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Does Culture Drive Behavior?


Step back and look at any organization what you will see is the manifestation of its culture. By culture we mean values, themes, behaviors, passions expressions and actions that take place inside a group ~ in this case a company. Culture gets established by a combination of 1) how the company was built, 2) its history and evolution 3) the leadership that is being provided inside that company. People inside the company operate consistent with whatever culture has been established or set. The leader’s job is to create a culture that serves the needs of the stakeholders ~ its people inside and outside the company, meaning employees, customers and suppliers. Whether or not these themes and values are overtly clear to the people in the organization, will dictate the extent to which the people themselves operate consistent with the culture. Obviously it’s most effective when those values and behaviors are made public and clear to the people in the organization. We have found that the best way to do this is to have those values in writing made public and talked about regularly. Several of our clients have done a splendid job of doing this and in one company in particular it’s pretty hard to walk down a hallway and not see the values of the company posted for all to see. Our experience of companies that do this well is that the employees are keenly aware of these values and are more likely to operate consistent with them when they are vividly displayed. One of our clients has their values up on the walls about every 15 feet.


There are some recent examples of companies who went off course because the values of the company were not patently clear to the management and employees. One such example is Wells Fargo Bank which is an institution that built its reputation on integrity, trust and financial prudence. That translates to “you can trust our company with your money.”  However, recently people in the company lost the plot and the company began managing growth and new customer acquisitions “at any cost”.  They began to favor and incentivize gaining new customer accounts over being trusted custodians of their customer’s finances.  The compensation system began to reward people making the “numbers” vs. people providing excellent service and financial prudence. Consequently, the employees began inventing fraudulent “new accounts” using established customers’ finances without those customers knowing or giving permission to use their information to do so. This unethical behavior was completely inconsistent with what Wells Fargo has stood for for over 100 years. How could this possibly happen? It happened because integrity got replaced inside the culture by greed. The culture had become corrupted. The leadership began leading for near term gains and abandoned the timeless values that made their company successful for decades.  When all of this was discovered and came to the surface, Wells Fargo lost the confidence and trust of the public and they are now hard at work trying to rebuild that trust and reformulate a culture that seemingly got destroyed in a relatively short period of time. Now they’re investing millions of dollars to market contrite apologies and begging for another chance to prove themselves.


Another example of a culture going off course is with Facebook. Facebook made its mark as it   was originally designed to serve people by connecting them and providing a platform where people could share their most personal details, family events, special occasions, and connecting with old friends and lost relatives. It fulfilled on that purpose for many years delivering unimaginable growth for well over a decade. However, the people at Facebook saw opportunity to take this information, peoples’ personal information, details, behaviors and habits and use that information to exploit the people who trusted Facebook to deal with this information ethically. It began to package and sell this data so that companies could target markets, and as we now know, even influence peoples’ thinking about social and political issues. People literally began being co-opted (brainwashed) by sinister campaigns that would post fabricated stories and information to sway peoples’ thinking or to incite consternation. Again, how could this happen? Sadly, again the answer is greed. The culture became corrupted. Facebook saw the opportunity to exploit its customers and took it. Why? Because the values set at Facebook were focused on growth and expansion and not being a custodian of peoples’ personal information.


In both cases what happened is a failure in managing the culture. I give both companies the benefit of the doubt that they once had noble, admirable and ethical intentions, but those things were not translated over time into the culture by leadership. The leadership failed to do its job to 1) set the vision, 2) have a strategic plan, and 3) get people excited about it and get on board.  And as we all know in both cases, when it went off the track it did enormous damage to both of those companies respectively. When the values of a company are made clear, public, are talked about and validated, it is our experience that the people in the company line up around those values and behave consistently with them. When they are not clear people are left to do whatever else they might do because there’s nothing guiding the course and therefore their behavior. The key is to have the leadership set the values of the company once they really believe it and stand for it. Make those values clear and public (displayed vividly), roll them out to the employees and keep revisiting and reinforcing them to validate them. Our experience is that when this happens companies stay the course. They live and breathe the values. And when that is not the case it sticks out like a sore thumb. In short, culture drives behavior.


Kevin Cullen is President of Leadera Consulting Group, specializing in producing breakthrough business results. If you want more on this conversation or the firm, contact us at Leadera Consulting Group.

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Leadership – Why Not Give Them a “Free Fish”?


As leaders it is our job to deliver value and make a difference in those things that matter. This requires focusing our time and energy on the things that will really move the dial forward. Equally important, is that we don’t spend time on things that don’t make a difference and don’t really matter. This can be a challenge because most of the things that come at us in a day come at us with an apparent level of importance indicating that they get dealt with immediately. However, my experience is that not all things that come to our attention deserve our time because working on them to resolve them will not make any real difference. Successful leaders have honed the ability to discern which things are going to make an impact and which things are comparatively trivial and in some cases irrelevant.

