5 Truisms About Leadership and Corporate Culture Leaders Cannot Ignore

It can’t be escaped – the impact of corporate culture on talent management and organizational success, that is.

Even this weekend as I was sipping hot chocolate at Starbucks while talking with a goddess friend it came up in conversation.  She took a fabulous new VP of Marketing job at a well-known, successful company working with high-visibility brands…but I asked her why she left her old job where she had really loved going to work.

Her response? “They brought in a new CEO who didn’t fit with our culture.  I just couldn’t work for him, so I was thrilled when this new company called.”

There are five truisms in regard to leadership and corporate culture that resonate the most with me:

1. The culture is, ultimately, a reflection of the values of those leading the organization

I was in a meeting one time to which the CEO had invited about 15 people who were at two different levels of the corporation.  He asked a question and then went around the table in an orderly fashion getting input from the attendees.  When he got to one of the lower level attendees he said, “I’m sorry, I just want to hear from (the higher level) folks”…and moved on down the table.

If you say you value the input of others and invite them to have a seat at the table, but don’t give them a voice, then what are you really saying?

How do you think those folks at the lower level felt in that meeting with the CEO – and how hard do you think they wanted to work toward his success and the success of the company?

2. The culture is a reflection of the stories employees tell

Given the example above, what stories do you think seep out into the organization based on your actions as a leader? Peter Bregman did a brilliant job of conveying the criticality of stories to culture in his Harvard Business Review blog post, “A Good Way to Change a Corporate Culture.”

He said to the CEO, who had asked Peter how he could change the culture of his company after admitting to Peter that he’d made one of his female employees work on the day of her wedding,

“You change a culture with stories. Right now your stories are about how hard you work people. Like the woman you forced to work on her wedding day. You may not be proud of it, but it’s the story you tell. That story conveys your culture simply and reliably. And I’m certain you’re not the only one who tells it. You can be sure the bride tells it. And all her friends. If you want to change the culture, you have to change the stories.”

3.  Facing the truth about your stories, and doing something about them, can have a powerful impact on performance

Last July I had the pleasure to interview a CEO who shared with me one of the most inspiring corporate stories I had ever heard.  His name is Bill Black and he was CEO of Maritime Life at a time when he knew that growth of his company was only going to come via acquisitions.  He also knew the importance of values to the culture and success of a company – as mentioned in point number one.

In his case, he involved every single one of his 1,000 employees in the creation of a values statement that he summarized as,“First to satisfy every customer. Toward that, to satisfy every employee.  As a result to have superior profitability and growth.”

Bill was smart enough to recognize that the creation of the values statement alone would not make it successful.  So, he empowered a team of employees to write a newspaper with stories about how these values were being brought to life in the company.  As he went on to say,

I told them it was ok to be demanding and challenging but they were not allowed to be cynical. I wanted the stories to be a real reflection of what was happening in the organization – so everyone in the company received the newspaper at the same time with no edits by management.  I saw the stories at the same time as everyone else.

One example of how this played out was a story that was written about the disconnect between serving our customers (one of our values) and the bonus structure.  As a result of the story the bonus structure across the company was changed to include a customer satisfaction piece.  Every single employee became eligible for between $0 and $1000 based on the customer satisfaction score achieved that year.  And every employee got the same dollar amount.  We even took some money out of management bonuses to enable this to occur across the entire company…

I can tell you this - these types of stories were much more powerful in igniting change than if I had written a memo to the leadership team!

4. How well a leader blends together the corporate cultures of different companies  during a merger is critical to the success of the new company

In the same interview, Bill shared with me these thoughts in regard to what made their mergers so successful:

It was the acquisitions that allowed us to more than triple shareholder value – but it was the values that made the acquisitions successful.  Each time we acquired a company I held up the Values Statement and said, “Read it and leave if you don’t like it.” This was the most effective tool we had at driving integration.

As a result, we discovered that, out of sight of management, our employees were telling employees from the acquired company, “You will love it here.” Our employee satisfaction rate stayed consistently in the 90′s through our acquisitions – which is an extraordinary accomplishment!

On top of that, we began being placed on lists of the “best places to work” – which enabled us to attract the best talent and heighten our corporate reputation – which was really good for our shareholders.

5. With the advancement of women, minorities, a deeper variety of  ethnic cultures and now five generations represented in the corporate workplace today, it is more important than ever for leaders to understand the impact of culture, and become adept at shaping it.

Knowing how best to communicate with, motivate and inspire people who come to our organizations having experienced different world views and social norms will make the role of leader more complex and challenging than ever before.

Leaders will disregard the importance of individual culture and its impact on corporate culture at their own peril.

I’m quite sure there are more truisms about leadership and corporate culture, and I encourage you to share the ones that resonate with you in the comments, below.

But here’s the key question:

Knowing all of this, what do you think are our obligations as leaders if we are to create or nurture a culture of success?

