Internal Comms Pro Podcast: Making Company Culture the Bottom Line

JOSH LEVINE, JUN 14, 2022: It's no secret that employee and company culture are big topics on the show. We fully believe that healthy work culture is necessary for producing your best work. We've talked to several guests already explaining culture from all different angles, and yet we've been able to find one more person who has a unique take.


Listen to the full podcast here.



Sara [00:00:04] Welcome to Internal Comms Pro the podcast. This season we are featuring experts who are on the field with you, helping you navigate the current world of internal communications.

Josh [00:00:16] In the book, I articulate this idea of rituals, so rituals are the answer, and it's just a matter of what kinds of rituals are purposeful, recurring moments in time that allow people to connect.

Gina [00:00:40] Hey there. I'm Gina Moravec, the producer of Internal Comms Pro, the podcast. Our host, Sara Jackson, is taking a well-deserved break. So I'll be taking over transitions for this episode. It's no secret that employee and company culture are big topics on the show. We fully believe that healthy work culture is necessary for producing your best work. We've talked to several guests already explaining culture from all different angles, and yet we've been able to find one more person who has a unique take. Today, we're chatting with Josh Levine, author of the book Great Mondays and an educator at the California College of the Arts. Josh shares his own research on where company culture stands today and how it affects the bottom line.

Josh [00:01:26] My name is Josh Levine. I'm an expert in company culture. Everything I do in my life, my mission is all about advocating for company culture as a strategic advantage in business to help both the both the business and the people who make the business run. I've written a book on company culture called Great Mondays. I am also an educator. I teach at an MBA and design strategy in San Francisco, California College of Art. And I also run Culture Design Agency, also called Great Mondays.

Sara [00:02:03] Well, I am so grateful because with the time period of history we are in, this conversation could not come at a better time. And I've mentioned that Brené Brown's podcast a couple times. She had interviewed researchers, the father and son duo, and they had analyzed something like 34 million Glassdoor reviews and found out that toxic cultures are the reason for the great resignation. And particularly, interestingly enough, in and high growth, you know, innovative tech companies which, you know, I sit in so my ears perk up. And that's why I know today we're talking about culture, particularly companies that have got, you know, high employee growth. Before we dove in, I want to kind of get connect before our content here and give us a little history about your back story. And how in the world did you end up in Portland working on a company's greatest asset, their culture?

Josh [00:03:05] Sure, absolutely. So I actually started as a graphic designer and brand strategist in San Francisco. I kind of grew up in brand strategy and through that time realized that my what my strength was as as kind of an executive facilitator and being able to identify patterns while I can use it for brand, which is really the project of helping companies make brand promises. What I found was that the employees inside weren't on the same page and they could not deliver on those brand promises. And I felt there was just a big gap in the in the market. No one was really addressing what I would learn. I didn't know it was called company culture to to really help them be engaged and deliver on those brand promises. So people spend, you know, a huge amount of time, waking hours with their colleagues virtually or in person. And it feels like a really important place to start to make a difference. And I felt that if organizations could articulate why they were in business, what their purpose was, and that people could resonate if it was if it made sense to them and they could resonate with that, they could find and join that company and really kind of really help that organization do its work. And they can the organization can help them kind of help achieve that. As for themselves as well, I love that.

Sara [00:04:39] Well, let's dove in to this whole world of culture. And before we kind of get into it, you know, our listeners, they're internal communicators. We've got some of them who since, you know, the pandemic and COVID, I would imagine their role has expanded even more into employee experience. But how do you define culture, first of all, as we all kind of start on the same page, get into that, and then we'll we'll kind of dove a little bit deeper into your work and your book.

Josh [00:05:08] That's exactly where I started when I realized that that's what what I was thinking about. That's what it was called. What is company culture? There's a lot of different definitions out there and and that's fine. There's kind of the folks like to say kind of what you do when the bosses and in the room or the kind of the the practices and the the kind of the rituals that you have inside of a certain organization or group of people. For me, what was most important or what was most baffling when I first got into this was. Kind of the cyclical nature of it. And where I land is that my definition of culture is the cause and effect of every decision that you make. Which is why for me, it really is the platform on which everything else is built. So business is simply a decision making machine, and even if you run algorithms, it's humans that make those algorithms. So it's the people that need to understand how to make better decisions and what that means. What is what does a better decision mean? It depends on the organization, what what you're trying to do, how you're trying to work together, what you're trying to achieve. And so that that is, for me, the essence of culture. When we talk about culture, when I think about culture, it is about choices, it is about behaviors. And that's why it is so important.

Sara [00:06:33] You know, those choices and behaviors, I think, then develop kind of cohesion and value and belonging in the end. Talk to me again about this concept of the Dunbar's number in terms of group cohesion. Dove into that a little bit.

