Whether it’s disaster recovery, succession planning, on-boarding, or the tactical operations of a company, executive coach Paul Mulner is the individual to turn to. His expertise in a variety of areas has allowed him to pick up on one common thread running through out it all, company culture. For Paul, enabling organizational success, no matter the area, all ties back to culture. In fact, the tactical challenge or roadblock your organization is facing now, is likely related to culture, indirectly, directly, or both. Take an in-depth look at how culture flows throughout your organization and affects every level of its operations in this episode of the Epic Company Culture Podcast.
Business Transformation Consultant
A sales and organizational development consultant with expertise in planning and leading cross-functional business operations and technology initiatives. His unique approach blends people and culture with the pursuit of business outcomes that reward all stakeholders, not just shareholders. An experienced organizational leader, he excels at working with other leaders to identify needs, facilitate sound strategic decisions around those needs, and drive successful implementations.
Paul has led a broad array of projects in operations, sales and marketing, and organizational development. The focus in every case was measurable outcomes, aligned with strategic goals, that improve employee and client engagement. This approach succeeded in a variety of industries: finance, services, technology, and non-profit.
A consultation that brings Paul’s experience in leading a broad array of projects in operations, sales and marketing, and organizational development to help his client’s organizations. Together Decide focus on measurable outcomes, aligned with strategic goals, that improve employee and client engagement.
Decide’s approach to business is guided by two convictions:
1. The most important thing leaders do for their organization is to make good decisions. Good decisions are those which consider all stakeholders (employees, clients, vendor partners, and shareholders), prioritize long-term outcomes, and are consistent with core values. This requires a learned, systematic, and consistent approach, which instills confidence in the decision-maker and across the whole organization.
2. An organization’s people and its bottom line are not enemies. Successful companies achieve their business and financial goals while prioritizing their people, not at their expense. This creates organizational health. We measure and understand organizational health as we do any other investment in the business: by using metrics to inform our decisions to quit what has not worked and to reinforce what is successful. We always remember that where there is no margin, there is no mission.
From the Podcast Booth:
Series Quick Links
Speaker 1: Welcome to the Epic Company Culture podcast where your host, Josh Sweeney, will give you, the business leaders, HR professionals and company culture aficionados the knowledge you need to take your company culture to the next level.
Josh Sweeney: Hello fellow Culturists and welcome to The Epic Company Culture Podcast. Before I get started I’d like to thank Prototype Prime for this amazing podcasting space. Today our series, our episode, is all about culture experts. It’s from a culture expert, Paul Mulner with Decide. Thank you for joining us.
Paul Mulner: Thanks for having me, Josh. Good to be here.
Series: Culture Experts
Josh Sweeney: It’s good to have you. So tell us a little bit about yourself and Decide.
Paul Mulner: Yeah, so, I am a one-man shop in Decide, and executive consultant, who does tactically projects around everything. From disaster recovery plans to executive succession plans, onboarding, things like that. But all the tactical projects get wrapped up in strategic cultural projects. So I do a lot of time in executive coaching, a lot of time with leadership team off-sites. Because the goal is to help companies figure out ways to structure their own company so that all these tactical projects are successful. To get the right people on the boat, the right people in the right seats. Get people excited about their jobs, engage them in what their company’s doing, and that way when we need to run tactical projects, we got a lot of great raw materials to work with.
Josh Sweeney: Got it. Well, when I first hear DR, Disaster Recovery, succession planning, and then executive coaching, at first they don’t sound like they go together. But the way that you wrapped it up, it all makes sense. If a disaster does happen, you need to have a succession plan. You need to know who’s going to be in charge for whatever types of disaster that is, I guess, or somebody’s not around, or available, or all kinds of scenarios. And that disaster could be, unfortunately, the loss of an executive, all the way to a major business issue, I’m sure. Like an oil spill or whatever other disaster they could run into.
Paul Mulner: Well, a lot of it comes down to … you know, I’m a consultant, and so you end up working with companies that are willing to work with consultants. So they bring in a lot of different types of consultants. And part of it is making sure that their company is strong enough, that their culture is clear enough, that they can be successful when any type of consultant comes in. Whether it’s around technology, or HR, or legal, or anything else. You’ve gotta have a certain amount of organizational effectiveness already in place to get your money’s worth out of a consultant. And so a fair amount of what I do is just helping companies realize what’s necessary to be successful in those things. And so I end up getting pulled in on all sorts of projects, just to help the project run in a healthy way. So we get a good outcome.
Trust and Transparency
Josh Sweeney: What are some of the challenges you often have to overcome on a project that’s maybe not going as healthily as they would like?
