CONVERSATIONS WITH SETH MATTISON

Mattison is a worldrenowned expert on workforce trends and the generational change we’re currently experiencing in the workforce; his work tracks how shifting demographics will necessitate a new style of leadership. In his book, The War at Work, Mattison details how reimagining leadership and talent management for the 2020s is the key to building stronger, more effective teams.

Pulse: The War at Work is different from the typical business book: it’s a narrative told from the perspective of a C-Suite executive. Why did you decide to structure the book this way?

MATTISON: The reason my co-author Joshua Medcalf and I decided to write The War at Work as a parable is because most business books are terribly boring and left only partially read. I read a statistic that said roughly 40 percent of nonfiction books are read to completion. I have countless business books on my shelves at home that are only half-read. Some I never made it past the first chapter!

Our primary focus with this project was to get people to read it and because the premise of the work is fairly complex and nuanced, we didn’t want lose people in the weeds of the research. Organizational psychology, network theory and systems thinking don’t typically make for great bedtime reading for the average leader out there.

With the intention of making the content digestible for everyone, Joshua and I partnered with a fabulous Hollywood screenwriter to bring our research to life through the power of a great story. A story with characters that everyone could relate to, plot twists and even a surprise ending.

It made the project so much more fun and our hope is that it’s fun for people to read.

P: What do you mean when you talk about hierarchies vs. networks at work?

M: Every single day we drink from a firehouse of information talking about “new ways of working” and our steady march towards flatter, more agile organizations. Hyper-connected, digitally charged and deeply empowering, it promises to usher in a new era of work. However, what’s often left out of the conversation is the fact that the structures, and more importantly the deeply embedded culture of hierarchy, often still exist in our organizations manifesting in subtle and sometimes explicit ways. Today these two forces, “hierarchies” and “networks”—or what we might refer to as “structure” and “agility”—are at battle with each other.

The modern workplace is at a critical juncture today, as progressive as many organizations want to believe they are, many are still unconsciously holding tight to a laundry list of “unwritten rules of the hierarchy” based on a 20th century model of work. Rules around communication and etiquette, chain of command, policies and procedures, where and when work happens, work ethic, and paying your dues.

However, as the workforce of the future continues to flood organizations’ ranks, it’s becoming clear they simply do not see the world through the same lens. In fact, they’re unaware of most of the unwritten rules that are so innately understood by more experienced generations. While previous generations came of age in the hierarchy, today’s youth are coming of age in the network, and operate under a new set of principles.

To win today, we’ll need the best of both of these forces, structure and agility, in order to create an entirely new mindset where leaders no longer see themselves as leading from the top of the hierarchy but instead from the center of the network.

P: You talked about the unwritten rules of hierarchy; what are the unwritten rules of networks, and how might spa professionals use these to become better leaders?

M: Network as a force is about empowerment of both employees and customers. Never before have individuals had tools of this magnitude at their disposal to create impact. Resources like mobile, digital, social, intelligent automation and artificial intelligence have given people the ability to do three big things:

  1. Access information to make decisions and drive outcomes.
  2. Communicate ideas and make their voices heard.
  3. Connect with others to build community and spark movements to create impact.

The lesson small business owners should take away from understanding the forces of network is that our employees and customers feel tremendously empowered today. They’ve been birthed into a reality where they know they have access to the world at their fingertips. Don’t fight their desire to have impact, but help tHem underthat with power comes responsibility and expectations. High-performance cultures are driven by clarity around values and behaviors that inform how everyone shows up and a deep sense of personal responsibility not just to the leaders, but to the team.

P: How and why should leaders begin to move away from hierarchy at work?

M: It’s important to note that hierarchy isn’t inherently bad. It goes back to the idea of structure and agility. We need both hierarchy and network. There are powerful aspects of hierarchy that help us perform and execute in a business. Of course, we want to acknowledge and let go of unwritten rules that no longer serve the culture, but simultaneously we want to leverage aspects of hierarchy —such as structure, order, predictability and stability—that will help us scale and grow the business.

One of the positive aspects of structure, order and predictability is that they collectively help make us feel safe. When we clearly understand our role and how it fits into the bigger picture of the business, we’re more likely to feel a sense of certainty. In a world faced with extreme uncertainty and ambiguity right now, identifying aspects of our business that create certainty helps our people feel safe, and that’s critical to shaping a high-performance team.