Josh [00:06:48] Yeah, absolutely. So in some of the research, I did for my book and it kind of solving some of these questions that I got early on when I dove into the culture at first was a lot of folks would ask, I dealt with a lot of high growth technology companies would ask, how do I scale my culture? And it was a really confounding problem because it was interesting. I didn't know why culture tended to fall apart and what I learned. And that number, Dunbar's number is, is a number that that Robin Dunbar, who is a scientist, actually studied what the optimal number of individuals within a group of primates is. And the the essentially what what he found was the answer is 150 primate groups are tend to be chimps tend to have in the wild groups of 150 individuals. Why is that? That's optimal for survival. So to care for young, to hunt, to protect, to defend, to gather. After that, when you grow beyond that, the amount of energy that it takes to have a relationship with each individual is greater. The energy that is required is greater than the benefit. And so there's this limiting number on the top numbers, 150. So what that means is in human terms, I'm really busy and I got a lot of things to do and I have a London amount of information. I'm not going to spend my entire day getting to know all the new people inside of my organization. Now, what's interesting, what I found is that number actually comes down significantly when you're not talking about life or death in business, even though sometimes it can feel life or death, it's not. And so what I have found is somewhere between 50 and 100 employees. When an organization grows beyond that, you start to have these groups that will develop or whatever. But what is what is commonly known as silos, and these silos are formed kind of organically and inorganically. When you have teams or you have departments or in office buildings, you have floors. And all of those are way barriers to getting to know other folks. So you have this kind of natural limiting amount of energy that you have. So what you tend to have is, you know, about 50 people inside of your organization naturally. So that is what is really important. Now, why is that important to culture? Relationships are the synapses of culture. So if you're working hard to help your organization make better decisions, as we've said, depending on what you want to try to do and have those relationships, those relationships are going to be the way that those behaviors, those norms are passed from one to the next. And so if an organization is already beyond that and you don't know everyone inside you or it's just not possible, well, it is the organization's job to incentivize, to establish and support ways of getting to build those relationships beyond what they naturally are going to occur. So there's studies that are out currently. There's a new study that came out right around the midpoint of COVID where we learned that we became closer with our immediate teams. We had more contact, but we became more separated from any of those loose contacts. Now, why is that the case? Well, because we don't have the. Interstitial moments. If we're not in the office, we don't see folks in the hallways, we don't gather around the water cooler, we're there, you know, the metaphorical or actual water cooler. And so we don't know. We don't see these people.

Sara [00:10:55] You make such a good point, especially when you talk about the primates at 150 and then now it's down less. Right now you're down to 50. We can handle. And then you're right. You got COVID like we're doing a study now with our team and asking, why do you not come in? And it's interesting. You've got now gas prices. It's like in their minds, is it worth it? Because now I got to spend really 2 hours out of my day. I got to get ready now get in the car. If there's traffic for me, I'm an hour away. Right. Is it worth it to do that? And so with our team, I'm interested in how do you do this? Because I think we sort of took for granted the system that was already put in place pre-COVID, and that system isn't there. So it's a wonderful opportunity for our listener to say, hey, we can use our values and skill sets of being internal communicators and the unique strengths that we have to core intentionally choreograph. Now, these moments foster the relationships, that foster the trust. But I think it's something that has to be intentional, wouldn't you say? I mean, what's if you're saying this is now the problem, what solutions have you uncovered.

Josh [00:12:15] In the book? I articulate this idea of rituals. So rituals are the answer and it's just a matter of what kind. So rituals are purposeful, recurring moments in time that allow people to connect. And so I think one of the classics from when we all used to come into work in an office was, let's say, the luncheon learn. So someone is going to teach you something and it, you know, could be business related or it could just be, you know, I came back from a trip or I'm going to teach you how to make risotto. Those are, you know, those kinds of and you can kind of expound on that. How do we create common bonds across this? Now, the question and what what I am constantly on the lookout for is how do you do this remotely? And there's a there was a an article that came out in the Atlantic that was talking about that the the reason why the bonding over sports is so powerful is exactly because it's like the stakes are so low. And it's the point is the bonding, not necessarily the, you know, the watching or the winning, although that's part of the impetus. And so what what I took from that is what how do we identify commonalities, things that we share with other folks that don't have to do with the project plan.

Gina [00:13:43] We'll continue our conversation with Josh after a brief message from our sponsor Cerkl. We all know there's a huge shift happening where employees are trading their cubicles for kitchen tables. There's a big question that we're all trying to solve How can I keep our remote workforce truly engaged and informed? Our sponsor, Cerkl, has developed the broadcast suite to help internal communicators send the right message at the right time. Through intelligent cross-channel broadcasts, curates a connected experience for each employee across all of the most valuable channels. Email, SharePoint, and teams. There's even an option to launch an employee mobile app. Head over to Cerkl dot com backslash ASAP. That's c e r k l dot com. That's slash ICP. To learn how the broadcast suite engages, discuss workers worldwide. Welcome back. We're now going to dove into Josh's six components of culture and how fostering employee relationships brings about the best in both them and you. Let's jump back in.

