About Conversation Kindling

The purpose of this blog is to share stories, metaphors, quotes, songs, humor, etc. in hopes they'll be used to spark authentic and rewarding conversations about working and living fruitfully. There are at least three things you can gain by getting involved in these conversations. First, you'll discover new and important things about yourself through the process of thinking out loud. Second, you'll deepen your relationships with others who participate by swapping thoughts, feelings, and stories with them. Finally, you'll learn that robust dialogue centered on stories and experiences is the best way to build new knowledge and generate innovative answers to the questions that both life and work ask.

I write another blog called My Spare Brain. This is where I am "storing" ideas for use in future books, articles, blog posts, speeches, and workshops. There is little rhyme or reason for what I post there. I do this to encourage visitors to come as treasure hunters looking for new ways of seeing and thinking vs. researchers looking for new or better answers to questions they already know how to ask.

16 April 2010

The Way of WOLF

I ran into my friend Julie Gilbert at a special program we conducted recently and found out that she has left Best Buy in order to share her ideas on how organizations can create high-performing, innovative, and engaging cultures that tap into the energy and talent of all employees. Her new company is WOLF Means Business.

Julie appeared in our 2007 Masters Forum series to tell the story of how and why she created Best Buy's Women's Leadership Forum - the WOLF program - that has reshaped the company's innovation culture and processes, new products and services, practices in its stores, personnel practices, leadership development, and service to communities.

The WOLF story is long and involved. I'll try to hit the high spots as I summarize it here.

When CEO Brad Anderson introduced her to our audience that day, he began by saying that when he assumed leadership at Best Buy:
"The most critical part of what I wanted to do was to deliver customer-centricity; to change the whole identity of this massive corporation from a product-centered company to a customer-and customer-solutions-centered company."
At its core, WOLF is an outgrowth of Julie's sense that the first - and most important - thing Best Buy needed to do to achieve Brad's goal was revamp its definition of customer. The company had historically considered its customers to be white males between the ages of 16 and 35. This flew right into the face of the fact that women influenced 89 percent of all the money spent on consumer electronics. She asked:
"If women are now dominating the spending, in an industry that was built, like most other industries, as a boys' toy store, how does that impact the future of the company if we don't change?"
Change came slowly, but surely. Early on - before WOLF came into being - when she visited stores and asked sales personnel to demonstrate their methods, she noticed that virtually all attention was focused on male customers and very little on women. Later - after WOLF was established - when sales personnel learned to focus on female customers and talk about things that women generally cared more about than men - how careful the installers are not to make a mess in the house, for example, or how wires can be hidden from view in an installed unit - overall sales jumped. In Julie's words:
"When they looked her in the eye, when they talked about things she cared about, in every single test we did at Best Buy the women would for no apparent reason upgrade products, add on additional services, and aggressively try to move up the installation date."
Did it translate to the bottom line? In the 18 months leading up to September, 2007, Best Buy had increased its market share among women by more than two percent. This resulted in additional sales of $3.6 billion.

The fact that the WOLF program has delivered such stunning sales increases for Best Buy is a remarkable story. Even more fascinating, though, is the story of how it came into being.

