Company Culture

Feb 25, 2020

Culture: Can It Kill A New Leader?

How the existing culture paradigm must be deliberately undone to enable transformative change.

Startups move quickly to get their business off the ground. When you’re scaling your business, and bringing people on to help your company grow, don’t make the mistake of unwittingly putting company culture on the back burner. It’s important, indeed critical, to long-term success. Similarly, if you’re brought in to be a top leader, the advice applies. Culture counts!

And you need to do it early. When solidifying your team and presenting them with your agenda, some people (who may even be among the best and brightest in the business) may resist.

As a startup founder, you must confront this resistance head on to create a company culture that will serve as a strong foundation for growth. How do you tackle this challenge, without alienating the very people you must lead?

Here are four steps I’ve used to walk entrepreneurs through this common challenge.

1. Create a vision — and share it.

The first thing you owe your team is a clear vision for your business. Be sure to include all your hopes and dreams in this narrative. Get specific. You want to be didactic, while tugging on their heartstrings. If you can’t paint a vivid and compelling picture of the future, how can you expect your team to buy into it?

Elon Musk articulated a vivid vision at SpaceX: Build a spaceship that can take common folk to Mars. It’s bold, vivid, and clear. As a result, everyone who works at SpaceX knows what the mission is and understands their role in achieving it. It is this kind of vision setting that makes good companies indispensable.

2. Know the why behind your business.

If your vision is the what, your beliefs are the why. Your belief system must be part of the telling of your vision story. Your people need to understand why it is important to you. Your principles are as much a part of the paradigm you’re putting into place as any other characteristic.

Salesforce’s CEO Marc Benioff set his vision for the company and talked in terms of a new technology model (the cloud), a new business model (subscription service), and a new goodwill model, called 1-1-1. Salesforce commits 1 percent of its equity, employees’ time, and product to nonprofit work. By doing so, he provided the why for his vision of building a company that does great things for the world.

3. Outline expectations.

Once your team gets the big picture — and the way you want them to operate – you have to be clear on what you expect. It’s here that you make it real. Engage them in defining what they’re going to do, how it will be done, and when. This clarity is essential for success.

Every staff member at Amazon, for example, understands Jeff Bezos’s expectation for them. In fact, in 1997, he put it in writing in a letter to Amazon shareholders. Bezos wrote: “When I interview people I tell them, ‘You can work long, hard, or smart, but at Amazon you can’t choose two out of three.” I’d say that Bezos’s expectations are crystal clear and to this day, Amazon is known for its take-no-prisoners work ethic.

4. Hold everyone accountable.

With expectations set, it’s time to introduce responsibility into the equation. Help your team learn how to keep score for themselves. Let your team know you will hold them — and yourself — accountable for delivering on a promise to meet, or exceed, expectations. By tying in performance-measurement, reward, and incentive programs, you create the carrots and sticks needed to achieve wins, along with a winning company culture.

When Steve Jobs returned to Apple, for instance, he let his expectations be known and took steps to drive accountability. He quickly became famous for firing talented employees without pause for not conforming to his design principles, and scuffling nearly completed product development programs that didn’t meet his standard for excellence.

Bottom line: The most successful business owners are the ones willing to do whatever it takes to not only succeed, but also ensure they have a team that buys into the company culture and helps drive it forward well into the future.

Originally Published by on: Feb 11, 2020
Jan 23, 2020

Remarkable Businesses Forge Winning Cultures

You realize that to be great, you must cultivate a company culture that wants to win.

In this video, I share some ideas on this topic.

Watch this culture video

Please be sure to look for the book: Indispensable, available later this year — it takes these ideas to a whole other level!.

Dec 23, 2019

Great Businesses Have Culture That Breaks-down Silos

Do you want your company to become great? Breakdown silos!

This 2 minute video that captures some of the ideas on the subject .

Watch this Culture video.

I  hope that you enjoy this video!

Look for my forthcoming book, Indispensable, in 2020 — it takes these ideas to a whole other level!

Nov 30, 2019

Mars and the 5 Business Principles That Make Them Great!

