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Culture Building And Why You’re Doing It Wrong


Let me start with an apology for abruptly calling you errant culture builders out in the title. There are two things you need to know before you keep reading:

  1. I want the best for you, your team and your organization.
  2. I am going to love you enough to tell you the truth.

If you believe those two things, I invite you to read on.

Culture is a fluid and constantly changing outcome.

That is my theory, take it or leave it, or change my mind in the comments. It is a sum of the internal and external thoughts, feelings and actions of those inside and party to an organization. As an outcome of something so subjective and fluid, culture is not as measurable or definitive as something like profit, revenue or quarterly earnings.

However, because Type A personalities driving deliverables, metrics and spreadsheets is how our business world has functioned and delivered success for several decades (some of the most prosperous in centuries for some), today’s leaders are leaning into what has always worked when facing this new challenge. That challenge is the abysmal employee engagement statistics and the shocking costs that accompany this symptom (an actively disengaged employee costs their organization $3,400 for every $10,000 of salary, or 34 percent.)

You can calculate the costs to your company with this great LinkedIn tool.

“Here’s something they’ll probably never teach you in business school: The single biggest decision you make in your job — bigger than all of the rest — is who you name manager. When you name the wrong person manager, nothing fixes that bad decision. Not compensation, not benefits — nothing.”

— Jim Clifton Gallup CEO

There are two major lines of thinking that are faulty here. The first is in the title and it is that you can’t “build” your culture. You can, however, work towards identifying the symptoms of culture, then drill down to the root causes that are leading to the formation of it. Typically, in my experience, this is where you start, and it starts with you. (confusing sentence warning)

Unintentional diminishers are everywhere.

The second line of thinking is a form of “unintentional diminishing” leadership as Liz Wiseman would call it in her book Multipliers. This diminishing comes in the form of the older generation of leaders, as stated above, applying yesterday’s principles and thinking to today’s (and tomorrow’s) critical challenges. If you have not yet, you must read Joshua Cooper Ramo’s The Seventh Sense which goes into great detail on the new Age of Network Power we are entering into and how it plays out in everything we say and do.

Obviously, as a great leader who got this far into the article, you are clearly not going to just sit on your hands and do nothing as you know how critical this is to get right.

Some actionable steps you should start taking, if you are not already:

  • Ask leaders and front line staff at every level of your organization to give anonymous feedback around the symptoms they are seeing and feeling. This is similar to a review or survey but instead of asking people how effective their leader is on a 1–10 scale with an example, you need to craft and from the questions to psychologically decrease the barriers or blindspots people have when looking at things. This takes a lot of work, but it is worth it. If you want a template for this, shoot me an email at and I am happy to share it with you.
  • Once you get the responses back, look for themes and similarities in the symptoms people are describing. You should be able to diagnose and pinpoint hotspots. These hotspots may be diminishing leaders, broken processes or toxic high performers who make everyone feel miserable. Whatever the causes that you pinpoint are, they are trust-killers.
  • Next, let’s deal with the causes identified as processes and systems that are dysfunctional as they are easier to fix than personnel related causes. Work with those the process directly effects to create the solution. Ideally, you would cast the vision around the purpose of that process (what is the goal of that purpose for the organization) then empower those people to achieve that goal through a process they create. Odds are it will be better for them and the organization and you have just invested in developing some future leadership talent.

Still here? Cool, here are some more:

  • Now, the hardest part. This is often the part most leaders know would have to happen which prevents them from engaging in real change. The famous MBA question “What are you willing to do that others are not?” is as true for investing in your organization and employees as it is for beating your competition in an age of disruption.
  • The first thing to identify when dealing with a hotspot that is a diminishing leader is to find out if they are intentional or not. The majority of leaders we work with, when asked the hard questions, or given true and honest feedback about how they are being perceived, had no idea and wanted coaching on how to improve. This starts with an honest sit down with them. Start it the way I started this article, ask them if they believe you want the best for them. If they say yes, you have the green-light to give it to them straight. If they say no, you are lacking their trust and they will not be able to receive this feedback form you effectively.
  • If it is a toxic high performer, think someone like a top sales person who brings huge amounts of money but treats people poorly, or an IT person that believes they are more valuable than everyone else because of what they know, this is a whole different type of issue. The trick is to treat them the same to start with. Go in with the same mindset and questions and give them the feedback. Based on their response, you will know whether you need to lean them into your organization or out of your organization. This is where the rubber meets the road and where you had better be ready to walk the talk, Mrs. or Mr. CEO.
  • To give you a little advice based on past experience, we have yet to see a company regret removing a toxic high performer. In every instance, once this person was removed, the entire organization, and especially the team most effected by them, said thank you, then rose up and exceeded whatever that one person was achieving.

You may not be able to build a culture, but what say and do every day, effects it. If you don’t have a process around the things that feed your culture, you should. If you want some help with that, let’s chat.

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