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Best Books to Buy: “Chief Joy Officer” by Richard Sheridan -

This month’s book is Chief Joy Officer: How Great Leaders Elevate Human Energy and Eliminate Fear by Richard Sheridan.

About the Book:

“It is my goal to make a stand for leading with joy as something that you not only can do but something you MUST do.”

In his second book, Richard Sheridan doubles down on the concept of a joyful work culture—delightfully detailed in his first book, Joy, Inc.—only this time he offers insight into how he and his cofounder built the structured freedom enjoyed at Menlo Innovations. He’s still “Storyteller-In-Chief” which means the book is full of life experiences—the bad ones that he learned from and the good ones that told him he was on the right path.

He quotes the insights of others, shares wisdom gleaned from thought leaders and pulls it together into a generous roadmap for leaders. As our collective “Joy Guru,” Richard takes his role seriously and he invites others to join him in creating worthy products, laudable services and, most importantly, workplaces that matter.

Chief Joy Officer outlines how leaders must think and what they must do to create the kind of aspirational workplace he and his co-founder cultivated at Menlo. Whereas Joy, Inc. illustrated what zero hierarchy, paired programming and the absence of walls could achieve, Chief Joy Officer focuses on counseling those who aspire to make that vision real for themselves and their people.

Richard Sheridan begins by sharing the set of principles he and his partner James Goebel came up with to guide the business. Living by their principles means:

  • “Practicing servant leadership”
  • “Using systems thinking”
  • “Fostering inquisitiveness”
  • “Mentoring compassionately”
  • “Taking on difficult conversations”
  • “Thinking holistically”
  • “Taking chances on people”

In Part One of Chief Joy Officer, Richard explores “what it means to lead an organization and take on the awesome responsibility of guiding, supporting, and protecting those around you.” He outlines the values of the joyful leader by describing the positive impacts of living those values and offering cautionary tales of what happens without them. After framing key leadership values, he devotes Part Two to relating how those values translate into constructive behaviors—what joyful leadership looks like.

Leadership Values

Be Authentic

“I think sharing the inside of our masks is the hardest part of authenticity.” This means acknowledging that we are not always feeling strong and successful. Leaders also feel stressed and overwhelmed. “To develop ourselves as leaders we need to bring ourselves to work. Our whole selves, trouble and all.”

To develop ourselves as leaders we need to bring ourselves to work. Our whole selves, trouble and all.

The medium of authenticity is forming relationships with those around us. “Teamwork is a necessary component of authentic leadership. We cannot authentically lead others with whom we have no relationship and there is no better formula for building relationships than spending time together.” Authenticity and the resulting trust is what shifts leaders from struggling alone to solving work challenges as a team.

Be Humble

What stands out about the idea of humility is that it doesn’t mean allowing yourself to be walked on. It means considering others. It’s a great reminder that there is something noble about work regardless of how menial. It also means holding back from doing everything yourself—the path of expediency—and, instead, spending the time to teach others.

It also means holding back from doing everything yourself—the path of expediency—and, instead, spending the time to teach others.

Be Loving

Luckily this is a word entering the workforce with more frequency in contrast to the indifference and disdain that led to scandals at Wells Fargo, Volkswagen, Theranos and others. Richard Sheridan describes this leadership characteristic by pointing out its opposites—things like not being cruel, impatient, uncaring, sarcastic or hurtful.

He includes a nugget of advice as a way to master negative emotions: “when furious, get curious.” It’s a technique with two outcomes; it redirects your anger and it helps you figure out the whole story. Ruminating on perceived wrongs prevents you from moving forward—use the truth to pave the way forward.

Be Optimistic

An interesting phrase he uses here is “justifiable optimism.” The idea being that things are not always rosy; leaders need to be honest, but also think long-term. A good leader is forthright about reality but chooses to be optimistic—they let people know they’ll survive adversity. I like his idea that the opposite of courage is conformity. A leader’s ability to experiment and take risks is fueled by their courage.

A good leader is forthright about reality but chooses to be optimistic—they let people know they’ll survive adversity.

Have a Vision

What is striking about the need for a vision is that it cannot stand on its own. “A strong vision can imagine a great culture, but culture without process leads to chaos and process without culture yields soul-crushing bureaucracy.” He dedicates a whole chapter to process when it comes to putting values into practice.

And a vision is not the sole responsibility of the leader. That idea is a vestige of the outmoded leader-as-hero model. “The visioning process itself should be inclusive, not the exclusive domain of the owners, founders, or C-level brass executives.” The vision benefits from different voices, and including those voices means participants feel a part of and believe in the vision.