Whenever I think about candy, I think about Mars, or one of its iconic brands including Snickers, M&Ms and Dove. Who else can top the nougaty goodness of a Milky Way bar?

Founded in 1911, this family owned business, has more than 125,000 employees working in 80 countries. The $35 billion company prides itself as a business that cares. For example, its sustainability plan places emphasis all along the company’s value chain. From ensuring that the cocoa farmer in a developing country gets his opportunity to thrive to re-imagining its product packaging to ensure that 100% of its plastic packaging is reusable, recyclable or “compostable” by 2025, Mars has built a culture that places emphasis on making a difference.

The “Five Principles of Mars” is the backbone of that culture. These principles inform what the company is all about:

The Five Principles

We are committed to Quality of work and contributions to society. This principle sets the standard for behavior at the Company. It encompasses the need to do a good job, exceed customer expectations and be a responsible citizen.

We embrace our Responsibility (as individuals and a company) to act now. This principle talks to execution. Mars expects all staff to take direct responsibility for results, to exercise initiative and judgment and to make decisions as required.

We base decisions on Mutuality of benefit to our stakeholders. This principle is about treating people fairly. The company wants to deliver value to customers, provide fair returns to employees and shareholders, provide mutual benefit to suppliers and give back to the communities that support the business, and, while it has been reported that Mars is not currently making the grade on its use of child labor in the cocoa factories of Africa, it has set an ambitious goal to eliminate all child labor in its cocoa operations by 2025.

We harness the power of Efficiency to use our resources to maximum effect. This principle addresses innovation in both tools and techniques. It speaks to increasing productivity while reducing costs. It is about running lean and not squandering resources.

We have the financial Freedom to make our own decisions, unrestricted by motivations of others. This principle is about maintaining independence. Private ownership provides Mars with the freedom to take a long-term perspective on making investments, building businesses and providing for the wellbeing of its employees.

It is hard to argue that these five principles have not made an enduring impact at Mars. Using them as their guide, the company has compiled an undeniable record of accomplishment since its humble beginnings in Tacoma, Washington. The fact that it has remained family owned is, in itself, a remarkable achievement. With such a solid culture in place, I can’t imagine anything but continued success for the confectioner. In the meantime, pass me the Skittles!

NOTE: This Article was originally published at on 11 November 2019.

Oct 6, 2019

Indispensable Businesses Are Resilient

A resilient culture is built one person at a time.

Resiliency is important to businesses because it’s the DNA that enables the company to better anticipate, prepare for, respond and adapt to ever increasing market disruptions, shifts in customer preferences and challenging competitor tactics that can knock a business off its hinges.

Resilient people make resilient cultures. Therefore, each staff member must learn the mental techniques and actions needed for protecting themselves from the potential negative effects of stressors. The degree to which a business weaves this kind of training, thinking and behavior into its work settings determines how quickly a company can recover under pressure.

Resiliency techniques focus on four aspects of performance: mental, physical, social and spiritual fitness.

  • The mental practices help with self-regulation assisting people with re-framing thoughts, managing change and self-awareness.
  • The physical practices promote proper sleep, good nutrition and exercise.
  • The social practices emphasize relationship management, team member connectedness and communication.
  • The spiritual fitness practices are about core values, guiding principles and purpose.

Once people are taught or reminded of the importance of developing and using resiliency-building behaviors, a community of resilient leaders result. It is through that community of leaders that the culture shifts.

Johnson & Johnson, for example, exploits the concept with their Human Performance Institute’s Corporate Athlete Resilience Program. According to the company:

“Corporate Athlete Resilience takes a holistic, science-based approach to sustainable behavior change, enabling people to understand different types of stress, recognize how to best respond to stress productively, and learn how to train to build resilience every day so they can recover, adapt and grow from stress.”

Ultimately, this commitment will shift the company’s culture over time. On balance, it will make Johnson & Johnson a more resilient organization.