Paul Mulner: Trust. I think in most underperforming organizations, and most underperforming parts of most organizations, trust is one of the main issues. If everybody on board doesn’t believe that everybody else, or that the consultant that comes in, or that the executives, really have the best interests of the organization and all of its parts at heart, they don’t give good ideas. They’re not willing to debate, or to receive feedback. They’re not willing to take help in areas that are weaknesses for them. So whenever you lack trust, you lack transparency, and whenever you lack transparency, you just create a whole lot of problems for getting stuff done right.
Trust: Individual Level
Josh Sweeney: What are some of the ways that you like to flip over to solving those? Is it individual coaching with different people? Is it exercises that will help build trust? What are some ways that you address it?
Paul Mulner: Yeah, it is more on the individual level. A lot of what I do, no matter what sort of project it starts out as, it ends up with a lot of manager training. Because we all know the statistics; the number one reason people leave their job is dissatisfaction with their front-line manager. And if you can have a great front-line manager, you can get happy, engaged, productive employees and get your best work out of ’em.
So for building trust, a lot of it comes down to: do they trust their manager? If you think about it, their manager is the face of the executives for them, it’s the face of the company culture. If the manager is bringing in new employees, or bringing in consultants, if you don’t trust that manager, you see all of that through a negative lens and a negative filter.
So I’m a big believer in one-on-one’s or one-to-one’s meetings with managers and their direct reports every month, intentionally focused. Not quite scripted, but definitely structured, and well-prepared, and planned-for. And the more I can sell managers on that, and coach them to do those effectively, the more the rest of those dominoes fall.
The Filter of Ignorance
Josh Sweeney: Yeah, I totally get the trust angle. And the challenge there! Because we do less of the one-on-one and more of the team building, or team trust and communication workshops where when we do the personality assessments we get everybody in a room and what we realize is, this person doesn’t not like me. That’s just a trait of their personality. This person’s not lazy, they’re more methodical; they think about it further, right? I’m sure you get some laziness, you get all kinds of factors, but when you look at it and say “hey, this is how this person operates”, then you don’t personalize it so much. You don’t think they’re against you, which helps build that trust.
Paul Mulner: And that data is tremendously helpful because … I said before, people look through a lens or through a filter, and if that filter is ignorance, then they can choose to have it be a negative or a positive filter kind of just based on whether they’re an optimist or a pessimist. Or whether their first interaction with the person was positive or negative. But when you’re able to show somebody, I do that a lot in manager training: let’s look at your direct reports. Let’s look at how they communicate. What are their communication styles? What are the ways that they make decisions? Receive information? Process information? What’s the type of affirmation that they’re looking for?
Sense of Us
Then you can take something that somebody does that you said, oh, well they do this because they’re a bad person or they’re lazy and you find out, no! You know what? They just are a little bit more considered with their words than I am. The first idea that pops in their head. So whether you do it as groups, which I think is really valuable to help people have that sense of team, and that sense of us, or, I don’t even want to say “or”, and you add to that, doing it as individuals, especially with managers coaching their employees, I think you can really help build trust. Just by helping people see through a different lens.
Breaking Through the Glass Ceiling
Josh Sweeney: And I’m assuming with the executive coaching, a lot of the challenge is changing the lens for them, right? Helping them see it through a different lens. Because I’ve worked with a lot of executives, a lot of friends that are executives, and founders, entrepreneurs, things like that, and when they’ve been doing it the same way for many years and something shifts, it’s really hard to make a change. So what are you seeing as one of the bigger challenges in helping them make that shift?
Paul Mulner: It’s their own success. Which makes perfect sense. I mean, most of the people who become executives didn’t get there because they’re stupid and lazy and don’t know what they’re doing, right? So the things that they’ve done do work, and they were successful, and they are smart, and they know their own business! And in some ways, they knew the business up until that point better than anyone else did. But as businesses grow and as they scale and you break through the glass ceilings, the one and the ten and the twenty-five and the one twenty-five million revenue, or the biggest one I see is with employees. When companies hit that fifty employee glass ceiling and need to get through that. It changes everything. For how you structure, for what leadership looks like, and management; what types of decisions you should be involved in, and not.
Building the Organizational Structure
So a lot of my work with executives is with founder executives, CEOs, or maybe they were the first COO that was ever brought on, and they put the company on their back and got it to where it is. And so they should be commended for that, and they’ve done a great job, but that success is what tricks them into thinking their way is what’s going to get them over the next ceiling. And it so rarely is. What got you here is not the thing that’s going to get you to the next level.
And so there’s a way of coaching those folks, and working with them, that doesn’t diminish the value that they bring to the organization which is still great, but also still helps them see some of the ways that they’re now what’s holding the company back. And the ideal scenario is that if you can get engaged and help them early enough, it’s not a situation where they have to leave in order for the company to be successful. They can be a part of building the next organizational structure, the next set of processes and procedures that will be successful. But you gotta persuade them that that’s not marginalizing them, it’s not diminishing their experience, but it’s actually using that as building blocks for what’s going to come next.