Sara [00:14:56] I mean, the fact that you've got the research and the emerging trends, it's it's for someone in our position. We, you know, in many of our companies, they're not just going to perhaps believe us right at face value. So the fact that you've laid this out, almost giving us our own playbook to go in and advocate of why there needs to be, you know, a space and place and time to build the common bonds and how it is connected to the bottom line. I mean, the book is your playbook here, but let's go back a bit and talk about those six components of culture, the framework you've laid out.

Josh [00:15:33] Yeah. So when I got into culture, it felt to me that the the response or the retort was always so fuzzy, I don't really know what to do, or it was always about reaction to something happening poorly. And in the book. One of the things I say is it's more than ping pong and pizza. And so with what I've discovered and tried to articulate here in the book is that it is a business tool. And here are here are the six components that everybody needs to understand that culture is made up of. So they're the first three are purpose, values and behaviors. This is what I call the designing phase of culture and why I often like to talk about culture design. So purpose is your why. The reason you exist beyond making money. That is the peak of the mountain. That's the inspirational message that you may never get to. And that's okay. Second one Values are the guardrails, the flags on how to get to keep you on the right track. Those values are how we get there. Those are the 3 to 5 most important things that your organization is working on behaviorally that allows them to achieve this goal. So ownership, collaboration, innovation, those are the things that we're going to look at and think about what are the it's a priority exercise in prioritization. So you can really focus people and then behaviors. If you sketch that line for the top of the mountain through those guardrails, that's, you know, everything in there is about those behaviors. That's how we define what values are. I don't want I am disappointed when it's simply just a word up on a wall or let's say on your intranet where it's just, you know, it just says collaboration. Now you need to describe what a value is through those behaviors. What are you expecting? So that's what I'm going to do. Those are the firstly purpose, values, behaviors. Now, just because you articulate it doesn't mean it's going to happen. We aren't talking about humans and behaviors, and I know that your audience is well aware of how hard it is to get people to change the way he changed the way they do, even if it's just filling out a form. And so what we need to do is actually incentivize. We need to get through the activation or the operationalization of this. And that's the second three recognition rituals in cues. So everybody knows what a recognition program is. What is the what are the ways that you can reward and recognize values-driven behaviors, not outputs? And if you recognize simply outputs, you're going to find people who are cheating. To achieve those goals, we need to lift up the people who are living those values rituals we've talked about. These are the recurring behaviors, ways to people to to build and strengthen relationships, the synapses of culture and cues. So we there's always the quarter-end report and the project pitch and the emails and the budgets and whatever that are going to get you distracted. So what we need to do as an organization, as managers, as leaders, is to be able to continue to remind people why do they come to work? So what are they? What are the what is the purpose? What are the values? Why are we here? This is the re constant re-recruitment. What is the what is it that, you know, why are you showing up here? Because you can get lost in the weeds. And so this is kind of that buoyancy that you can infuse into all of your your colleagues, your staff's work to remind them to do this kind of thing. And it doesn't have to be a big deal. It can really just be little symbols and, you know, there's a value slack channel or a little I mean, I was just recommending one of my clients did little gifts for each value, little symbols that go in the channel. So it's simple, simple as that. And it really is about using those values in a really powerful way.

Sara [00:19:41] How to Choose Manifest. Themselves because, you know, we're a tactical bunch of folks.

Josh [00:19:46] Well, the I mean, if we're, again, going back to the relationships, this is if we are talking about creative, digital, innovative thought, you know, thought work, the most important element of that is being able to have to share this information. If we're in the information economy, be able to share this with other folks, be able to collaborate and bring people together in order to do their best work. If you do not have those relationships, then it's the it is going to be a and I predict we're going to see in the next maybe year or two a steep drop off in productivity because folks are so disconnected from one another. And so we're really talking about not just engagement and can being connected with humans, which we need more now that we're working from home, by the way. But productivity and being able to have smooth, fluid, trusted relationships. And so at the bottom, at the end of the day and I think this is I'm not the first person who won't be the last person to talk about this. We're really talking about trust. And trust is the lubricant that enables the the kind of work that we do, this creative thought work, to really be able to course through the veins of an organization. And that to me is what this is all about. Trust in leadership, trust in where the organization is going, trust in your manager, and trust in your peers. And building trust is going to be the number one indicator. The amount of trust is going to be the number one indicator of how productive, how effective, how engaged your team is. And so if you want that proof point, that is it. If you're looking for like how do we build trust, it's not just going to be an offsite, it's not just going to be trust falls. It's not going to, you know, it's consistency in messaging, but it's really about building and strengthening relationships and sharing a set of expectations around what we want people to be doing, how to succeed here so that folks can really go. That is the goal. That is how I make a difference. That is how everybody wants to be able to see the impact that they make.

