How Will You Influence Your Company Culture? (Ignite: Part Two)

Ignite, Science of Story September 21, 2016

How Will You Influence Your Company Culture? (Ignite: Part Two)

Andy Swindler
Conscious businesses prosper through purpose-driven people-first practices, but many still struggle to tell their courageous stories. I help connect the dots.

Change is hard.

Yet change we must.

By facing our fears.

And taking a chance that things can be better for everyone.


Culture Is What We Do Together

All companies have culture. But does your company have the culture you want or need? How do your employees feel at the end of the day? How do your customers feel after interacting with your company? These are good ways to measure culture, but how do you improve it?

Cultures are complex because people are complex. A complex and untraceable web of actions and words, both big and small, binds us together and represent the energy we exchange through our stories.

There are two basic traditional moral principles that can guide us toward creating cultures that take care of more people. Utilitarianism seeks the greatest good for the greatest number and Kantianism informs us to treat all persons as ends in themselves, never as mere means to ours ends. Both have been seen as sophisticated versions of the Golden Rule.

The collective behaviors of a group define its culture, whether a team, family or tribe. Actions of authorities (those with power) define the priorities and balance within a culture. Many companies maintain a traditional power structure that typically favors a small number of people at the top of the hierarchy. But the 21st century is welcoming the increased influence of feminine leadership energy, which is already having a balancing effect on organizations that embrace a fully human view of conscious leadership. This energy isn’t limited to people who identify as women. We all have masculine and feminine energy within us that is most effective when balanced.  

What people do in a company generally falls into these categories: leadership, product development, customer service, support, sales, logistics, celebration, training and hiring practices. Redefining power and communication structures across all these areas is the goal of making a more effective and engaging company culture.



Cultivate a Culture of Curiosity

The goal of growing a stronger culture is to cater to each person’s well-being and produce better business results. As we’ve discussed in the Believe and Discover stages, collaboration and innovation begin with curiosity rather than judgment. Of course critical thinking and decisions are necessary for any successful organization, but they are better informed through a lens of curiosity. While profit keep the doors open, conscious culture is impossible in a company that maintains a myopic focus on profits alone. They leave no space for curiosity and creativity to bloom. We believe the best solutions come through inspired collaborations, not zero sum contention.

The relationships between workers and management; creative curiosity and judgment; and ego and soul are out of balance in many companies. When you cultivate a conscious culture, you must bring opposing points of view into equilibrium.

As our great civilization marches forth, we must continue to innovate from every corner of the globe through a spirit of collaboration. Our future depends on it. This means that the way we value corporate production will change along with everything else. Companies that nurture conscious cultures will be prepared for changes both external and within.


Conscious Cultures Need Conscious Leaders

Jim Dethmer, co-founder of the Conscious Leadership Group, outlines 15 commitments of a conscious leader in his book, The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership: A New Paradigm for Sustainable Success. He says, “Conscious commitment begins the process of positive change and relational and organizational resolution.” Think connecting and entrusting. “We define commitment using its latin origin, committere, which means to gather one’s energy and move it in a chosen direction.” Energy management trumps time management, money management and all other kinds.

It’s worth going right to the source to learn about all 15, but the first six commitments form the core foundation for a conscious leader, so we’ll start with those:

  1. Responsibility
  2. Curiosity
  3. Feelings
  4. Candor
  5. Gossip
  6. Integrity





We call the CEO the culture captain. At this year’s Conscious Capitalism conference, father-of-the-movement John Mackey, Co-CEO of Whole Foods, explained that conscious leaders have systems intelligence. Aligned with a strong IQ and EQ (emotional intelligence quotient), a strong systems intelligence (SyQ) enables conscious leaders to avoid problems before they become problems. They are capable of evaluating complex systems and finding the best balance that results in the most success for the most people.

A conscious leader considers all stakeholders when making decisions that impact them. This is a direct consequence of utilitarianism and combines two pillars of Conscious Capitalism, which exists to elevate humanity. The four pillars are higher purpose, conscious leadership, conscious culture and stakeholder integration.