Stay Grounded in Reality

This is a great chapter about Richard’s own work habits (surprise—he works hard!) and his interactions with staff and community. It’s a sobering acknowledgement that “the practical realities of a business cannot be avoided. Run out of cash and you die. Stop listening to your customers and your market withers. Stop watching the numbers and recovery may not be possible. Fail to establish simple, repeatable systems and the organization will devolve into chaos.”

It’s a sobering acknowledgement that the practical realities of a business cannot be avoided.

His key point when dealing with the natural conflicts that arise while trying to run a business is to always look outward; To maintain the mind-set of the “deepest aspiration and wiring of human communities: service to others,” which leads to the last of the leadership values.

Be a Servant Leader

“Joy comes from serving others with the work of our hearts, our hands, and our minds. That’s the true source of business joy.” His experience has taught him that people don’t consider themselves ready for servant leadership, there’s always a good reason why they can’t do it yet.

He encourages us to get a move on since servant leadership is the key to building other leaders, without whom the business cannot grow. The starting point is to be clear on who leaders are serving, and then spreading that clarity to others—every day.

Leadership Practices

Whereas the first part of the book covers leadership values, the second part of the book puts those values into practice “to create a culture of joyful leadership.” He blends idealism with pragmatism and tells instructive stories to bring each lesson to life.

Start With Purpose

Menlo Innovations has one of the most compelling purpose statements out there: “To end human suffering as it relates to technology.” For those who have read Joy, Inc., its origins clearly emanate from Richard’s experience during the early days in the software industry. It became his credo to fight an endless cycle of buggy software releases cranked out by teams of miserable developers writing code 24/7.

His point to leaders is to be clear on both the purpose of the organization as well as your own purpose. Among other roles, the leader must pave the way for new leaders to emerge. The idea is to light the “flame” in others and give them room to flourish. But none of this works without that upfront clarity around purpose. It’s instructive to remember that Menlo has no hierarchy yet they have leaders just the same.

Among other roles, the leader must pave the way for new leaders to emerge.

Value Leaders Not Bosses

A phrase he lives by is “bosses command, leaders influence.” The other truism he points out is that if you don’t encourage team members and subsequently “lose them”—whether they leave or stop feeling and acting like true contributors—then the boss’s workload increases. Becoming a leader as opposed to a boss “typically requires knowing people, both in a general sense and in a very specific sense; that is, knowing individuals and having a relationship with them. Trust is a necessary component of leadership.”

This chapter includes a picture of Menlo’s success as a non-hierarchical organization. Since that sounds slightly anarchic it’s helpful to know they maintain “eighteen different pay grades grouped into four categories (Associates, Consultants, Senior and Principal).” What’s different is that since there are no bosses to oversee progress, team members can only advance through peer evaluation.

It’s an impressively democratic process that results in the rapid rise of some natural leaders and the slower progression of others. It’s also an escape from “a full-blown, forms-driven bureaucracy.” The removal of hierarchy is not only driven by a desire for fairness. Without all of those layers, meetings and approvals, Menlo is nimble. That’s a huge competitive advantage.

Pursue Systems, Not Bureaucracy

Richard points out that leaders who create joyful environments, “are invariably systems thinkers.” These leaders avoid hero-based cultures by creating “simple, repeatable, measurable systems.” There’s a great symbiosis between a systems-based organization and a blame-free culture.

When things go wrong, the place to look is the process and the thing to do is fix it. Don’t waste time looking for the guilty person and assigning blame; people make mistakes. The job of the servant leader is to proactively accept blame and encourage teams to quickly move on to problem solving.

When things go wrong, the place to look is the process and the thing to do is fix it.

Menlo’s open office is full of job boards, visual management and other manifestations of Lean or Agile methods. They don’t focus on the names of the tools or the methods they’re using but they’ve clearly adapted them for their own processes. They are poster children (there are lots of posters on the walls) for the positive impact of clear, purpose-driven, visual systems.

Care for the Team

This chapter recaps Menlo’s famous hiring process—outlined in Joy, Inc.—which involves large batches of job candidates working in pairs while Menlo observers determine their fit for the culture. Employees have a large role in selecting their new co-workers with screening questions like, “Do they demonstrate good kindergarten skills? Do they play well with others? Do they share?”

