We sat down with Lee Hoffman, who joins the Ledgestone team as an expert on culture, education, and training leadership to transform their business. We discussed his path to Ledgestone, why cultural growth is vital for an organization, the difference between success and health, and more.
How would you describe your role here at Ledgestone?
L: I will be working on the training and development portion of INSITE. I will be a human connection for the Insight data, to these leadership teams as they work to create a transformational culture that impacts every one of their employees.
How did you find your way into this role and to the Ledgestone family?
L: I have been in education for over 20 years now with 13 of those as a school principal. And over those 13 years, obviously, this concept of culture and leading culture was something that just became very interesting and a passion of mine. As a principal, I would have a culture focus for the year. The goal for each year was to help everyone focus on “How is our culture getting stronger?” This helped me realize the power of how humans interact with each other and that impact on organizational results. Culture can be defined as this fuzzy or soft thing, but it has a tangible impact on performance.
In addition to being a school principal, five years ago a friend and I started consulting with organizations on culture. That is how I started exploring, not just how to do this in my own organization, but how do I help other leaders and leadership teams strengthen their culture?
Over the past five years, I've worked with a number of different organizations, from construction to nonprofits to the service industry. Our selling point was not that we are industry experts, we are not going to come in and tell them how to implement specific strategies in your industry, but we are going to help them be as healthy of an organization as possible. That resonated with the leaders. The consulting focused on building trust, having good healthy conflict, and developing strategy that creates synergy as opposed to silos.
At the end of last year, I heard Ledgestone was starting to help clients with culture. I'm friends with Trent (President at Ledgestone) and so I just texted him about grabbing lunch because I was curious about what Ledgestone was doing in this culture realm. By the end of that lunch, we were talking about the possibility of an opportunity with the Ledgestone team to build this culture product.
So, what was the big draw to leave formal education and make that transition to Ledgestone?
L: A big draw was the ability to back up the human consulting side with data that Ledgestone brings via INSITE. I see that as a game changer. It is one thing for me to convince a company it needs some work on culture but being able to provide specific data from their own employees is an opportunity to make the training component much more relevant.
Typically, after months consulting with a company, I would figure out some of those underlying issues. However, knowing that data in advance, that was a huge draw. Another compelling draw was the insurance side, which allows organizations to benefit from this amazing cultural improvement at essentially no cost to them. I found that really innovative and an opportunity to change an industry. That got me excited.
You mentioned leaders are sometimes quite hesitant to spend money on something like culture. What was that dynamic like as you tried to bring consulting to these companies?
L: Finding a leader who believes in culture enough to spend considerable money on it is often rare. In conversations with leaders, I can tell right away whether the message of building a culture that empowers people is resonating. If they are the type of leader who gets culture, it was usually just a matter of dialogue over time and finding a price point that worked before they would ask me to work with them in some way. Once again, eliminating the cost through the insurance component is a powerful lever for earlier adoption.
So, when you go into a meeting with a leader, how would you briefly explain why culture matters, or should matter to them?
L: I approach it from a health perspective. How do you know an organization is healthy? Many times, the answer is “we're making money.” So, you are successful, but how do you know if you are healthy? I try to communicate that organizational health is different from organizational success.
Leaders usually think organizational success just involves having the right vision, getting the right people on the bus, and having an effective strategy. But that is just a two-dimensional model. Organizational success has another dimension. That other dimension is culture. The healthier a company is, meaning there is less turnover, politics, communication problems, and trust issues, that company's path to get to their vision is going to be much smoother and faster than another company who is experiencing those culture issues.
Even a child can understand that if explained in that way. That message resonated with leaders when I brought the organizational health component to the forefront. It is not about having the right people and the right plans; it is about healthy culture!
Is health something that leaders have thought about before in your experience?
L: Some have, but I would say most leaders are not thinking like that. Sometimes I will point out that companies will spend tens of thousands of dollars on a new payroll and invoicing software or even to fix the parking lot. But would they spend $50,000 to improve culture? Usually not because it is harder to directly tie that expense to the bottom line. When you think about it that way, the amount of money companies spend on things less important than culture just does not add up.
When I get behind the curtain of these companies I have consulted, I usually discover some level of culture dysfunction. From the outside many companies give a good impression. They are good companies making some good money. But that isn’t always a great picture of their long-term projection because eventually unhealthy culture will impact performance.
The parallel that is easy to draw is that families can look functional from the outside, but we may not see their internal issues.
L: Yes, and everyone gets that analogy for the most part. Especially coming from an education background, it just makes sense that if mom and dad are fighting all the time, the kids are getting smacked around, and there is no food on the table then of course those kids are not going to perform as well in school.
So how do you actually convince an organization that there is a need for that change, and then how do you deal with the uniqueness of organizations in training them and driving a positive, healthy culture?
L: The key that I found in my consulting world is the leader. Once again, every organization is unique, but in just basic general terms, the top leader has to be on board. Unless the leader is driving the change, it's not going to happen.
My first key is getting the leader bought in. And once the leader is bought in, my next step is making sure the leadership team has cohesion because if that leadership team isn't together, then there's no way those leaders can create impact down throughout the organization. But what is awesome about culture is that as leaders commit to creating better work experience for employees that begins to grow at the grassroots of the organization.
Where does the change then actually happen? Relationship and connection. If employees feel really connected to the team, to their boss, they are going to naturally feel like there's a better culture in the organization.
Personally, what are the most rewarding and challenging parts of the culture process for you?
L: In my consulting work, I would sometimes spend multiple full days with a leadership team taking the team through trust building activities and discerning the culture and relational issues that need to be brought to the surface. At the end of those days, it was powerful to witness how they trust each other more, have more togetherness, feel more united, and have a clearer shared purpose. That is really energizing for me.
The facilitation process is a craft; it is a learned skill of knowing whether the participants are internalizing the content and activities and being vulnerable. And sometimes there are resistors in those groups, and I would have to figure out a way to draw them in and get them to open up. That can be challenging, but when it clicks and I can help the team build trust, that is super rewarding.
What are you most excited about as you step into this role?
L: I am really excited about tackling this problem of culture in such an innovative setting. There are not many rules for our container here at Ledgestone. I'm coming out of the highly policy driven and bureaucratic system of public education. I am really excited about helping companies improve their culture in more streamlined and affordable ways that are creative, fresh, and most importantly, effective. Ledgestone is trying to innovatively bring solutions to the culture issues companies face, and I am really excited about that opportunity.
Well Lee, thanks for taking the time to share and we look forward to seeing your talent and passion impact our organization and many others as we move forward!
L: Glad to be here!