S1E5: Nancy Lyons on Alignment, Ownership, and Working Like a Boss

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Nancy Lyons and Andi Graham

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As leaders, we are expected to guide behavior according to the values of the companies at which we work. But what about employees?  How can they find empowerment and autonomy within the ethos of the organizations at which they work?

Nancy Lyons is the CEO at Clockwork, a digital consultancy, and the author of “Work Like a Boss, A Kick in the Pants Guide to Finding and Using Your Power at Work.”   In this episode, Nancy and Andi discuss finding values alignment between employees and clients, offering autonomy and support to leaders looking to flex their leadership ability, and how to challenge and empower your employees.

You can find Nancy at Clockwork, on her own website, and can pre-order her book, Work Like a Boss!


Nancy Lyons:                I don’t know anything that you don’t know, I’m just willing to try. That’s the difference between entrepreneurs, between bosses and everybody else. And so, the opportunity for everybody to show up like a boss, to have empathy, to be honest, to say, I don’t know, to have ownership over success, to own relationships. We run small companies, at the end of the day, the relationships are ours. How much more successful could we be if we could scale that?

Andi:                            Hey there, this is Andi again with Walk the Walk, a podcast for entrepreneurs running values based businesses. Today in the show we have Nancy Lyons. Nancy is a speaker author, and the CEO at Clockwork, a leading digital consultancy in Minneapolis. She’s a work culture advocate and her new book called Work Like a Boss, a kick in the pants guide to finding and using your power at work is available for presales now and will be shipped in the fall. And she talks a little bit about that on the podcast. Nancy lives by three simple principles that I love, think strategically, act thoughtfully and be a good human. Seems really simple, doesn’t it?

Andi:                            She has long been a role model for me in running a human first organization, one that challenges and empowers its employees. Two words that you will hear in this podcast that have recently come to my mind again, they call it people first as a business strategy. And it’s the guiding principle that fuels the unique award winning culture at Clockwork. I’ve long tried to model the culture at Big Sea after what Nancy has done with her group at Clockwork in Minneapolis. I could talk to Nancy all day and I have, but today we’re here talking about alignment and what it means to work like a boss. Nancy, thank you so much for joining me on the podcast today. It’s wonderful to see your face.

Nancy Lyons:                It’s nice to see yours. Thanks for having me.

Andi:                            Yeah. And I love your Zoom background. Zoom backgrounds are the new, what’s going to happen next on every Zoom call. So.

Nancy Lyons:                Yes, well, my Zoom background is compliments of New York city where I would love to be, but cannot be, so.

Andi:                            Oh, are you supposed to be there right now?

Nancy Lyons:                Yeah, actually I am. I had a strategy meeting that got canceled and I love that city. Any reason to go, but yes, I did have a reason to be there.

Andi:                            Yeah, for me, it’s fun to visit, but I would never want to live there.

Nancy Lyons:                Well, it seems like it’d be exhausting. I said that to somebody the other day, it seems like I would be late for everything for the rest of my life.

Andi:                            I appreciate that. Yeah, more late than I already am. I’m always two to five minutes late for everything. So.

Nancy Lyons:                Me too. Me too.

Andi:                            I just think I can fit one more task in, I can get one more thing done.

Nancy Lyons:                I’m the same. It’s not about respecting the person that I’m talking to or meeting with, it’s really about my own inability to manage my own time.

Andi:                            Same. Yup. I’m a deadline driven person too, so it’s like, oh, this is the deadline I have to give myself an earlier deadline I think, so. All right, well, I’m so excited to have you here today because whether you know it or not, you have truly inspired me for a very long time, especially when you gave a voice to the words, values based organization and values based company. And I put that phrase, aligned with that phrase really strongly, especially in the beginning, because I had a hard time articulating what I thought I was doing at the time. And so, I love that and that’s definitely the inspiration for this podcast. So, that’s why you’re here, I’m excited to talk to you and I want to talk to you a little bit, how did you come to articulate that phrase and recognize that that’s what you were doing with your business?

Nancy Lyons:                I think it came about quite frankly as a result of growing up on the internet, which isn’t to say that I’m a millennial, I’m solidly Gen X, but coming around to a career in the beginning of the mainstream internet and seeing how traditional corporate entities treated it, where in the very beginning, when we started doing this, it was in the ’90s, the mid ’90s. And while Clockwork is not that old, we had a company before this that started very early in the commercial internet. And what we realized is so few organizations that were trying to integrate digital into their offering understood the complexities of digital. So, they had big aspirations, they had high expectations of what digital should bring them, but they had very little understanding of what they were actually asking for, the cost, the investment, the skill sets necessary to build those things.