Please share your thoughts and insights in the comments – AND – please join my Leadership Chat Co-Host Steve Woodruff and me on Tuesday night, March 8th, to chat about this LIVE on Twitter.  It’s not the same without all of you – we would be honored to have each and every one of you there, sharing your experiences with the Leadership Chat Community.

Speaking of which – have you seen our cool, new Leadership Chat website?  Check it out and please let us know what you think!

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You can find me on Twitter at @LisaPetrilli and on LinkedIn at http://www.linkedin.com/in/lisapetrilli. I look forward to seeing you there!

To hire me, eMail me at [email protected].

Photo is Pope Benedict XVI by Archer 10 (Dennis).


  1. Noticed again that the share links are broken, but though it was just me the last time, but saw it again and wanted to make sure you knew.

    Great postings and thanks for sharing.

  2. I think one of the many obligations of leadership is creating an environment of transparency, integrity and trust. It has been my experience as a leader that creating a culture of success is impossible unless we create an environment where our flaws, problems, challenges and opportunities can be openly discussed. It’s easy to celebrate the successes, but how often do we “celebrate” a failure… that through acknowledgment of it we created the opportunity for a win? Creating trust is crucial to creating success.

    Lisa, I love the common theme of story telling you explored. You have clearly stated their power, yet not enough leaders have learned to understand the power of story telling. Encouraging leaders to mold culture and convey values through story telling allows for a more effective approach that demonstrates how to put values into action.

    I cringed at the bride story and was heartened at Bill’s customer service experience that resulted in real positive change. Admitting our flaws and flubs through story telling can be equally powerful! For the leaders I coach, I encourage them to show how they can convey powerful messages of trust through telling stores of their vulnerability, mistakes and bad decisions. It lets their troops know they are human and err as well. I think it is the humility of leaders that leads to trust that creates a sustainable culture of success.

    I’ll climb off my soapbox…
    Craig Juengling´s last blog post ..Making the Trains Run on Time Final in the 6 part series of VEESSO

    • Craig,

      You and your soapbox are more than welcome to stay – and to visit anytime! I love your thoughts and am so glad we agree about the power of stories.

      You did a very eloquent job of outlining what’s at the core of the culture of success – thank you so much for sharing that here, and for sharing your experiences and advice from your coaching role. I appreciate all you bring and share each time you are here! All the very best…

  3. Lisa,
    As always wonderful…. I love this topic!

    One of my observations is how incredibly important this is in startup companies. While established companies see corporate culture change (typically) slowly with the “stories that are told” – I’ve seen the culture at a startup company change – almost literally – overnight. Hyper growth, manic attention to expansion and the pressure of success often leads to the culture being developed like a high school graduating class… cliques form and the strongest personalities win. Is it any wonder that we see such prominent (for good and bad) cultures at companies like Facebook and Google…

    Also to Craig – I loved this: “It’s easy to celebrate the successes, but how often do we “celebrate” a failure.” – So true. Also, my experience is that the opposite is true. We often spend our time “processing” failures – but not so much in “processing” our successes. Taking time to learn what we did that won the day is so often forgotten.

    Robert Rose´s last blog post ..Google Changed Its Algorithm – So What

    • Thank you, Robert – I hope that means you’ll be joining us for #LeadershipChat tomorrow evening. :)

      What a great observation about start-up companies – and how it can very much be determined by strong personalities. From my own experience I couldn’t agree more.

      And I agree with you about taking time to celebrate our successes. I made a personal pledge to do that myself this year and it really does make a difference psychologically if you make a point to buy and break out some bubbly. By celebrating the small successes as well as the larger ones you remind yourself that you’re moving forward, even if feels as though you’re moving painfully slow!

      Thanks for the beautiful reminder.

  4. Lisa…this post provides great insight for all leaders to practice.

    Change management is sometimes used as one of those great leadership terms, but most of the time never implemented properly. Communications, or lack of communications, will always find itself to the top of any management survey within any organization. Your post helps address this issue.

    As an executive leader who has completed multiple reorganizations, communications is critical. I believe in the story telling to solidify real progress by the people who has achieved success within the new organizational structue. Communicate the wins, but also communicate the failures with a story that illustrates what may have happened if it was execute under the new model. This is very powerful, as the people are struggling to understand and changing their ways. I am always amazed at how people are willing to change no matter what they believe, if it is communicated properly with true support from their leaders.

    On more point…I dedicate my day to my people. I walk around to maximize the story telling, listen to the people and their stories, and learn from the environment that we manage. I do my tasks at night.

    • Thank you so much for this insightful and thoughtful comment, Keith. You are clearly a very inspirational and visionary leader. I think it’s brilliant to read how you dedicate your day to your people and your evening to your tasks. Assuming you also have a work-life balance I thoroughly applaud you! Thank you again for sharing with everyone here – it means a lot to me!

  5. Lisa this is a wonderful and memorable post! I feel passionately about the topic thanks to first-person experience with start-up, M&A integration and expansion initiatives. Senior leadership often fail to appreciate how each of the corporate lifecycle phases are a precarious milestone in a company’s culture.

