The Power of Culture

What does it really mean to ‘walk on eggshells’? The syndrome is the culture, but the symptoms are things such as walking on eggshells. I had this topic on my brain dump list of things to write about, but the Forbes quote of the day I saw before going to sleep last night had me all fired up about the topic when I woke up.

“If you don’t have room to fail, you don’t have room to grow.” – Jonathan Mildenhall – CMO, Airbnb

I once participated in a leadership conference that was made up of a select few leaders in the company. The topic we were discussing was culture. The facilitator asked the room “Do you feel that the organization embraces failure?” – there was a quick, faint and reluctant snicker that simultaneously echoed throughout the room. Everyone looked around at one another, some shaking their heads quietly, waiting for one person to just say it: No. It was apparent this was true when the group as a whole, myself included, was walking on eggshells to even answer this question. The facilitator gracefully, turned things back around on us… and said “Why not?” “As leaders in the company, embracing failure can start in this room.” Easy to say when you’re on the outside looking in, but to be fair, he had a point.

Blueprint Barbados Business Dashboard Infographic- Brain Drain*Article published by Blueprint Creative reporting survey results conducted with Antilles Economics

When people say “there is no culture”-  what they are really saying is “there is a toxic or poor culture”; there is no such thing as “no culture.” Sign number 1 of a cultural issue. Culture begins at the highest level of the organization, and it ends with every individual in the company and a commitment from all leaders to protect it. I cannot count the number of times I’ve heard “we have our own culture!” or “let’s make a new culture!” —  I have even said these things myself. The intent behind these positive cheers is admirable – this is simply people’s attempt to generate positivity and spread the empowerment within their realm of impact – and there is NOTHING wrong with that, but it is not sustainable.

When these chants are put into action, sub-cultures are created, again in an honest attempt to positively influence. This is sign number 2. Before long, you will see these sub-cultures across teams, departments, clicks/groups, offices, regions and continents. Naturally, because you’re putting satellites of positive cultures into a toxic ocean you only end up with extreme ends of the spectrum – nothing in between. This is the beginning of what has the potential to be a cultural transformation. Only ONE of two things can happen after this, and the path is entirely dependent on how the highest level of the organization responds. They can either embrace it, cultivating a powerful cultural shift across the company; or they can shame it. Shaming looks like ignoring it completely, hoping it will go away or publicly discouraging it all together as the ‘problem-child’. Cultural turnarounds are extremely difficult, but they can be done. I’ve seen it. The ironic thing is, it is just as hard to destroy a good culture, as it is to turn one around. One person, one executive, one manager, situation, or problem cannot be thrown at a healthy, solid culture and blow it into smithereens in the blink of an eye… but the same applies to turning one around.

The reason start-up companies have the best culture is because the founders are usually the executive team, and passionate about not only the success of the business but the people who make it successful. They know their very survival depends on attracting new talent, and retaining high performers. The only way large, mature companies can keep a solid culture is by evolving as the generations do, allowing those generations to influence positive change and embracing it. It’s really not rocket science, CULTURE IS A VERY REAL POWERFUL THING. Unless you’ve been living under a rock.. you know that by 2020 {which is only 559 days away!!!} over 50% of the US workforce will be made of millennials and Gen Z. According to survey results from Glassdoor, in an article published by INC just last month – CULTURE is 1 of 3 things that matters the most to this workforce, next to growth opportunity and 401K!! You’re not really surprised are you? This is why I hate to see good companies, with great people in toxic cultures… like it really bothers me. I do not see it as malicious, it’s simply lack of awareness, that the highest level of the organization just isn’t aware.. not intentionally..they just don’t know the culture is toxic or poor. This can feel like an overwhelming monster, one that can also be denied. I don’t believe there is a single executive team that exists and just sits around and says, “we’ve finally succeeded, we have a toxic culture! Now let’s figure out how to keep it that way!” But they have to own it, before anything can be done about it. They have to be aware so they can be accountable, and they have to be accountable so they can take action.

Listen ya’ll… I have never had an acronym title, or sat in an executives chair, so I am not saying that this is easy by any means. I am not trying to be presumptuous, of a position I’ve never carried. However, without those titles I have absolutely led a cultural shift within my own organizational bubble, and more than once, so I know it can be done and sustained if embraced.

