Podcast Episode 20

Defining Company Culture and Its Impact

In this insightful episode, Ryan engages with Michael, a seasoned speaker, and ICF-certified executive coach, to unravel the intricacies of building an authentic company culture. Michael shares his wealth of experience, emphasizing the importance of culture as a reflection of lived-out values and behaviors rather than corporate clichés. The conversation explores Michael’s innovative approach to cultivating values, involving employees in the process, and fostering a sense of ownership. Practical applications, including consistent training and onboarding strategies, emerge as key elements in creating a genuine company culture. Michael candidly discusses the challenges of aligning values and making tough decisions for the sake of culture and shares a remarkable retention strategy from his past. The episode concludes with insights into measuring culture through observable behaviors associated with core values, providing a comprehensive guide for leaders navigating the complex landscape of organizational culture.

Listen to the Episode Now


Ryan: I’m your host, Ryan Davies, and I’m hosting today’s discussion with Michael Simpson on defining company culture and its impact. Michael. Thanks so much for joining us today.

Michael: My pleasure to be here again. 

Ryan: We’re getting to be good friends now, Michael, you know, a little bit of a background about him. He’s been a speaker at hundreds of events and conferences around the world. Talking about technology, changing markets, coaching, culture, professional development, and trading opportunities for individuals through equitable hiring. He’s an ICF-certified executive coach, an avid cyclist, a fly Fisherman chocolate here and on the business side, and a three-times entrepreneur himself who has grown businesses leaps and bounds, Michael. Anything else you want to touch on here that I have not shone a light on yet?

Michael: Well, I would be remiss if I didn’t say I’m a very happily married man who has developed my persistence through the pursuit of my wife. So, it took 13 years to convince her to date me, which I believe prepared me to become an entrepreneur.

Ryan: There you go. That’s, I think, going to tie really well into how to build culture, and it’s impacted how to build those relationships and communication styles and everything. So you had really good training, a pre-training that led to even bigger things for you. But, well, kind of dive into that. What does company culture mean to you? Because that is a very broad term. It could be very cliched. It’s on every job application and interview or job posting, right? As culture and all of this, what does it boil down to for you?

Michael: Well, to me, it’s a collection of values and how you live out those values. And what do people believe about those values? because a company culture is the result of how you treat each other, how you act, and how you live as a company and as employees of the company. people who try to create a culture, I don’t think you can do that. I think culture is a by-product of your beliefs and your values, what everybody thinks about those, and how much they engage in them. Is there anything else? Honestly, it just seems like it was made up. I was an executive coach for some really massive companies, and with the rock climbing walls in the lobby and all this other stuff, they ticked off all those different things. And then they work you 80 hours a week so you can’t enjoy any of them. And I was like, how often do you actually do this stuff out here? They’re like, oh shit, man, we have no time to do that, right. It looks nice, though. Great for recruiting.

Ryan: I was going to say it’s a great recruitment tool, and that was one of the things that I’ve always found, both from personal and other experiences, that company culture can be a very strong marketing tool. So it’s really big from a recruiting standpoint. It’s almost an internal marketing thing. Many times, I’ve worked in places that have had stickers that say impact or a coffee mug that says believe or something like that. It’s like, is this culture, is this just meant to, like, I’m not really sure, right? Like, I’m assuming you’ve experienced that before, and how do you kind of draw that line between, we want to promote culture. We’ve got a lot of people listening here who are trying to promote culture, a positive culture, but without making it a marketing tool without making it. It seems disingenuous.

