imgresI had the opportunity to watch a program on the National Geographic channel last week. The documentary, “Nazi Mystery: Twins in Brazil” explored a theory proposed by Jorge Camarasa.  Argentinian Camarasa has proposed a shocking theory that Nazi doctor Josef Mengele conducted experiments on women in Brazil during his time in exile.

“Mengele disguised himself as a roaming physician and veterinarian and gave pregnant women in Cândido Godói an ahead-of-its-time, twin-inducing mix of drugs or hormones.”

Joseph_mengelMengele who had notoriously conducted twin “studies” in Germany and experiments with twins in Auschwitz, is known to have fled to South America as the Allies were closing in on the Nazi German regime. The alledged ultimate aim of his experiments: to provide more Aryans to populate Hitler’s “Thousand Year Reich.”  Tales of a high rate of blue eyed, blond, fraternal twins in one part of Brazil stirred the controversy. The rate of twin births in the small town of Cândido Godói in Brazil is 10%. That’s six times higher than rate for the state of Rio Grande do Sul and 10 times the global average. The Argentine historian claimed that Mengele was responsible for the high ratio.

Let’s look at the two truths and a lie

Truth #1 – Mengele lived in parts of Brazil until his death. In total he spent 30 years in South America from 1949 – 1979.

Truth #2 – There are an extraordinary number of twins in Cândido Godóii. Many have blue eyes and blond hair. The features are attributed to the fact the town is largely populated by the descendents of German immigrants. This phenomenon of a large number of twin births is not unique to Cândido Godói, and has also been observed in the town of Igbo-Ora in Nigeria and the village of Kodinji in India.

And a Lie – The Nazi’s aren’t responsible for the rise in twins. Examinations of birth records showed an increase in twins that both predates Mengele’s arrival and continues decades after his death. Even if Mengele had performed experiments during this period, the effects wouldn’t last beyond one generation. Further research points that during Mengele’s supposed visits to the town, the rate of twins didn’t change.

Leadership Lesson: Enter the Founders Effect

The twin rate in Cândido Godói can be explained by a phenomenon called the founders effect. The effect occurs when genetic traits among a small group founding a community end up becoming more common among their descendents than in the population at large. Check out this one minute video on the phenomenon:

The Founders Effect Applies to Business and Leadership

Traits of a key leader or set of leaders create a founders effect in business. It’s important to realize its significance and impact, both negative and positive. According to Drew Hansen in Forbes:

“In business, it [the founders effect] manifests itself when the thinking and traits of the founders are concentrated and amplified.  Although founders imbue their organizations with a strong culture, they can likewise infect them with negative characteristics.”

One of the biggest takeaways in What’s Your Green Goldfish was the impact of senior leaders on employee engagement. Of seventy-five possible drivers of engagement, the one that was rated as the most important,

“Was the extent to which employees believed that their senior management had a sincere interest in their well‐being. (Source: Towers Watson)”

Three Examples of Caring by Senior Management

giveandtake-coverCaring is not demonstrated through words, but through actions. Small things that send a message to the rest of the organization. In the terminology of Adam Grant and his seminal book, Give and Take, its the little things that demonstrate a Giver approach. Here are a few examples from What’s Your Green Goldfish that bring caring to life:

#1 CEO Walk and Talks – According to Louis Brandeis, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.” If you want a strong culture, keep things open by default. AnswerLab’s (Green Goldfish #510) CEO schedules Walk & Talks with every employee. These one-on-one check-ins provide employees with an individual opportunity to share any concerns or brilliant ideas they have with the CEO directly. Combining wellness with one-on-ones helps achieve two important objectives simultaneously. Meeting outside the office and getting physical helps eliminate the nerves and intimidation employees might normally experience when connecting with higher-ups. According to Forbes, everyone gets a FitBit pedometer connected with an online leaderboard so all can see who’s clocking how many miles. This promotes more “walk and talk” meetings—which last generally one hour–along with monthly step competitions. The company also reimburses for gym memberships.

#2 – Opening the Window of Information – HCL Technologies (Green Goldfish #809) put together an online forum for employees called U&I. The forum allow employees to ask any question to the senior team at HCL. An open site where everyone could see the question, the questioner, and the answer. Employees responded favorably as noted by this comment,

“This is the biggest change we have seen at HCL in years. Now we have a management team that is willing to acknowledge the dirt.”

amsterdam window theoryWhy open the window of information? Vineet uses an analogy in his book Employees First, Customers Second of “The Amsterdam Window.” Having previously lived on the Herengracht (“Gentleman’s Canal”) in Amsterdam, I can attest that these windows are immense. They are a throwback to the modest Calvinist period when subtle expressions of wealth, such as being able to afford to pay the highest window tax, were favored by the rich. In the words of writer Joanna Tweedy,

“Today, the centuries-old glass, beautifully imperfect, frames the olive-green waters outside and lets natural light, and the eyes of curious tourists, pour in.”

While visiting Amsterdam, Vineet asked his friend, “Why so large?” The friend mentioned all the obvious reasons like letting in light and enjoying the view of the canal, but then offered a much more interesting answer… “It keeps the house clean.” It turns out that the bigger your windows, the more glass you have, the more visible your dirt will be – to you and to everyone who visits or passes by. In Vineet’s words,

If you can see the dirt, you will be much more likely to get rid of it.  A transparent house has a dramatic effect on the culture inside.”

#3 Take Note – Showing you care doesn’t have to cost anything. Former CEO of the Campbell Soup Company (Green Goldfish #21) Doug Conant is a big proponent of the power of handwritten notes. In Doug’s words in HBR,

“Look for opportunities to celebrate. My executive assistants and I would spend a good 30 to 60 minutes a day scanning my mail and our internal website looking for news of people who have made a difference at Campbell’s. Get out your pen. Believe it or not, I have sent roughly 30,000 handwritten notes to employees over the last decade, from maintenance people to senior executives. I let them know that I am personally paying attention and celebrating their accomplishments.(I send handwritten notes too because well over half of our associates don’t use a computer).

I also jump on any opportunities to write to people who partner with our company any time I meet with them. It’s the least you can do for people who do things to help your company and industry. On the face of it, writing handwritten notes may seem like a waste of time. But in my experience, they build goodwill and lead to higher productivity.” 

Overall Takeaway: Senior leaders actions are amplified. They have a huge influence on engagement through the Founders Effect.

Today’s Lagniappe (a little something extra thrown in for good measure) – Here is Adam Grant on Youtube at the Googleplex talking about “Give and Take“: