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Think fast! How to Change your Culture when Everything has Changed

JOSH LEVINE, MAY 4, 2020: Are you building or breaking your post-COVID future?

This excerpt is from an interview conducted with Hung Lee of Recruiting Brainfood as part of a virtual global conference he hosted in April of 2020.

Tired of reading? Watch the interview on YouTube.

Josh Levine: Consider the term VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous). Organizations can’t really do any projections anymore. You can pretend that you know what’s going to happen, but we are obviously now living in a hyper-accelerated world– VUCA. What we have to think about is empowering our employees to make better decisions, and we can’t manage the way we used to anymore. We have to use culture. We have to use Purpose and Values to determine a certain set of Behaviors so that we can actually consider how to guide people. We hire great people to do amazing things. And this is the rule book we play by.

Purpose is the North Star of your business. It’s why you’re in business beyond making money. For example, Starbucks, whether you like them or not, their purpose is to inspire “One person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time.” There’s a lot of power in a well-articulated purpose statement.

Lee and Levine discuss organizational culture in the time of COVID-19.

Now, with all the self-quarantining and the working from home, the question becomes, “How do we change now that everything has changed?” There are two things that I immediately start thinking about. The first is, “What is your new place in the world?” We have never lived through anything like this before. In my book, I say that Purpose will never change or will rarely change. Well, obviously I was wrong.

The question becomes “Are we still relevant?” I think about the employees of the many companies that are working from home, and I put myself in their shoes. I think about turning on my work computer and wondering, “What am I doing here? Am I just selling widgets? People are dying.” There’s this incredible urgency to our global situation, and it feels so important that we have to rethink what we are actually doing in our work.

The way I see it, there are three different situations that you might be in. In one situation, if you’re lucky enough to work for a company where the service product, a deliverable value, has become more relevant, then your job as a leader is to step up and say, “We have the benefit now, and we can help.” For example, consider Zoom, the video conferencing platform. Zoom’s CEO, Eric Yuan, announced that K-12 organizations can now get the product for free. They’ve basically taken their purpose of connecting people and cranked it up to 11. Another great example is one of my former clients, PagerDuty. They have a platform to help organizations make sure that their websites aren’t overloaded. PagerDuty announced that if you are a nonprofit or a public service provider, they are going to provide their service for free. There’s also the example of Google and Apple coming together to create a contact tracing application. Essentially they are taking their idea of purpose and cranking it up.

Zoom CEO Eric Yuan provides their video-conferencing product for free to all K-12 schools in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The second situation your organization may find itself in is this: “Wow, our business is not really relevant anymore. We need to pivot.” These organizations will need to think about how to change what they’re doing and how to do it in a new way. They need to think about what they can do for society today and how to provide that new service or product.

An example that comes to mind for me is the local distillery that’s switched to making hand sanitizer. There’s also my local pub that has transitioned to takeout only, but if you bring your own cup, they’ll give you a pint of beer for free. I don’t know that the distillery is going to continue to make hand sanitizer once the panic is over, but I feel like there is a big opportunity right now to consider a new place in the world for our organizations, and we need to really look closely. I’m not saying your Purpose has to change, but I think now could be the time for a major realignment.

And then the third situation is for the companies in the middle that don’t know where they are or what to do. This is the most dangerous spot, where you’re forced to cut, retrench, and hope to survive. If you’re just doing that, I think you’re wasting the opportunity. You might survive, but you haven’t given your employees a new and relevant Purpose. It’s important to create value for your employees by creating a Purpose that fits this moment, that can re-energize them. Plus, you’re creating value for your community and the world on the outside.

In my book, I talk about culture not just being about employees, but in the future, we’re going to see organizations thinking about how to cultivate the culture of their communities. Organizations have this moment to step forward and say, “What can we do?” or “What can we offer?” Whether you have the capacity (Zoom, who has been able to invest more money and give products away for free) or you don’t (the local pub that has to get creative about what to do now).

An excerpt from Great Mondays illustrating how companies should begin serving people beyond current customers.

I posted yesterday on LinkedIn about Marriott doing some not so awesome things during the shutdown, including furloughs and such. I know that organizations will have to fire people, but at Marriott, they essentially laid off a ton of staff, and then the board approved some sort of cash raise for the CEO. (Editor’s note: According to an article published in The New York Times on April 13, 2020, the board of Marriott International was seeking a 7.7% pay raise as well as a 200% cash bonus for CEO Arne Sorenson for 2019, while most of their corporate employees have been furloughed for an undisclosed amount of time.)

