Light Up Your Company Culture (Ignite: Part One)

Ignite, Science of Story September 6, 2016

Light Up Your Company Culture (Ignite: Part One)

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.

Take a deep breath of potent nitromethane fumes wafting up through the crowd.

Feel the ground shake as two 10,000-horsepower dragsters explode past you at 300 mph.

Cover your ears or they’ll ring for days after this four-second race.

They call it driven passion. Kalitta Motorsports races four teams through the leadership of Jim Oberhofer, an author who is also pitmaster for the Mac Tools dragster pictured above.

After the race is over, the dragster undergoes its post-race routine of deep surgery as five people take apart the entire engine in a matter of minutes. There is a masterful precision at work here. Each engine contains hundreds of parts, some large and some tiny, all machined to exacting specifications. There is not a moment to lose during this methodical reconstruction. The pit team must work together in perfect synchronization and maintain mindful attention. “Bringing them together around a central purpose led to improved performance in the pit,” Jim said, “which means better times on the track.”

In the next stall over, owner Connie Kalitta leads the SealMaster dragster’s pit crew. An entrepreneurial pilot and lifelong racing enthusiast, Connie has seen it all as he helped build the sport. He was drag racing in the 50s without seat belts (forget sand traps and parachutes). It’s a family affair with Connie’s nephew, Doug Kalitta, driving the team DHL’s funny car (the drag racer that’s not long and pointy). Alexis DeJoria’s Patrón funny car rounds out the Kalitta fleet. She became the first woman to finish in less than four seconds in 2014.


There is a lot riding on your ability to ignite passion for your Why in your team and their ability to sustain the necessary teamwork it takes to carry that momentum. Culture is how we show what we believe.

Kalitta’s four teams maintain two cars each — it’s an extraordinary effort for four seconds of show at a time. This brief moment is a visceral demonstration of igniting purpose-driven culture. Exhilarating? Yes. Powerful? Yes. This kind of long-term passion fuels innovation and persistence, but how do you get to the point where everything runs this smoothly? How do you get them to care about (and want to share) your Why?

Jim’s time running Kalitta was always fulfilling, but it took on a new meaning when his wife passed away from cancer. He decided to find passion and purpose in every new day. Jim brought this newly-found passion to Kalitta and it caught on. Everyone here loves what they do and now they’re encouraged to show it in everything they do. This passion drives them to excellence and they’re winning more races than ever before.


Check out more Why’s Guy interviews on advisor.TV

What do the biggest- and smallest-engined race car teams have in common?

The kind of passion that fuels innovation, loving attention and fun.


Photo by Andy Swindler at Apple River MOWtor Speedway in northern Illinois on August 28, 2016
Photo by Andy Swindler at Apple River MOWtor Speedway in northern Illinois on August 28, 2016


Listen to the purr of the suped-up lawn mowers as they cruise by at 30 mph like precision pinballs down the dirt speedway. Colorful helmeted drivers drift through harrowing dusty turns while keeping a hasty eye on mowers nipping from the rear.

The United States Lawn Mower Racing Association (USLMRA) began in 1992, making it the oldest and largest of its kind in the country. Bruce “Mr. Mow it All” Kaufman shepherds the organization (which seems to run on lawnmower puns) on behalf of its sponsor, STA-BIL, a fuel stabilizer produced by purpose-driven Chicago manufacturer Gold Eagle, which I introduced in how to why (discover part two). Bruce has built mowmentum since the beginning and is manning the flags on turn three in the photo above.

This celebration of passion brings joy and fellowship to a growing community of racing enthusiasts who hail from many walks of life. The low cost of equipment (mowers can be found for free) and widespread interest make it the most accessible motorsport in the world, giving it endless mowbility.

Ignite Your Company’s Culture to Increase Employee Engagement

Find your culture

The story of your company begins with the behavior of your people, which is the foundation of its culture. A team’s expression of what it believes goes way beyond foosball and catered lunches (though I’m all for those perks too if you’ve covered the other stuff).

Not every office is a race track where everyone on the team is deeply passionate about and committed to the central product of the company. So how can companies that don’t use flaming nitromethane as a key ingredient for success elevate their culture?

