The Culture Cliché

If you’re looking to shift your company culture, it starts with understanding what culture is in the first place.

“Culture” has become the ultimate buzzword these days.

Everyone wants to “improve their company culture.” I see the word frequently littered across the headlines of countless of articles, book titles, and conference talk topics. Leaders also seem to talk about it all the time: CEOs say company culture is their first or second most-important priority as a leader.

Yet for as much we seem to talk about it, do we really know what culture is?

If we want to influence our company culture, we have to start with a keen understanding of what culture actually is.

What is company culture, really?

“Culture is the way we do things around here.”

You may have heard this before. It’s how prominent organizational consultants Terry Deal and Allan Kennedy defined culture in the 1980s. Culture is the thing you can’t necessary touch and feel — it’s the invisible binds and unspoken rules that enforce “how people do things around here.”

However, this definition can be insufficient at times. “The way we do things” feels awfully vague and amorphous, especially when it comes to thinking about how to intentionally create a company culture we’re proud of.

As a result, our attempts to influence culture get muddled. We conflate culture with surface-level relics, confusing culture with “Things To Make People Feel Good.” Think ping pong tables and happy hours and free lunches. Sure, those are part of “the way we do things” — but it doesn’t explain why you’re doing those things. Culture includes that why.

Let’s take a look at culture a few levels deeper.

Three levels of culture

Edgar Schein, another prominent organizational scholar, defined culture as having three levels:

Artifacts

This is the level of culture closest to the surface. Artifacts are things you can see, touch, smell. Ping pong tables, happy hours, and free lunches. It’s also the office layout, the logo rebranding you just did, and your company holiday party. This is typically what we think of when it comes to company culture.

Espoused values and beliefs

One level deeper are your espoused values and beliefs. These are the things you think you believe and say you believe. It’s the mission statement you wrote together as a company, the code of conduct that’s in your employee handbook, or the six core company values your CEO talks about during your all-staff meeting.

Basic underlying assumptions

This is the final, core layer of culture. Basic underlying assumptions are the things you actually believe. For example, at Know Your Team, we have a basic underlying assumption that we must be honest, regardless of the personal cost. So when we made a big mistake a few years ago, we proactively shared it with our customers, even it meant risking losing them. Our basic underlying assumption steered our decision-making and how “we do things around here” — ultimately, driving our culture.

Our basic underlying assumptions are the foundation of culture. If we can influence our basic underlying assumptions, we can influence culture.

Why this matters

More often than not, there’s a misalignment between this final layer — the basic underlying assumptions — and the espoused values and beliefs and artifacts. The things you actually believe, versus the things you say you believe and the things you do to show it.

Perhaps the most glaring case has been Uber. A company that no doubt had artifacts as “proof” that they valued their employees — lavish office parties and state-of-the-art offices. A company that had 14 cultural values it touted, including that employees should “be themselves.” And yet the basic underlying assumption persisted: Win at all costs, by any means necessary. We saw this in countless of examples of questionable ethics and sexual harassment issues ignored. At its core, Uber’s culture was rooted in this aggressive, toxic mindset — and that manifested in how they treated their people, regardless of what superficial artifacts or espoused values they trumpeted.

If you’re looking to truly shift your company’s culture, you have to zoom in on this last and final layer: Your basic underlying assumptions. What you truly believe — not always what you say or outwardly show — is what drives your company’s culture. This should be your focus as a manager, CEO or employee.

Changing your company culture is not about just changing the artifacts. Getting beer taps installed in the kitchens doesn’t make your culture more friendly. Nor does building an onsite gym mean your culture all of sudden cares about employees’ health and well-being.

Changing your company culture also isn’t about just changing the espoused values and beliefs. Saying at all-company meetings, “We believe in honesty and transparency” or writing “We believe in diversity and inclusion” on your career website doesn’t automatically make those things true.

Changing your company culture is about tapping into the core beliefs of each individual, understanding what their basic underlying assumptions are, and creating an environment where those can be listened to, brought together, and reacted to.

How do you exactly do this? That’s a whole ‘nother topic I cover in a separate piece here.

Until then, I hope we can take a minute to look past company culture as not a cliché — but an opportunity to use it as a precise, perceptive lens to examine how to make our organizations better.

