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The Culture Code

Daniel Coyle is a New York Times best-selling author.  He has written numerous books, but the one that resonated with me the most is The Culture Code.  We all know how important culture is, but the typical focus of our business is on numbers.  Banks such as Frost and WSFS have demonstrated that a strong culture will yield better financial results, but it is an elusive concept.

One of the best chapters in the book offers ideas for action, specific suggestions on bringing your culture to life and living it daily.  These ideas can be implemented everywhere, and need customization.  But it’s the thought process behind them that is the big learning here, not necessarily the ideas themselves.

One key principle of a thriving and engaging culture is the concept of safety.  Creating safety and engagement is about countless small moments where the message is transmitted:  “WE’RE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER”.

Below are Coyle’s ideas on how to achieve this sense of belonging and common purpose with some additional thoughts and paraphrasing from me.

1.     Demonstrate active listening.  Listening is the most important element in audio communication.  It is a necessary step toward receiving the communication.  Interestingly, one can visualize an active listener.  The head is often slightly tilted forward, eyes unblinking, the body unmoving.  Posture and expression are important to visibly demonstrating that we’re in sync with someone.

2.    Show your weaknesses. We typically hide our weaknesses in all interactions, in an attempt to appear strong, competent etc.  Appearing invulnerable inhibits mutual communication and candor.  People don’t feel safe.  It’s easy to be disarming and welcoming; ask, “What am I missing?”, “What do you think?”, or, my personal view, actually share your vulnerability, uncertainty and need for affirmation.  I found that all too often my conversation partners, in both personal and professional contexts, do not believe I sincerely look for their feedback and approval.  Articulating that explicitly helps create an open and safe dialog rather than a one-way street.

3.    Embrace the messenger.  When someone shares bad news, start by thanking them.  It will encourage everyone to do so as well, the first step toward candor and a realistic view of your organization.

4.    Overdo Thank-You’s.  There are two things, I believe, which we can’t overdo:  Thank You’s and Atta-Boys.  We all remember important and unexpected compliments and gratitude.  Even a small “Thank You” registers and makes a big difference, yet many of us use that and recognition sparingly.  Be lavish with your praise, and include everyone.  Thomas Keller, the famed world-class chef, typically thanks the dish-washer at his restaurant openings, highlighting the importance of EVERYONE in creating the experience you want.  

5.    No task is too small.  The very same Thomas Keller would make his own raviolis and pick up the trash in his restaurant.  He was meticulous, and no task was beneath him.  I myself would answer the phones when I’d visit branches and other parts of the bank.  If we really are all in this together, we should act that way.

6.    Hire carefully.  The hiring process can be lengthy in some banks, but not necessarily thoughtful enough.  Hiring for cultural fit first is essential to create and maintain the culture you want.  At Zappos, trainees are offered $2,000 NOT to take the job (and roughly 10% of them accept the offer).  You’ll be most successful if your employees feel they belong in your bank, and really want to be there.

7.    Eliminate bad apples.  Many organizations equate benevolence with a positive culture.  I beg to differ.  Bad apples are highly visible. Everyone knows who they are, and wonders why Management hasn’t taken the necessary steps to remove them from the team.  High tolerance for bad behavior is not conducive to a strong and positive culture.  As Coyle says, quoting another, “No Dickheads” sends a simple but clear message.

8.    Create safe spaces for lots of interaction.  Your employees, by and large, enjoy spending time together.  It cements their sense of belonging and, in the Gallup lingo, creates “a best friend at work”.  Give your employees opportunities to interact, be it at the coffee machine or the dot-com play room environment.  Bank of America changed the tables in the cafeteria from four-person to ten-person, and productivity increased measurably, says Ben Waber.  Sounds too good to be true?  My own experience supports this notion.  Giving employees fun and safe interaction opportunities is a sure way to improve their productivity and well-being.

8a. Food is love (AB addition).  Eating together is a good thing, especially if the leader prepares the food. I have had countless feasts in the workplace, and they brought smiles to everyone’s faces. 

9.    Make sure everyone has a voice.  You must be intentional about this and create mechanisms that encourage, spotlight and value everyone’s contribution.  Leaders should seek out connections with their team and listen to all voices.  When a good idea is received, implement is quickly and advertise to everyone its source.  Mobilizing the entire team’s brains will increase your (and their) effectiveness.

10. Capitalize on “first moments”.  “When we enter a new group”, says Coyle, “our brains decide quickly whether to connect.  So successful cultures treat these threshold moments as more important than any other.  At Pixar, for example, All new hires are ushered into the screening theater on their first day, regardless to their job.  They sit in the fifth row (because that’s where the director sits)

11. No sandwich feedback.  When we have critical feedback to share, we often start with saying something positive, then share the negative comment and end with another positive note.  It’s more effective to separate the two, and be super-clear about the positive comments.

12. Embrace fun.  You heard me say this time and time again.  Laughter is the most fundamental sign of safety and connection.  Create opportunities to have fun together and celebrate each other from the highest levels of the organization.  Fun requires planning, budget and action.  Spend your resources on it, and employee engagement will follow.

These ideas are simple and inexpensive.  They may require behavior change on your part, which can be difficult.  The payoff is huge across the board, at both the personal and institutional level.  This is about connecting with your team at a gut level and creating a sense of belonging for all.  In the right environment we can shore up each other’s vulnerabilities and bring the best out of each other.

Coyle ends the chapter by sharing a harrowing story of a distressed flight that ended better than expected “not because of their individual skills but because they were able to combine those skills into a greater intelligence”.   I say it simply:  We all have weaknesses; by putting the right team together you become invincible”.

New in the Nest:

FOOD NOTES

This column will offer fool proof recipes, restaurant suggestions and other foodie tidbits for your consideration and consumption.

You can find more tasty recipes in the Recipe Archive