A strong culture takes full advantage of our inherent human need to socialize and to be productive by aligning an individual employee’s emotional, behavioral (physical) and cognitive state toward desirable organizational outcomes. Emotional state refers to an employee’s feelings and their attitudes about the organization and the leaders. Physical energies are exerted by the individuals to accomplish their roles. Cognitive means understanding one’s role relative to the goals of the company.

Individuals who maintain alignment with their organizations are considered engaged employees. But this represents a staggering minority of workers in our society. According to Gallup, “a startling 87% of employees worldwide are not engaged. This low engagement is troubling, as Gallup’s latest meta-analysis shows that business units in the top quartile of employee engagement are 17% more productive, suffer 70% fewer safety incidents, experience 41% less absenteeism, have 10% better customer ratings and are 21% more profitable compared with business units in the bottom quartile.” In other words, disengagement is bad for business.


Gallup Worldwide Employee Engagement Chart 2012 Survey

Typically these disengaged employees were once high performers. But for some reason, the employees have lost interest in their job or organization they work for. As a result, their productivity decreases, their negativity increases and their poor attitude spreads like a virus throughout the company. Worse still is the 18% of workers in the U.S. that are actively disengaged, working against the company’s objectives and not serving their peer teams. This can have a disastrous impact on productivity, morale, recruitment through word of mouth and retention — leaving companies in a persistent state of catch-up.

In his book, Here Comes Everybody, Clay Shirky speaks of society’s cognitive surplus, which is “the trillion hours a year of free time the educated population of the planet has to spend doing things they care about. In the 20th century, the bulk of that time was spent watching television, but our cognitive surplus is so enormous that diverting even a tiny fraction of time from consumption to participation can create enormous positive effects.” For example, “the cumulative time devoted to creating Wikipedia, something like 100 million hours of human thought, is expended by Americans every weekend, just watching ads.”

That was prescient thinking in 2008, and mostly inspired by the explosive growth of social media (the book still holds up if you swap out MySpace references for Facebook). While Shirky was talking about our species at large, his cognitive surplus concept most certainly fits within the context of an organization that similarly doesn’t align its people’s potential with a collective aspirational goal.

Every teacher faces a similar challenge at the beginning of the school year. Their goal is to build a sense of community and to get a group of individual students thinking and working together for the common good of the whole class.

There are numerous proven ways to increase engagement. Something as simple as employee recognition, especially for younger generations, is proven to help with engagement. This speaks to a basic principle of appreciation that may seem counterintuitive to more traditional managers (think carrot versus stick or re-directing attention). In our busier-than-ever world, flexibility is perhaps the greatest gift a company can offer its employee because it conveys trust and empathy, which can reduce stress.

The common theme of each method is to motivate people from within, rather than a typical command and control top-down hierarchy where people are motivated simply because it’s their job and someone told them to do it. Knowing the impact that our work has on people leads to greater fulfillment than just doing a job well. If a company can make it easy for an employee to see the connection between behavior that’s good for them and also good for the tribe, everyone wins. This social instinct runs counter to the traditional business idea that people are only motivated by self interests.

Feed Your Culture

Nick Sarillo meticulously built his pizza restaurant, Nick’s Pizza & Pub with two locations near Chicago, around these principles. None of it came easily. In fact, he nearly lost everything many years ago when he made a few of decisions that put the business at risk of survival. So he went to the community for help, and they rallied to his support. This reminds me a bit of the original Whole Foods story when the community helped John Mackey rebuild after a flood.

Seeing the generosity of his community inspired Nick to dig deep and rethink his culture from the inside out. Nick’s Pizza defines its Why (“The Nick’s Experience”) as: Our dedicated family provides this community an unforgettable place; to connect with your family and friends, to have fun and to feel at home!


Check out more Why’s Guy interviews on advisor.TV

Nick has created something truly remarkable, and yet his greatest passion comes from sharing what he’s learned with other business owners through Nick’s University, a workshop for building better businesses that take care of people. Most companies are scrambling to recruit and hold onto talent, in particular members of Gen Y, which is are notoriously difficult to retain in the service industry with its typically high turnover rates.

Nick's pizza

Photo courtesy of nickspizzapub Instagram

But not for Nick. His staff mostly consists of high school or college students, which is an age range that many managers shrug off as impossible to motivate. If he can make it work in a pizza place staffed with younger adults, I’d argue that anyone can create internal motivational structures within their organization. I encourage you to stop by one of Nick’s restaurants since I’ll only highlight a few of his many innovations here (oh, and the pizza is seriously ridiculous!).