Defining Company Culture

Michael: Well, I don’t know if I can prescribe a way to do that for everybody, but I can describe how we’ve done it. The very first thing was that the executive staff didn’t create our unique values. So, after our company had existed for several years, we had never really written our values down, and there was kind of an unintentional reason for that. I wanted to see how we would mesh and what we were creating. I didn’t want to find some box to fit us in, and so we actually, it wasn’t just laziness. I didn’t really know so much about what we wanted to be when we grew up. And it seemed a little disingenuous to say when there were just two people. This is the culture of our corporation. We didn’t really feel much like a corporation. And so after several years,we started to have these annual gatherings, we used to go up to Mount Princeton Hot Springs and in Colorado here, and rent cabins, and we would invite everybody’s family, so their partners and spouses and, Children, dogs, the whole thing. And when we would do the company overview in the afternoon and some exercises, we would invite their partners to come like the kids, not really, but the partners to come. Anybody really wants to know what’s happening to the company because it matters to you show up, right? This isn’t just for our employees; it’s for their families, and so one time we did this exercise, we said we asked two questions. We broke everybody up into four groups, and they each had little pieces of paper. And we said we want you to write down two things: values you think we have and values that you would like us not to lose as we grow. And then another category of values you wish we had an expression of more in the company. Then the ceo and I actually left, and it demonstrated our value for micro beer breweries. And we went to the bar until they were done, and they came and got us, and then they all walked through each one of the groups of these things that they thought were our values and things they’d like to see more of.

Michael: And, what was crazy about this exercise was strange phrases that I never recall saying myself came out in all the groups, like value the whole person was a value. They thought we had, and I don’t ever remember saying that, but all four groups actually wrote the same thing now. And so there was lots of stuff written down, right? And then all of these types of things. So what we did was capture them all, put them in a spreadsheet, group them, and put them in an online presentation of Google Sheets Google presentations. And then we said, all right, we’ve narrowed it down to five themes and then the associated behaviors. Then, we opened it up for everybody to comment on, including their partners, because their partners, like their families, were involved in the creation of this first list. So we wanted all of them, and they’re like, no, I wrote that, but that’s not what I meant. What I meant was this. And so then they adjusted it, and then we only had one kind of thing that I insisted on. I created a category name. That was weird because I think you need to have at least one weird thing. But it has to be accurate. So, we have a category called Birddog Joy. And, because you want people to ask questions, right? But it’s actually meaningful. We live this out so much that the whole idea is that you would look for opportunities for joy, you’d hunt them down, chase them relentlessly and enthusiastically, and then share them and bring them back to everybody else. This is everyone’s favorite value because every week, we do it all by hand. Everybody likes it; we have a Birddog Joy channel on our Slack. People share anything joyful in their lives, and we all get to celebrate, and it inspires others to do the same like to go. Like I can’t tell you how many times I’ve evaluated my boring weekend. I’m like, man, this person went to Patagonia last week. I have to do something. You know, it really is great. But that’s a long answer to a short question. But we had our team create the values; they have ownership in them, and they believe in them. We haven’t changed them in years and years and years because we don’t need to.

Ryan: I really appreciate that perspective. It’s a fantastic takeaway. Often, we’re handed down company culture, guidelines for new hires, and a set belief system. But what’s intriguing is embracing the bottom-up approach, letting ideas flow from the bottom and making it a part of the culture itself. It’s like leveling the playing field.

Another significant aspect is the accessibility of things like values and such. As a three-time entrepreneur navigating the realm of rebuilding cultures, I’m curious about your approach. Have you consistently remodeled it, or has it been a case of stepping back and avoiding the strict prescription of values? Your charisma and likability make these conversations really enjoyable, and I’m keen to hear more from someone with your experience. I’m going to wait and see how things shake out.

Bottom-Up Approach to Culture

Michael: Well, I would have to say that there had to be an element of modeling in the first years. I was very intentional, and I do try to be intentional about how I am with people and how I encourage them. Like I’m not the best encourager, I work at it, and I coach and those types of things. So there was an element of modeling; there was also the element of the type of people that I hired. You come with your own values, and if they clash with the people that you’re working with, then you have a struggle. Values really are kind of the foundational element of integration between humans. And it is the foundational reason for the disintegration of relationships between humans, which is values. And so there was a fair amount of selection around those types of things when we would use a lot of really long words and interviews to describe who we were and how we worked. It’s a lot easier now that we have certain labels for those. What’s another key thing is that we committed to these not being just words on a website or a wall. So, every single quarter, we do value exercises. We have a trainer come in who we trust, who actually does exercises with us. And so we teach models. So, we teach how to give feedback. You know, we call it SBIR. So what was the situation? What was the behavior, what was the impact, and what was the result of that or the reaction to that? And, so we teach people these types of models, and we’re constantly training them. So when we onboard people, we’re like, all right, these are the things that are going to surprise you about our company, right? And so we teach them some of these models, and you’re not going to believe that there are no politics here until you try to triangulate and talk about somebody to someone else, and you’re probably going to receive one of two responses. There are only two acceptable responses when you say, well, so and did this. The first one is when you are going to talk to them. And that’s hopefully the only one. But if you resist that, the second, only acceptable response is, when would you like me to help you with that conversation? That’s the end of it.