P: Labor shortage was a huge issue in the spa industry prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. How can spas leverage generational workforce changes to attract new workers?

M: Even though we have historically been bad at it, the research is clear about what’s required to create engagement with our teams. If we create an amazing place to work where people feel a deep sense of belonging, an environment where they can fully be themselves, all the way, where they can stretch and grow and expand into their highest selves, those same employees will in turn serve as your greatest recruiting asset. The only way you can create a great place to work is to go to work first and foremost on yourself as a leader. There are no magic formulas and it’s not about the money. It always comes back to the leader. A Gallup study of over 7,000 Americans concluded that one in two people had left a job at some point during their career to get away from their managers in order to improve their overall quality of life. People don’t leave companies, they leave managers. Learn to lead yourself, then lead your team. The team will take care of the rest.

There are two top drivers of engagement that spa leaders must embrace: trust and confidence in the future of the organization and you as a leader, and opportunities to learn and grow. The challenge relatively flat organizations like spas have is that there typically isn’t a large career ladder for staff to climb, so when we see strategies like “opportunities to learn and grow” it’s easy to immediately think, “We don’t have a place for people to move up in our business,” or “What if I train my people and then they leave me?!” To that I always say, “What if you don’t train them and they stay?” It’s an easy choice. This is not just about career paths and “moving up,” this is about “skilling up.” This is about caring enough about an individual’s growth and development that we’re okay if their path leads them somewhere else.

P: How do you recommend spa leaders keep older workers happy as workplace hierarchies continue to evolve?

M: Again, I’ll go back to the idea that what we’re really working towards is unleashing the power of both hierarchy and network. Structure and Agility. While we said hierarchy provides the clarity, order, and predictability older spa professionals have come to expect and often appreciate, with that structure has historically come very little freedom.

On the flip side, network provides freedom but with that freedom comes ambiguity and uncertainty as things move and change very quickly. That uncertainty can make folks feel everything from anxiety to fear which in turn reduce engagement and lower productivity.

We want to bring a balance of both. I want to create an environment with just enough structure to help my people feel safe coupled with just enough “agility” to help them feel free.

When our cultures are rooted in both of these values magic happens. We lead spas where people feel not just safety from understanding expectations, but they feel psychologically safe, too. They feel safe enough to bring their whole self to work. That safety, paired with freedom, creates workplaces on fire with passion, purpose and a deep sense of belonging— all of which shape powerful client experiences.

P: What can spa leaders do right now to immediately become better leaders for the next generation of work?

M: If I walked into your spa today the first thing I would ask is, “Tell me about your culture?” Then I would say, “Show me your culture contract.” A culture contract is a formal agreement that’s been collaboratively created to establish the specific values and behaviors all members of the team have agreed to embody.

These values can be anything. Candor, courage, kindness, accountability— whatever values mean the most to you and your organization. The key is in identifying the values, collectively agreeing on what it means to embody them and then empowering the team to hold each other accountable to those values, consistently.

What we’re talking about here is not aspirational words on the wall. This is about action. I know lots of leaders that feel good about claiming a value like candor, but then their team shows up and their actions towards each other are passive-aggressive and conflict avoidant. It’s the kind of environment where the “real meeting” happens after the meeting, and rumors and gossip run wild. This is what I call a culturally counterfeit team. It imitates high performance but it’s not the real thing.

Once we’ve established “how” we’re going to show up as a team, the key to high-performance is to shift responsibility from people being responsible to the leader and to their
individual performance expectations to people feeling responsible to the team. I want my team’s primary motivator not to be feeling accountable to me but to each other.

The job of leadership is one of the most difficult but rewarding gifts in the world. The only way you can fully step up to the responsibility is to truly love and care for people. If you don’t love people, you can’t be a leader. You can a mediocre manager, but you’ll never be a true leader. If you feel called in your heart to do this work then you have to wake up every morning and recommit to leading yourself. Am I embodying the values we established as a team? How am I showing up today? How will I be remembered by the people I lead today? Lead yourself. Lead the team. The team will take care of the rest.