A few years back I was in a meeting with the president of a company and her leadership team; we were working on designing a program to provide leadership development training for several levels of people just below the leadership team ~ their directors and managers. There was a decision to be made in which we could go one of two ways. They could have our firm provide the training as a combination of managers and directors in a group, or we could separate the directors from the managers so that the directors received one level of training (slightly more advanced), and managers would participate in a more basic program. Virtually all of the people in the room except for the president thought the two groups should be isolated and trained separately while keeping their titles distinct. The president disagreed saying, “Separating them will make no difference. They should all receive the same training and it will work just fine”. She viewed it as an opportunity for them to interact and relate and she considered that a positive.  However, they didn’t come to a decision at that meeting as they were at a bit of a stalemate. I agreed to see if I could get it resolved offline within the week by having conversations with the individual stakeholders. I discussed it with almost all of the key leaders who were in the room and they all held the position that the two trainings should be kept separate. When I went back to the president and told her that they felt pretty strongly about it, she smiled and said, “Then let them have it; they get to win this one”. She smiled and said, “They’re wrong, but I’m not taking that one on.” I was surprised by her response because I knew she felt pretty strongly about her thinking ~ I asked, “Just like that, huh?” She said, “Look, we get into these ‘little battles’ pretty regularly. This one isn’t worth fighting. Sometimes it’s best to let them win in a scuffle like this because it ultimately makes no difference. I choose my battles wisely and when I need to win the battle, I want to make sure it’s one worth fighting for. This one is not worth it, so this one is a free fish.* And it costs me nothing. Because ultimately the point is to get everyone trained, which as leaders will happen either way.”

*The reference about a free fish comes from the training of dolphins. They are very smart mammals, probably the most intelligent next to humans. They learn very quickly because they are rewarded with a fish when they do tricks. But dolphin trainers have an additional technique they call a “free fish”. Every so often for no reason at all they throw the dolphin a fish. The dolphins know that and pay close attention to the trainer at all times in the hopes they might get a spontaneous “free fish”.

In this situation the president of the company gave her team a “free fish”. They wanted to win the debate and she let them. This demonstrated to me that she was using her wisdom to determine where she was going to invest her time and energy. As leaders we are required to invest our time in a great many things and most of it isn’t leading per se. I have seen the “free fish” technique work brilliantly with teams in negotiations and even at home. Try it out and see how it works.



Kevin Cullen is President of Leadera Consulting Group, specializing in producing breakthrough business results. If you want more on this conversation or the firm, contact us at Leadera Consulting Group.

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Zip Your Lip

Sometimes it’s Best to Just “Zip Your Lip”

At a very early point in my career as a business consultant it became clear to me that really what we do in organizations is talk, or have conversations. I discovered this for myself in practical everyday situations that what’s really at the heart and soul of an organization is  “a set of conversations”. Said a different way, what is happening all the time in an organization is conversations are taking place at every level and with everybody. For example, executives talking to the Board, managers talking to employees, employees talking to customers, suppliers talking to buyers. Both the quality of these conversations, and which conversations are taking place, largely determines the commitments of an organization and therefore its results. These conversations are what drives thinking, strategy and decision-making. In a very real way one could say that you are paid to have conversations. Since the quality of these conversations is what determines the actions to be taken it makes sense to conclude that the higher the level of  a conversation the more value will get added to the business. For instance, if we’re “just chatting”, we will not likely be having conversations that make any change or contribution to the organization. If we are having conversations about what our business is up to, we will have an entirely different level of conversation ~ one that potentially adds value. Conversations take place prior to the initiation of action. Whether the company moves forward on a capital investment is a function of the conversation that took place right before that decision was made. Whether to staff up or staff down is proceeded by a conversation. Whether or not a company competes in certain markets is the result of conversations.


Obviously in any conversation there are two main components ~ a speaker and a listener. There’s what’s being said by one or more people and what’s being heard by one or more people. Typically, most organizational cultures favor avoiding confronting difficult conversations. Consequently, I am a big fan of people speaking up ~ getting things on the table to be addressed and not ignoring the “elephant in the room”. Consistent with that, throughout my career I have encouraged people to do exactly that: speak up. Say exactly what’s on your mind. And to get those issues addressed. Getting things on the table allows for issues and concerns to be dealt with in an open manner. And we have found that when people are open and are willing to talk about the issues, including critical or difficult ones, better decisions get made, and therefore more effective actions take place. This kind of open communication breeds success in organizations.


