We speak with Tim Kuppler from CultureUniversity.com about how to evolve a workplace culture with a direct focus on business results by using a proper framework.
Jacob: Hello everyone, I am Jacob Shriar, growth manager at Officevibe, and today I am with Tim Kuppler who is the co-founder of cultureuniversity.com and the Culture Advantage. Tim, thanks so much for being here with me.
Tim: Hey, thanks Jacob. Thanks for having me.
Jacob: Awesome. So I was so excited to talk to you. You have commented on a few of my posts, my blog posts on the Officevibe blog, and really, I could just tell from your writing, like the way you wrote the blog posts, it is not just like a simple one-liner, you really break it down. You really go into detail, so I know that you know a lot about culture, how to build strong organizations as you’ve led companies before, so really very, very excited to talk to you. My first question for you before we really dive deep is, tell us about cultureuniversity.com. Kind of, why you started it, what people can find on there, really any sort of background on cultureuniversity.com would be great.
Tim: All right. Sounds great. Well, quite honestly, I launched it out of frustration. I was personally frustrated with all the tips, keys, levers that are out there, blog posts, and other forums about how to deal with the subject of culture effectively, and quite honestly the vast majority of that content does not cover the basic insights from the top culture thought leaders in the world. They just skip right over it. I had learned so much over the last 20 years, often based on their insights that I wanted to bring visibility to them and that should be the starting point is what the experts have really learned about this subject of culture, so I reached out to many of them, including Edgar Schein, a Professor Emeritus at MIT, Dr. Larry Senn from Senn Delaney and others, to really bring visibility to their work and to be a repository where people could go to when they really want to learn about how to build culture effectively, and what the experts say about that topic.
Jacob: Very cool. It sounds pretty similar to this, the culture talks sort of in a weird way, similar idea, but I think you are doing it a little bit different, but arguably, better, depending on whom you ask I guess. I want to ask you, because you know a lot, as I said you know a lot about culture. You have both led teams and now you consult and you help other companies with their culture. So what are some of the crucial foundations for a good culture? Really, break that down for us.
Tim: Sure. There’s really five core insights that I think are often missed when you look at all these writings about culture and all the experts, or so called experts when it comes to this topic. First and foremost, it’s important to know that any new cultural attribute can only be built if you see results. If that’s the case, if results are really necessary for a new cultural attribute to form then broad based actions, general engagement work, general culture work should not be the goal. It should be really to focus in on a specific area so that your organization can see results, learn from that, and then apply it to other areas. So, the number one insight is it’s all about results and focus. The second thing that the thought leaders and experts here talk about is the need to be very specific about behavior. So when you look at a performance, priority, a challenge or goal how is culture impacting that? What are the key strengths and if you really had to pick one or two very specific things that were holding back performance in that area, what would they be? Get very specific about behavior. The third thing is, when it comes to focusing on that performance priority, how behavior is impacting it, you have to repeatedly engage your team in refining all of your work related to that performance priority. So, you don’t just engage them once to say how can we improve our plans, you have to have systems and approaches to repeatedly engage them.
The fourth thing is every organization has what I call an operating model. They have different habits and approaches to support how they support their purpose and goals. So, that operating model needs to be refined to support building those behaviors you need in your organization. So when you get very specific about one or two behaviors, it might be something related to collaboration, accountability or something else, you need to support structure that reinforces the behavior that you need and there are very specific things that need to be involved. Things like goals, measures, communication habits, motivational systems in other areas. Most organizations really struggle aligning work in these areas to support even their top performance priority. The last thing is, when you have really focused in on a performance priority, when you start to see results by seeing more of the behavior you need in a very specific area. When you have adjusted your operating model to really reinforce that. Your organization learns from it, and then they apply it to different priorities and plans, but more effectively the second time around, and the third time around. These are the five key insights that I have learned, but I see missed in most organizations. This is all about just starting to form a new cultural attribute. This is not about complete transformations taking place or anything like that.
Jacob: Very cool, and from that I have seen, of course I’m going to let you dive deep into it, this is sort of the basis for the culture road map that you put together. Those five areas. I could be wrong, but again I’ll let you dive deep into that. Before we talk about the road map though I want to let you talk a little about what you call the culture paradox. If you can, maybe break that down for us. I think it’s very interesting. If you can, just take a few minutes and talk about that.
Tim: My point with this culture paradox is kind of interesting. Everybody knows that sustainable culture change clearly takes time, but when you focus in on a very specific performance priority and a very specific area of behavior that has kind of been holding back your teams performance, often for a number of years, and really engage them in exciting ways to make a difference in that one specific area you can actually achieve results very fast. Now that’s not culture change, but it’s the starting point for culture change because, again, it’s those results that are necessary for any new culture attribute to form. So, sustainable change takes a long time, but that initial work can be very motivating and exciting to be a part of.