It starts small. Julie had noticed that when she would visit stores with her Best Buy partner - a man - the male staff would greet him heartily, but virtually ignore her. The female staff, on the other hand, would usually greet her warmly. One day, she asked a woman at one of the stores why she thought this was happening. The woman began by pouring out her story of being ignored, of having men receive credit for her ideas, of being bypassed for promotion, and of generally not fitting in the company; she ended by talking about Julie:
"We never see a woman executive. When we see you walk through the door, and we know the success you have had at Best Buy, we know that if we keep working hard we're going to become you."
Julie went home that night and had a dream, in which she was a small girl back in the South Dakota town where she grew up, the moon was full, and she heard the howling of animals.
"What came to me in this dream is they're stray wolves. They're saying, 'I'm out here. I'm out here, too. Hey, I'm out here, too!' They're people who do not feel like they fit, who do not feel like they have voices, who want to be heard. And they want to be respected like everyone else."
She went on to say that unlike most humans, wolves care for stray wolves, in part as a way to insure that they have genetic diversity. She said she also realized that eye contact has been lost in our modern society, and there is a distinctive quality to the eyes of the wolf.
"They are so focused. They are looking you right in the eye, and there could be explosions and big things happening all around you and they don't blink. They are intense, they are focused, and they are authentic."
She said:
"As I was waking up out of this dream, this bolt of lightning hit me again and it said, 'Julie, if not you, who is going to do this?' At that moment, in my bed at two in the morning in December, I grabbed my laptop and started creating WOLF."
The WOLF program, Julie said, has three pillars:
"The first is commitment. Commitment to each other, to innovation in the business, and to all stray wolves who need our help. The second is networking: building a strategic diverse network by connecting with people who can help us achieve our goals and do our jobs better every day. The third is give back: becoming better leaders by giving back to the company and charitable organizations impacting the lives of women."
She said she included the give back component in part because the best leaders she had known were people who would offer their time and attention to someone who is struggling. Brad Anderson highlighted this notion in introducing Julie. He said he had gone to a Lutheran seminary right after college, but had left when a professor told him:
"If you’ve got one good sermon in you, you're incredibly lucky."
Anderson said:
"I only very late in life discovered I had a sermon, and I was amazed to find I did."
He followed by saying that after observing Julie's work at Best Buy, he recognized its profound significance:
"You have this incredible joy of watching people take their talents into the world and play those talents out. The WOLF program is designed to find a way to help people who don't know what their sermon is or their story is, and don't know how to find it and tell it, to find it and tell it."
Julie puts it in slightly different terms:
"As leaders our job is to inspire others to believe in themselves and become someone they never thought possible. I wanted Best Buy to be the place - if you have a daughter who's in fifth grade, you're already talking to her about going to Best Buy to work. The reason you are is that it has the most amazing opportunities, it's going to build your leadership skills, it's going to give you opportunities you couldn't get anywhere else and faster than anywhere else. You could be leading a global business anywhere in the world. And you could follow your passion."
The bottom line? At Best Buy, the number of female job applicants in areas where there are WOLF Packs has increased by 37 percent. There are 40 percent more female general managers, and the number of female district managers (managing between eight and 15 stores) has been increased threefold. The turnover of female employees has also decreased dramatically. According to Julie:
"We were losing a female manager every 48 hours inside of Best Buy. In part as a result of WOLF, turnover among women at Best Buy in areas where there are Packs was reduced by 5.7 percent between February 2006 and February 2007. The savings from the decreased turnover alone have been enough to pay for the whole WOLF program."
A final point about WOLF. Men are also allowed to join WOLF packs, and many have. The barrier to entry is steep, however. They have to apply, write an essay, pass an interview with panel of women in the Pack, and go into the field and prove their worth. As a result, Julie said:
"It has become a cool thing at Best Buy to be an Alpha Male WOLF."
There is much more to be said about the WOLF program itself, but I want to stop here and present the reasons why I think it has been so successful. As you will see, much of my thinking in this regard has been shaped by my study of the works of Joseph Campbell.