However, there are some conversations that are not productive and do not move things forward. Saying what’s on your mind is not always the right thing to do. In fact, in many cases you would be better off not saying what’s on your mind because it is not going to move things forward and serves to do exactly the opposite and shuts down the conversation. I’ve seen this happen over and over again. And when this is the case I suggest that we zip our lip and instead, take a deep breath, let the cosmic energy flow through you, “grasshopper”, because what you’re about to say is only going to cause problems for you and everyone else. Therefore, in those situations, the best course of action is say nothing. The adage holds true, “silence is golden”. For example, let’s say you have a negative attitude from past experiences with the IT department in your company. And there’s a discussion in the room about turning something over to IT. And here’s your chance to take your well-deserved dig at IT one more time so that you can be right again with “I hope we don’t run into the typical problem we always have with IT.” Nope ~  zip it. It will make no difference and it will only do damage in the relationship and that is not what you need right now. Instead of building trust it will destroy it.


What I’ve observed over the years while working in many organizations is that these conversations which I’ll call “conversations for no possibility” are usually had by certain people who I consider the “naysayers”. These are the “glass is half empty” folks who look at the situation from what’s wrong with it while focusing on the flaws. Such people and such conversations serve to slow progress down or stop progress altogether. So many times I’ve seen these naysayers raise their hand right when we’re about to make an important decision and lob in a non-sequitur. It’s usually in the form of a question that sounds something like this, “Do we know what business we’re really in?”, or “We tried this before unsuccessfully. What makes us think we can do it this time?” Full stop. Once they do this you can watch what happens to the conversation right there in the room. What was just before a focused, positive conversation steadily advancing the ball, is now completely thrown off track by this “psychic bong hit” that just got blurted out and throws it into a whole other gear. It creates a kind of dizziness in the room. My assessment is that though these people consider themselves fundamentally committed to making a difference, instead of their contribution serving to forward the action, it derails it and sends it off in a different direction which is almost always non-productive. And the other people in the conversation are left with questions and doubts about what the naysayer is out to produce.


Considering the opportunity to choose the conversations we have, my coaching is that perhaps it would be best to consider what you are about to put into the conversation and ask yourself, “Is this going to forward the conversation or is it going to derail the conversation?” And if it’s the latter maybe it would be best if it didn’t get added. Another way to say that is, “zip your lip.”


Kevin Cullen is President of Leadera Consulting Group, specializing in producing breakthrough business results. If you want more on this conversation or the firm, contact us at Leadera Consulting Group.

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Getting Your People on Board is Job #2 for a Leader

Most leaders got into the position they’re in by being competent managers making things happen, solving problems, and getting the trains to run on time. However, simply managing the present is insufficient when one is a leader because a leader’s job is really to focus on the future and create a vision for the future that inspires their people to make it happen. Job #1 of a leader is to have a vision that is compelling, inspiring and achievable. Job #2 is to share that vision with their constituents in such a way that their people see that that future has their name on it, and that they not only want to be a part of it, but will own it in such a way that it comes to fruition. People want to make a difference. They want to have their lives matter; quoting George Bernard Shaw ~ “This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; the being a force of Nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.”

Creating the vision to engage others is tricky, because the vision needs to be articulated in such a way that people can hear it, identify with it, and want to participate in it. There are many examples of such leaders in the last decade ~ for example Steve Jobs at Apple declared there would be “an Apple on every desk”, Jeff Bezos at Amazon whose originating mantra was “Get Big Fast” and, Elon Musk at Tesla is known for his vision of “Anywhere on earth in under one hour.” Each of them has demonstrated the importance of this vital aspect of leadership by stepping way out into the future, creating a vision for their company for what’s possible and then going after it with gangbusters. Part of this brilliance has to do with the way they are able to presence this vision for their employees such that it’s almost tangible and certainly doable. By doing this a leader is ensured that people in their company become a part of implementing the vision. Most people know that 70% of strategic initiatives fail in corporations. Getting your people to buy into the vision gives you a huge advantage for success.

How do they do this? They do it by walking people through the vision ~ what it will take, how it will unfold, and underlining the benefits and rewards. At Leadera Consulting we have a 9-point, step-by-step formula for this skill set in which we train leaders how to deliver a powerful leadership message focusing on the future. When leaders design a message using these 9 points (in order) they find that their people are able to connect with the vision, having it become tangible and wanting to participate in delivering it.

The 9 points are:

  1. Background connection
  2. The vision
  3. Strategy
  4. Implications
  5. Actions needed
  6. Sense of urgency
  7. Benefits and rewards
  8. Hardball issues
  9. Appreciation and acknowledgement

It is important that the message be designed and delivered in this order. We have found that this particular order is consistent with the way people think. For more details on this step-by-step process please follow this link to our website ~

The bottom line is successful leaders love to inspire their people.  Getting your people to “buy in” to your message is what allows for the message being fulfilled. When done well, inspiration leads others into action. But keep in mind that message and that inspiration has no shelf life on its own. A successful leader will build regular and consistent reminders into the workplace that reinforce the message. Inspiration must be shored-up with actions. Consider designing how to get your people “on board”, and how to keep them there.

