Lorenzo Agnes: Culture as a person

Lorenzo Agnes: Culture as a person

Minutes before his presentation, the organizational culturist Lorenzo Agnes answered a few brief questions that help us understand better what a healthy work culture looks like, what the main cultural challenges ahead of big organizations are, and how to deal with them. 

0:00 – 0:04

Misho: So, Lorenzo, welcome!

0:04 – 0:05

Lorenzo: Thank you!

0:05 – 0:13

Misho: Guys, this is Lorenzo, a good friend of mine. I was going to say an old friend of mine, but out of us two, there is only one old person. So, welcome to Bulgaria!

0:13 – 0:15

Lorenzo: Thank you, great to be here!

0:16 – 0:23

Misho: I wanna ask you so many things, we are here in the Leanplum office, which they very generously opened for us.

0:23 – 0:24

Lorenzo: Beautiful place!

0:24 – 0:35

Misho: I just wanted to chat a little bit before the event that’s coming tonight.  You’ve been doing very very interesting things in the field of organizational culture in the past, what, a decade?

0:35 – 0:37

Lorenzo: Yes, in fact, 12 years.

0:38 – 1:02

Misho: When you read business anthropology and culture theory. Culture sounds something very very complicated. And probably it is, to an extent. But on the other hand, here you are and you come and very very lightly, not in a bad way, but with your typical smile and you just say “culture is a person”. How does that work?

1:03 – 2:56

Lorenzo: Partly because culture is often treated as something very complex and multilayered it’s so hard for a typical employee, let alone the leadership team or the employer, to wrap their heads around what culture is. First of all, what it is, secondly how it works, and thirdly how you implemented it in such a way that is meaningful, that’s doable, that’s practical, that’s memorable – that people don’t just forget from one week to the next. And because I’ve lived in different parts of the world and worked in several industries, that occurred to me a few years ago, that the one common denominator with all “culture is people”. And this thought came to me one day, if I may say this – in the shower, where I get most of my inspiration truly, that culture is like a person. And it’s this simple in the sense that every person is made up of two parts – your personhood, which is your inner truth, your value system, and your personality, which is an expression of your inner truth. And then of course who can’t relate to the idea of a person and when I tried it on some of my friends and they let me test on their companies, the first thing I notice is that everybody got it right away. There wasn’t a thick manual that you had to learn, all sorts of new rules and whatever. It is like “I get that, of course, that’s me”. And so I just started asking the question “If your company was a person, tell me about this person? How do they think, how do they feel, how do they act?” And out of that I just developed a philosophy, and then a practice – a very practical implementation. All of it is based on this root idea that is – every single person is unique so every company culture is.

2:56 – 3:20

Misho: How do you overcome, do you need to overcome the fact that culture or organizational culture is actually formed by a lot of people? So it’s the product of the interactions of a lot of people and they’re very different. So how does that become a one personal experience? 

3:20 – 5:36

Lorenzo: You know, the easiest way or let’s say, that’s not true – the most powerful way and in that sense, the simplest way is that whoever is the true leader in the company, sometimes it’s not the CEO, it’s the CFO, CTO or somebody else on the second level of management or maybe it’s a group of people. But what you want to do is get that key influencer to believe in the value of culture, the need for it, the importance of it. Because those of us working in the business world know you can have the best product in the world but if your culture sucks at some point the house is gonna come falling down. You could have a mediocre product, but if your culture is great, your company can flourish. So the key is that the leader or the second in the leadership team sees the need for it, believes the need for it, and then commits to, this is the answer to your question, investing in somebody literally a person, whose job is to be the chief culture officer. Give them money, give them time. I always say: even if you have a good culture and you wanna improve it you need at least twelve months, ideally you need about 20, you’ll know within 24 months if what you’re trying is working or not. So that person needs to know that they have the full support of the leadership and they’ve been given resources and then they come up with the plan.I spend at least six months with any company at all levels of the company, speaking to everybody and gathering an understanding of what’s good about the culture and what’s broken. So when you introduce a new culture, what you wanna find out is – well who is the person that’s there? If they’re a broken person, you either have to fix them or you have to say: we basically discarded you and we’re gonna design a new person from scratch, so to speak. You come up with that plan and if you’re willing to entrust somebody to do that, that’s how you’re gonna get the result. You cannot design culture by a committee, that I guarantee you. It will not work.

5:36 – 5:57

Misho: If it is just a single person you can discard the person, you can try and make a new person. But if you have 30% of your workforce that exhibit the behaviors and the values of the broken person, how do you get rid of that?