Peanut shells crunched beneath our feet as we toured the roomie restaurant encased in walls of reclaimed barn wood (Nick built much of the first location with his own hands). After walking through the large well-organized kitchen, we headed to the basement where the walls tell the stories of what’s happening in vivid detail — if you know what to look for. Transparency is what holds it all together (not cheese and gluten surprisingly).

One wall is devoted to Nick’s expression of The Great Game of Business, which is a proven approach to open-book management. The value of this approach is giving everyone in the a way to look into the real-time financial success of the organization, written right on the wall and managed directly by team members. Rather than the typical closed-door meetings of managers, which tend to work against trust and morale, this approach gives everyone a sense of agency through awareness and increases the agility of a company to respond to problems. Often these problems are avoided altogether, which makes managers’ jobs more effective and fun.

Another wall is devoted to each person’s professional growth plan. Nick has mapped out every position within the company and the track to gain each promotion. All pay rates are common knowledge and training sessions are provided regularly by peers. If someone wants to make more money or have more responsibility, it is up to them to sign up for training and put in the time and work. The path is clear and proven.

If an employee has a problem they can’t solve on their own, they will seek out a manager. But rather than taking care of the problem as many organizations would, by falling back on a standard operating procedure that may or not be exact fit, a Nick’s Pizza manager will walk to one of the many public places where their values are posted on the wall, and encourage the employee to think through the problem using one of those values. This approach instills the value system in the employee as they see them unfold in real world situations rather than through rote implementation of uninspired rules.

Good culture equals good work

I was impressed by the impeccable timing of our server. Nick explained that they base their timing on when the patron has taken “two bites” rather than some arbitrary amount of time. How many times has a server robotically asked, “How’s your food?” before you’ve had a chance to try it? I could go on and on about Nick’s other innovations in helping his people work better together. But the main point is that people are thoughtful, constructive and kind. This is clear when they smile or eagerly demonstrate some part of what makes the restaurant work so well.

Another example of how companies feed their culture is Chicago juice startup Real Good Juice. Their Why is disrupting the food system because founder Jon Schiff believes that the mass commercialization of food production is having a negative impact on our collective well-being and he wants to shake things up. The rapid growth of his company seems to reflect that consumers agree and crave food that comes from natural sources, in this case organically grown and locally sourced.


Check out more Why’s Guy interviews on advisor.TV

Jon confronts many of the same challenges as Nick in terms of typical turnover in the industry, especially as he works aggressively to open more stores and get into more retailers like Whole Foods. To align his culture around his Why, he uses storytelling as a training technique to align employees’ individual experiences with the purpose of the organization.

Real Good Juice Co

Photo courtesy of realgoodjuiceco Instagram

Real Good Juice is the largest buyer of apples from Chicago-based Local Foods, founded by Andrew Lutsey, which exists to make people happy with good food. Andrew’s experience with his family farm led him to see a need for Chicago-based restaurants to have an easier way to source high quality locally produced ingredients. This launched Local Foods’ wholesale business, which after two fruitful years, launched their retail presence.

Every new business model has challenges. Andrew told me that his customers were so closely aligned with their Why and goals to build this market, that they’ve forgiven multiple startup blunders in the interest of helping Andrew and his team build a thriving supply chain because they see the benefit for the community and their shared stakeholders. This is the power of culture.


Check out more Why’s Guy interviews on advisor.TV

Sometimes even young companies need to remind new team members of their roots. RXBAR believes in living a no-B.S. life and delivers several delicious flavors of protein bars to help other people with this pursuit. The ingredients (typically just 4-5) are listed on the front of the wrapper, along with the main ingredient of “no B.S.”

RXBAR’s founder, Peter Rahal, told me that they have grown so quickly that the core team no longer needs to make the product by hand. However, he told me a story about recently doing a small run of bars for a promotion. He decided to have the team make the bars the way they did when they started — by hand one at a time. This gave his new recruits a deeper appreciation of the manufacturing process and how far they’d come as a company in such a short time.


Check out more Why’s Guy interviews on advisor.TV

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

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