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InfoQ Homepage Articles Author Q&A: Chief Joy Officer

Author Q&A: Chief Joy Officer

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Key Takeaways

  • The flat structure at Menlo Innovations described in Joy, Inc raised lots of questions and discussions 
  • The chapter on growing leaders, not bosses inspired many people to ask how to get started
  • Change must start with the individual and Chief Joy Offices is a reflection on Rich's own change journey 
  • Palpable human energy is part of being a joyful workplace
  • What probably prevents change more than anything is success. If you’re successful enough, then it’s hard to be convinced of the value of change

Richard Sheridan one of the founders of Menlo Innovations and author of Joy, Inc. has released his next book: Chief Joy Officer: How Great Leaders Elevate Human Energy and Eliminate Fear. Building on the concepts from his first book, he provides practical advice for leaders who want to cultivate a culture of joy in their organization. He defines Joy as the satisfaction of a job well done, of building products that people love to use and working in an environment of teamwork and trust. He maintains that through leadership, all organizations can cultivate a culture of joy and benefit from its many quantifiable and invisible rewards.

The book can be purchased here

Because Menlonians (as they describe themselves) always work in pairs, both Rich and Menlo’s chronicler Lauren Holmes collaborated to participate in this interview with InfoQ.

InfoQ: Why did you write this book? What is the important message that readers don’t get from Joy, Inc.?

Rich Sheridan: As I traveled the world sharing stories from Joy, Inc., my publisher and agent encouraged to listen to the questions that came up most often. Those questions began to reveal what topics my audiences were hungry to learn more about, and one section of the book brought up more questions than any other.

We have this very unusual, non-hierarchical, flat structure at Menlo. Some even call us a boss-less office, though that’s not a term we would use ourselves. In Joy, Inc. there is a chapter called “Growing Leaders, Not Bosses.” And that seemed to be where a lot of questions began. “How do I get started?” “What if I want to become a joyful leader?” “What if I want to create a joyful organization? What would that look like?”

So Chief Joy Officer was really born out of what changes I have had to make personally. I always tell people that you’ve got to start with you, and not with trying to change someone else. My basic hypothesis is that in order to make substantial change in your organization towards a more joyful culture, that journey has to start inside of you, inside your own heart. You have to become a different kind of leader. I had to become a different kind of leader. And that was really the reason for writing the book, because everybody was asking me: “How do I get started on this journey myself?”

InfoQ: What does a joyous workplace look and feel like?

Sheridan: I’ve written a whole book about this, but I’ll try to illustrate it with a short story. This morning, I had a first-time visitor to Menlo, and it just so happened that we came down the elevator to the office together. So I got to walk in with her. That’s always such a neat moment for me. I love to watch what happens when people first walk into Menlo. When she caught her first glimpse of Menlo through the glass doors, she said the same thing everybody does: “Wow!”

I love that even through the glass doors, you can feel the energy of Menlo. Palpable human energy is part of being a joyful workplace. It doesn’t end there, but that’s where it starts. A significant part of what makes Menlo a joyful place is what we’ve learned about fostering and sustaining human energy.

I think that in order to truly begin to understand what joy means in the workplace, you have to delve into the sort of things that are less visible, into questions such as: Why do we exist? What do we believe about ourselves? Who do we serve, and what would delight look like for them? That goes to the heart of our mission at Menlo, which we take very seriously: to end human suffering in the world as it relates to technology®.

Human energy lifts the spirit of your team, but purpose drives it forward. A shared purpose gives us that sense of why we work so hard every day on a particular goal, which in Menlo’s case is to delight those people we intend to serve. Energy and purpose are really at the root of what makes Menlo a joyful place to work—and then of course there are the other things we do as well that also add joy to the room—bringing dogs and babies to work, that sort of thing.

InfoQ: What prevents most workplaces from being joyous?

Sheridan: Change is hard. We get used to the way we work and we assume it’s just the way it has to be. Inertia is a big deal. Many of us have tried to make changes in our personal life—our health, our financial situation—only to find out we’re stuck in a rut. We know we need to change our behaviors in order to change our outcomes, but changing human behavior is hard.

What probably prevents change more than anything is success. If you’re successful enough, then it’s hard to be convinced of the value of change. You’ll say, well, why should we change when we’re already successful? Of course the problem with success is that it is often fleeting. It’s not like you reach a level of success and then automatically stay there. Every organization, every market, and every business ebbs and flows. When it’s flowing awesomely, we figure we don’t need to change. But when it’s ebbing, we get scared—and sometimes that’s the least opportune time to make a change, because fear can cloud our ability to make the best decisions for our organizations or our teams.

