Positive, high-achieving culture starts with me

Posted: February 9th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

I originally wanted to title this post “I need to stop killing our culture”, but I figured that some folks wouldn’t know right away that I’m talking about the “culture” at work.

culture idea graph

Finding a picture of culture (and not events/perks) was tough, but this idea graph seems good.

I was a manager for 6 years before I got into online marketing. I started with a team of 4 people and built it up to a group of 20, consistently expanding our duties, scope and impact. Even when I knew that the job wasn’t something I could see myself doing forever, I loved the ability to lead my team and help hard-working people grow. As I mentioned before, part of my transition to my current role was making sure that all of my folks would be taken care of, then I was able to look out for myself and move on to something I really wanted to do.

During this period, I spent a lot of time learning about leadership and how to understand what people were really saying. I read philosophy, watched programs on psychology, got into anything I could find that looked like it would translate into an improved ideology for coaching the people I was responsible for.

(When I say “responsible for”, I intend for that responsibility to go both ways.  In the traditional sense, I am responsible for the output of any direct reports. In my own sense, I am also responsible for making sure that our investment in them yields more and more, but helping them grow their knowledge, experience, self-confidence, comfort and communication. None of us should be able to move on until we’ve prepared someone else to take over for us, and none of us should be happy working with someone who wants to do the same thing every day.  We should all be moving towards bigger challenges and you can’t do that with a wingman who’s still back on Level One.)

One of the most succinct statements I made to my team back then was “awesome is the new standard”.  To me this means that we won’t accept “good enough” or “nice” or “sufficient”.  If we do something, we’re going to do it up proper, or we’re wasting our time and effort and doing a disservice to our customer who could have been better served in a different manner. This means that everyone on the team has to be ready to blow away the metrics, or shine in a unique way that the metrics no longer apply because the stuff they are doing is so excellent that we struggle to define it or box it in.  I needed a bunch of commandos who could obliterate what struggles they found.

Over the years, I was pleasantly surprised and greatly assured when my team embraced this thinking. Setting goals that we were told would be impossible to meet and blowing them out of the water in short time, taking on more duties instead of trying to make ourselves look busy and protect our downtime… It was a great squad to lead and a great time to be their leader.

(I recently started questioning this all high-achievers approach when I was thinking about hedonic treadmills and local hierarchies, but I’m not yet convinced that it can’t be a viable long-term strategy when approached from the right direction. )

The culture I was putting in place was:

  • We will be better than anyone else can be.
  • Being the best is what gives us the liberty to do the job the way we want.
  • We have more fun because we get more done and our customers are happier for it.
  • Everyone who works for me has a future and we’re going to prepare to be great at that role, too.

These are lessons that stuck with me because it’s not a story about how great I am, it’s a story about how when I really focus on building people up, trusting their abilities and their work-ethic, and marching us all towards the finish line, we are rewarded much more than expected.

(Side-note: at the time I left the department and moved into online marketing, all but one person in management had worked for me at some point. Now THAT is a personal point of pride, that I could help folks not only become high-achieving themselves, but to also be able to pass on those lessons generationally.)

That brings me to today…


We don’t really have a defined “culture“.  We have a bunch of things we do, and probably a list of characteristics or attributes that could be drawn from that, but we are just now (2+ years in) starting to get our departmental vision intact and ready to implement (Hooray for strategy meetings that actually lead to something productive!).

So while we don’t have something solid to point at yet, what I have noticed is a pile-up of negative actions that certainly aren’t helping us build the foundation for crazy amounts of achievement and success.

There’s a member of our team who is almost universally unpopular. As near as I can recollect, each individual on the team has a separate instance where they’ve had a bad experience with this person, and I’m sure those negative individual impressions were enforced by the opinions expressed around them.

For a long time I’ve thought “we just need to get rid of this person“, (or as Dharmesh said at Inbound 2013, “cut out the cancer immediately“). I’ve even been a shamefully active participant in lunch-time conversations about the problems caused and liberties taken by this individual.  “Why do we let so-and-so get away with ___?” “Showing us those same poorly-gathered stats again; doesn’t (the boss) know he’s making bad decisions with that data?” Or my favorite, “every time he mentions (that same old project), we’re taking shots“.

