Company culture is a big problem in organizations across the world, and having a positive one can be a huge differentiator. So, what exactly is company culture? In Episode #28 of our Executive Leadership Podcast, Chris Goede and Perry Holley share the importance of being intentional about developing culture, including a few tips for leaders to generate an intentional culture for their organization today.

To learn more about how you can design an intentional culture for your team, join us for one of our upcoming 5 Levels of Leadership Workshops.

Listen to all podcasts in this series and subscribe to new episodes on iTunes or Google Play.

Read the transcript below:

Welcome to the John Maxwell Company Executive Leadership Podcast where our goal is to help you increase your level of influence, increase your reputation as a leader, and increase your ability to fully engage your team to drive remarkable results. Hi, I’m Perry Holley, a John Maxwell facilitator and coach and I’m Chris Goede, Vice President of The John Maxwell Company. Welcome and thank you for joining.

Today’s topic is about organization culture and whether you design it or do you default to it? Yeah, so I’m just thinking a default. When you say default to an organizational culture, I guess that’s just what shows up and you just get what you get, I’m guessing. So let’s start the discussion by talking about how do you design a culture. But I guess before we should do that, maybe they get you to define and make sure we’re all on the same page about what’s an organizational culture?

Yeah, that’s a good question. A lot of times you’ll hear people say your culture is the answer to this question, pretty simply, which is what’s it like to work here? Right. And when we figure out kind of what the values of the organization, the values of the people that are in there in part of your organization, it’s really those values that drive the behavior that leads to what it’s like to work there. What’s going on around the organization. If you design it right, culture can be a differentiator. Matter of fact, I can’t remember there was an organization and we use it in one of our trainings, we talk about some statistics about the fact that culture, if you’re intentional about it, the differentiator that having a positive culture, healthy culture you have over all of your competitors, whether it’s for retention, whether it’s for acquiring new talent, whether it’s for acquiring new business, it really is a differentiator.

I completely agree about it being a differentiator. It’s a game changer when you see people operating at ease and as themselves inside of a culture. For me, what I’ve seen is the organizational culture really affects how people interact with each other and how they get things done. And in turn, it will dictate how they treat customers. So it kind of plays out. I was just thinking, we have often seen a picture of an iceberg as depicting how culture really works. And above the waterline is all those behaviors, how we talk to each other, how we communicate, all those types of things. All of the things you see when people say, well, that’s really great, but below the waterline, that’s where all that comes up from is it’s the attitudes and the beliefs and the values and the mindsets and all the things that are built, they’re really underneath that it, that shows itself on the top, but it’s all underneath. So to me, having that strong culture that above the water of that’s being funneled by underneath it’s really about was where you get that high engagement and buy in by the people on the team. So if I ask you, how do I, we said default or design, how do I design the culture I want for my team? Does that come from the top of the business? Is that the boss’s job?

Yeah. Good question. I just had a thought when you’re talking about that iceberg, you know we talk often about people join companies, they quit people, they quit leaders. In essence we really could say they quit cultures, right? Cause they join a company because of what they see in the top 10% above the water of he iceberg and then once they get in there, and we all have done this, right? We’ve all been part of for profit, nonprofit, all kinds of different things where you’re like, man, that’s just incredible. That’s incredible culture. And then you get in there and you get under the water and you start trying to have an impact and you’re like, what is going on right now? I’m out. Right? So I just had that thought and wanted to share.

Yeah. Did that for what? Yeah. Listen, without a shadow of a doubt, culture has to be something that you intentionally focus on. You know, John’s big about intentionality. It’s really kind of what he focuses on. His daily life is built around intentionality. The things he does when he gets up in the morning to when he goes to the bed at night. And so it’s the same thing for us and in organizations. We have to be intentional about developing the culture that we want to have inside the organizations. Inside your team. Maybe you can’t right now say I have no impact on the culture in our organization, but I can’t impact it on my team.