5:57 – 6:49

Lorenzo: OK, I understand. So what I would do as a culturalist is once I’ve got that permission authority and some resources because you are gonna need to make changes. By the way, the goal is not a good culture, that’s not enough. The goal is a healthy culture. Like as a person, whether you’re good at your job or bad at your job whatever, you want to be a healthy person. Because when you’re healthy… I like to say “good culture facilitates great choices”, but to be a good culture you have to be healthy. So back to the idea of personhood and personality – the first thing I would start with these values. You go on a discovery, it is a journey of discovery, you would work with a few key people who are truly the soul and heart of the company, you come up with values. I would never have more than four and the reason is…

6:50 – 6:52

Misho: Are these the existing values?

6:52 – 8:20

Lorenzo: It depends if you have a culture that’s not working, I guarantee you that one of the main reasons is that you’ve got the wrong values, that you don’t have great value. Because if you have good values that are actually being built upon, you would have good culture. The key like the person, let’s say somebody outwardly if we use the analogy of a person in terms of their personality, might be pleasant. You meet them, they’re funny, they’re clever, they whatever. But as you get to know them – the inner truth, their personhood is rotten. At some point, you’re gonna go: “he’s a liar, she’s a crook. I want nothing to do with this person, you know”. But the opposite could be true – if somebody has good solid personhood and maybe their personality is a little bit quiet, a bit shy or whatever, it’s easier to help somebody more fully express their personality than it is to change their personhood. So you wanna hire somebody, give them the authority and the resources they need. And then the first thing I did and always do as a culturalist is find culture collaborators. I build my culture team and it has nothing to do with title – seniority, longevity. You find there are people who come to work for the culture, not for the product. More often than not they don’t know that they are that person but you’ll recognize them right away.

8:20 – 8:21

Misho: How?

8:22 – 9:52

Lorenzo: By the fact that they do live out the values. Usually, they care more about the people than the processes or the products that the company produces. So when you’re having private conversations with them they’ll tell you stories of where their heart is broken because so and so lost their father, let’s say, this has happened too many times to count, a family member is sick and the company wouldn’t give one of the team members extra time off to visit their father in the hospital. And they just can’t move beyond that. The opposite is true – their family member was sick and the CEO said: “Take as much time as you need. You know your job will still be here”. Oh I  will do anything for that company. And they become a mouthpiece. They start sharing with their own family at home and around the company. If they meet new people at the lunch table the first story they tell is that story and the new person’s like: “Wow, this is the caring company”. So that’s how you find these people and then you connect them and even if they distribute it. And I’ve done this with… I did some work with Zerox where they had a very distributed team all over the States and so just through improving their communications, which was the real issue… And like in real life as human beings, you’re a married man, I’m a married man, if there’s poor communication everything else fails, right? So either person comes up with the plan, let him do it. And you have to give the person freedom and trust them that they really know what they’re doing.

9:52 – 9:58

Misho: So what happens with those who resist? There will be resisters – people who are like: “no”…

9:58 – 10:03

Lorenzo: So my answer is this… Can I just be blunt?

10:03 – 10:04

Misho: Please, do so!

10:05 – 10:45

Lorenzo: OK! I’ve found that there are people who resist for different reasons. If they resist because they don’t understand, it requires better communication from my side. If they resist because they have long-standing issues with their boss or even with the C-Suite in the company and they just bit and twisted, that person has to go, you know, it’s it’s a mistake to just shift into somewhere else in the company because that poisons just gonna go to corner B instead of corner A. Typically I found probably, If I’m to give it a number, 60% of people who resist at first, they don’t even really know what they’re doing, they just used to the old way.

10:45 – 10:47

Misho: OK, so they’re more afraid of change and they don’t want to…

10:47 – 11:32

Lorenzo: Correct! Then the approach is everything. So as a culturalist remember your motivation has to be: “Two years from now we want this person…”. I call it Bobby because it could be male or female, this culture person Bobby, sorry I should have said that upfront. “This healthy culture, this person that we’ve designed together”, and we can talk about how to do that very practically, “2 years from now we wanna look back and go: Bobby is such a wonderful person, right. I’m happy to do whatever Bobby asks of me”. So if people are… I would say there’s a difference between people who resist and people who are rebels. People who are rebels have an agenda…

11:32 – 11:33

Misho: They’re destructive…

11:33 – 12:54 

Lorenzo: “We’re gonna tear this thing down, this will never work, we’ve tried this before, etc.” People who resist because they’re afraid of change, you come alongside… you know, you are dealing with people and as you would with people, you come alongside them caringly. Part of the culture creation matrix – there are six different steps to do it, that’s a lot. Step number one is communication. So I find, often the biggest issue by far is that communication from the top down is terrible or non-existent, or it’s sparatic. So imagine in every relationship or friendship, if you are hardly ever speaking and it’s bits and pieces and there’s misunderstanding you’re not going to build anything. And then however there is always the flip side of the coin, there are people who are waiting, there are people who are ready, those culture collaborators… It’s like: I was born to do this. And like any true shift in any organization, whether it’s a soccer team or you know a software business you don’t need a lot of people, you just need the right people. The real magic is finding the right person to hire as your culturalist. That person’s real magic is finding the culture creators within that company.