How To Begin to Make The Commitment to Resiliency

There are several steps that I advise my clients to take in order to promote resiliency within their businesses, including:

  1. Build a Program: You have to show commitment by establishing an ongoing program that delivers the needed tools and techniques to help your team become more resilient. Besides my own, there are myriad companies, which offer this kind of training. Find one that you like and co-create a program that you want to offer to your staff.
  2. Provide The Training: Once the program is designed, be sure to offer the training on a regular basis. I’ve found that offering training quarterly with a rolling admission enables your people to self-select a time to participate that works for them.
  3. Reinforce Behaviors: Nothing helps the training stick more than coaching. If you provide your senior team with coaching following their participation in training you will help them continue to practice and develop the techniques that were taught. Our program offers coaching as part of the offering, for example.
  4. Measure Results: After several training sessions have been delivered, it’s wise to survey participants and ask them if the training has been put to use and has made their lives better. If the results suggest that it has, you know that you’re in the midst of shifting your culture for the better.

Continue to drive the program until all staff members have been able to attend. You can offer refreshers periodically after that to enable new hires to get the training and to continue to reinforce your commitment to resiliency.

To close the circle, a resilient culture is built one person at a time. When you change the way you think (beliefs), you change the way you believe (expectations), you change expectations (attitude), you change attitude (behavior) and you change behavior (performance). When you change behavior, you change the culture.

This piece was originally published by on Jun 11, 2019

Jun 6, 2019

The Humor and Business Strategy Connection

Stand-Up Strategist (SUS) has just released its second annual ranking of the best corporate April Fools campaigns worldwide. Established by co-curators Gabor George Burt, Jamie Anderson, and Art Reid, the goal of Stand-Up Strategist is to celebrate and advance the role of humor in corporate leadership and culture. The SUS annual rankings evaluate April Fools’ campaigns not only on their entertainment value and level of execution, but also on their potential impact on strategy, brand, and culture.

The 2019 SUS Top 5 winners are:

T-Mobile: The “PhoneBoothE campaign” – suggests the need for a phone booth that lets T-Mobile customers escape from noisy areas to make their phone calls.

Google: The “Google Tulip campaign” – proposes the tech needed to talk to flowers.

WestJet: The “FlyerFest campaign” – a take-off of the now infamous Fyre Festival.

SodaStream: The “When Life Gives You Gas campaign” – features retired NASA astronaut Scott Kelly demonstrating what can happen in space.

Planet Fitness: The “Mobile Stationary Bike campaign” – pokes fun at the home-based workout crowd.

Key Observations About the 2019 Rankings

The 2019 SUS Top 23 List includes companies from 10 countries on 4 continents (U.S. – 10 winners, Canada – 3, Australia – 2, Japan – 2, Netherlands – 1, Israel – 1, New Zealand – 1, China – 1, Switzerland – 1, Malaysia – 1).

Twelve companies appear on both 2018 and 2019 lists: Google (from various countries), Honda (Japan), T-Mobile (U.S.), Logitech (Switzerland), Roku (U.S.), Baidu (China), SodaStream (Israel), WestJet & Swoop Airlines (Canada), Chegg (U.S), (Australia).

Three of the winners feature personal appearances in their April Fools’ campaign by the company’s top executive: T-Mobile ‘s CEO John Legere, Logitech’s CEO Bracken Darrell, and Swoop Airlines’ President Steven Greenway.

Industries most active in April Fools campaigns: Consumer Electronics, Automotive, Airlines, Travel

Lockheed Martin is the first B2B company to appear on the list at number 14, with its ‘Vector – Odor of the Cosmos’ fragrance campaign. As is the case with B2C, humor can be a key tool to increase levels of positive engagement in B2B industries as well.

Public viewership of corporate April Fools’ campaigns, as measured by YouTube, varies greatly. Not surprisingly, the best-known companies and brands command the highest viewership in total. Google Tulip, the second-ranked SUS Top23 campaign, has over 5 million views, while 5th place Planet Fitness Mobile Stationary Bike only has 11 thousand. Total viewership, however, is not a measure of the value these pranks have for internal audiences.

Almost all of the winners used multi-channel approaches as part of their April Fools campaigns, typically leveraging a video or visual storytelling through a wider social media communication plan encouraging comments and re-sharing.