At this moment, we need to be thinking about what we can provide as an organization. Here in San Francisco, there’s a major outbreak of the virus amongst people experiencing homelessness, and the city is trying to work with hotels to get them rooms so that they can be safe. Marriott would be a perfect example of an organization that could step forward and do that.

Hung Lee: Didn’t Airbnb step recently step up after a period of bad PR because they were not refunding cancellations based on the COVID crisis? They suddenly said, “Okay, listen. We’re going to use the resources we do have to house emergency workers or house the people experiencing homelessness.” Is that right?

(Editor’s note: Airbnb has enacted a program to waive all Airbnb fees for frontline workers that need a place to stay, either to provide services away from home or to isolate from their families. They are also taking donations that will be forwarded to the nonprofit organizations they have partnered with during the COVID-19 crisis.)

JL: This is the time to think about your culture, and how you need to respond to this crisis as an organization. The good news and the bad news is that even after the virus, things are not going to slow down. Organizations are going to need to pivot. Every organization is going to need to think about their employees and all the new challenges. This is an entirely new world.

Organizations can not just be thinking about the bottom line. Organizations will need to take that leadership roundtable promise—that maybe an organization like Marriott is not delivering on—of stakeholders, not just shareholders, and really take that to heart. The next step is to take that idea and channel it toward answering the following questions: How do we improve the lives of our employees? How do we improve the lives of our customers? How do we improve the lives of people who aren’t our customers, though maybe they will be in the future?

That’s what we need to be thinking about at this time. There’s no excuse right now. If organizations can use this moment to really step up, then maybe, when this is all over, they can continue to do these amazing things and provide new value to their communities. That’s ultimately what I’ve been thinking as I observe what’s been happening for the last few weeks. It is all about coming to terms with how we as an organization provide value for people and enable them to make better choices.

I started this talk by saying that culture is about behaviors. My definition is “It’s the cause and effect of everything we do.” Guess what? The virus is absolutely inspiring and panicking people to make decisions. So what kind of decisions will you make as a leader? What kind of decisions will you make as a manager? How will you support your peers? How will you support your reports? Are there opportunities to support your community? Because that’s what people are going to remember.

What a company does now is what is going to define them for the next decade. 100%. I have no question, no doubt in my mind. That’s why we have to think fast. That’s why we have to really think about a broader definition of culture and think about the pinnacle, or the purpose, of the organization, and how what you do today can be shifted or amplified to help other people.

HL: How do they do that, Josh? Let me ask you a question: In your consulting career and your interaction with some of these companies, have you encountered an organization that had a culture that the leadership did not want? I don’t want to say toxic, but let’s say they somehow ended up with a company that isn’t behaving as they’d hoped. How did they do the re-correct? Do you have any concepts that may be useful here?

JL: Yeah, I mean, this happens. I have two examples. The first is when an organization scales and then all of a sudden, they go, “Wait, what, what happened here? When did everybody become an asshole?” That’s number one. The other time we see that happen is after some sort of acquisition. Maybe it’s not toxic, it’s just not right. So how do you shift? How do you change things? This is an opportunity for the leader to step up and say, “This is what I believe is the right thing to do.” And when I say the right thing to do, I mean getting up and saying, “This is what I believe, as a leader, is what’s acceptable, and this is what’s not acceptable.”

Because what happens is, no matter if you make it explicit or implicit, you’re going to have a culture. And if you have a manager who is succeeding, or a salesperson who’s succeeding, who is 100% an asshole, that is what people will see as a model for success in the organization. You need to define how you want people to behave. So here is my super simple but not very easy trick: You have to identify your Culture All-Stars.

I know there’s a lot of people who think the only option is to fire the people who are doing such-and-such bad behaviors, and maybe you do. However, I’m an optimist. When I go into an organization, my approach is to have the leadership identify the 10 to 15 people that, if you could replicate them, would make up exactly the kind of organization you want. The reason this works is that you have the executives nominating the people that they believe have the most inherent potential. Maybe they’re not explicit leaders, necessarily, but they are implicit leaders. They’re the people that other people want to follow. The leadership just knows.

What the leadership might not know is how to build the best culture for their organization. They might have big ideas and say, “We want it this way, and we want it that way!” That’s fine, but what we really want is their permission to go find the people that are going to be the best examples of the organization. Then we bring those people together and, no matter what we’re working on (Purpose, Values, Recognition, etc.), we can ask them, “Hey, what’s the best thing for this organization?” They know. They have contact with the leadership, they have contact with their peers, and they are the ones who are going to be the champions of this new culture. So we use them to identify that culture. Let’s say we’re working on values and identifying the kinds of behaviors that are acceptable. Culture All-Stars can help define what we want and exactly why. Then we want to amplify this newly defined company culture, and we can use these all-stars to amplify it.