You know, vision and strategy, they come from the top, you know, from the leadership team, but the culture is often developed from the bottom up based on what the bottom sees the top doing. Right? And this plays into something that we’ve talked about in the past, which is leadership is visual, right? Culture is visual. I think I made a note, I’m just reviewing some of these things today and I don’t know where it’s at, but when I said, you know, culture can be caught not taught. And so, you’re the people that are on your team at every level. They’re going to be watching it. They’re going to catch the culture that you want.

And so it is by design to be able to do that. I think I heard you say with the bottom sees the top of the business dealing, you did not say what the top of the business is saying. There’s two different things there. And I get that right? Yeah. What a coach of mine said, you know, what you’re doing speaks so loudly. I can’t even hear what you’re saying. So, you’re right. And I know you’ve taught me before when we’ve talked about this. People, you know, on the team, it’s a visual sport. They’re watching you all the time. Yeah. All the time. Yeah.

So what are some things a leader should be doing or demonstrating that would generate this intentional culture? Well, so when I thought about this question, I thought, let me just share kind of what we do at The John Maxwell Company and what we try to encourage the organizations around the world that we work with to you know, to kind of live out and you know, we talk a lot about personal values here at Level 2. What really I want to talk about now is kind of what the professional values are and what does that look like and your organizational values. And so for us, at The John Maxwell Company, I’ll just kind of read these. I have them with me here today in the studio; we have six values that we focus on. The first one is people. And then we always have a little short statement behind it, it says we are people of value who add value to people. The second one is growth. You know, we believe growth increases capacity. And you can unpack that for a while. The third one is passion. Loving what we do makes us contagious with what we do. And we are passionate about adding value to people. The fourth one’s leadership. Everything rises and falls on leadership. If you’ve read a John Maxwell book, you’ve heard him speaking, then you’ve heard them say, everything rises and falls on leadership. The fifth one is performance. And there we say exceeding expectation sets us apart from others is what we really strive to do. I was with a client yesterday and we were up in Green Bay and my question at the end of the day was, hey, give me your feedback. And he said, this exceeded what I expected. So that for us is important. That’s a value of ours. The last two real quick, partnership, one is too small a number to achieve greatness. And then finally, this is really big for John here is transformation, a change leader. He changed the leader himself will change lives. And so I think, you know, I just wanted to share those with those that are listening because we try to model this whole leadership thing and John’s where we don’t get it right at all. Right? I tell people all the time, listen, we have the privilege, you and I both have, working for the number one leadership expert in the world. And we have problems because we have people. So, I know everybody is listening right now is probably thinking a few of those people that why you have problems, but when you figure out what are those values of the organization, you’re going to build a culture around, you know, post them, speak to them, speak to them, speak about them. And it will become, you know, contagious inside your organization.

Talk about that for a moment, because I’ve been in companies and I’ve served alongside companies that are really good about putting posters like this on the wall. But I’m not sure it’s a culture that they’re living. Maybe from your own experience and how you guys live this cause I know you’re living in this, but how do you get over the hump of just putting something on the wall and pointing at it every now and then versus in your DNA?

Yeah, so we talked just a few minutes ago about intentionality, right? Our leadership team, we’re very intentional about talking about seeing our values lived out. And it becomes part of our language. You hear us talk about common language, it becomes part of what we talk about. And I was reading this book on culture this year and it’s slipped my mind who the author is. I’d love to share it with you. But he was talking about, hey, as you build a culture and you build it off the values of the organization, here’s what I want to challenge you to do. Don’t lift up the individual that’s living out the values, lift up the value and say thank you for that individual living this out because people are going to come and go and our values are going to stay. They’re going to be the same. And so what we’re really trying to be intentional about this year in 2019 is the leadership team is, whether it’s a communication verbally or via email or you know, a video released to the team. We’re really trying to speak those different values. And,  acknowledging people that are living it out, but really lifting up the value more than the person.