On March 27, Microsoft announced that it is banning April Fools campaigns, with the company’s CMO Chris Capossela saying: “data tells us these stunts have limited positive impact and can actually result in unwanted news cycles.” This first seemed like an April Fools prank in its own right, but apparently it isn’t. When used properly, humor has significant benefits, which is why so many companies globally are embracing it. To guide its effective application, SUS has created a practical framework for executives and organizations to follow.

It is well understood that humor should be adapted depending on audience characteristics. So it is interesting to see the way in which global brands in the SUS 23 have appealed to universal values, while more local brands or subsidiaries of multinational companies have made their campaigns more regionally focused.

It is worth noting that Spain and Spanish speaking Latin American countries have their own version of April Fools, as they celebrate the day of humor not on April 1st but on December 28th: el Día de los Santos Inocentes (Day of the Holy Innocents). This explains the absence of companies from these countries in the rankings.

To close, in the words of study author, Gabor George Burt:

“In an environment of perpetual change, all companies must continuously reevaluate how to stay relevant. In this process, cultivating creative thinking throughout the organization is key. Humor is a universal catalyst for creativity, which is why future-shaping companies are embracing it to inspire an internal atmosphere of open discourse, stimulate strategic ideation, and foster customer attachment.“

I couldn’t agree more!

NOTE: This article first appeared in on May 31, 2019.

Jan 15, 2019

Talent Development 101 – 4 Ways to Create the Next Generation of Leaders at Your Company

Leaders are not developed overnight. Rather, leaders develop competencies across a continuum over time. It takes a commitment to Talent Development. Indeed, leaders mature along a curve based on experiences and the skills and competencies that they develop along the way. That said, it is good business to develop talent continuously so that you establish a pipeline of leaders at various stages of readiness that can take the lead whenever circumstances deem necessary.

Most of my clients have talent development systems of some sort. Most of them do not have leadership development focus, per se. Instead, most in-house training programs offer a curriculum full of one-off skills development offerings, like “How To Be An Active Listener” and “Interactive Presentation Design.” This kind of training has its place, but they do little to prepare the organization for tomorrow’s leadership challenges. A proper leadership development program is needed to ensure businesses don’t come up short when needing to fill leadership positions.

Here are four foundational elements to look for in any leadership development program. Think of these combining to form the four legs of a stool — you need all four of these characteristics to establish a well-rounded leadership development program — skip one and the program may not produce results that you can count on:

1. Data to make better placement decisions.

This is provided through the use of an intense battery of assessments instruments. The data derived from these instruments provides additional insights needed to make better choices in placing future leaders in available positions.

The assessment data also helps the staff, which take them, to better understand where their opportunities for growth and maturity lie; insights that can help them to commit to driving the changes that they need to make to become better leaders.

2. A focus on fundamental leadership competencies.

These are skills participants will cultivate, and practice, enabling them to evolve along their own individualized maturity curve. Done right, staff will maximize their potential to achieve at the ‘next‘ level by better understanding the performance expectations required to excel there.

For example, we have a leadership academy that we bring to clients interested in instituting leader development programs. The backbone of the academy is an entire suite of leadership competency modules, which can be mixed and matched to deliver a tailored experience for each client. Modules focus on such topics as inspiring others, driving resiliency and finding your leadership ethos — all fundamental leadership competencies.

3. Mentorship for staff.

Be sure that your leadership program includes a formal mentor program, where each participant is assigned a senior leader mentor with whom they can meet and discuss key concepts brought out through the training.

My clients, for example, find it is through regular reinforcement and engagement with senior leaders that staff will gain valuable perspective and feedback needed for navigating their own leadership maturity journey. Additionally, mentorship creates powerful networking opportunities that prove useful as new leaders take their positions within the business.

4. Experiential learning.

Your leadership program should be rich with experiential learning elements. You want your people to learn how to be more vulnerable and open with one another so they gain mutual respect and trust. After all, since these will be the people leading the company, it is important that they trust each other.