Another reason a lot of organizations struggle with change is because it often feels like change simply for the sake of itself. People get cynical: “last month we were lean but now we’re over it, so this month we’re agile.” So the only change ends up being the vocabulary— a buzzword or a poster on the wall. One of the primary jobs of leadership during times of change is to communicate the purpose.

InfoQ: Is there business value in joy?

Sheridan: There’s a study that Gallup does every year that measures employee disengagement at work. For decades, the ratio has been stuck at about 70 percent disengaged vs. 30 percent engaged. A percentage of that 70 percent is actively disengaged, meaning they’re literally working contrary to the purpose of the organization.

Imagine we could do something as leaders that could flip that equation. What if you still had the same people with the same paychecks, same parking spots, same office furniture, same technology, but now 70 percent of them—or more—were excited about coming to work?

A while back, I gave a talk at Mass Mutual about removing fear and inertia from their organization by just running experiments. (“Run the experiment” is a primary Menlo motto.) Some time afterward, they told me they had started to do just that. So I went back for a visit. As their VP of claims walked me to their huge claims area, she told me I would see balloons everywhere. And I said, “OK, what’s with the balloons?” She told me that a balloon had been taped to the desk of each person running an experiment. But, she added, the purpose of the balloons wasn’t just to tell people you were running an experiment but to invite them to come ask you about it.

So we walk into this vast space, and yes, there are balloons everywhere. Balloons as far as the eye can see. Knowing that this was an invitation, I run up to Susan's desk and I say, “Susan, tell me about your experiment.”

And she tells me how she changed a simple process in her world for doing quality checks and claim processing. She told me it was a three-step process, and by changing the order of the steps they were able to speed things up.

Now, that sounds like a pretty simple change right? But as Susan is telling me about this, she’s just beaming with energy. So I ask how long she’s worked there, and she says, “19 years.” I ask if she has always been this energetic. And she tells me, “I used to hate my job. I hated coming to work. All I thought about was when I would get to retirement.” When I ask her what’s different now, she says, “Now we can run experiments. We can take control of our work lives. In the old days, whenever you had an idea, you had to have it go up five levels before you could do anything. Every idea you ever had died on the vine. After a while you stop bringing ideas to work. You decide it’s just a job. But now I love my work. I love coming here.”

Do you think there’s business value to that kind of joy? Who wouldn’t want their people coming in every day with that attitude?

InfoQ: The book is aimed squarely at leaders - what are the characteristics of a joyous leader?

Sheridan: In the book, I differentiate between bosses and leaders. The difference is hierarchical: bosses can tell you what to do and how to do it. Leaders don’t have that positional authority to make things happen, so they have to lead by influence.

Joyous leaders are system thinkers. They realize that if you increase clarity and decrease ambiguity in people’s work lives, you actually bring more joy because you don’t have people wandering around anxiously trying to figure out their top priority.

I also don’t think people are willing to follow someone who is inauthentic. We are finely tuned to the smell of authenticity. We know it when we smell it and when we don’t.

A joyous leader is one who understands people. Not just in a generic sense. They get to know their team members’ life stories as much as they’re willing to share them. They get to know what their motivations are, what they hope to accomplish in their lives. And then they design an organization that knows how to take advantage of the qualities of all the people who work there.

Joyous leaders are also vulnerable themselves. They’re willing to share their lives with the people who work with them. Of course there are limits to this. We should never be over-sharing. But we need for our teams to know that we’re real human beings with dreams, fears, and families. We have other things going on in our lives besides work.

As I say in the book, if you want engagement, if you want your team to lead even when you are not there, then only love will work. Not fear, not intimidation, not bullying or bravado and not by being the smartest guy. Only love will do it.

InfoQ: What if I’m not in a leadership position - Do you have to be a leader to bring these ideas into your workplace?

Sheridan: I call this the “let me off the hook” question. I get this all the time: “I loved your book but it would never work for me because I’m not the CEO. I’m not an entrepreneur. I’m not the VP. I’m just the guy in the middle of the organization, so there’s nothing I can do.”

So I tell them this story: When I travel, one of my weaknesses is a quarter pounder with cheese at the Detroit metro airport. Now, an airport is one of the least relational places on the planet, and when you go into a McDonald’s you take that to an exponential level. You’re inside a relation-less restaurant inside a relation-less place, right? It’s busy and people are running because they’re late for their flights, so the turnover is high.

And here’s this older guy, Mike, cleaning the tables. Every time I go there, I see Mike hustling from table to table, wiping them down for the next candidate, throwing away their trash. And every single time, he leans in, looks me in the eye, and asks, “How are you doing? Can I get you anything? Do you need a napkin?”