Sara [00:22:14] That is powerful. That is powerful. And what's underneath trust are a lot of details and why I get excited for our listeners. There's your value, right? Sometimes I think they we often question that because they're they're feeling like maybe we're at the bottom of the food chain here from an organization standpoint. But you're you're now the most important. And I want everybody to hear this, whether you're running on a treadmill or in your car. What an opportunity. Right. You talked about that being an emerging trend. What are some other things that we should be looking for and and the other things that you're seeing out there in the field as you work with people?

Josh [00:22:51] One of the big ones that I'm watching and seeing grow is really this relationship of the expansion of culture beyond just the inside of the organization. And I know that you know where with this your audience is all about internal communicators, and that's really critical. But I would expect that the difference between internal and external communications is going to start to be reducing, and there's going to be a lot of volume starting to see a lot of organizations post their values on their website. Why would that matter? Why do you need to articulate that to customers? Well, they care what is your purpose? And so that wall between internal and external is starting to get really thin. And there's, it's, it's when we think about there's all sorts of implications where it's the culture of community. And this is how the this is one of the predictions that I have in the book where we're really not talking about employees in a way. We're not talking about employees and customers anymore. We're just talking about a community. And what is the exchange of value? How do you articulate this and why is it important that people show up whether they are paid or whether they're an unpaid influencer on the Internet? These are people that are part of your community and part of how you're going to build that reputation in the market for creating value of a certain kind.

Sara [00:24:24] That's interesting. So if I get some of the framework down and and I, you know, I'm now rocking it, right? And then my companies like we're going to double and triple. How do hey, here's the first three steps or don't misstep here. How do you scale the common bonds and the rich? How do you do that? Is it. You mentioned through rituals. Are there any other tips or blind spots we might have when we're growing that fast?

Josh [00:24:50] Yeah, it is. It is a huge undertaking to rapid rapidly scale like that. And one of the things that I will point to is the importance, the critical importance of onboarding, including in the onboarding and before the onboarding, the elements of culture, specifically the expectations and the the things that we prioritize what our values are. So we work with our clients and they said, well, how do we what's the best way to to attract and retain really great talent? Well, you need to this goes back to my last point. You need to start articulating that early and often. And so do not miss that culture module when you're bringing people in, say, here are the behaviors, here are the things that we expect. Here is how you will succeed. And so when we think about bringing those folks in, they come in and they say, look, this is what this is. What's important is what you're going to focus on. And when you talk to your team, your new team and your manager, this is how they're going to be, you know, looking and expecting you to really live up to that expectation. So there are certain skills that people want. But what we need to really look for and bring in and emphasize is those behaviors that we want across the organization. So that would be one of the most important elements when we're thinking about scaling an organization.

Sara [00:26:23] Interesting. So many good ideas. So anything that you can that's really impressed you, you know, what can you share? Hey, this is here's a few good ideas that I've seen companies do that has worked really well with with some of the latest stuff you've seen out there in the field.

Josh [00:26:42] So we just launched a program, a new culture program for the D.C. Public Library. And what I found really impressive about the work that we did with them and all credit due to them is the kinds of people that they were able to bring into the process. When we were doing our work with them, we call them culture ambassadors. And what that does is it makes sure that the work that we're doing is sourced from the employees themselves. So when we go in and do work with folks, it's not the leaders making those explicit decisions about what the values may be or how to get bought in. It's the employees, these folks that represent the best of the culture. And so when we launch this program, there's a lot of how we say skeptics in the audience, let's call it in this leadership program that we launched for them. And by bringing those ambassadors in and having them be the voices who these folks are respected, they've been there for 20, 30 years, let's say, and they're hearing those folks really brought us a long way into getting that buy-in. And that's that's one of the key ways that an organization can succeed in creating this kind of culture change in even if just launching a new program is the voice of a trusted peer.

Gina [00:28:14] Regardless of working in person or at your kitchen table, your team can't become a well-oiled machine if you're not willing to connect the dots. As Josh explained, using your time and resources to bring employees together is anything but a waste. A huge thank you to Josh for joining us on the episode today. If you'd like to learn more about his book Great Mondays or simply get in contact with him, head over to the podcast page on our website to find all that information. Internal Comms Pro. The podcast is produced by the Internal Comms Pro Collective and proudly supported by the Cerkl Broadcast Suite, an entire suite built for internal communicators. Learn more at Cerkl Icon. And don't forget to visit WWW.internalcommspro.com back slash show notes for our free resource guides. Thank you for letting me guide you through this episode today, and thank you so much for listening.

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