If I’m being completely honest, it was easier to distance myself and blame the continued problem plaguing us all on our bosses, who I knew wouldn’t take any action. I don’t at all agree with their inaction, and in distancing myself I was able to ally closer to “the troops” and shirk my responsibilities as a leader.

Today I decided that I need to stop this.


There are other team members who have become discouraged by how few ideas they see making it live. Two years ago I prefaced an interview by saying that working in-house was akin to being part of a slow-rolling machine. Internal politics, insecurities and willful indifference are obstacles we all encounter in business, but as marketers we have to have the confidence to overcome this.

I had a conversation with my boss Friday afternoon about a content development project I’d worked on being cancelled.  I never saw the cancellation as permanent because I knew the idea was solid, and if the product owner wouldn’t give buy-in, I’d pivot it to one that would. The conversation touched on the point that had it been someone else’s project, they’d be frustrated, confused, upset, etc.

This is, of course, a natural part of the creative process; sometimes you create really awesome things that just get ignored or aren’t supported. I suppose I take solace in the knowledge that there is no formula for success. Some really awesome, very profitable projects were shelved for years before everything aligned and we were able to get approval. Other times, I’d be invited to meeting with no fore-knowledge of the agenda and come up with a solution we’d adopt that day. The only problem is when we take these struggles too personal and we start sinking into doubt and stagnation.

I need to be the guy to buoy the team until they all feel invincible.



This week I’ve been studying Wil Reynold’s “UNtrepreneur” talk, and a lot of what he’s said resonated with me.

  • Be a leader that other people want to work for
  • Growth is a retention strategy
  • Refuse to have a B-Squad
  • Do I know enough about the people I work with?

I’m sure if I published those bullet points in a separate blog post, I could apply totally different meanings to them, so let me try to put them together in a communicable strategy…

I need to put in place a culture of personal growth and opportunity-creation.  If I’m invested in staying with this company, I need to put the same investment into the people I want to keep around me. Like Wil said, if there’s nobody to high-five when you do something awesome, what’s the point?

We need to all be growing our own capabilities and those of our team. If we have 3 people who can do X amount of awesome shit today, imagine the output when we have 10 folks who can do X² really awesome shit, and picture how much more rewarding the opportunities that come along then. It’s on me to figure out how to motivate each individual in response to their own strengths and interests, and nurture that progression.

I’ve worked long and hard for the experience I have, and I’m not helping anyone when I don’t pass on those lessons learned directly from our customers. I know growth works for retention, because every one of my best employees is still with the company in some new role as a result of what they accomplished before. The B-Squad-ers will sort themselves out, I don’t need to discriminate or play favorites with my collaboration.  When the rest of us are rushing over the hill in our battle-charge, the under-achievers will run home to the farm where they can’t affect morale.


Roles I can fill to help the team.

So I’m sure that I alone cannot provide an ultimate solution, and I’m not even certain I can solve everything that’s causing this deepening schism, but it’s certainly more positive for the team if I’m a force trying to integrate everyone and help us all build our knowledge capital so we can step up and do really awesome shit than if I’m just another voice in the choir of “man that guy sucks”.

It will be a struggle for me early on. I know I have a tendency to favor people based on their production and accomplishments, but to not always offer a fair path for someone to ascend after a period of under-achieving. I also know that I can’t really put anyone’s work-ethic or desire to collaborate onto my own shoulders, but I can lead by example and create environments that encourage them to join in and get on the same path that everyone else is on.

In the end, it may turn out to be too little too late to solve this problem, but I know the actions I take this week can stop it from happening to someone else later on.

I’m going to grab the flag and show these folks how we can shrug off bullets and bayonets.

Enhanced by Zemanta

One Comment on “Positive, high-achieving culture starts with me”

  1. 1 RyanGPhx said at 3:19 pm on February 9th, 2014:

    new on http://t.co/j5Ugkgm56c – Positive, high-achieving culture starts with me http://t.co/9qcCQG7Unc | Please share if you dig it.

Leave a Reply