And I’m thinking, who is this guy? All he has to do is hustle around and clean tables, but here he is asking if I’m OK and if I need anything. I don’t’ know about you, but I’ve never had that experience at another McDonald’s, much less one in an airport.

Then one day I stop by and Mike’s not there. This time there’s a kid busing the tables. And this kid stops by, leans in, and says, “How are you doing? Need anything? Have a safe flight.”

I’m like, what is going on at this McDonald’s? So I tracked down the manager later and told him how much this behavior meant to me. And he thanked me for noticing.

Now, if you’re a manager at an airport McDonald’s, you’re probably pretty low down in the organization. I’m pretty sure this guy didn’t call corporate and say, hey, would it be against policy to extend simple human kindness to our customers and maybe offer them a napkin? I don’t think he had to form a committee and write a new policy on kindness in the workplace.

My point is, you can lead from anywhere. And it can be simple. You change your heart when you walk in tomorrow morning with a brighter disposition, when you look people in the eye and say, “Hey, good morning. How are you? Can I get you anything? A cup of coffee? It’s good to see you. How was your weekend?” Those simple acts of human kindness could start to make a change in the people around you.

Then you start to run grander experiments on a small scale. You don’t have to change your whole corporation. Start with you. Start with the people around you, your team, your local environment.

Leaders influence people through their actions and their disposition. You don’t need a title to be a leader. You don’t need a hierarchical position. You don’t even need to be in an office. Anyone can lead.

InfoQ: What if I’m just not a happy person - how can I be joyous at work?

Sheridan: Can you be kind? Can you be gentle? Those things can bring joy to an organization even if you’re not that bubbly, spring-in-your step kind of person.

When we were putting together the book on joy, there was a discussion about the subtitle. It ended up being “How We Built a Workplace People Love.” But initially, my publisher wanted it to say “Take a Peek Inside the World’s Happiest Workplace.” And I said, “Don’t you dare! Joy and happiness are completely different things.”

Here’s a passage about the difference from Joy, Inc.:

At Menlo, we have fun, we laugh a lot, and there is almost always palpable energy—but we aren’t always happy. We have a shared belief system. We are focused and driven. At times, we are cynical and downright angry. We use the energy of our anger and cynicism to fuel our work, in hopes of ending human suffering caused by what is perhaps one of the most broken industries on the planet: information technology.

Joy is the deep satisfaction you get from successfully training for and completing a marathon.

Joy is watching your daughter marry the man of her dreams, knowing that all the exhausting work of parenting is expressed in a simple “I do.”

Joy is the feeling a fighter pilot gets when, after all the training and preparation, she lands an F-18 on the deck of an aircraft carrier in rough seas, strong winds, and low visibility. Once the engine is quiet and the wheels secured, she knows that the aircraft, the carrier, the flight deck team, and she are all safe and sound—and she can’t wait to do it again.

Excerpted from Joy, Inc.: How We Built a Workplace People Love by Richard Sheridan; Foreword by Kerry Patterson, in agreement with Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © Richard Sheridan, 2013.

InfoQ: What's needed to enable a joyous culture?

Sheridan: When you pump fear out of the room, amazing things start to happen. People generate more creative ideas and ask more meaningful questions. They skip long, unproductive meetings in favor of running experiments so they can make mistakes faster and get to solutions sooner.

I’m a flight fanatic. I love planes. So let me use a plane metaphor to expand on this.

First, here’s a basic diagram showing the forces that affect flight.

Simply put, lift and thrust moves the plane up; drag and weight bring it back down. 

Now imagine the plane is your team. Imagine that drag equals fear and weight equals bureaucracy. Then imagine that lift is human energy and thrust is shared purpose.


To create a joyful culture, you need to do more of the things that propel your team upward, things that encourage the lift of human energy and the thrust of shared purpose. And you need to eliminate as much as possible the drag of fear and the weight of bureaucracy, the endless meetings that don’t go anywhere. 

Then watch your team fly.

About the Author

Rich Sheridan, Menlo Innovations' CEO, became disillusioned in the middle of his career in the chaotic technology industry. He had an all-consuming thought…things can be better.  Much better.  He had to find a way. Why couldn't a workplace be filled with camaraderie, human energy, creativity, and productivity Ultimately, Rich co-founded Menlo Innovations in 2001 to end human suffering in the workplace.  His unique approach to custom software creation is so surprisingly different, that 3,000 people a year travel from around the world just to see how they do it. His passion for creating joyful work environments led to his bestselling and widely-celebrated book, Joy, Inc. - How We Built a Workplace People Love.  His highly-anticipated second book, Chief Joy Officer, came out December 4th and will continue to prove that a positive and engaging leadership style is actually good for business.

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