Once hired, there’s consistent feedback and “tough love” when it’s warranted. The understanding is that everyone has a life outside of work which impacts their well being. Employees are unafraid to have difficult conversations but they are also trained to ask colleagues, “Are you okay?” when things aren’t going well. It’s vital “to care about the person, the whole person and not just the employee.”

Once hired, there’s consistent feedback and “tough love” when it’s warranted.

Learn Together

Richard’s position is that “the most important thing a leader can do for his or her survival and that of the company is to stay in “learner mode.” Given changing technologies, competition and new industries the key is to “shorten communication and feedback loops.” He encourages people to “steal” ideas (legally) from books and for leaders to engage in sharing their own insights because “by teaching others we are learning.”

Become Storytellers

He adapts an old adage: “If culture eats strategy for breakfast, then storytelling sets the table for the meal.” Richard has been “Storyteller in Chief” at Menlo for years. Since they run regular tours in their open-format office, his employees have heard his favorite tales dozens of times. He describes an interesting impact of this setup. “The team believed in the stories I was telling and they wanted them to be true.”

This resulted in a reinforcement of the culture and it got others interested in running the tours themselves. Over time a staff of storytellers has emerged; a new wave of tour guides recounting their own tales of rescuing clients from technological misery and other manifestations of their vision. They built a storytelling culture.

Be Bigger Than Yourself

He advises those on leadership journeys to consider who they serve and “what great and joyful service looks like for them.” He lists what he sees as basic needs of human nature and the mind-set that brings out the best in us.

  • “We want to work on something much bigger than ourselves.”
  • “We can only do that if we work in community with one another.”
  • “We are energized by a lofty external goal in service to others.”

The leader’s role is to inspire those around them with a clear vision of what is possible.

Final Thoughts

The author clarifies that joy is not the same as happiness. You can hear the human struggles in the Menlo stories; the everyday realities of what it takes to get to joyful outcomes. He’s also not naive about how many leaders and organizations will brave the unknown and put in the effort required to build a joyous culture.

But he challenges his readers to consider moving past the endless varieties of easy outs; we’re different, we don’t make software, it wouldn’t work in this economy…choose your hedge. He simply points to the incredible rewards, financial and intrinsic, and offers a path to those who are ready to “run the experiment.”

Lucky for us, Richard Sheridan is both a gifted storyteller and an engaging writer. He speaks from experience and from the heart which makes for good reading. There’s lots to take away from his latest book and from his goal in life: “To leave the campsite better than [he] found it.” We are lucky campers!

About the Author:

From kid programmer in 1971 to Forbes cover story in 2003, “outlier” Richard Sheridan (University of Michigan graduate, BS Computer Science ’80, MS Computer Engineering ’82) has never shied from challenges, opportunities nor the limelight. While his focus has always been around technology, his passion is actually process, teamwork and organizational design, with one inordinately popular goal: the business value of joy! Sheridan is an avid reader and historian, and his software design and development team at Menlo Innovations didn’t invent a new culture, but copied an old one: Edison’s Menlo Park New Jersey lab. Henry Ford’s recreation of the Menlo Park Lab in Greenfield Village was his childhood inspiration.

Some call it Agile, some call it Lean, Sheridan and his team call it joyful. And it produces results—business and otherwise. Five Inc. Magazine revenue growth awards, invites to the White House, speaking engagements around the nation, numerous articles and culture awards—with so much interest, Menlo Innovations does a tour a day of the Menlo Software Factory™. Sheridan was recently enlisted by Portfolio at Penguin to write a book about all he has learned about the effect of a culture focused on Joy. Rich is writing in his “spare time.”

Practical Tools and Concepts Covered:

  • Leadership
  • Servant Leadership
  • Systems Thinking
  • Relationship Building
  • Communication
  • Hierarchy
  • Problem Solving
  • Experimenting

Who Should Read Chief Joy Officer?

  • Leaders (and Bosses)
  • Coaches
  • Teachers
  • Team Leads
  • White Belts, Yellow Belts, Green Belts, Black Belts, Master Black Belts and Lean Practitioners

Check out our Amazingly Awesome List for more book reviews as well as a comprehensive list of Lean Six Sigma and process improvement books!

Elisabeth Swan

Elisabeth is a Master Black Belt at, the co-author of The Problem-Solver’s Toolkit and co-host of the Just-in-Time Cafe. For over 30 years, she's helped leading organizations like Amazon, Charles Schwab and Marriott International, Inc. build problem-solving muscles with Lean Six Sigma to achieve their goals.

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