Consider the metaphor that Mackey and Sisodia use to introduce the concept of business transformation in their book, Conscious Capitalism: Liberating the Heroic Spirit of Business. Most companies currently roam around the world in a caterpillar stage of being, consuming what is in front of them without considering their full impact on the community around them. But a conscious company is willing to undergo complete transformation in order to transcend to the butterfly stage, filling the world not only with beauty, but pollinating and spreading life to others along the way.

leaderThis kind of transformation requires strong and self-aware leadership that is always ready to evolve individually. Mackey and Sisodia speak to the well-being of a conscious leader, which must be given direct attention in body and spirit through practice of eating well, exercising and meditating, some form of which exists in every spiritual practice.

Conscious manufacturer Tuthill’s journey to wake the world starts with its leaders, which it defines as “The conscious leaders is fully aware and awake to what is, while completely responsible and at choice for creating what she or he wants!”


Change Is Risk – Effective and Vulnerable Communication Reduces Fear and Anxiety

What people want most in life are resources to take care of what they prioritize. This typically comes in the form of time and freedom from unnecessary burdens. We are quickly heading to an age where half our workforce is freelance. The lucky ones are supported by pioneering firms like Artisan in Chicago, who provide health and retirement benefits to their talent pool. With Gallup reporting 68% of employees in the US as disengaged, it’s no wonder that people are finding success applying the same amount of work on their own terms, and being able to use the remaining time for what’s important rather than sitting at an office or punching the clock.

Some people count themselves lucky just to have a job and they don’t dare risk reaching for more. They could be experienced workers riding out the last few years before retirement, families living paycheck to paycheck or immigrants who know whatever they make here is more than many people make back home. Those who live on the margins of society and worry about their next paycheck, tend to view change as a disruption. They don’t have the luxury of viewing it as providing opportunities for the greater community.

David Gray co-founded of GreenSeed, which is rethinking manufacturing starting with food packaging. He believes most of his factory workers feel that they have already won the prize by immigrating to the United States and finding gainful employment. He wants to do more for them, but it’s tricky communicating to them that there may be value in change.

So how do we connect what we believe with all the people in our organization? And what if they reject our yearning for change?

It’s not easy.

Nor without risk.

But an ember glows inside every person.

A person’s job need not douse it, but should fan it and help it grow into a glorious flame.

roadYour road to impact begins with the people you are already connected with. You can start immediately and test how people radiate your Why before going out to the rest of the world. And you’ll need your own people to be on board for that to be successful. As with any of life’s big changes, just take one small step at a time.

Tim Kelley of True Purpose Institute poses the question, “how do I create the conditions that intrinsically motivate people?” We now have plenty of evidence that extrinsic motivators like compensation and job perks do not have a lasting influence on motivation. This disappoints traditionally minded leaders since they cannot control intrinsic motivations like they can extrinsic ones. The goal of intrinsically motivating people is to help them achieve self-actualization, which collectively contributes to conscious culture.

The first intrinsic motivation strategy is to develop the individual. The second is to follow a greater purpose. And the third is to develop an autonomous system such as Holacracy below. He suggests that an organization should plan that 10% of people will leave the company when faced with a substantial cultural change. If fewer than 10% of people leave, it’s possible that the cultural change wasn’t substantial enough.

Indeed, when Tuthill introduced its culture improvements a decade ago, some people did leave the company. And again when they send people on leadership retreats, some people reevaluate their lives to such a foundational level as to move on to focus on things that are more important than work, such as family. To CEO Tom Carmazzi, this means the program is a success.

leaderWhile the leaders set the tone and mood for an organization, all the people must do their best to carry this energy into their everyday interactions. This builds into momentum that leads to different habits and perspectives. Leaders who speak and act from a place of transparency build trust and reduce fear, which can lead to anxiety.  Anxiety causes the stress hormone, cortisol to be released to fortify our primal defenses. It’s so effective, in fact, that it takes a couple days for it to return to normal levels, after the tigers have surely all left the area. Thus a culture that reinforces fear may seem productive because people are attentive, but it reduces quality of life and does not lead to creativity and innovation in the workplace.

Chicago-based Centro believes in creating a better media industry. Founder Shawn Riegsecker believes there is a better way for people to create and consume ads in the digital age that is focused on people. In order to cultivate his vision, he decided that he must start by creating a conscious culture. His study through the Conscious Leadership Group has helped him set the tone for Centro’s culture, leading them to be in the top-ten of Crain’s Business Chicago’s Best Places to Work survey for several years, including number one four years in a row.

