How to Define and Drive an Intentional Culture

How to Define and Drive an Intentional Culture

David Friedman recently spoke to my Vistage peer groups about the most practical and effective way to embed culture in a company that I had ever heard.

David started by asking my members how important each of their own cultures were from a scale of 1 to 5. Most answered a 5. While most indicated that they had sales and financial plans, however, only a few had a written culture statement. Isn’t it curious that something so critical to a successful business doesn’t have a plan?

So why don’t most companies have a systematic plan for driving their culture? In many cases, leaders simply have never thought about it. They understand how important culture is, but they assume that culture just “sort of happens.” It never occurred to them that they needed to formally define it and most importantly, “institutionalize” it.

Other leaders may recognize the need to define their company’s culture, but they find it difficult to actually measure or put into words. Other areas of business, like sales or finance, are much more concrete and quantifiable, so these areas are far easier to sink their teeth into. Culture so often feels “squishy” and intangible, yet it clearly has a significant impact on the bottom line.

Can you systematically define and then, embed your culture deeply into every employee? Friedman says yes, and he offers the following 8-step framework to do so:


The first steps are the most critical and are in the center of the diagram.

#1 – Define your culture in terms of behaviors or Fundamentals.

Each Fundamental should have a title and a brief description that explains the expected behavior a little more fully. Examples of titles might be “Honor commitments” or “Be a fanatic about response time” or “Do it right the first time.” It’s always best to make the title an action rather than a concept. For example, rather than saying “Urgency,” it’s better to write, “Work with a sense of urgency.” It’s simply a more compelling statement when written as an action. It’s not just an idea; it’s a call to action or an instruction to do something.

The brief description should answer the question, “What do you want your people to do?” Often I see people describe their beliefs or their philosophy about the behavior, but they don’t really explain what to do. A good description for “Honor commitments” might look like this:

HONOR COMMITMENTS. Do what you say you’re going to do, when you say you’re going to do it. This includes being on time for all phone calls, appointments, meetings, and promises. If a commitment can’t be fulfilled, notify others early and agree on a new timeframe to be honored.

This is a pretty clear description of what we mean by honoring commitments. Notice how much more useful this is than simply stating a value like “Commitment.”

#2 – Ritualize and Institutionalize Your Culture


A “ritual” is some pattern of behavior that we do over and over again until it becomes virtually automatic. It becomes “just the way we do things.” A habit is another word for ritual in this context. A ritual can be anything from the morning routine we have for brushing our teeth to the way we drive to work each day to the National Anthem being played before the start of every professional sporting event.

The reason that rituals are so important to success is that most of us are not hard-wired to be good at sticking with things. We tend to have short attention spans, we got bored and distracted easily, and we struggle with doing the same thing over and over again. Very few people have the internal motivation and discipline to do what’s necessary to achieve success day in and day out.

Rituals make things automatic.

Rituals, though, enable us to stay on the plan, even after our motivation and discipline have waned. Most of us don’t struggle to brush our teeth every morning. We just have a non-thinking automatic habit or routine. If you want to exercise every day, it’s far easier if you create a ritual of meeting some friends at the gym every day at the same time. It just becomes your routine and becomes almost second nature.

Creating a high performing culture is nothing more than getting your people to adopt and internalize the key behaviors that most drive success in your organization.  The only way you’ll get them to internalize those behaviors is by teaching them over and over again. The rituals make the teaching automatic and self-sustaining. And this, in fact, is the key to sustainability. It’s what enables our effort to last for the next 10 or 20 years, instead of the next 10 or 20 days.

In addition to these first two steps, David offers these remaining steps as incremental to embed and reinforce your culture:

  1. Selecting the right people.
  2. Integrating new employees effectively.
  3. Communicating the culture throughout the organization.
  4. Reinforce through coaching.
  5. Lead by example!
  6. Drive through accountability.

If you would you like to know more about defining your own company’s culture, stay tuned, please see his book, Fundamentally Different. And, I’m happy to announce that David will be a guest blogger for me and will be sharing more of his insight here.

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