Yeah. And the whole idea of living it out, I was with one CEO and every time he gave an award, he thanked that the person, the individual for their great contribution and then he would always tag what they did to evaluate. He’d point to the picture on the wall. They did have posters on the wall, but he said, I just want to thank this person for that performance. And what they did speaks to our value of boom, our value of that. And they just kept reinstating that everything was being driven off the value, kept it front of mind for people. It wasn’t just a saying, it was something we live. And we recognize when we see people living to those values.

Yeah. So I know in our 5 Levels workshops, we spend a good amount of time on personal values. For me personally as a leader or an individual contributor, what are my values? Because that’s what people see. They see my behavior. And I’m thinking, how do I as a leader, how do I move closer to bring those into establishing that culture? Are they my values, the organization’s values, I mean, how do we balance that out? Yeah. I think there has to be some type of alignment there, you know, between the two in order to have a long term successful culture and a retention of your team, that is what you’re shooting for. And so really I think you got to make sure that, you know, Simon Sinek talks about the why. I think right here we talked a little bit about, you know, what is the purpose of what we do? What is our why? And so, what’s your crazy, you know, we can talk about, everybody’s got their crazy, you’re crazy. It’s different than somebody else’s. So what is your crazy, and then as you go through this process of training and developing and enhancing the culture inside your organization, you know, you’re going to weed out the people that don’t have that same crazy. And so you have to be able to kind of make sure, you know what your why is, why is what you and your team do affecting the bigger, what is the why, what’s the purpose of it. And I think when you get people aligned on that it is something that we’ll continue to enhance the culture inside the organization.

I know we get tangled up in what we do and then we get tangled up and how we do it. Yes. I don’t hear a lot of talk or as much as I’d like to see about why we do what we do. And I think when it connects to the culture, the values, the purpose, building that culture, it really helps you when you’re hiring people. It helps you when you’re assigning people, you start to know where people fit in that. And I’m guessing this alignment is really so key on all of these funds  to developing the culture you want. So designing that culture.

I mentioned I was with an organization yesterday and it’s funny because during the day we were with him, the President stopped the meeting and he said who can identify are our values and exactly right, and then you could just hear a pin drop and the team members in the room, they would say, hey, it’s really this. Or Hey, I see us living it out this, and they couldn’t name it, but they could see the actions, you know, behind what they were doing. And so the fact that if you could figure out what your values are and the why behind the way that you guys act and what you do, I think there will be alignment there. The other thing that led into a conversation I just want to share with those that are listening is a really, really good idea that the President came up to me afterwards and he said, you know, one of the things, my takeaways today is that I’ve got to make sure that at each level in our organization, so not just me, right? But at each level, I want to, I want to identify a champion at each level. They don’t need a title. I’m not going to bring in if somebody in them HR and make sure that this is their own focus. I want to find someone at each level that can be the champion for the culture that knows our values, that knows our why’s, that whether they’re an entry level or they’re in the C suite, you know, I have a champion that I can go to and find out what the temperature is. And he said, why that’s so important to me. And it came to me, you know, today during our training with you guys was there, they had just under a thousand people, they’re growing at a pace of greater than 10% a year. So every year they’re hiring, you know, 60, 80 people and he feels like the culture is beginning to slip away even though they’re being really intentional about the top. And so I thought it was a fascinating idea when it comes to culture is when you look at every level in your organization, identify a champion that aligns with your why, your purpose and understands the values that can speak that into the team.

Oh, there’s a whole nother podcast and that about growing and new people coming in, acquisitions, mergers, how do you keep your culture when you do that? Well, we won’t go there now. I know I’ve been in senior leadership roles myself and I just really realized that having our alignment with our purpose, our why, our values, those lined up and then really has to, how does it work out day to day? I see those on coaching calls. I’ll ask a mid level executive, what’s the culture? And they’ll give me the cultures line from the organization. I said, no, what’s the culture on your team? Hope it’s similar. Hope it’s related. Hope is connected. But what did the people on your team, what does it feel like to work for you? And I thought it really for me came out in, and the way I tried to monitor was how do we communicate with each other? Is it with dignity and respect? Is it, you know, especially when things are, are charged or emotional. How do we resolve conflict? How do we give feedback to each other? How do we hold each other accountable? This is where you start the day to day. How do I take a temperature of my culture and the culture that I’m trying to design is watching some of these interactions both with teammates and with clients to see are we really living at or are we just fooling ourselves and doing that?