Jacob: Nice, very cool. Like I was saying, I want to really dive deep into this culture road map. I think it’s one of the more interesting things that I’ve seen in a while, seriously because we were chatting a bit off line and you were telling me it’s true, it’s so simple, but one thing that we didn’t say that I wanted to mention right now is that I think what’s smart about it, what it does is it really removes the fear from a lot of these leaders because when they talk about changing management and changing the culture and doing something to improve their culture, it can be very overwhelming obviously. So if you have a very simple sort of guide or a playbook to follow, obviously that helps so much. Actually, on my other screen here, I have the road map, but I’d love to let you talk about it, really if you want, you can go almost step by step. But really break this down for us. And of course, when we post this video up on the page we will have a link to the road map for everyone to check out. But really, I’d love it if you took a few minutes and sort of broke it down for us then because I think it’s very like I said its simple, but it’s very well done. It’s very smart, so yes, please explain it to us.
Tim: Yeah, thanks Jacob, I love this. So it’s basically a nine-step road map and this is just a framework for culture. Again, what you need to look at when it comes to really focusing in on aligning work behind a specific performance priority. So, the language I use is kind of business language, common sense language, it’s not deep behavior talk. There’s nine steps and it follows a defined align manage road map. It starts with specifically identifying a performance priority. It might be growth, it might be profitability or some other area. Customer service. The second step is to look at how culture is impacting that performance priority. So, what’s one or two strengths with how your team works together, behavior wise, and then what’s one or two very specific weaknesses. Again, it might be collaboration, accountability or something else. The third area is translating those behaviors to expected behaviors. Everybody interprets values from their own perspective, so you need to be very specific when it comes to behavior you are looking to see in your organization, and a leader can accomplish a lot by being very specific about behavior. So those are the defined steps. Then in a line it looks at, in support of that performance priority you identified and defined, what are your strategies, engaging your team to define clear goals, do you have clear measures that support that performance priority? Then you move to manage, which is, do you have a management system for priorities and goals. People that lack leadership meetings, staff meetings, stuff like that. Do you have communication habits, where you keep the team on the same page with your work to support that performance priority? Then lastly, do you have different motivational systems. Reward and recognition systems. Again, tying back to that one performance priority you highlighted and about 2500 leaders have completed this road map as part of speaking events or workshops. What percentage do you think actually check off these nine areas, not in general for their organization, but just for their number one performance priority, that they are covering them? What do you think Jacob?
Jacob: I’m going to assume that it’s very low, so let’s say ten percent. Am I wrong?
Tim: Well, you’re close. It’s actually only three percent. I think that’s just astounding, it’s almost shocking. This isn’t deep culture talk. We are talking about what is your number one performance priority? What are your goals, how you’re engaging your team. Do you have management systems, communication systems? Are your rewards focused on that priority? Most leaders look at their own organization and they say, no, I’m not hitting all these bases. I might be hitting most of them, but the question is what would you leave out? What can you leave out? Is it communication, is it motivation? Is it other areas? You can’t leave any of these out. They have to be covered in some way. It might not be the exact way that I would do it, but it needs to be the way your organization feels it needs to be done and based on the feedback you hear from your organization. So, it’s a real powerful way of looking at culture and what it really takes to align your organization, and how powerful it can be to focus in on one performance priority and just one or two very specific behaviors. Your organization learns from that really fast, and it’s so much better than a best practice approach where you might dive into recognition or engagement or some other area. It’s just much more likely to succeed if you are very specific and follow this type of a road map.
Jacob: Yes, and I think a very important point to highlight, and correct me if I’m wrong, but I think if I remember correctly you wrote this as a comment on one of the blog posts that I wrote. It was about how really, the key to this is that you only pick one, max two sort of goals or areas that you really, really want to focus on. When you start taking more into account, it becomes too hard to manage, so really the smartest way to do it is to really pick ideally one, but maybe at most, two. Is that true?
Tim: Yes, absolutely. It’s more so for communication and engagement, so I, as a VP, GM and President, it wasn’t like I focused on one priority. But we clearly did more in a specific area so that it was really highlighted above all others and we engaged the team on that one priority more than the other areas. We communicated more about it; we rewarded and recognized more about it, so everybody was on a journey together when it came to improving that area. We could say, as things worked and we started to improve, what worked, what didn’t work. So we were kind of on a learning journey together. It wasn’t about me as the top leader saying this is the great new plan, let’s all get in line behind it. We were aligning as an organization together on a journey and that was far more effective than getting spread out on here’s all of our priorities, here’s where you fit and here’s where we are at on all these many things.