First, the story of WOLF is not the story of a large consulting firm coming into Best Buy with a cookie cutter culture change program. It is - instead - the story of Julie's personal journey to make her life more meaningful by enriching the lives of those around her. In almost all ways it is the powerful story of the mythical hero's journey of self-discovery, self-transcendence, one's role in society, and the relationship between the two. It's also a journey she was prepared to take. In the words of Joseph Campbell:
"The achievement of the hero is one that he is ready for and it's really a manifestation of his character. It's amusing the way in which the landscape and conditions of the environment match the readiness of the hero. The adventure that he is ready for is the one that he gets. The adventure evoked a quality of his character that he didn't know he possessed."
Second, WOLF was a creation of the spirit, not of the mind. This gave her a lens to look at the world around her from a very different angle. Campbell again:
"We all operate in our society in relation to a system. Now is the system going to eat you up and relieve you of your humanity or are you going to be able to use the system to human purposes? If the person doesn't listen to the demands of his own spiritual and heart life and insists on a certain program, you're going to have a schizophrenic crack-up. The person has put himself off center. He has aligned himself with a programmatic life and it's not the one the body's interested in at all. And the world's full of people who have stopped listening to themselves."
Third, she was not attached to specific outcomes. She was willing to make sense of things as she went along. And, once she did, she simply did what she intuitively felt was right. Campbell says:
"I think what we're seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonance within our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive. That's what it's all finally about."
Fourth, while there was no obvious path to follow at the outset, she uncovered one while walking. In Campbell's words:
"If you follow your bliss you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. When you can see that, you begin to meet people who are in your field of bliss, and they open doors to you. I say, follow your bliss and don't be afraid, and doors will open where you didn't know they were going to be."
Fifth, she was inclusive and non-hierarchical. She invited everyone - with the caveat that men had to go through a formal initiation process - to walk with her as an equal partner. The sense of this is best stated by Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh:
"If we think we monopolize the truth and we still organize a dialogue, it is not authentic. We have to believe that by engaging in a dialogue with the other person, we have the possibility of making a change within ourselves, that we can become deeper. Dialogue is not a means for assimilation in the sense that one side expands and incorporates the other into its 'self'. Dialogue must be practiced on the basis of 'non-self.' We have to allow what is good, beautiful, and meaningful in others to transform us."
Finally, she was intrinsically motivated to do what she did. In other words, she did it for the pure joy of doing it - nothing more, nothing less. Campbell:
"The only question in life is whether or not you are going to answer a hearty 'YES!' to your adventure."
I purposely looked through the lens of Joseph Campbell's work to comment on Julie's success. This is because the language of business, or corporate-speak, is nowhere near up to the task. What Julie did - and she couldn't have done it without Brad Anderson's support - couldn't have been done by worshiping at the alter of typical business norms and practices; it could only have been accomplished by taking a higher road - a living road best described by poets, philosophers, artists, and maybe even mystics. I wish her good luck and God's speed in her journey ahead.

  • What stood out in Julie's story?
  • What meaning does it have for you?
  • What questions are emerging?
  • Where are the sharp edges?
And this is the law of the wild
As true and as blue as the sky
And the wolf that keeps it will prosper
But the wolf that breaks it will die.
Like the vine that circles the tree trunk
This law runneth forward and back
The strength of the pack is the wolf
And the strength of the wolf is the pack.
- Rudyard Kipling
"The passion in our nature urges a human being to choose 'the one precious thing,' and urges him to pay for it through poverty, conflict, deprivation, labor, and endurance of anger from rejected divinities. It is the warrior that enables the human being to decide to become a musician only, or a poet only, or a doctor only, or a hermit only, or a painter only. It is the lover in a man or woman who loves the one precious thing, and tells him what it is; but it is the warrior in Rembrandt or Mirabai who agrees to endure the suffering the choice entails." - Robert Bly, Iron John
"The average man is a conformist, accepting miseries and disasters with the stoicism of a cow standing in the rain." - Colin Wilson
"The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes 'Awww!'" - Jack Kerouac
"Conventionality is not morality. Self-righteousness is not religion. To attack the first is not to assail the last. To pluck the mask from the face of the Pharisee, is not to lift an impious hand to the Crown of Thorns. These things and deeds are diametrically opposed: they are as distinct as is vice from virtue. Men too often confound them: they should not be confounded." - Charlotte Bronte, Preface to the Second Edition of Jane Eyre
"Once individuals link together they become something different. Relationships change us, reveal us, evoke more from us. Only when we join with others do our gifts become visible, even to ourselves." - Margaret Wheatley
"May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds." - Edward Abbey