Yeah. You know, you just were going through that. And the thing that came to my mind was you’re building a common language of how you expect your leaders, your managers, your team leads, whatever it might be to respond in those situations. And if you figure out what that common language is and how you guys handle that there’ll be that alignment from top to bottom. You know, the other thing I was thinking about was, we talked earlier about leadership being visual and we were talking about, hey, how do you acknowledge when you see somebody living out this value, you really need to make sure that you recognize and reward the behavior. Yes, right? That is in alignment with what you want, but make sure there’s also consequences for behavior that you want to discourage because your team is going to watch how you respond to that, right? And so that’s why it’s really important that you lift up the value, not the person. And as you’re doing that, they’ll see what you are. They’re going to watch it and they’re going to try to imitate that as your leader. And so it will become contagious. And you’ll have the alignment across the board.

Yeah, you remind me. Dr. Henry Cloud said, what just really stuck with me. He said, what you have today is a result of two things, what you have created or designed and what you have allowed to be. So I think you’re spot on with that. So Chris, as we wrap it up, how about a call to action for our listeners as you’re thinking about the culture that exists in your organization?

Yeah. I’m gonna give you just a couple of thoughts here. Just to kind of really think on as action items today. Listen, as leaders and remember, we define leadership as those that have influence. And so it’s everybody on this podcast listening in, desiring to grow. We have to run two problems, right? And culture is a big problem in our organizations around the world. And you know, there’s a lot of things that that culture is, one of them is engagement. And I saw a report just this week where I think Galllup said, it went from 32%. Now it’s up to 34%. So yeah, so we’re climbing but listen, culture’s a problem and so we have to run to it and we have to attack it. Because if we don’t, we can’t just let it happen. Right back to the title of today’s right.

We just cannot allow culture to happen because it will become something that we do not want, I promise you. I’ve been in cultures like that. I know you have as well. So just remember, no matter where you are in the organization, level of leadership, whatever, it doesn’t matter. You can design a culture for those that you have influence with. All right. And the other thing here is you have to live the culture that you want to establish. You have to walk the talk back to the just a minute ago. Leadership is visual. And then make sure you have vulnerability. That’s a great one. It  invites others into the conversation of you know, how we’re doing things around here. And it allows them to kind of, you know, see you be vulnerable and transparent and really talk about, you know, what is important to you inside the organization when it comes to culture.

My last thought on this is, so Paul Martinelli is the president and leader of our John Maxwell Team. I was watching a lesson he did the other day and it was kind of fascinating because so many people will use the word because as an excuse, I don’t know if you’ve ever heard this before, but a lot of people say, well, you know, our culture is what it is because, and he really challenged me, kind of broke that word down and he said, no, no, no, no, no. We’re not using the word because anymore. What I want you to think about it as the word be and cause, so you need to be the cause for some type of change in the culture. That’s good. Not just because, so my challenge to those that are listening is that we do have influence. We are leaders. We need to run to the problem. And I don’t want to hear because you’d be the cause of that small change inside your daily life, your team’s life, which will spread to the department and then the organization as a whole. Fantastic. Thank you very much. It’s great.

Also, as a reminder, if you would like to learn more about the 5 Levels of Leadership or perhaps bring a 5 Levels of Leadership Workshop to your organization, please go to We would also welcome any questions or thoughts you may have about leadership on that site that Perry and I will be able to answer in future podcasts for you. Thank you for joining us. This has been the John Maxwell Company Executive Leadership Podcast.