I love what Jenae just said in our chat, that “culture is what you tolerate, not what’s written on the walls.”

There are two ends of this culture spectrum. You’ve got the lowest end: What will you tolerate? You don’t have to say this part very loud for it to make an impression. If someone leaves, you can whisper, “Hey, that guy was fired because he was being a jerk.” And guess what? Everybody hears it.

Then on the other end of this spectrum: What are the aspirational behaviors? You consider those, and you say, “Oh my God, Jo is incredible. She’s done this incredible thing. She has exhibited this values-driven behavior time and time again, and it is exactly what we want, and we want to celebrate her.” However, before you can do that, you have to define what those values are, which is why that work is so important.

What’s interesting Hung, and I’ve done this for 10 years now, is that 99.999% of the inbound inquiries we get are, “Can you help us redefine our values?” Because that’s the lever you need to pull in order to help organizations change. Now, I’ve gone way beyond your question. But that’s it: Culture All-Stars is the short answer.

HL: What a great answer. That’s fantastic. The “all-stars” is a really good concept to keep in mind because it’s something that people intuitively know. We know who the critical person at an organization is. It’s got very little to do with their job title, very little to do with their status in the company. In fact, it’s often the most unusual person. It’s the office manager, or it’s someone in a role that doesn’t quite match that person’s talents. But you know what? All the information goes through that person, or she’s always coming up with the smartest idea. How do we attract that? How do we make sure companies are aware of these people?

JL: We’re asking the question, “Are there common traits?” The answer is yes and no. One of these “common traits” could be that they are implicit leaders. People follow them, and they’re doing the right thing. That’s the kind of employee we want, regardless of what our organization does.

However, strengths can be different for different organizations. If you look at an employee at Amazon, an amazing high-potential employee is going to be very different from what a high-potential employee might be at Microsoft, or a clothing retailer, or some burger joint, right? And those people will be very different from each other. The filter that I use is that I basically say to the leadership team, “Who do you want more of? Who’s killing it? Who’s doing a great job?” That’s the kind of person you want to encourage, so you imbue them with the power to lead. You’re saying, “You’re the all-star. You’re going to be the person that’s representative of our culture.”

HL: I think this concept is super interesting because it would be great to be aware of a common trait. Is there something that makes someone universally an all-star, so to speak, context-free? I think there are probably some key elements that may exist, but I also understand that context is important. I suspect that someone who is a superstar individual in one context may not replicate that in a different position.

JL: Let’s go laterally. Are you an all-star early on, when there are less than 50 people? How about when there are 200 people? How about 500 or 5,000? What does that look like? How has that changed over time?

One of the questions I get asked a lot is, “Hey, Josh, can you help us refresh our values?” And further, “How often should we be refreshing our values?” I think you should look at them every two to three years. If you’re scaling crazy fast, maybe evaluate them every year or year-and-a-half. I’m not saying to change them that fast, but I’m saying you’ve got to look at it.

HL: One thing that perhaps these cultural slogans written on the wall don’t capture is the dynamism of culture. Of course, it’s going to change over time. It’s going to change with different personalities in the organization. Maybe the reason why companies end up with something meaningless on the wall is simply that they’ve matured beyond what was initially written there, and they haven’t updated it to reflect who they have become. Super interesting.

Okay Josh, one last question: What is your number one cultural leadership motto?

JL: I would go back to the idea that culture is the only sustainable competitive advantage in business today. It is the only thing that can’t be stolen. It can’t be copied. It is critical and so important for organizations because it is all about choices. Businesses are simply decision-making machines, and this is how we’re going to help people make better decisions.

HL: Amazing. And what a perfect way to finish the session. Josh, thank you so much for your time.

JL: Of course. And don’t forget to get a copy of my book Great Mondays on Amazon. You can also go to my website, There is a lot of content there, and all of the exercises from the book are free to download.

HL: Fantastic stuff. Josh Levine, thank you so much for your time and for sharing your knowledge and humor with us. It’s been great having you. I imagine this will be one of the most popular tracks of the entire marathon, so thank you so much.

Ready to redefine your Purpose? Levine’s worksheets will take you and your team through each step. Download a copy free at

Levine’s book is available now on Amazon.

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