Clearly, a compelling case can be made for the need to extend the leadership continuum of any business with the provision of ongoing leader development. By combining the elements outlined above in forging your leadership development program, you can ensure that the next generation of leader in your company is ready to assume the helm.

NOTE: Content was originally published by on: Oct 3, 2018

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Sep 25, 2018

Gen-Z and Me — How to Lead The Next-Gen

Having trouble attracting Gen-Z staffers? Here is an approach that can work.

There is no doubt you will need to cultivate Gen-Z talent to achieve your vision. Gen-Z, who makes up 25 percent of the U.S. population, represents a larger group of potential employees than do the Baby Boomers or Millennials. Gen-Z includes 69 million people born between the mid-1990s and the early 2000s.

While it will require thoughtfulness and great understanding to build the “right” culture to bring them in, we had better figure out ways to attract and retain this talent or jeopardize the future of our businesses. After all, a workforce void of Gen-Z personnel will grow stagnant in short order.

Here are some steps that you can take, right now, to begin the necessary transition needed to attract the best Gen-Z talent–and keep them.

Leverage Your Gen-Y Talent

Identify and gather your high potential Gen-Y talent (the preceding generation to Gen-Z, known as the Millennials. People born between 1980 and 1994). Schedule and conduct informal meetings to engage them in discussions about what they think is needed to attract and retain next-generation teammates. After all, they are only a few years older–who better to ask about what motivates and inspires their younger “brothers and sisters.” Use that insight to inform hiring specifications.

Deliberately Meld Your Staff

Establish ways for older and newer team members to interact and learn from each other every day. We’re already seeing firm employ formal mentoring and “buddy systems” to assist in new worker assimilation. Fold those kinds of programs and practices into your everyday work environment. It will make new talent that much more likely to stick.

Rethink How Work Is Done

Think through how you can adapt your work processes to utilize the unique strengths and talents of the Gen-Z worker. To the extent possible, begin to redesign workflow that takes advantage of smartphones, apps and cloud-based applications that will be easier for Gen Z team members to understand and use.

Become a Workplace of Choice

Tomorrow’s workforce comes into their first jobs expecting to be treated, communicated with and learn in the ways in which they have been socialized with from an early age.

This means that thanks, in part, to them growing up with the Internet and social media already in place, most process information rapidly, are big on individuality and are more globally minded than anyone who came before them.  Be sure to consider this when designing your culture. Otherwise, you may inadvertently turn-off the next generation of worker.

To close, don’t forget that we must work on not falling victim to societal stereotypes about the Gen Z worker. While they may love Snapchat and check social media 100 times a day, it is better to think in terms of how you can make your team flexible and accommodating by engaging in new ways of thinking and achieving. Promote collaboration among all generations of workers in the workplace and you will have the makings of a formula for success.

Note: The contents of this piece was originally published in on September 4, 2018.

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May 5, 2018

The Culture at Michelin Tire

Michelin is dedicated to cultivating a culture of innovation. Clearly, its goal of innovating better and faster so to maintain its lead over the competition and deliver solutions that are increasingly effective and competitive, and perfectly suited to the challenges of mobility continues to be the driver of its company culture.

It invests deeply in R&D, provides training to each employee and has put a system, called Progress Ideas, in place which enables improvement ideas to flow through from staff to leaders for consideration and implementation.  All of this serves to fortify its culture of innovation.

Here are some company statistics that illustrate the firm’s commitment to sustaining its innovation culture:

1. Michelin provides an average of 56 hours of training per employee per year.Introduced in 1927,

Progress Ideas gives everyone, whatever their function, the opportunity to get involved in the Company’s life and progress by suggesting ways to solve problems or improve the manner in which Michelin does things. Consequently, nearly 60,000 ideas are put forward per year.

2. The company annually invests between 3 to 4 percent of net sales in R&D

3. . It actively works to establish external partnerships with universities, innovative businesses and suppliers so to diversify its sources of innovation.

Couple all of this with the fact that the firm is dedicated to professional development throughout an employee’s career. Staff can count on the guidance and support of their line manager and career manager to help them map out their individualized career path.  Michelin’s far flung worldwide operations also open up a range of varied and international career opportunities that help to round out one’s career and expose their leaders to more ideas for getting things done than they might otherwise see, if consigned to one locale.