Yes, Centro provides industry-leading benefits and an awesome workplace. But there is more to a great culture than these things. One way Centro reinforces strong culture is by helping people steer through interpersonal communication (no, we didn’t all get that down pat in high school). At a Conscious Capitalism Chicago Chapter event in 2016, Shawn explained to us that they help people understand the difference between stories and facts. Often when we are reacting to a person or situation, we’re infusing and sometimes confusing what we know with our own stories. It’s easy for anyone to get carried away with this.

So Centro reinforces a dialogue and common vocabulary around stories versus facts. In this way, everyone is empowered to take a step back and compare objective truth (facts) versus their own perspective and interpretations (stories). Stories can help us come to agreements and deepen our understanding, but can also fuel assumptions if not held in proper balance. These are life lessons that people take beyond the walls of Centro to help improve all their relationships.

A framework that for years has helped guide my interpersonal communication habits is The Four Agreements, by Don Miguel Ruiz. Based on ancient Toltec wisdom. These may seem obvious, but as with most things they are hard to put into daily practice. The power is in their simplicity, much like a simple Why statement. The four agreements are: Be impeccable with your word. Don’t take anything personally. Don’t make assumptions. Always do your best. I see these ideas borrowed in various ways along with mindfulness and other spiritual frameworks and then transformed into in the purpose and values expressions of the companies we’re exploring.

StoryTo me, “don’t take anything personally” is the hardest of the four agreements. This is where our emotions are most likely to fill in stories based on our perception that people are against us, when they are probably just behaving in their own interest or with neutral regard to us. “Be impeccable with your word” is the most important in the context of communication within a culture. It’s actually referring to avoiding gossip (typically negative stories about people who aren’t present) more than being honest, and reminds us how much power our words have. A leader is in a unique position to lead by example here since so much of our society is trained to gossip about other people, spinning endless stories that have little basis in reality.

At the 2016 Conscious Capitalism conference, John Mackey told us of an ancient Buddhist mind trick (no not Jedi, though Yoda would be proud). Imagine that everyone is enlightened but you. They are each trying to teach you perfect love, perfect compassion.

It’s best to start trying this in a smaller community like a workplace or school where we have some familiar context with people. The less we know about someone, the more our minds have to invent to tell ourselves their story. The more we fill in, the less accurate we tend to be. This leads to assumption and ultimately fear and exclusion.

Without individual empathy and discipline, our false stories quickly drift upward and combine to form dark clouds over our society. We see this virtually everywhere now as its amplified and expanded into every corner of our lives through digital connectivity. And once it’s there, it’s nearly impossible to take collective responsibility for it. Blend in greedy people with self-serving agendas and it’s a wonder we have access to any objective truth at all.

A conscious vision of humanity’s future paints a world that prevents these stories from getting out of hand in the first place, which must start with each person taking responsibility for their individual consciousness, particularly emotions and stories.


Ignite Your Company’s Culture

There is no perfect formula for igniting a conscious culture. It must be based on mutual trust, one of the pillars of mindfulness. We also know that you must have a clearly defined Why or higher purpose. It should be simple, genuine and aspirational. See discover: part one. And ideally, this higher purpose should bear an authentic desire to elevate the prosperity of all your stakeholders.

PeopleOnce you’ve determined all of this, your next step is to decide how deeply you want your company to be involved in people’s lives. Some people embrace a work culture that helps them prosper as people. Others are more private. It’s a key defining aspect of how you influence culture. Will you provide guidance and resources for people to improve their lives and expand their opportunities? On a superficial level you could focus on incredible teamwork, socialization, unmatched service and amazing products. This is all good and it lifts a person’s sense of purpose at work. But if you want to go deeper, you’ll need to focus on the people themselves.

In the book An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization (DDO), Robert Kegan, Lisa Laskow Lahey et al. provide a framework for organizations that wish to develop better people independent of their business function. Yes, people for people’s sake.

Employees who spend time “covering their weaknesses, trying to look their best and managing other people’s impressions of them” are an enormous waste of a company’s resources. The ultimate cost: neither the organization nor its people are able to realize their full potential. A DDO is organized around the simple but radical conviction that organizations will best prosper when they are more deeply aligned with their employee’s strongest motives. But just what are those motives?