Nancy Lyons:                So, they over promised generally speaking and they under delivered. And then people that came to us asking for those services really wanted just to hear what they wanted to hear. They wanted to hear that all of their dreams were going to come true as a result of their underinvestment in the web, and that we were going to do that for them. And so, I think aligning our approach to work with the world’s expectations was the beginning of our need to really establish a set of values that we could clearly articulate and lead with those. So, I really think that the kinds of people we wanted to surround ourselves with, we knew had to be a reflection of those values, the kind of people we wanted to do business with, it was really initially about alignment and the ability to very honestly and directly communicate with both internally and externally.

Andi:                            So how does that, I’m curious because I like to hear that phrase, but what does that look like in action? Behaviorally, what does that alignment look like? How do you determine whether clients and employees and I’ll start with clients because I think that’s a tougher one are aligned?

Nancy Lyons:                Yeah. I mean, I think it’s about having candid conversations early and often. And I think it’s about talking about how we work and understanding and laying out this idea that they have expectations of us, we have expectations of them, right? So, I think that as all business frankly has evolved, but various specialty digital business has evolved. It’s essential that that ability to communicate candidly is a two way stream because I think those complexities that I referenced earlier are a constant. So, I think when we talk about what’s necessary with clients, it’s really about openness, honesty, transparency, consistency, continuity.

Nancy Lyons:                Our values, the number one core value that we list on our website is we tell the truth and we keep our promises. So, in as much as we bring that to the table, we have that expectation of our clients too. And that becomes really clear when we establish our relationships right out of the gate. We also, additionally, our core values are super simple. We’re curious, we’re adaptable, we’re fueled by challenge. It’s really helpful if our clients, maybe those aren’t their core values, but they mirror those interests and they don’t have to approach problems in the same way that we do. They just have to want to approach problems collaboratively. And I also think, there’s really obvious value alignment too. So, I always tell people that over the years I’ve said no to a handful of significant client opportunities and they are Nazis, pornography and gun sale.

Andi:                            Guns, yup. I was going to say, we’ve turned down a lot of those.

Nancy Lyons:                A lot of guns, right? And it’s hard because guns have lots of money and they’re willing to invest in the right solutions. So, just this last year we said no to online gun sales again, I mean in the last six months, which could have made the difference right now on the middle of a pandemic. And in fact, we had a moment after all of this stay at home stuff started and sales were just slow, where we said, are they slow enough for us to want do guns?

Andi:                            Oh my gosh.

Nancy Lyons:                That was a question that came up. Now, the answer was a resounding no, sales will never be that slow. But it’s interesting how you revisit those even when they are clear and accepted by all, we still go back and say, is that still true? Yeah, it is actually.

Andi:                            And I think that’s the one thing about core values that I find the most useful is that they give you guardrails. They give you, it’s not the path, but it’s the way to not fall off the path that you are choosing. And so, one thing Zooey and I did this year that we thought was really helpful is we actually sat down and went through our core values and talked about what behaviors should our employees be exhibiting that either strongly align or strongly contradict with these core values so that we can give a name to those things like this is, or is not aligned with these core values. And we use those in our annual reviews, and managers use that when they talk to their folks.

Andi:                            But with clients it’s a little bit more difficult because there’s so much gray area and you can’t ask people to really stick to those things. So, I’m curious, how do you … So, it sounds like there’s a lot of top down values alignment. So, that was my question is you said you put it out to your folks to say, are we slow enough for guns? What would have happened if everybody said, yeah, let’s do guns now. We’re ready for it.

Nancy Lyons:                Well, I think the answer was predictable, so it was almost an unfair question. So, I don’t think that would have happened. And also to be clear, that question didn’t come from me, I think it came from sales, are we slow enough where we’d go back to. But, I know, I don’t want to bring up my book for no apparent reason, but I just-

Andi:                            No, we’re going to talk about your book. I’m thrilled to talk about it.

Nancy Lyons:                Thank you. I appreciate the opportunity to talk about it. So I wrote this book called Work Like a Boss, and the reason I wrote it is because people like you and I talk all the time, right? You, and I see each other during the year, we go to leadership or entrepreneurial conferences, we speak at similar events. I meet and see and exchange thinking with people like you all the time and go figure books are written for us all the time by other people like us. People who talk about values and people who talk about ways of leading and people who talk about what it’s like to be a good manager, but quite frankly, there are very few books written for the people we employ.