If we can understand company culture, we can improve it.


Enjoy this piece? Read more of Claire‘s writing on leadership on the Know Your Team blog. And, check out Know Your Team – software that helps you become a better manager.

Work culture — important things you can learn from my salon


I’ve been seeing the same hair stylist for years — Valerie. Not only do I consider her a friend (and of course great at keeping me proud of my hair), she’s full of interesting lessons about business. She’s even recently opened up her own salon. (I’ve written about her and her partner before.)

I was chatting with Valerie about what makes a great place to work. She mentioned two things.

First, Valerie sees so many salons pretending that cutting hair is way more important than other aspects of employees lives, like their family or extracurricular activities. She wants to see salons encourage employees to go after what they want. Whether it’s performing in a band, or auditioning for an acting job, she’s wants an environment that works around the real lives and schedules of employees.

Second, Valerie doesn’t want employees to feel stuck doing a certain thing. Many salons silo their employees. You can only cut hair. You can only do color. Valerie wants her employees to be able to explore any facet of the business they want to learn and get better at.

As Valerie talked to me about what’s important to her, I realized those were the same things that drove my career direction and entrepreneurship goals.

One of the first jobs I had was as a consultant. I was on the road, living in other states 5 days a week. My life at home was completely ignored by my employer.

And it’s not just consulting companies. How many work places expect their salaried employees to work as much overtime as possible for free to help make the founders wealthy?

I also saw how companies stuck me into siloed places. I kept finding myself in positions where I wanted to learn and contribute to more aspects of the business, but didn’t see a path to do so. I didn’t expect my employer to hold my hand, but I felt shut out of even the ability to try and learn.

So when I would switch jobs or create my own companies, my objective would often be to overcome these obstacles.

Now don’t get me wrong. These goals are still aspirational to me as I run Highrise. I’m positive I’m still not the best at executing on these ideas, but I want to be.

I realize employees here at Highrise have important things going on in their lives other their work here. So instead of the typical “end of week retrospective” about work, during our end of week meeting we focus on everyone’s weekend plans and life updates. Or we try to promote and encourage the outside efforts of employees, like Alison Groves’ work to give girls a wonderful environment to learn about business, technology, working together, and more with Girls to the Moon.

I also try to provide an environment where Highrise employees can participate and learn about any facet of the business they want to. Any team. Any project. If someone in engineering wants the raw data to customer interviews or our website analytics to see what drives business decisions, it’s all open to them. If someone on customer support, wants to help with marketing and SEO efforts, the contributions are more than welcome. If anyone wants to sit at the trade show booth with me talking to people, they can. If anyone wants to develop, they can. If anyone wants to design, they can.

I want Highrise to be a place where you can absolutely grow into the person you want to be. I know I can get a ton better at this and hope I can. But if you are looking at building your own company and looking for some advice on the people side of things, those are two big ones that stand out to me.

P.S. Please help spread this by clicking the below.

You should follow my YouTube channel, where I share more about how we run our business, do product design, market ourselves, and just get through life. And if you need a no-hassle system to track leads and manage follow-ups you should try Highrise. And if you need a hair stylist in Chicago, go say hi to Valerie.

Show Up: Mind The Work

If you’ve been to London and ridden the Tube, you’ve seen the signs that read, ‘Mind the Gap.’ They’re there to remind you to be careful about the distance between the train and the platform. Around the world, we face an equally dangerous gap in the way we manage work, but there are no warning signs for us. When we don’t bring our full minds to our work, we run the risk of falling into a deep hole of assumptions.


We spend the majority of our time at work. What would it be like if you gave your full attention to your colleagues during a meeting? What if you actively sought to understand what they’re communicating and their perspectives instead of paying attention to the voice in your own head?

The voice in your head is leading you astray

The best professional advice I ever got came from the CEO at Interwoven, Martin Brauns. I was an executive for the first time in my career and I wanted to be a good leader. He was a strong leader and good coach. Using Stephen Covey’s, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” he encouraged me ‘to seek first to understand, then be understood’ (habit #5). With that simple advice, he transformed how I worked with people.