Jacob: Actually, that I find very interesting. This, I want to ask you a little bit more about you. You have worked or you have had positions at some very cool companies, you have led some very cool teams. I’d love to ask you more about your experience there. You don’t necessarily have to mention anyone by name if you don’t want to, but if you can, maybe talk a little bit about kind of what went right, what went wrong, you know the different companies where you were at, what were some of the things about the cultures where you thought, these guys really get it, or some things that you thought this really needed to be improved? Again, you don’t have to mention names if you don’t want to, but I think it would be cool to highlight what you learned along the way.
Tim: Well, I was with one organization for 17 years and moved through a number of leadership roles, so that’s where I really refined what I learned. But then I went to a new organization as President, a manufacturing company and I still distinctly remember this company because I replaced a person that became my Head of Sales and he was screaming at me over the phone one day saying, ‘You’re from the new school that’s all about hugs and kisses. I’m from the old school that’s about performance and giving people a swift kick in the ass when they needed it’. So, that’s all I have to tell you about that culture and what I was walking into. It gave me a feel for the environment. So, what we did was, we focused initially, quite honestly on profitability and cash and you’re getting really aligned as a team on cost reductions, things like that. But, it was getting that operating model, that culture foundation in place about our purpose, our values, our performance priorities, things like that. But again, focusing in on that one specific area, we made some progress and we started to turn things around. But then we shifted our emphasis to new customer growth, and getting new customers. We were able to say what worked over the first six months, and what can we learn from that and apply to this specific focus on gaining new customers.
So we did things like we had a new customer counter, where we actually counted the number the new customers were adding. We put the logos up for new customers we added. We told stories about what made a difference, and we made a lot of progress. Again, over the next six months, we were learning from what we had applied the very first six months on profitability and cash but then we had to take things to a whole other level, and we focused on product innovation because our customers were telling us we love your service, you do some great things but you are kind of a me too. So we said, we’ve got to break out of that. We have to be able to develop some new technologies. So, we went at that and specifically redesigned a product line that basically had remained unchanged for 25 years. Again, we had gone through these steps of learning as a team how to be more effective together and each time we went at a new priority, we were more effective and refined our operating model as we went along. That’s a good example where it wasn’t like customers in technology were not important at all when I started in that organization, but we had such intense focus on a specific area, aligned these areas with the road map. You could go to a production operator on the floor and they could tell you about how we managed different aspects of this road map, and how it related to their job. I think that’s the ultimate goal, is you want each person to be able to say how they make an impact and how that’s connected to your organization making an impact. It helps if you have got a road map or a framework to think about and fit those best practices in.
Jacob: Nice, very cool. My last question for you is, like I was mentioning earlier you do some consulting now, you help companies sort of get their culture better. I’d love to ask you about your experience with some of these clients. Basically, what are some of the common mistakes that you see companies making when they first bring you in? What are some of the common pieces of advice that you find yourself giving over and over again? Really, I’ll say any common themes that you are seeing, like you are doing your consulting work both on kind of, like I said , what companies get wrong. And what sort of main piece of advice are you usually giving them?
Tim: Well, it goes back to that road map and most organizations don’t have good habits surrounding their management systems, communication systems that really drive clarity. So, the biggest thing I work on first is getting a clear management system in place for priorities and goals, and engaging the organization in the process to refine those. So we look at their leadership meetings and how those are working and are we following a standard agenda or even having the meeting consistently, and how does that work? And then when we have that meeting and we make some decisions about where we are going, does that directly connect to communication activity? So, the first thing we are doing is saying hey, this is where we are at as an organization in the management meeting and then we are having some communication activities across the organization about, hey, here’s where we are at, here’s what’s working, here’s what’s not working. We need your feedback. It’s two-way communication so that we can start refining things. Next month comes around or next week and we are having that management meeting again, and we are talking about, hey what’s happened over the last week, or month? Are we seeing the behavior in need? What’s working, what’s not working? So the biggest thing that I see organizations not really tuned in to is this management system-communication system type linkage. Now, some get it down just great and they are ready to go beyond the foundation and that’s where I think the future is going. It’s more to get your culture foundation in place but then you can build on it more effectively and really have a full culture journey and get progressive into other areas that go way beyond the culture road map that you saw.
Jacob: Very cool. Thanks for that. I think we will end it here, but honestly, Tim, I just want to thank you so much for taking some time to have a chat with me. Anyone watching this, seriously check out cultureuniversity.com. Incredible stuff. Hopefully we can do this again sometime soon.
Tim: Yes, thanks so much Jacob, and thanks for the work you do at the Culture talks. Again, as you mentioned before, I think our mission and purpose are aligned to a great extent to make some of these insights visible to everyone so they can benefit from them.
Jacob: Exactly, Hopefully together we will change the world. Alright, take care.
Tim: Alright, thanks Jacob.
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