In most businesses there’s not a single answer to that question. People work from a variety of motives. Most are probably eager to grow and develop their full potential, but some may be happy to maintain the status quo and a few may just be showing up to collect their paycheck. The challenge is to ignite a passion for your Why within all of your people.  And it begins with helping them flourish as individuals.

David Gray of GreenSeed introduced me to contributing author Andy Fleming, with whom I’ve spoken in depth about the DDO model. His knowledge is more than academic as he passionately implements the practices of DDO in his consulting practice, Way to Grow in Atlanta, GA. They have identified three components of a successful DDO: edge, home and groove, depicted below. But it starts with simple question: how do people flourish?

An Everyone Culture: DDO Diagram

Edge is the hard new stuff to learn (like how to effectively label your lunch in the office fridge), home is a time and place when someone believed in you (like a black and white TV show) and groove is when you get into regular productive patterns (like jogging with Starbucks). DDO is where people flourish when they have found the right balance of these three areas in their daily work life — when they can challenge themselves to be better and have enough confidence and organizational support to fail and learn.

DriveHow do you get people started if they fundamentally don’t want to improve? Andy suggests inviting people to think about a time in their own life when they had great personal growth. This may remind them of the value of change. Once people agree to give it a sincere shot, you can start to influence the culture for people to grow, which gives your company a competitive advantage for performance, hiring and retention. But some people still might not want this and they may ultimately leave the organization. This is better for everyone and should be viewed as a successful tightening of the culture. Your culture will be stronger for it and they will find a better cultural fit elsewhere.

Fleming’s work reminded me that there are two forms of happiness. I discussed true long-term happiness or well-being in what does your business believe? (discover: part one) (remember, we talked about virtue and Aristotle among other things). But most people at work don’t have much support in this pursuit and instead fall back on maximizing pleasure and avoiding pain. At work this means focusing only on their strengths and none of their weaknesses, but this is not how we grow and become stronger through broader perspective. This also ties in with all the people spend trying to look good at work.

Our friends at Tuthill don’t classify themselves as a DDO technically, but they invest deeply in the personal development of their team members, having sent more than 500 of their 700 employees to leadership retreats where they shed their workplace personas and focus on developing as individuals. Tuthill also believes in the idea of fluctuating between areas of comfort and discomfort, knowing that we grow only in the latter. From their world view of wake the world, Tuthill sees this on a scale of aliveness and effectiveness. A person can be alive without being effective. Similarly, one can be effective without being alive. But the sweet spot for growth is through activities that inspire both simultaneously.

Recently I had an opportunity to speak with Chris Smith, co-founder of Curaytor and co-author of Peoplework. His innovative vision for the future of business is based on ten principles including P2P (person to person) replacing B2B (business to business) and B2C (business to consumer), purpose before technology, service is marketing and only you write your story.

As Clay Shirky wrote in Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, “Communications tools don’t get socially interesting until they get technologically boring.” Now that most working people are connected by what Smith calls the “digital grid,” we can start to focus on what we can build with this new vision rather than the technology itself. The World Economic Forum calls this new era of innovation The Fourth Industrial Revolution, which is defined not only by the drastically increased pace of innovation but also with integrating digital with biological (think cyborgs).



The most advanced framework I’ve seen for reinventing business culture is called Holacracy, the development of which is spearheaded by HolacracyOne, founded by Brian Robertson and Tom Thomison. This methodology runs deep and wide and requires companies to abandon traditional modes of organization through hierarchy.

“Holacracy is a complete, packaged system for self-management in organizations. Holacracy replaces the traditional management hierarchy with a new peer-to-peer ‘operating system’ that increases transparency, accountability, and organizational agility. Through a transparent rule set and a tested meeting process, Holacracy allows businesses to distribute authority, empowering all employees to take a leadership role and make meaningful decisions.”

Work HarderFor example in a holacracy, dynamic roles replace static job descriptions, which encourages agility and innovation beyond the typical narrow boxes of corporate positions. “In Holacracy the roles are vested with authority, not the people. This means that the roles and the authorities can be constantly updated without office politics.”

