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Great Organizations | Great Leaders

Coffee on the GO with Julie Clow

The author of The Work Revolution envisions a workplace defined by “freedom and excellence for all.”
Coffee on the GO with Julie Clow

After completing a Ph.D. in behavior analysis, Julie Clow spent her early career “dutifully working in traditional corporate environments” designing and delivering training courses. Her working world view exploded in 2006 when she began a five-year stint at Google. The company’s expectation of innovation and its unique culture inspired her book, The Work Revolution: Freedom and Excellence for All. Her experience at Google also helped shape her Work Revolution Manifesto, which proclaims “Freedom in the workplace is worth fighting for, and every person and every organization can be excellent.”

The Work Revolution, as Clow envisions it, needs to begin not with a leadership coup or sweeping reforms, but rather with small, individual efforts that, in concert and over time, possess the power to turn a rules-driven corporate culture upside down.

She talked to GO about the current state of the world of work, the need to change its nature and structure, and why younger employees may already be firing the Work Revolution’s first shots.

GO: What inspired you to write The Work Revolution?

CLOW: It was the high-definition contrast between my experience with traditional organizations—with set times, dress codes, and top-down direction—and my introduction to Google. All of a sudden I was an adult; co-workers viewed me as a colleague with something significant to offer. I saw how positively and personally I responded to an environment built on trust, and I became passionate about trying to articulate what I was feeling.

I began to question the assumptions behind the way we manage people, and take a fresh look at whether or not we needed all those rules and regulations. The book was an outgrowth of the liberating environment I so wholeheartedly embraced at Google.

GO: Do we really need a work revolution?

CLOW: Absolutely. The biggest reason is that the type of work that we’re doing now is vastly different than the work we did at the turn of the 20th century. While most of the jobs of yore were manual-labor intensive, today’s jobs are knowledge-based. It’s now much more about innovation and finding new ways of solving problems. It no longer makes sense to have a management system that is structured to elicit specific behaviors and deliver prescribed outcomes. Companies such as Google understand that in this environment, we need to empower people to make an infinite number of decisions about a world of unknowns, which may or may not require solutions. In the book, I wrote about the outdated tools that are no longer effective.

GO: What is the impact on employees when companies do not update their tools to align with the times?

CLOW: I think employee disengagement is the most debilitating symptom of an ailing corporate culture. If you show up to work each day, and you’re working on something in isolation—without any understanding of how your efforts support the bigger picture or add value—it is really easy to become bored and dissatisfied. When iron-fisted managers reign as the all-answer guys and are dismissive of new ideas and the people who propose them, they continue to wreak havoc on organizational morale. Bad management is a result of not questioning the status quo, not moving forward, and not empowering employees.

GO: Speaking of questioning the status quo and moving forward, how does innovation figure into the need to reinvent work?

CLOW: Bottom line: When companies fail to think innovatively, profits shrink. Executives get fixated on the notion that they’re producers of X, Y, and Z, rather than focusing on being problem-solvers for their end-users. And, problem-solving is an ongoing, constantly evolving process.

If we continue to believe as an organization that we have all the answers, we forfeit the opportunity to take our lessons learned and apply them to the next hurdle or innovation. High turnover, as a result of inside-the-box thinking, is also very destructive to an organization. If instead you can revolutionize the workplace, you’ll likely enjoy favored employer status and attract top talent to drive greater innovation.

GO: You point out that the revolution has a special appeal to Gen Yers.  Does its success rest with them? Is the movement generational?

CLOW: I think it resonates with Gen Yers in particular, although I don’t believe their entrance into the workforce necessitated the kinds of changes we are discussing. I really believe that the revolution will grow skyward, and the Gen Yers have a demonstrated affinity for grassroots initiatives. I believe real change will start with them, and I’ve seen some examples to support this. Readers have told me that as a result of the book, they’ve revised their mission statements, so that their stated roles are now part of the collective mission of the company and are infused with promises of possibility. I’ve heard this new perspective more from the Gen Y group than from any of the other age demographics. I know this isn’t a statistically significant sample; just a few data points, but it’s very encouraging.

I think a lot about Facebook and how it began with that generation and grew from there. One of the arguments I make in my book is that the work revolution may similarly find a home within that generation and move upward, following a similar trajectory.

GO: What is the most surprising reaction you’ve gotten to the book?

CLOW: A reader asked to connect with me on LinkedIn, then shared that she’d just finished my book and promptly quit her job!


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