition. And you want it to be peer-based – not just manager-based or company-based. This is a perfect time to look at rolling out some way to facilitate and take the friction out of the recognition experience. 

Similarly, a key part of trust is caring.  If I think a team member doesn't care about me, I'm not going to trust that they’re going to do the right thing. If I know they care about me, then I trust that whatever decision they make makes is a good one. 

So, how do we build that caring when we're not in the same office again? Kudos and other platforms can help with this. Maybe you share photos of your co-workers at home (who happen to be cats and dogs) or set up book clubs, and special interest groups. We should be asking how we can facilitate these social connections that will increase caring, which increases trust.  

The business case for recognition

Can you talk about recognition and culture and their importance to business strategy?

I think recognition and culture are way at the top. In a book I wrote ten years ago, we looked at the employee engagement of 10 million workers around the world. And growth, recognition, and trust were the top three triggers. But recognition is, I think, the number one or number two most powerful trigger. It’s the easiest one to pull. And the thing about recognition is that it doesn't have to cost a lot of money or time. 

How would you help those thousands of CHROs out there trying to make the business case for freeing up budgets for recognition and culture initiatives?  

Most companies, at least for a while now because of the economy, are going to probably have to do more with less. There is going to be some budget cuts and fights over every dollar. But at the same time, I think it was analyst Josh Bersin who wrote that this is going to be the golden age for employee engagement – and I hope he's right.

The thinking is that when everyone's remote, we need people to be more productive than ever; we need people to be resilient and not burn out; we need to keep our best people in tough times.  And engagement, recognition, culture, and leadership are what drives these things – so they should be paramount. 

You need the “must have” expenses like laptops and Zoom licenses. But if you can find the money for those, you've got to find a way to help engage people while they are remote, because it's not going to happen as naturally as in the office. 

A big part of engagement is confidence in the future. And a lot of us don’t really think we know what's going to happen 6, 12, 18 months down the road. And so, when confidence in the future is dialed down, that's when you need to dial up one of these other drivers, like recognition.

Make these remote work changes stick

What are some of the lasting changes to leadership and organizations in general that might come out of this current crisis.   

I hope that establishing great practices for a cadence of communication sticks. For me, Mondays are for meetings, so I do a one on one with each of my direct reports every Monday to build relationships and keep us aligned. Then there are weekly team huddles at the end of day on Mondays, so that gets the team aligned. Plus, there are other end-of-day check ins. These are the types of practices that should stay in place whether remote or in an office. I think managers are going to develop much better skills for driving communications, culture,et cetera. I just hope they stick when things go back to normal. 

Any takeaways or last pieces of advice that you'd like to leave with the audience today?

Let's not waste this crisis. Ten years from now, if we're being interviewed for promotion or a job in a new organization, one of the questions is going to be “how did you lead your team during COVID-19?” It's going to be a go-to question. So, we're all being tested. Let's make this our testament to great leadership. People will remember how you led during this year. It's going to be part of your brand. Part of your reputation. So, let's give it our best right now. 

Where can people hear more from you? 

I’ve got the LEADx Leadership Show podcast with over 300 episodes. We've got Blanchard and Maxwell, and all the top people on it that you can learn so much from. And anybody can try LEADx with Coach Amanda – just go to your app store and download and try it and see if you like it.

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