The 5 Most Dangerous Culture Types

  1. Culture of Perfection
    1. Symptoms: Fear based silence, risk averse, missed opportunity, stagnant growth, criticism
    2. Sounds like: “That’s not my job.” “I’m staying out of that mess.” “I didn’t ask the question because I didn’t know how it would sound.” “You didn’t follow the process.” “You can’t do that, you’re a leader in the company”
  2. Culture of Politics
    1. Symptoms: Misuse of power, manipulation, internal selling, closed-door environment, autocratic leadership, scheming, vacuum based decisions
    2. Sounds like: “Just go straight to Joe’s bosses, boss.” “oh, you’re new..what is it that you do, and who do you work for again?” “I’m not sure why Suzy called me first without going to you.” “You’ve got to learn to play the game.” “It’s my decision.”
  3. Culture of Victims
    1. Symptoms: No accountability, gap filling, unbalanced workloads, creates silos, overworked employees, finger-pointing
    2. Sounds like: “If Suzy would have done her job, this would have never have happened.” “If marketing would do something to we would have more sales.” “I did my part, I don’t know what happened after that.” “No one has shown me how to do that, so I haven’t done it.”
  4. Culture of Vision. {These are not the same thing.}
    1. Symptoms: lack of focus on culture, confusion of the two, substituting values for culture
    2. Sounds like: “I don’t know what we do!” “I can’t see my contribution.” “We do have a culture, haven’t you read our core values!” “If we can get everyone on board with our vision it will create a great culture.”
  5. Culture of Bureaucracy
    1. Symptoms: Delayed time to revenue, slow to change, inefficiency, analysis paralysis, poor execution, impersonal
    2. Sounds like: “NO.” “Did you follow the process??” “This took so long because it was submitted incorrectly.” “You’re circumventing the process by doing that.” “I’m sorry this hasn’t been a good experience for the customer, but it’s the process.” “Don’t shoot the messenger”

Any of those sound familiar? Maybe more than one? A cultural transformation can be extremely overwhelming, I get it, but you don’t have to solve for everything right away, it’s a marathon, not a sprint. You need to start with one thing, a foundation first, then you build on that. There are many types of successful company culture theories, a lot of which are aligned to how particular business models need to run – which is great! BUT… I believe there are 3 types of cultures that are universal and natural foundations to build on.

3 Foundations To Start A Culture Transformation

  1. Culture of Empowerment
    1. Impact: Everyone feels and is valued, no matter their title. There is transparency and inclusion and they connect their contribution. It promotes healthy conflict and feedback is valued in an open-door environment. Innovation comes naturally, collaboration is expected, and mistakes are opportunities.
    2. Sounds like: “We can fix this if we get the right people involved!” ” Lets get a team of SME’s together and solve this once and for all.” “Looks like CEO Bob is in his office, lets see if he has a couple of minutes to spare.” “I wanted to give you some feedback, and I’m hoping you will share some with me as well.”
  2. Culture of Customer First
    1. Impact: Everything is done with the customer in mind, first. Not only, but first. The center of excellence is the customer’s experience, followed by the business, then the people, then the individual.
    2. Sounds like: “How will this impact the customer?” “Let’s find a solution that’s best for the customer, and great for the business.”
  3. Culture of Sales
    1. Impact: Fundamental product knowledge exists across all team members in all functions. Everyone from the loading dock, to HR, to AP, and up to the big corner office views themselves as a member of the sales team. There is a true shared accountability to hit the revenue goals by either identifying the sale, enabling the sale or in some cases both!
    2. Sounds like: “YES.” “I’m happy to get on the phone right now and close a deal!” “I was at the airport and grabbed a couple of leads I need to give to sales, quick!”

Pick one, as a building block… and go from there. Of course, you can’t just pick one, check a box and move on.. that would be too easy!!

How To Get Started!

  • Executive level commitment to embrace it and protect it.
  • Advertise it! Promote it internally… do not shy away from what you are trying to do. It’s a GOOD thing, and you will rally people by owning the issue and doing something about it.
  • Select some influencers to champion the change… at all levels of the organization, and in all places. Challenge and select some that may have a ‘jaded’ or negative attitude too, along with people that have a positive high level of influence.
  • Reward and recognize when you see the change demonstrated in practice and behavior. Celebrate! Empower your champions to reward and recognize too!
  • Embrace evolution of the change even if it seems like it’s creating a ‘new arm’ of the foundation. In other words, if you start with customer first, which naturally creates a sales centric culture – that’s great!!! Roll with it.

I know this is entirely too long of a post.. {I need to work on that – tips welcome haha!} but last quick things for you to think about:

  • Vision or values do not replace culture. Values are to outline what’s important and what is right. Vision is what the company will look like, holistically, in the future. Culture is the interactions and practices that make up the work environment.
  • A culture change can start anywhere, so just because you aren’t an executive doesn’t mean you can’t influence a change. Even IF it’s not embraced or sustained, you will have a positive impact and influence on people around you, and that is worth it in itself.


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