Ryan: I like it.

Michael: If those two things are not accepted, we have a different type of conversation, and as a coaching conversation, we will get you to the place of accepting that. So that type of thing, right? And just that consistency and creating the associated behaviors. So, these values that we have are associated with behaviors that are expectations around them, and we believe that these are human values that I think we would want to live everywhere in our life, not just in our office. And I think that’s where when executive mandate values fail; they’re thinking about what’s best for our company, not what kind of people we want to develop. That’s the ship.

Intentional Modeling and Hiring for Culture Fit

Ryan: And I love that comment because I mean, I think most everybody listening or a lot of people listening anyways are going to resonate with the fact that I spend more time with my work family than I do my family, right? And as you were saying, like some of these places that are like, hey, we got a rock climbing wall, but you’re here 88 hours a week. It’s so cool, you can see it every day. But you’re there so much that this really needs to embody what you enjoy doing and those values, and you need to connect to that level with that said when you’re a master of scalability. Now, you’ve grown businesses at this stage. When it comes to hiring, is it a matter of presenting our values and culture right away, or is it more about understanding the candidate’s values and seeing if there’s a match? How do you navigate that part of the conversation to make informed decisions? It’s a significant aspect, as you mentioned.

Michael: Well, the thing is, would people really believe you if you actually said this is the culture of our company? But would they really? If they’re smart, and hopefully we’re hiring smart people, they’re evaluating us as we’re evaluating them in the interview, just equally or even more so because hiring one person doesn’t impact you as much as choosing a company. And, so your company isn’t as impacted by one person as one person is impacted by the company that they choose. And so it’s a bigger decision for an individual, and we try to respect that, which is a very significant thing. And so we try to kind of suss out what’s important to somebody. And the thing is, they’re probably not going to believe this about these soft things. So, yeah, we have dogs in the office.

Michael: I have a dog on my feet. You’re going to figure that out. We don’t have to tell you about that. You come for an interview. If you like dogs, you’re going to enjoy them. The other things they’re in the job description of the kind of place we are. But what I do tell people when I interview them, I say, all right, if we work something out. You end up working here; let me tell you the first thing that’s going to surprise you unsolicited by anybody. You’re going to meet with every single person that you work with and other people that you don’t in your first two weeks; you’re going to meet with everybody and learn about their job. You’re going to be shocked at how often it is completely unsolicited in the course of normal conversation. One of these people will bring up our values. I said, let me just tell you right now, I’m not going to try to convince you that these are our values, but within the first two weeks of being here, you will know that it’s true because you can’t have a conversation about working here without talking about them. We live them every single week in our all hands in our individual meetings, and we give values awards. And every single month, people nominate people to express their values in our reviews. 30% of your review is how you were living out the behaviors of our values or not 30%. That’s significant. That’s not like icing on the cake. I mean, that’s like cutting deep in cake, right? So that’s a lot. I mean, almost a third of everything that we care about in our performance is how we relate and treat people and how we learn. And we want to care about you if we don’t know about you or your family or what’s going on. I mean, we don’t need to get all up in your chili on everything. But we want to build a culture of trust enough that something’s going on, you tell us, right? So if that’s uncomfortable, like I tell people, if that kind of transparency is uncomfortable and you don’t want that kind of closeness with the people that you work you really need just go because this is not going to be good for you because I believe that if you want someone to or you expect someone to be vulnerable, you have to give them more than they, expect them to give you initially. So, on a scale of 1 to 10, 1 being completely eternal and 10 being oversharing, if you want someone to give you a five. You have to give them a seven or an eight and try not to scare them. But what you’ll find from me is that there’s nothing off-limits. I’ll tell you about the dysfunction in the family where I grew up. I’ll tell you about all the things that maybe, that I’ve struggled with and because hopefully, that will provide hope to people, but it also provides a bit of relief so that people are like, well, man, his stuff is much worse than mine. I could share something with them.