Nancy Lyons:                And the reason I bring that up now, and in answer to your question is one of the things over the years that I realized is I can have values and I can express them and expect them from the people I work with and I can state them. I can clearly articulate them and I can evaluate performance based on those values, but the values aren’t true if everybody isn’t subscribing and living them. So, there’s this … I do a lot of equality activism. I belong to this organization called Family Equality, and I’ve been in the LGBTQ movement for years. And I learned early on as somebody who has been out and proud for a long time that we can make something legal. Marriage can be legal, but if it isn’t lived, if equality isn’t lived, it’s not true.

Nancy Lyons:                So, if my workplace actually discriminates against me, my legal rights don’t matter, right? If my community isn’t welcoming of me or inclusive of me and my family, my legal rights don’t matter. If there is hate in the world, and I experienced it, the law doesn’t actually matter because my lived experience is different. And I think that that difference between legal and lived can actually be distilled into how we operate our workplaces, what we want and what we live can be really far apart if we aren’t hiring the right people, if we’re not having the right consistent conversations, if we aren’t insisting on the right kinds of behavior.

Nancy Lyons:                But if we don’t also employ leaders, and I mean people who are leaderly regardless of their job title, if we’re not employing and collaborating with and empowering people to live and support and extract those values from each other, then we’re doing it wrong. So, I think, I can say these are our values and this is what I want, but individuals have to feel accountable and responsible for bringing those things forward every day and for asking for them from each other every day why those values aren’t true. So, that was a really long winded way of answering your question, but that’s the answer.

Andi:                            I love it. And it is truly asking employees to own it. And I recognize that we do that and that they are asked to do that without the accountability that goes with it, which is why we set up the behavioral guardrails at the very least, but. I’m already thinking, I’m going to buy a bunch of copies of this book to give to all of my employees, but that also seems like top down, right? It’s like, go read this and then live this.

Nancy Lyons:                Yeah. Well, I think that’s what I bought the book for. When I first started it, I thought, oh, I’m going to write an employee manual, right? Because where I struggle in the world and I imagine you do too Andi, is people waiting to be told.

Andi:                            Yes.

Nancy Lyons:                Right?

Andi:                            100%, yes.

Nancy Lyons:                People need to be told. And there isn’t enough leadership on the planet to tell all the people, all the things. And so, I started thinking, what do people need? And interestingly enough, there was a McKinsey report just released in the last few days that talks about the skills necessary, the change that the pandemic is forcing us toward and the skills necessary in our workforces. And this book is all of that. So, it was like divine because I started thinking, we talk a lot about what it takes to be a great manager. We talk about systems, but we don’t talk about the soft stuff to the degree that we need to, to trigger the right responses in people. And so I thought, well, I’m going to write an employee manual that everybody can give out to their staff that will just remind them of stuff that they’ve forgotten.

Nancy Lyons:                And you’ve seen me do talks. And I always say, I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. But when I think about what we do to children in school, we tell them to behave, shut up, sit down, get in line, wait your turn, right? And those are behaviors that we instill in young people and we force them to continue through college. Then they get out of college, and now we say, now start thinking for yourself. And we wonder why these young people that we hire and even into mid-career are incapable of making decisions, of feeling confident, or even faking confidence of acting as if they’re peers of our clients versus subservient to clients of bringing power and thoughtfulness and initiative and rigor to their work.

Nancy Lyons:                We wonder why that doesn’t happen and why we’re constantly encouraging them, just try, just try, make a decision. And that’s not a criticism. It’s just, there is a fundamental gap between those of us who run businesses and had to figure it out, right? And those people who’ve never been put in that position. What did you know when you started?

Andi:                            Nothing, yeah.

Nancy Lyons:                Exactly.

Andi:                            I screwed it all up.

Nancy Lyons:                Exactly. And do you know everything every single day?

Andi:                            Gosh, no. Yeah.

Nancy Lyons:                And how often do you just dive into the abyss and figure it out when I get there, but they look to you and they think, well, you must know everything. So, I’ll wait for you to tell me.

Andi:                            That’s true.

