How to Shape Culture for Success – You Can’t Ignore the 800 Pound Gorilla

Have you ever implemented a new procedure only to find that no matter what you did to enforce it, no one followed it? If so, it’s likely that you were bumping up against the 800 pound Gorilla of corporate culture.

Whether you have one employee or thousands, there is “the way things work around here.” That’s your culture. Culture is a set of shared assumptions and unwritten rules – a force field that shapes how we do things. Since your culture shapes how things are done in your organization, it can make a direct contribution to your bottom line.

There are four mandates you can build into your business culture to enhance your ability to succeed.


Let’s say you’re the CEO and a customer tells you that your support guys make him nervous. “Nervous?” you say. “Yes. I don’t want to hear ‘I have no idea if this will work but we’ll try it and see.'” What do you say? Bill Daniel (CEO, Surgient, Inc., told the customer, “We can coach people so they don’t necessarily make you nervous but I won’t coach them to not be open with you.” If someone at Surgient doesn’t know something, they just come right out and say so. And that’s just the way Daniel likes it.

This is a key ingredient in creating a culture where everyone can contribute her expertise fully. Where gaps in knowledge are considered normal, not a “problem” but just a routine part of exploring solutions. Then everyone can contribute without fear of stepping on someone’s toes. Knowledge flows freely without getting stuck in eddies of invulnerability.


“This sounds corny, but we live or die together.” If your team knows how to get full commitment from each team member, then each of you will be saying that, just as Gary Moore said it of his team at Dell Computers. Corny, maybe – but fully committed, engaged teams get results.

It’s essential that team members express their views. You want to encourage a healthy level of debate and discussion. As Moore said, “It’s fine for me to say ‘this is a stupid idea’ right up till we decide.” Listen to all opinions, ideas and concerns. As a team, sort out the facts from the opinions. See where you are making assumptions and test them. Identify what you don’t know. When decisions are made, engaged teams move as one.


What is a “mistake?” An experiment that didn’t turn out the way you’d hoped it would. It’s also an opportunity to learn what doesn’t work. To innovate, you have to experiment. For employees to be willing to experiment, you must view each experience as “good,” whether it turns out “right” or “wrong.”

As Steve Bercu (owner and manager of BookPeople, told me, “The point is – just keep experimenting. If it doesn’t work, don’t worry; we’ll change it back.” As a result of that attitude, BookPeople employees have generated some very creative ideas. A kids’ camp based on the children’s books by Rick Riordan, a new idea for book display that increases sales and other ideas from store décor to merchandising.

These innovative ideas contribute to BookPeople’s success. They are thriving at a time when many independent bookstores are losing their markets to chains and the Internet. The attitude of continual experimentation that Bercu has fostered translates to real bottom line success.

Your attitude toward experiments (both the successes and the failures) should tell employees that failed experiments aren’t “career limiting moves” but learning opportunities.


David Whyte (poet and author of “The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of Soul in Corporate America”) has said that the reason we crack the window of our car when we go into the office is that we leave our soul in the car and we don’t want it to suffocate. Do you bring your “real” self to work or do you leave “the real you” in the car?

Being your “real” self at work can be hard. As Bill Daniel (Surgient, Inc. CEO) sees it, “It’s a tall order. It’s much easier to not reveal who you are and what really is important to you. Because with that knowledge you can be hurt.” So, because we don’t want to be hurt, we leave our true self in the car allowing us the illusion of invulnerability. But, as Daniel points out, it blocks the development of trust and robs the organization of energy.

It’s the leader’s job to show up as a whole person so that others in the organization can do the same


Now here’s the hard part. You can’t dictate culture. These mandates are all part of the Gorilla’s guide – the informal system that tells us how to behave. Your role as a leader in the organization (formal or informal) is to help foster these norms in your culture. How do you do that?

Key #1 set an example.

Be the first in your team to acknowledge a mistake and discuss what you learned. Say “I don’t know.” As Bercu said, “I’m happy to not know how to do something and have to ask somebody on the team.”

Key #2 Share the “why”

In a hiring review meeting at Surgient, the candidate’s potential peers expressed concern about the candidate’s willingness to be open. They weren’t sure they could trust him. However, the managers praised the candidate’s technical skills. Daniel said, “We’re not hiring this person.” Then he explained. “This is a great company. Having the right skills isn’t enough. We have to hire people who fit with our culture.” That explanation gave the ‘no hire’ decision an impact on the culture beyond that candidate.

Key #3 Leverage the grapevine

Catch people doing something right and get the story told. The BookPeople originator of the kids’ camp idea will be going to Book Expo in Washington with Bercu. There, he will meet the publisher of the kid’s books he loves. And you can bet that will get talked about back home at BookPeople!


These three keys, will help you shape your culture. Not overnight, but when it shifts you will have discovered an important lever for your success.

Bill Daniel sums it up this way. “What will determine Surgient’s success in our market? Being the team that can execute best. It’s not about making us all nice, it’s about making us all a highly functional team that can execute better and accomplish more than the next company.”