This is what it means to seek first to understand. Say an employee gives you a spreadsheet with information. You take a quick look at it, and you spot an obvious error. Do you tell yourself that the person who gave it to you is careless, lazy or dumb? If you do, this self-talk will dramatically change how you show up for that ensuing conversation. When you confront (yes, that’s the word) this person about the errors, you’ll be listening for data points that reinforce your negative thinking. You’ll be looking to justify your belief instead of seeking to understand. You’re not actually listening or being mindful. You’re busy confirming your hypothesis. Now you’ve reduced this person to these three adjectives. But what if none of that is true, then you’ve fallen into the trap of mindless leadership.

Imagine instead if you were to ask about the error. Instead of making your assumption, you’d say, ‘These numbers aren’t adding up.’ This is a simple statement of fact. Your colleague reacts by saying, ‘Oh, you’re right. I got this spreadsheet from so-and-so in accounting, and I didn’t look at that part of the spreadsheet. I worked on this tab for you.’ That part of the spreadsheet is flawless. Now you have a completely different opinion of this person because you made the effort to understand first. Note the facts are unchanged in both scenarios.

Too often, we assume bad intent behind the actions of others. We fill the void in our understanding with our own negative beliefs. We turn off our minds and go on autopilot. After Martin Brauns introduced me to this habit, I realized that nine times out of ten, when I ascribed negative intent to someone, the person had no such intent. It took probing and questioning, but it was well worth the time to learn what was actually happening versus assuming. When we go through work mindlessly, we jump to conclusions—and when we do that we can’t see the real issues we should be addressing. It’s time to hit the reset button on the voice in your head.

How do you press that reset button?

Don’t Assume You know.

Ask.

Here are three prompts I use when I find myself in this situation:

  • Can you explain more about how you’re thinking about that?
  • Can you help me understand what’s getting in your way?
  • What have you been able to do so far?

You can still do your self-talk with these questions, but what comes out of your mouth changes:

  • You think: He’s dumb.
  • You say, How are you thinking about that?
  • You think: She hasn’t finished?! She’s slow.
  • You say, What’s getting in your way?
  • You think: He hasn’t started?! He’s lazy.
  • You say, What have you been able to do thus far?

I can’t tell you how many times I thought something wasn’t started only to learn that the person was most of the way done, but agonizing over perfecting the work. Or, that the employee had sent the work to me days ago, but had a typo in my email, so it never arrived. He thought I had it, and I thought he hadn’t sent it. There are so many explanations that aren’t negative.

In his book, “10% Happier,” author and journalist, Dan Harris, clearly explains how he tamed the voice in his own head. He uses ‘skillful…thinking, designed to direct the mind toward connecting with what is actually happening, as opposed to getting caught up in a storm of unproductive rumination.’ While this quote applies more to self talk about yourself, it can apply equally well to how and what you think of others. Let’s mind the work by bringing our full minds to work.

If you’re willing to try this the next time you automatically ascribe negative qualities to someone at work, hit the ❤ button below.

Empowering the Next Generation

Women are not making it to the top of any profession anywhere in the world Sheryl Sandberg

  • 190 heads of state / 9 are women
  • Of C-level jobs only 15% are women. Numbers haven’t changed since 2002 and it’s decreasing

It’s clear there’s a problem.

So two years ago, three very dear friends of mine formed a social enterprise company called Girls to the Moon, in hopes of hosting events and workshops to help young girls be their best selves, impact their communities, and create a more inclusive culture.

L-R: Courtenay Rogers, Knight Stivender, Courtney Seiter

This year, we held our second annual “campference” in Nashville, for girls ages 10–14 with sessions covering all sorts of topics from puberty to positive body image to exploring black holes with an astrophysicist.

And it was packed. It was sold out and had a long waiting list. We can’t be more proud of the girls who attended and participated.

Just a tiny snag… planning was a huge burden given the demand. One of those “good problems to have” 🙂

With one of the co-founders running for office this year, I was asked to step in and help out as we planned the 2nd annual campference event. Last year, planning was done using different variations of Google Docs, but things were getting lost in the shuffle. And with four people now involved, context on communication with sponsors, speakers, and volunteers was paramount.

Enter Highrise.