Nancy Lyons:                So, what I had to do in the book was breakout this idea that I don’t know anything that you don’t know, I’m just willing to try. That’s the difference between entrepreneurs, between bosses and everybody else. And so, the opportunity for everybody to show up like a boss, to have empathy, to be honest, to say, I don’t know, to show up with their values first, to contribute to a healthy culture, to have ownership over success, to own relationships. We run small companies, at the end of the day, the relationships are ours. How much more successful could we be if we could scale that? I mean, so to me it was like, I got to write this stuff down or I’m going to blow up. I’m also old, I’m old, it’s like I’m done, I’m done pulling it out to people. I want people to show up with it.

Andi:                            Yeah. Well, there is the strange, there are the people who punch the clock who show up, they get their work done, they are work horses and they will do their work and do it well. And then they go home and they don’t want to think about it anymore. And so, how does this book address people with that mindset? I mean, there is a little bit of, especially as folks get older, but I would even say some younger folks who just want to be told what to do, do it and go home. We’ve had one employee like that. He was great, if you could just give him all his tasks lined up in a row, he would knock those things out and be out the door. But that was it.

Nancy Lyons:                Yeah. So, it’s for them too. And I think one of the things that I state up front is if you take one thing from this book, then it’s been a success, just one thing, one inspirational point, one motivator, one action item, one tangible tool, it’s been a success. And I think, one of the things that I try to do throughout the book is challenge those entrenched mindsets, which is exactly what you’re talking about, right? It’s just a person who needs a checklist, but work is more than what it used to be. That’s somebody who is following a template for work, and that template was created probably 100 years ago, right?

Nancy Lyons:                When you think about those people that are looking to just punch in and punch out, that’s a template that no longer work. It’s no longer applicable and much less so in a post pandemic society. And because we’re recognizing we don’t have time, we might have to go home again, right? We might have to go home again and think for ourselves and make business. We can’t survive something like this again, so we have to create the systems, but more than that, we have to create the emotional strength and the workforces to be able to thrive in the context of these sorts of shifts, cultural shifts or historical moments in order for our businesses to survive stuff like this going forward. So, I think we talk about that in the book.

Nancy Lyons:                The other thing that I think is important to note is, this isn’t just for your employees, what do you and I do? We create customer experiences. We create client experiences. And so, we have a view into our client’s businesses that a lot of businesses don’t get, right?

Andi:                            Yeah, huge, huge.

Nancy Lyons:                And so, what do you see? I mean, as much as our own staffs or our own experiences might be frustrating, or we might have moments, I would much rather work here than in the paralyzing world of corporate America, right? Because we’ve seen it and we see how decisions get made or they don’t get made. We see the silos and how dysfunctional they are. We see the desire to sabotage one another in order to get ahead, we see the lack of validation. We see people not getting heard. So, the book covers all of that too.

Nancy Lyons:                So, it’s not even just about our businesses, it’s about much bigger businesses and some of the crap that’s baked into their DNA that they can’t get past, but they must get past because I think as a country, we’re falling behind. We’re falling behind and we’re struggling with that. That’s not a political issue. It’s true. And so, the hope is that the book inspires action at all levels of all sizes of organizations, because people see themselves, maybe not throughout the entire book, but maybe in a chapter. And it changes just a little bit of behavior.

Andi:                            I love that. I saw myself in the chapters you had written, and I recognize that that’s … I mean, there’s an executive coach that the first episode of this podcast was with Dr. Jennifer Hall and she’s an executive coach and she actually created assessment tool called the Entrepreneurial Mindset. And so, you can give it to your employees to just assess, who’s here to really own this company or their own lives and look at how much advocacy they have for their own positions. And it’s an interesting tool of assessment, but of course then gives you the window of like, okay, they need some coaching in these areas. I think it’s a simplistic version of the ownership of your work life in a general sense.

Andi:                            But, it’s just so spot on. I mean, we have interns who come in and our younger employees who are just, there’s some who you can see that hunger, and then there’s some who are just okay, I’m here. Can you tell me what to do next? So. And it’s so time consuming, right? Telling people what to do is so inefficient, it’s crazy, so anyway.

Nancy Lyons:                And I think that’s what I mean when I say I’m old, I have far less patience for it than I used to. I mean, how long have I been doing this 25 years? Working on the internet, that’s insane. That’s insane.

Andi:                            It is insane.

Nancy Lyons:                I mean, I was seven to be fair. I was a bit of a savant, but still.