12:54 – 13:09

Misho: So you would rather focus on those who are willing to cooperate and you would make a strategy for those who resist, but your main focus would not be trying to convert those who are resisting.

13:09 – 13:13

Lorenzo: That’s beautifully put. I’m gonna steal that with your permission, I’ll credit you but I’m gonna use that…

13:13 – 13:15

Misho: Yeah, you don’t need to credit me.

13:16 – 14:23

Lorenzo: But that’s perfectly put, yes.Sorry, can I just say – the mounted energy it takes to try to convert the naysayers is not worth it because what you’re wanting to build like in any healthy community is momentum, that’s the source. You know, any company, once you’ve got momentum it’s so much easier to make a change. But again the change – it can’t just be about we’re doing this because we want to improve our numbers or because we wanna improve our product. We’re doing this because we want a healthy company that grows by itself like any healthy person or plant or animal. That’s the goal and that’s the momentum is the growth when it just starts multiplying by itself. Because remember any new person that comes in they’re coming into a healthier company. For them – “oh, this is normal”. Well of course they’re gonna give their best, you know. And what – 50% of the time, I think is probably more, they’re probably coming from a company that didn’t have great culture. So you don’t have to do a lot of work with them, they are on board right away.

14:25 – 15:18

Misho: OK, perfect! My final question, because, obviously there is an event coming in like, what an hour and you’re gonna present all of that and of course we’re gonna film it, we’re gonna share it with you guys. But my final question is – what happens if the senior management, the C-Suite, whatever the case may be, verbally says that they want culture that’s healthy, they want Bobby. And they even hire the person and then they give him or her the resources that are needed. But then on the level of practical implementation of that they don’t sort of corporate. They’re like: “Yeah, you changed the culture…”

15:19 – 17:45

Lorenzo: It can’t work. I’ll tell you why – because there’s a culture killer app that I came across that I use in in every setting. It’s magic, it’s really is phenomenal. What it does is place everybody in an equal playing field, it brings true equal value, not equal responsibilities, of course not, but equal value where everybody… And I kind of stumbled into this and now I just use that every time, I’m gonna talk about that today, because it’s literally guaranteed to work. Here’s the problem when that happens, you know… And by the way, in any leadership team there will always be some percentage of the leadership team even the C-Suite who is enthusiastic when they’re started or they say yes because the CEO did. And then what happens – some of the people in the team become better for culture than they do and they feel threatened etc., etc. That’s why the first thing I would do, I always do, is sit for literally like weeks with the senior leadership team, walking through the whole… they know the whole plan before anything is said to the rest of the company. And I learned after doing this the third time that if the majority of them are not bought in, but even if the CEO’s bought in and let’s say thumbs up the CFO is not completely. I privately will say to the CEO, because I meet with them individually: “Hey listen, Frank isn’t completely… or Susie isn’t completely bought in. You need to work with them, because the day is gonna come that the other people under them and the team that reports to them who has bought in, is gonna start losing respect for them and they’re gonna go ballistic.” Let’s say if I met with the team and after three or four sessions there were ten people and four of them said: “No, I don’t… I’ve been in other companies, this never works… I don’t believe in this…”. I would literally decline the engagements, I would say no. Because you’re gonna waste your time and money, I’m gonna waste my time. And by the way, the people who are already discouraged in your company, who desperately need hope they’re gonna have even less… you will have an exodus of people. Because you know when a company says: “Great, we’re spending the money, we’re getting somebody to improve our culture” And that leadership doesn’t do it, you will lose people and growth.

17:45 – 18:11

Misho: Very good! Thank you so much my friend, such a pleasant conversation. We’re gonna give you an hour of break before the event. And guys you can check out the other post or video after the event with Lorenzo’s presentation – just the story of how he transformed several companies using his approach – “culture as a person”. Thank you very much for watching!

18:11 – 18:13 

Lorenzo: Thank you!