Another characteristic of a holacracy is that distributed authority replaces delegated authority. “Teams are self-organized: they’re given a purpose, but they decide internally how to best reach it. In this way, Holacracy replaces the traditional hierarchy with a series of interconnected but autonomous teams (‘circles’).”

Borrowing a concept from agile software methodology, a holacracy also makes use of rapid iterations rather than big re-orgs. Whether software development or organization hierarchy, complex systems work better when they are empowered to evolve rapidly based on changing conditions rather than plodding along to achieve a long-term plan that failed to predict the future. “Companies powered by Holacracy reorg themselves as often as necessary to capitalize on a learning opportunity or address a critical problem.” This is somewhat like a political system comprising thousands of interest groups but all implementing a single constitution — a mix of long term plan, everyone’s Why and group innovation (just moving much faster without all the bureaucracy!).

Finally for this brief overview, in a holacracy transparent rules replace office politics. After our lengthy discussion of conscious leadership and culture, this one should speak for itself. “With the fundamental rules made accessible to everyone, anyone in the organization can quickly figure out who owns what, the decisions he or she can make, and whom to hold accountable for which functions.”

Again we see a celebration of the balance between comfort and discomfort. Holacracy defines these as tensions, which exist in all parts of our world. In companies and other social situations, we are often trained to avoid or ignore tensions. Holacracy is designed to embrace, confront and even celebrate tensions as opportunities to improve. Indeed they are the operative force of our entire civilization whether we embrace them or not.


Stories of Ignition

IgniteLet’s start a revolution.

Not the “burn it all down” kind, but rather the “I bet we can make this fire even bigger” type.

Revolutions start small.

The one in your company can start with you.

We’ve heard stories from dozens of companies about how they ignited their culture. They might not all be obvious statements of passion like the drag racers. But their sense of purpose will inspire you just the same.

Conscious businesses prosper through purpose-driven, people-first practices, but many still struggle to tell their courageous stories. Let’s connect the dots.


Get inspired.


In a recent interview with Marketing Werks, I learned a lot about experiential marketing, which they’ve been doing for nearly thirty years. Managing Director Holly Meloy told me that they’ve been doing a lot of soul searching and realized that their Why is stay curious, which is at the root of every experience they create for people.

To put this in practice, each team member was given some play money to go out and try something new in the city. Holly expected some fairly standard results of going to a ballgame or bar (nothing wrong with the standards!). But she was pleasantly surprised when her team exercised their full curiosity to find new adventures in their city, seeking out the Chicago architectural boat tour and food tastings (pretty much my favorite two things about our great city also).

FoodMinds is a Chicago-based food and nutrition consultancy that believes in transforming the world view of food, nutrition and health. While it once billed itself primarily as an industry-specific PR firm, it has expanded its purview to create new opportunities and new situations to help its clients create a better story, not just tell their stories better. In other words, the days of corporations telling stories that are incongruent with their behaviors are over. If they are asked to tell a new story, they dig deep to help companies positively change their cultural behaviors. From there, the new story tells itself.

Lyric Opera is igniting transformations through art. They’ve been doing this for a very long time at a very high and consistent level of world renowned quality. Yet, until they were able to find those four magic words, they seemed held back from reaching their full potential as an organization. They are using this Why to ignite their own culture and unify 175+ core team members to create even more amazing art that transforms people’s lives.

Instec believes in empowering adaptation. It’s been a long two years for Kevin Mason as he championed and refined this Why for the 30-year-old insurance software and consulting firm. He told me that he started with only 10% adoption of the Why, which was originally oriented around what they called the Darwinian economy, the inevitable need for businesses to adapt to the changing market.

After two years of consistent nurturing, Kevin has grown that support to 70% of the company. While he admits he’ll probably never get to 100%, that’s a considerable accomplishment. Instec has thrived by staying nimble and out-maneuvering the big guys. They pass on this competitive advantage to their clients by providing an insurance technology platform that allows smaller players to focus on what they do best — managing relationships.

He sees two big trends supporting the digital disruption that Instec has turned to its advantage. One is that we have more money in the world than ever before, including $32 trillion in pension funds seeking better investment opportunities. Two, we have technology that allows us to scale new ideas rapidly, such as driverless cars and digital insurers.


The Science of Story grows stronger with each voice we add. How will you show what you believe?

Next Read: Do You Bring the Ring to the First Date? (Engage)