Ryan: I love it. I think that’s kind of the issue that company culture tries to solve, right? A good, strong culture solves things like poor communication or inconsistency, and things along those lines like, I don’t need to go too deep into it. It’s too weird of a question or too much of a question. But, like, do you find that there are more benefits than you bargain for in terms of embracing that company culture? Like again, it helps you with retention, it helps you with alignment. Are there other things that just kind of bring everything together that you lean on for culture?

Michael: It helped me fire somebody. It helped me let go of the best software engineer that we had at one time in our company. And everyone’s like, there’s no way we could fire this person. And I’m like, there’s no way I can’t because I’ve experienced some, you know, I’ve heard about something I coached this individual. I said this is a one-shot deal because this is the hill I will die on. These values and nobody is greater than that. And in that moment, I actually heard from numerous people. They’re like, you are really serious about this stuff, aren’t you? Like, because I walked this person out the door, and I don’t want to talk about that kind of negative thing. But the point is that the decision to say yes was so easy for me. I didn’t hesitate about this decision. I tried to help, but I’m like, this is not a difficult thing, but it’s a difficult thing for everybody else because they’re like, this person is so valuable, and I’m like, it’s not enough.

Measuring and Impact of Company Culture

Ryan: Yeah, there’s a cost-benefit here, right? And that’s pretty important. I’ve got one more. I know we’ve been going here for a while, and I will steal all the time I can with you. How do you measure culture? As you just mentioned, this is great. You do a review, and you’ve got it waiting. So you can actually document it and speak about it. You have all hands where you’ve got processes in mind, right? So, there are many different ways that you can measure it. How have you found a successful way to either quantify measure? However, you want to say it is culture because culture to so many is just an ambiguous cloud of here it is. We have culture, right?

Michael: So, I don’t think you can measure a culture. I think you can measure the things that create a culture. Like I said, the culture, I believe, is a result of the values that you live, right? But I believe you can measure the values if the values are not platitudes but actually have associated behaviors; you can measure somebody’s behavior; you can at least recognize it and say this is we do have certain behaviors. And I see those behaviors in you. The value if you just think about it and don’t do anything about it, is it really a value if there’s no associated action that anybody recognizes that you’re living out? Is it a value, or are they just words? And to be honest, I think you know what my answer is.

Ryan: Yeah, absolutely. I totally agree. The essence of fostering a positive culture goes beyond being just a marketing gimmick. It’s not about handing out a handbook with words to remember and live by without understanding what that truly means. Like any other process in your company, defining the purpose, impact, and how to assess its effectiveness is key. Have you ever witnessed a situation where everything seemed right by culture, but it turned out to be a downfall, perhaps not in one of your companies but in your experience? I don’t want you to put people’s names on the spots. Have you witnessed it before? Kind of first all for you.

Michael: Downfall. I don’t know. I mean, you can say revenue solves most problems, but it doesn’t solve this one, right? But because you just churn people, it’s a retention issue. I mean, people will put up with a lot of crap if they really enjoy their work, right? And they will put up with a lot of risks; they’ll put up with a lot of change. But, if they don’t enjoy this, they don’t feel safe where they are. If they don’t feel respected where they are, man, it’s pretty easy to recruit them away. So, yeah, I’m sure you could quantify that. I’m sure McKenzie and other people have quantified that type of thing.

Michael: I can basically see it when I was at a company called Novell a long time ago. It was the fifth-largest software company in the world. I want time at HR to come to me and say, what are you doing? And I’m like, am I in the principal’s office right now? It feels like the principal’s office. I don’t know what I did. I don’t know how to answer this question. Can you give me some context? I was a little nervous that HR didn’t show up in my office unless there was a problem, and they said you haven’t had a single person in your entire division leave in two years. That’s never happened. What are you doing? And I’m like, I’m not sure.