Girls to the Moon all happens in our spare time. We all have full time jobs, so the amount of time we are able to spend on the campference and other events needs to be as focused, yet as asynchronous as possible.

When managing an event there are a lot of moving parts. 56 different people were involved in planning the campference.

What Highrise tools did we use to stay on top of that?

Tasks

The four of us were all responsible for different things. Courtney handled speakers and social marketing. Knight took care of our sponsors and other marketing tasks. Courtenay helped connect the dots with her context and connections, plus dealt with logistical things she had institutional knowledge on. I handled volunteers and venue logistics.

As you can see, a lot of moving parts.

An entire marketing and logistical plan was written out, then broken down into Highrise tasks. Every Sunday, we would get together to go through the previous week’s tasks, and assign new ones for the week to come. All tasks were marked “let everyone see this task” so we all had continual context, and could even follow up with each other.

Tasks in Highrise

People Contacts

What’s the best email address to use to reach Dr. Rager, who’s teaching our puberty session? What is our volunteer coordinator Lizzie’s Twitter handle? What session is Renee Burwell hosting?

Names, email addresses, physical addresses, social media information, and any custom data we needed to keep is stored in our contacts. We can also leave notes about people, keep files (like presentations!), and create fields for information specific to us, such as the name of the session someone was leading.

And contacts don’t even need to pertain to this year either. If someone expressed interest in speaking or volunteering but wasn’t able to join us for this particular event, they were added anyway and we used tags to identify them.

We have different volunteer tags in our Highrise account, one for volunteer, and one for 2016volunteer. Those marked volunteer we can go back to for future events and ask about their availability, we didn’t have to completely disregard them in a spreadsheet or other document because they weren’t available this time.

Dropbox Address

There is nothing worse than more than one person working with someone and not having context on the relationship. For example, Courtney was our main point of contact for speakers. She would then hand them off to me to talk logistics on the day, such as whether or not they had a slide deck to project during their session.

By forwarding all important email responses to Highrise via our own dropbox addresses, everyone could see the conversation history with each speaker, sponsor, and volunteer.

An email in Highrise from Lizzie Keiper, our Volunteer Coordinator

Deals

Sponsorships make events happen, and Deals were the perfect tool to keep track of them all. With Deals, each sponsorship opportunity could be marked as accepted (won), declined (lost), or pending, plus a value amount added to them.

Anything we needed to keep regarding that sponsorship could be kept there, like the contract we would send if they signed on for the event.

Broadcast

In Highrise, we had three segments of people we needed to communicate with: speakers, sponsors, and volunteers. They were tagged with their respective segments, and we could communicate with each group in bulk, instead of spending our time emailing each person individually.

This was especially helpful when seeking out volunteers. We had already started keeping contacts in Highrise who had expressed an interest in volunteering at the event, so when the time came to formally ask, we just had to send one easy email to all.

Cases

Any random files and notes we needed to keep about the event that weren’t associated with a specific person were kept in a Case. This meant that we actually had several places where information could live.

I specifically liked having all of our sponsor logos directly in the case, instead of digging through Google Drive to find them, they were right there. We also used the campference case to collect things like links and color specifics about the t-shirts we ordered.

Did We Need Other Tools?

The only outside tools we used were Slack to chat with each other, and the occasional Google Docs spreadsheet for things such as finances and time slot organization. Those spreadsheets could actually be linked directly to the Case we had set up for the campference, so all of our information was technically in the same place.

We also used Trello to “whiteboard” the sessions for the day. But 90% of the event was completely run in Highrise.

Having full context on all of those people who helped us make the event so special, plus specific spaces to accomplish major tasks meant we could all work in our own time yet still stay totally on top of the entire event. ‘

This year’s event sold out and got rave reviews:

Great day! Thanks for allowing DaysForGirls to be part of it. The girls put together 85 personal hygiene kits for distribution all over the world! — Cas Wucher

Looks like another success!! Look at all those inspired young women! …can’t wait till my girl is old enough to attend! Bravo to the GTTM Team for spreading such awesome waves of empowerment & leadership to the next generations — Meagan Norman Fowler

Looking forward to doing it all again with Highrise next year.

P.S. If you want to know more about Girls to the Moon and future events or opportunities, please signup for our newsletter here.