The Effort Continues to Pay Off 

Michelin’s decade’s long commitment to building a culture of innovation continues to deliver achievements. For example, more than 20 years ago, the Company achieved a major breakthrough that made its tires more energy efficient. Today, it is the global leader in low-energy tires and a trailblazer in the functionality economy (which consists in selling services or the use of a product rather than selling the product itself).

And, just last year, Michelin was awarded the gold medal for its latest innovation, the “2-in-1 agricultural tire,” which works to protect a farmer’s soil. The tire literally changes to adapt to its environment. Its adaptable tread means it offers outstanding performance both in fields and on the road, enabling farmers to work with tires at a very low pressure.

To close, Michelin is committed to moving forward on the strength of its iconic, innovative brand. Seemingly, it sets the standards in quality and innovation by charging Michelin employees to take great pride in its strength and providing its people with the opportunity to contribute, in their own way, to future innovative achievements.

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Note: This article, by James M. Kerr, was originally published by Inc. on April 12, 2018

Republished from
Oct 24, 2017

Free Advice For Uber’s New CEO

With board-level voting rights on equal footing, it’s time for it’s CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi, to lead the firm to a new tomorrow

In June, under immense pressure from incensed investors who didn’t take kindly to Uber’s unrestrained “Bro” culture, Travis Kalanick stepped down as its CEO. Able to retain his seat on the firm’s 11-member board, Kalanick was able to maintain extra voting power granted him in the Company’s original by-laws. This extra voting power could have been used to help him to control the company’s future direction. But, last week Uber’s board voted to shred that extra voting power – putting every board member’s vote on an equal footing.

Clearly, the company isn’t out of the woods, yet. Just last month, London city officials said they would not renew the company’s license because of the Company’s lack of corporate responsibility. Clearly, Kalanick’s successor, Dara Khosrowshahi has his hands full as he charts a course for the future while working to overhaul Uber’s sad corporate reputation and internal company culture.

As a guy who has made his living for over 30 years helping executives to transform their company cultures, I am compelled to share some free advice with Uber’s new CEO. While the ideas are by no means earth shattering, they are fundamental to driving the kind of sea-level change needed at Uber:

  1. New Leaders need to create and share a vivid and compelling vision in order to engage and inspire their organizations.
  2. An outside-in perspective can inform what the “new normal” can and should be. Seeing the world from the viewpoint of those that an organization serves will enable break-through thinking and lead to the delivery of exceptional products and services.
  3. Communication is the key to engagement. Your people need to know where you are, what you want and how you expect them to get there.
  4. Be sure to put the right kinds of communication mechanisms in place to keep your staff properly informed. How can you expect solid communication, if you don’t enable it through the implementation of the necessary tools and devices?
  5. Being “in it together” is the only way to drive widespread transformation. People want to be part of something bigger than them. Make a “cause” out of your transformation effort by helping people understand what’s in it for them and they will pull together to make it happen.
  6. Measure results, not effort to change behavior. It doesn’t matter how much effort one expels to achieve success. It’s the success that matters. Measure outcomes and people will change their individual behaviors as necessary to achieve the results expected.
  7. Consider the next generation of employee as you imagine the future. You must take into account the values and expectations of the next generation of employee in order to ensure that you crafted a culture that will attract and retain the talent you need to achieve your vision. If you don’t someone else will!
  8. An active leadership style enables you to know when to “push” and when to step back and observe. You don’t always need to be in the front of the room – that kind of behavior can stifle the growth and maturity of your staff. Rather, be involved and understand exactly what your team needs from you in order for them to be successful.

To close, there’s no doubt that Mr. Khosrowshahi has quite a challenge ahead of him at Uber. But, by all accounts, he’s up for the task. But, of course, he doesn’t have to take the journey alone. There are people out there that can help (and would welcome the challenge of rolling up their sleeves, right beside him) to do the work needed to put Uber back on track. If you think that your company could use a company culture overhaul please reach out.

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