In 2004 Neill took a position as a marketing associate at a leading medical-device company; in 2013 he left the business as the head of global sales and marketing. Dealing with sales partners in over 50 countries, Neill understood the need for effective collaboration between sales management and production forecasters. By creating a collaborative culture between the demand and supply sides, the company was able to effectively project and manage customer orders. Neill is also the author of An Unconventional Leader (2014), a best-selling book that rewrites the rules of office politics and leadership in the contemporary workplace. This interview first appeared in the Fall 2015 issue of Foresight (Issue no. 39).

 

Tell us about your career.

I am a career-management writer and business consultant at a health-care-focused consulting company, Eleven 249. I have written over a dozen articles on leadership and the need for organizations to adapt to the new working environment.

In 2014 I published my book An Unconventional Leader, which focuses on how conventions in the workplace are preventing leaders from making positive changes within their organizations.

As a consultant, I work with companies to create strategic visions, develop business plans, and implement sales-management tools.

Previously, I was a sales and marketing executive at a global orthopedic company. During my time there, we experienced consistent sales growth and significant global market expansion. A key to this growth was the implementation of a process and system-based foundation, a prime component of which was ensuring workable communication conduits between all areas of the business, including sales management, production planners, and product forecasters.

You’ve lived all around the globe, but you seem to have found a home in Portland, Oregon.

I was born and raised in Tasmania, Australia, but have spent the last 16 years in Portland during a period of great physical change for the city. What hasn’t changed is the creative energy and quirkiness that is its soul. It’s the lack of conformity that I love about living here. Portland is also home to some very progressive and innovative companies that are helping to reshape workday norms and conditions, such as four-day workweeks, flat organizational structures, and a relaxed working environment. Even though I was an executive, I generally wore jeans and worked in a cubicle like everyone else.

Why is a culture of collaboration needed? Can’t we just have scheduled meetings?

I think many readers would agree that the last thing most organizations need is more meetings. Not that there is anything wrong with meetings, but they do seem to have become a frustrating time drain and a “solution crutch.” As such, employees have gotten into the habit of waiting until a meeting is scheduled before discussing issues, problems, and solutions. During the wait time, an issue is going unsolved, probably getting worse, and causing even more work for employees.

It’s my view that a collaborative culture promotes to employees the idea that they don’t need to wait until everybody’s schedule is free, a conference room is available, and the boss cares enough to proactively talk about current concerns. Or even have a meeting at all. Most of us have to work outside of our department “silo” in order to be successful. A collaborative culture breaks down the invisible and sometimes tangible walls that exist between departments.

Your book is called An Unconventional Leader. What do you have against conventions?

(Laughing) I have nothing personal against conventions.

They are like informal rules that help keep us

safe. Indeed, in my personal life, I still follow many of

the conventions we learn from a very early age. In the

workplace, they can also serve a role, mostly keeping

us safe from being lectured by our boss or, worse, our

Human Resources department.

Conventions, though, are by nature constant and, by

definition, promote the status quo. But due to constant

changes in the business environment, in order to be

ongoing, viable entities, organizations need to continually adapt and evolve. In my experience, what prevents change from occurring is unwillingness, or even fear, to let go of what has worked in the past. But there is no guarantee that something that worked in the past will work now or in the future. It is through challenging commonly accepted workplace conventions that organizations can create a culture that isn’t afraid to change.

What is one workplace convention you would most like to see disappear?

That we always must be busy, or at least look busy.

The number-one complaint I hear from people is that

they have way too many tasks and work way too many

hours. Being overworked leads to stress, stress leads to

panic, panic leads to mistakes, mistakes lead to more

work, and ultimately to being even busier than when

we started. Yet despite all the negative aspects to the

“busyness” culture, the commonly accepted convention

in many workplaces today is that employees must be

busy, busy, busy. People are not machines. We all need

time to think, to engage with others, and to breathe

once in a while.

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