    That’s why I appreciate your approach with the topic and the stories that you shared. Academic research and pages of citations are unlikely to make leaders take heed of the cultural true-isms. There is a simple beauty and power in true-isms and stories; they stand without data. They connect cerebrally and viscerally because we have direct knowledge of their truth.

    • Thank you so much, Jeanne! You bring up a brilliant point about milestones, which we really never got into last night. You’re right, as the company transforms and grows so, too, does the culture. It’s critical for leadership to understand that the stories that come from each step in the lifecycle are shaping the culture on a daily basis. And I really appreciate your kind words about the value of the stories I’ve shared – thank you so much for being here and for being at Leadership Chat last night!

  6. Lisa – I left a comment on Steve’s Blog from his article. In yours; the idea of the story resonates strong. It cuts both good and bad.

    One story of my own comes to mind (and I have many others…which I won’t bore you with). This one has to do with taking the culture from one organization to another. Think of the worker bee carrying pollen from one flower (corp) to another.

    In this case; I carried to a new employer the “hard edged” (almost angry) culture of the previous. In this brutal environment – we demanded hard work, demanded cooperation or else we got our manager to hammer the poor shlept down… two fisted! I hated this company … yet I took this “hard edged — get it done no matter who you mow” over attitude to my next job.

    And at this new company, I found (what I called at the time) rows and rows of cubicles containing slackers. Not lazy – they worked hard but only within their little sphere. It was agonizing to get info from them because each contained only a small amount of it and not a lot about the others around them. A networkers hell.

    To say I bashed ego’s and heads is saying it mild. I had zero tolerance for these light-weights – it isn’t how things were… at that other company (the company i actually hated working at!)

    Fortunately my new boss must have seen something in me worth saving. He beat me across the head with my own virtual 2×4 and stated clearly that “i don’t play very nice with the other children”. I can hear his voice saying these words to me even today! This was a different culture! They play nice here!!!

    Long story short – he was my first mentor (harken back to one of your first leadership chats) – sent me to Dale Carnegie and I became a nicer… easier going guy. I not only changed for the culture – but for myself. and my career there thrived incredibly so. that’s my story!

    • Stephen,

      You are wonderful for sharing this story of personal discovery here – thank you so much! It’s fascinating that one culture, in essence, taught you to how behave in business – but it taught you a method that would only work at that particular company. In the end, I hope that the person you bring to work each day is the real you – not a you that is molded to fit others’ templates! Thank you again for sharing – it means so much to me.

  7. Lisa,

    I love the part about story telling. It is not only important to tell stories, but to write down and record certain events so that we can go back and remember them. Some things are worth forgetting, but our success in the past can spur on encouragement, enthusiasm, and renew spirits.

    I am reminded of the Hebrew tradition recorded in the Old Testament of creating giant piles of rocks as monuments for remembering places where God had moved for the Jewish people. Recording events is key to remembering even the smallest victories that are worth retelling. Great leaders keep journals or memoirs to draw upon in the future.

    Thanks for the post!
    Kevin Ekmark´s last blog post ..Preventing A Social Media Mishap

    • Kevin,

      What a beautifully rich way to describe the importance of remembering and sharing…I can’t thank you enough for this eloquent comment! Honored to have you here…

  8. Lisa,

    Brava! One of the messages I’ve been sharing with leaders for years is, only three things matter in business: culture, culture, culture. And if you want to build a strong culture or change an unhealthy one, the stories you and (more importantly) your people tell are going to accomplish that for you.

    I can’t imagine why I hadn’t subscribed to your blog before now, but I’ve changed that error! I’m looking forward to a lot more.
    Ted Coine´s last blog post ..CEOs- Who Tells You When Your Baby’s Ugly

    • Ted, it means so much to me to have you along on this journey! Thank you so much for that. Thrilled to know we’re both on the same page when it comes to culture! Have a spectacular holiday weekend.

  9. Great commentary, Lisa. One of the biggest mistakes I hear from leaders who call us and want help to ‘change our culture’ is the idea that culture can be separated from strategy. The ‘who are we and why do we exist?’ question is strategy. It drives processes, structure, etc, all of which drive culture.

    If a leader wants a new culture, he or she needs to examine the design of the organization that drives that culture.

    Great stuff!

    • Thank you, Jake and I couldn’t agree with you more. The leader absolutely has to examine the design of the organization and how it’s driving culture – and needs to look within themself as well. Thanks so much for being here and for sharing your insights – it’s sincerely appreciated!

  10. Hi Lisa, the thought I would like to add is frequency. To often leaders think that once a thought has been communicated they are done. That is just the beginning. We had a saying in my company: 7 times 7 different ways. That meant when leading change, you had to communicate frequently using various modalities. And accept that people have to hear messages multiple times before it starting resonating with them.


  1. […] and Culture this Tuesday (March 8th, 8 pm ET) during #LeadershipChat on Twitter. Be sure to read the thoughts of my co-moderator, Lisa Petrilli, on this topic. And, take a look at our brand spanking new LeadershipChat website, […]

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