Andi:                            Kind of a savant, I love that. I mean, thinking about those things, how do managers fit into that role aside from just the top level leadership and then employees, but then how can I work with my mid level folks to help them … I don’t know, because I’m already thinking about how we’re going to introduce this book into our team, which is we don’t do well with that. I can pass out 100 books and everybody throws them on their counter and two people read it and talk about it. So, I was talking about doing a book club and each week we review a chapter of some capacity, but I’m wondering how I can get my managers to share this information or at least share their … Because, I tell people all the time, I want you to own this. I want you to feel passion for this, I want … But it’s again, it’s the lived versus learned experience. How do I get my managers, how do I get them to help their teams feel this accountability and to work like a boss?

Nancy Lyons:                Well, I think we should do a bureau of digital book club, and then I’ll come to it and we’ll all talk about how this not only impacts our own staff, but our clients and how we can be helpful with them. But, that’s neither here nor there. I think that the way that managers can be most helpful is to learn how to empower and challenge the people that they work with and get out of the way. Because I think, what I realized about my own organization is that management, when things go off the rails and I mean, I know you have lovely and perfect relationships with all of your clients, and yet we work in technology. So every client, I always say this, you’ve heard me say this. I say it all the time, every client has a moment where they hate us.

Nancy Lyons:                It doesn’t matter how much they love us, every single client has a moment in our relationship where we are not on the same page. We are not rowing that boat together. And there are difficult conversations in the context of literally every single technology project we deploy. And so, I think that what I learned about my managers is they got really good at fixing the problems for people, just when those things happen, they would swoop in, have the conversations, fix all the problems and swoop out.

Nancy Lyons:                When we are actually more valuable to our teams, when we challenge them to solve those problems, and we coach them through the solve versus swooping in and doing it for them. And I think, what this book can do is not only encourage people to think differently about how they approach conversations and challenges and interpersonal stuff, but also thinking about how they can work to empower others to possess those or work on those skills as well.

Andi:                            I love that, empower and challenge. Those are great words, I want to remember those things. And I talked with Jen Derry a few weeks ago. And one of the things she talked about too was setting your managers up in a way that allows them to fail and to take the risks in managing those things. And I was recognizing that I probably give them a little bit too much of a, I’ll say safety net, but it’s probably a little heavier handed than that. And so, having that space that’s a safe space where people can take chances and fail. And I don’t just mean our employees, because I feel like I say those things, I don’t know if I let my managers take the same chances. So, I think that’s important for me to learn as well.

Nancy Lyons:                Yeah. I mean, I think we’re just talking about the same things at a different level. I think we have a tendency to … Because how long have you been doing it? How much time do you have to actually wait for them to figure it out? You don’t, you just, I’ll do it myself, right? It’s just easier, just let me do it. Let me have that conversation, I’ll take care of it, whatever. But that’s not making better people, it’s not encouraging better performance. It’s not expanding their skill sets. And I realized that more and more, the deeper we got into EOS and the more I embraced that visionary level, it created some just natural distance between me and a lot of the work, which is weird, right? Because, I mean, I just want to do it. I’ll sell it, I’ll manage it, I’ll strategize it, I’ll touch all of it and that’s not scalable or sustainable. And so, that distance made me realize what I had failed at doing to begin with. And so not only did we start to try to do that work, but I also needed to write it down.

Andi:                            Yeah. That’s great. Nancy, this has been a really good talk and I am very excited to get your book. When is it coming out?

Nancy Lyons:                So, presales are available now at worklikeaboss.com and presales mean everything to an author, which I had no idea about. When I published my first book, who knew? But, the book is actually launching at the end of September. So if people buy the book on that website right now, I’ll sign it. I know, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, wow, sign it? You’re kidding. But for some reason that matters, in all the marketing materials are like, offer a window where you send out sign books. Okay, whatever, I’ll do as I’m told.

Andi:                            Well, I will get some signed copies for my employees absolutely. I am very much looking forward to it. And the design of the cover is really cool too.

Nancy Lyons:                Oh, thanks. Yeah. I lucked out with designers and my illustrations are brilliant. Lisa Troutman is at Drawn Well, and I’ve seen her. She’s one of those people who does the sketch notes at conferences, so I saw her stuff and it was so awesome. I saw her at a conference I was doing, and asked her to illustrate the book and she’s phenomenal, those illustration-

Andi:                            That’s so cool. I’m going to write down her information. That’s awesome.

Nancy Lyons:                Yeah, and do, you’d love her. She’s really talented.

Andi:                            That’s neat. So, worklikeaboss.com, and where else can people find you?

Nancy Lyons:                You can find me at clockwork.com or nancylyons.com or on Twitter @Nylons Instagram @Nylons, you can tell how long people have been on those things by how unprofessional their handles are.