Bob Kelleher on Why Companies Need to Shift to a “Creativeship”

Posted in: PSA Partnership

Graphic reading "creativeship" on PSA Insurance and Financial Services' website

As chief human resources officer for a Fortune 300 company, Bob Kelleher set out to do what his superiors told him to do: build an employee engagement program. He failed.

“They asked me to engage the company’s workforce, but I couldn’t do it because I wasn’t engaged myself,” he shared with a crowd of executives and professionals at a recent PSA Partnership event. So he walked away to write a book, leaving behind a top-level position in the middle of an economic recession.

Kelleher never looked back. And today, he’s an award-winning author of books that include Creativeship: An Employee Engagement and Leadership Fable and Louder Than Words: 10 Practical Employee Engagement Steps… That Drive Results! He’s also a keynote speaker and consultant for companies worldwide. He came to PSA to explore the concept of “creativeship” — and why it’s key to an engaged workforce and success in a global marketplace. Here are highlights of what he shared.

Out with Leadership, in with “Creativeship”

“Leadership is dead — ‘creativeship’ is the new leadership,” Kelleher said at the start of his talk, and the ticket to sustainability in today’s competitive business world, where boundaries are shifting, and long-standing rules no longer apply. In a “creativeship,” companies prioritize things like innovation, creativity, and openness to new ideas, which are essential as technologies evolve and opportunities emerge worldwide.

Kelleher cited plenty of examples of companies falling short: Polaroid missed the boat on digital; Blockbuster didn’t adapt to streaming; and Hostess overlooked the vast interest in wellness. In scenarios like these, “what happens is that old ideas are applied to old problems,” Kelleher said. “Companies don’t see the market changing. They hold onto what I call ‘the major U.S. airline industry syndrome,’” meaning they resist change — and risk losing out to more forward-thinking peers. How can you prevent that from happening? What does it take to create sustainability?

Get Ready for the Millennials

In part, it’s a matter of doing things to attract the millennial generation, which Kelleher described as coming on strongly in the workforce — and primed to become tomorrow’s leaders. Kelleher’s three kids are millennials, and much of his insight comes from watching them grow and embark on careers of their own.

“The world is changing in big ways,” and the millennials will be the ones steering the ship, Kelleher realized over a conversation with his daughter, while driving to a retirement party for his departure from corporate HR.
Attracting millennials and building sustainability require a shift in priorities. While earnings and profits once topped the list, a different set of priorities is emerging, which Kelleher calls the “six pillars” of making it in the modern business world:


It’s no longer just what you do but why you do it that’s important. The more your company can get at the why, the more likely it is to attract the new crop of talent (i.e., the millennials) as employees — and as consumers. Millennials care why companies do what they do. They look for brands they connect with and that inspire them. Think of the grocery store chain Whole Foods, for example, which “has proven that people are willing to pay more money for food if they believe in the brand.” Whirlpool, which donates a refrigerator and range to every Habitat for Humanity home, “kicks butt in the marketplace, yet they’re driven by purpose and values,” Kelleher said.


You want your employees to be engaged in your company. But contrary to popular belief, “engagement is not about giving people money — it’s about unlocking your employees’ potential to drive high performance,” explained Kelleher. Yet as a nation, we fall short. According to Gallup’s State of the Workforce Report, seven out of 10 U.S. employees are disengaged. The consequences? Kelleher said companies with disengaged workers are “sinking ships,” and elaborated on the analogy in the video he created, “Who’s Sinking Your Boat?” viewed by nearly half a million people on YouTube alone.


What drives employee performance? It’s not annual performance reviews, which cost companies millions and “everyone hates,” Kelleher said. And it’s not higher salaries or bonuses. Instead, high performance comes when employees feel ownership in their work; when supervisors care about their well-being; and when their ideas are valued and heard. Ultimately, effective leadership isn’t about competency — it’s about people skills, Kelleher shared. “If I have a boss who cares about me, I’m more willing to go above and beyond.”


Companies that can’t innovate can’t compete in a global economy. But where does innovation come from? How can you foster it? Hire passionate and curious people —and value those qualities as much as, if not more than, traditionally sought-after qualities like intelligence and knowledge. “It’s not that knowledge is king, it’s that your access to knowledge is king,” Kelleher said, building on Thomas Friedman’s idea that in today’s world, PQ (or passion quotient) + CQ (curiosity quotient) is greater than IQ (intelligence quotient). “You should be hiring really passionate and curious people, and they’ll find a way.”


Co-branding involves hiring people who reflect your corporate brand. Tri-branding adds customers to the equation, and acknowledges that you need engaged employees and engaged customers to succeed. Don’t make it your goal to simply “satisfy” your customers — strive to cultivate brand ambassadors who go out and share good things on their own free will. How? Leverage social media as “a brand accelerator for your business,” Kelleher advised, pointing to sites like TripAdvisor, Yelp, Glassdoor, and the countless others that give consumers a voice. Also remember that bad news travels fast, as it did when United Airlines refused to pay for folk singer David Carroll’s broken guitar — and Carroll wrote a song on the matter, “United Breaks Guitars,” that went viral.

Global Growth

“If you have a business in 2015 and you’re not thinking global, shame on you,” Kelleher said. “Ninety-one percent of people in the world today live outside of the U.S.” There is huge opportunity in the global market. On top of that, “the millennials are coming, and they’re global,” with four out of five incoming freshmen wanting to study abroad, according to a survey from USA Today. This generation won’t be satisfied staying put — and will look to the world at large for growth and opportunity.

Prioritizing these six pillars of success will put you ahead of the many companies that get left behind from standing still. For decades, companies have operated in insular, protective, and closed off ways. These days are gone, Kelleher warned, and then asked: “Is your leadership team ready?”

While you contemplate a response, also check out our upcoming events at PSA Partnership.

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