Kevin Cullen is President of Leadera Consulting Group, specializing in producing breakthrough business results. If you want more on this conversation or the firm, contact us at Leadera Consulting Group.

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The Either/Or Syndrome

We have become very polarized. Our country, as a nation, has become separated through divergent conversations, dialogues and opinions more so than ever before.  It seems to have been heading in that direction for some time and the emergent participation in social media and less traditional news outlets have raised the volume on, and exacerbated, our differences.  It’s actually gone beyond having different points of view ~ we have begun to dislike and isolate ourselves from those who disagree with us. We’ve become so divided that we’ve lost our ability to discuss, debate and argue in a dignified way. It seems that we can no longer have differing points of view without it quickly spiraling into personal attacks and becoming offensive toward one another.  I call this phenomenon “The Either/Or Syndrome”. How this translates as a practical matter is, “it’s either my way (which is right), or it’s your way (which is wrong)” and there’s no room for anything else. We no longer look to find common ground and discover what about what the other person’s thinking may be, and whether or not it has value for consideration. It’s take it or leave it, and if you leave it, you’re an idiot and I’ll let you know that, too. We have become unsophisticated, awkward, mean and sometimes vulgar with one another with whom we disagree.

Disagreement and debate are at the foundation and traditions of our culture. It’s what has allowed this country to grow and thrive and keep itself in check for centuries.  Yet that very quickly is disintegrating right before our eyes.  President Bill Clinton shared a snippet from a book he read called “The Big Sort” in which he pointed to this dilemma for us as a nation. He says:

“I read a book a couple of years ago that I recommend to people all the time called “The Big Sort” by Bill Bishop who is a journalist and as it happens a pretty progressive Democrat from Austin, TX. And what provoked him to write this book was his neighborhood in Austin lost its only Republican neighbor. And he loved this guy. And he talked about how their kids played together, and they took walks together. And how much he learned from their arguments, because they didn’t see everything the same way and how much it meant to him to know there was somebody he liked and respected and cared for that he could actually have an honest discussion where neither one of them would be completely predictable. But, he said, I was the only one of our neighbors who was nice to him.

Now in their neighborhood in the 2004 presidential election Senator Kerry defeated Pres Bush 3–1. So the republican guy moves out and moves into another neighborhood in Austin, TX where President Bush defeated Senator Kerry 4–1. And Bishop said, you know both of our neighborhoods were poorer for that. He pointed out that in 1976 when Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford had a razor thin election, which by the way, ultimately culminated in a lifetime friendship between the two of them and lasted until President Ford passed away. But anyway, in that election ~ a 1% election ~ only 20% of America’s counties voted for one or the other of them by 20% or more. Which meant that in 1976, you could go into any coffee shop or hair salon or barber shop or bowling alley and have a conversation with people who didn’t necessarily disagree with you about what was going on in America. By 2004, when President Bush won the closest re-election margin of any President since Woodrow Wilson in 1916, 48% of our counties voted for one or the other of them by more than 20%. That much movement.

So he said you know America’s making real progress, this Bishop guy said, we’re not as racist as we used to be, we’re not as sexist as we used to be, we’re not as homophobic as we used to be. The only bigotry we have left is that we just don’t want to be around anyone who disagrees with us.”

The link

My guess is that you’ve experienced what Clinton is referring to. We don’t talk and discuss anymore. We speak and don’t listen. And somewhere in all that we miss the opportunity to discover our amazing ability to come to an agreement that’s workable for everyone. It’s as though we’ve taken on a childish style, “if I don’t get my way then I gotta’ make sure you don’t get yours.”

Everyone is familiar with the biblical story of King Solomon and the two women who had a baby and couldn’t decide who the baby belonged to. The King, in frustration offered his solution and told them they would just split the baby in half and share it. It was his way of showing them the absurdity of not being able to work it out or come to some acceptable solution. It seems that we are unwilling to consider any alternative other than “I’m right”.

The solution to this, for us, lives in our ability to have a conversation in which we consider the other’s point of view as valid. Not right or wrong, just valid. In fact, just as valid as our point of view. And from there to begin to see what’s possible in a dialogue that is focused on what’s possible as the end result. Right now our elected officials sit at a cool 15% approval rating mostly because they don’t seem to get anything done and this is because they disagree and won’t have the tough discussions that need to be had to get to a place where they can agree. So the conversation shuts down, and just like children they take their marbles and go home.  We can’t let it be resolved as Bill Bishop, author of “The Big Sort” said, “The only bigotry we have left is that we just don’t want to be around anyone who disagrees with us.” It must start with each of us taking a stand to transform the conversation and return to civility.