I really, at that time, I was young, I was in my early thirties and, I’m thinking, I don’t really know, but what I have done is I really focused on people’s skills and when people would we do layoffs every year that this is the kind of company that 10% of the company was considered dispensable every November. And so they laid off 10% of the people, and I always had a list. I’m like, yeah, that person’s in the wrong job. I bet they get laid off, and I would get this list in advance and from hr, and I’d go through it, I’d circle people, and I would wait till they get their package, and I would stand out in the front of the building. They’d be walking out all sad with their package. And I’m like, you come to my office, right? I have a job for you. I want you. I wanted you to get your package first. So it’s like a bonus. You get a bonus now. I don’t have to give it to you. Let the company give you a bonus. Take a week off. I want to hire you for this job. They’re like, I’ve never done that before. I’m like, you just don’t know; you’re good at it. And so many of these people because this is how people help me. They saw skills and abilities, and they’re like, I think you can do this, and I’m like, I have no earthly idea how to do that. They’re like, I’ll teach you, and so I said the skills I need are this, and they’re like, oh, I have those skills. I’m like, so people can’t translate. They’ve never been able to do that very easily. It’s like, you know, a military job trying to translate it to the private sector. It’s hard. You know, I shoot guns at people. Well, no, you actually run a team, and you do organization, and you do motivation, and if you can break things down to their skills, you can actually then translate them into a whole bunch of other jobs. Managers and leaders need to be able to do that. They need to understand the necessary skills. They understand why people are successful, and then you build someone’s career, you give them an opportunity; man, they are loyal. They’re like, I never would have known. I’d be great at this if it weren’t for you. And then you know what they stick around.


Ryan: I mean, this has been an unbelievable podcast. I have been smiling the entire time, you know, defining company culture and its impact with Michael Simpson. Suppose you didn’t understand the impact that company culture has from listening to this Holy Crow. I mean, this is exactly what we want to bring our listeners in, terms of, you know, just great wisdom, insight, the importance of it. And Michael, before we sign off, I know we’ve done it once before, but for people to get in contact with you, with people to get a hold of you to learn more, pick your brain, Please share with us how they can do.

Ryan: I mean, this has been an unbelievable podcast. I have been smiling the entire time, you know, defining company culture and its impact with Michael Simpson. Suppose you didn’t understand the impact that company culture has from listening to this Holy Crow. I mean, this is exactly what we want to bring our listeners in, terms of, you know, just great wisdom, insight, the importance of it. And Michael, before we sign off, I know we’ve done it once before, but for people to get in contact with you, with people to get a hold of you to learn more, pick your brain, Please share with us how they can do.

Michael: So I’d say the best way is just to go to www.pairin.com/. We don’t use unnecessary consonants at the ends of words. And we connect people; we pair them to careers and jobs and services and education. And so that’s how that came about, by the way. And yeah, so just go to pairin.com, and you can find my link in there and contact me. You can also look at our culture section, which outlines our values. We don’t really describe the culture; we describe our values.

Ryan: Perfect. There’s another hack for everybody. Go and check it out: http://www.pairin.com/ Michael. Thank you so much, Michael Simpson. Joining us again today. I’m going to get you back here again. I think this is a regular occurrence that I could use. I’ll be selfish. I just absolutely love the podcast with you. So, I want to take a minute to thank you genuinely for this amazing podcast, which defines the culture and its impact. And I also want to thank our listeners as well. We cannot do what we do without you,

Ryan: Michael. Thank you again. So, much for being here.

Michael: Always a pleasure.

Ryan: And until we meet again with another amazing TBR episode, I’m your host, Ryan Davies. Thanks, take care everybody.

About Our Host and Guest

Director of Marketing – Ekwa.Tech & Ekwa Marketing
Read More

“No, you actually run a team, and you do organization, and you do motivation. And if you can break things down to their skills, you can actually then translate them into a whole bunch of other jobs; managers and leaders need to be able to do that. They need to understand the necessary skills. They understand why people are successful, and then you build someone’s career, you give them an opportunity; man, they are loyal. They’re like, I never would have known. I’d be great at this if it weren’t for you, and then you know what? They stick around.”

– Michael Simpson –