Let ’em run free
Josh Sweeney: Yeah, and I know one of your presentations that you mentioned to me was the problem with the Business As You, and I definitely understand that, right? And you’re talking about what got me here, won’t get you there, what got you here won’t get you there, I mean, that’s almost a mantra for me because I want to build a lot bigger company than my last company that I grew and sold. And I tell people that all the time! I’m like, “hey, here’s what I need to happen”. Because what I already know isn’t going to get me to the new goal. So how do I bridge that gap.
In your conversations with people around that, around the business challenges you, how do you breach that topic?
Paul Mulner: It’s tough.
Josh Sweeney: That’s a tough one! To tell them, hey, it’s you, you’re the challenge.
Paul Mulner: Yeah, it’s tough.
Josh Sweeney: What does that look like?
Paul Mulner: You know, when I do that talk it really focuses in on two different problems. One is the one I just mentioned, which is a lot of times the founder themself is the one that’s kinda standing in the way. And there it’s just, it’s an exercise in their own humility. In saying, hey, I’m an outsider, I don’t really have any skin in this game, except to give you an honest opinion of what I see. You’ve done a great job of bringing around a really competent team; you’ve surrounded yourself with A-players. But you’re not getting the best work out of these folks because you’re the one holding them back. And so let’s figure out a structure where you don’t feel like you’re totally giving up control, but where these folks, I mean, you’ve brought thoroughbreds and you’re holding them back! Let’s let ’em run free. So a lot of times if you approach it with more optimism than just “hey, you’re killing your company and you’re going to die”, you get more response from executives that way.
Humility for Themselves
The other part of that talk, though, and something I see just as often unfortunately is the CEO, or the founder of the company knows that’s the issue, but it’s not with them, it’s with one of their rockstar performers. It’s with one of the initial three, four, five employees. Maybe it’s that first COO, or maybe it was the rockstar sales lead, that now, that person’s heroic mentality, which sounds like such a good thing … heroic mentalities are not a great thing when your company needs to scale. And when you need repeatable processes. And when … people need to be able to take vacations! And have a nice life. And enjoy their time off. So that part of the conversation can actually be harder because then you’re talking to the COO, or CEO, not about having humility for themselves, but about having the courage to go to that rockstar performer who got us here and to say “hey, I love you, you’ve done an amazing job, but now you’re holding us back, you’re the problem”.
And frankly that’s harder to do than the first kind. I have a higher success rate of getting founders to recognize, “you know what, I’ve got to change my role and my approach to this to be successful” than I’ve had with founders saying to someone that’s become one of their best friends over the last ten years building this company, “hey, I love what you’re doing, and I love you, but we’ve got to change this”. It’s just tougher.
Humility: Personal Maturity
Josh Sweeney: Yeah, definitely. I think there’s a Horowitz book on … and he mentions some of the same things, where it’s like they had a major shift, they had a major growth, and the person who was in that position, that went on that journey with you, is really good. If you want to go start another business and go from one to fifty million, you need that person again. But now at this point and where you are, you need a different type of person. You need a different type of personality, you need a different type of experience. It’s kind of run its course. And I’m sure that’s a challenge to have to talk to somebody about that who’s been there with you the whole ride.
Paul Mulner: It is. And it takes a lot of humility and personal maturity to have somebody talk you through that. And be persuaded. Because I’ve approached it even with a data mindset, the way you guys do with assessments and saying, look, this is the way you’re wired. And so it makes sense! That you would be more successful in this environment than that one. But everything about their experience says, this company is successful because of me. And there’s no caveats on that. There’s no footnotes! And so when you tell them, now, I’m saying this company can’t be successful because of you, that’s just a really hard thing for people to receive.
Culture Focused Company Culture
Josh Sweeney: Yeah, especially after a decade or two worth of work.
Paul Mulner: Yep.
Josh Sweeney: Yeah, most definitely. So, let’s go back and just, I guess, review some of your prior organization, or your prior experience. What was a company culture that really resonated with you in the past, something about it that you really loved?
Paul Mulner: So the company that I worked for most recently before I went out on my own, I was with about five years, until we sold the company to a larger telecom company in North Carolina. And that company had existed for about 12 years before I ever came on board. But it was culture-focused from day one. I mean, they had done everything right before any of us even knew what it was to do things right when it comes to culture. They had built an absolutely incredible company.
So I got the privilege of going into head organizational development for them when they were looking at how to grow and how to scale and get through the next round of glass ceilings. And so that job was incredible, because I got to be the one who documented, who stressed, and pressure tested, who standardized processes and tools, and implemented procedures, around the things they’d already done. Where I said, hey, the raw materials here for how to have an incredible company culture already exist, let’s see how we can formulate those and streamline those into something that will scale. And something that will, maybe even if we do get acquired, inform the parent company! And be valuable to them on a larger scale.
So that was absolutely fantastic. That was a company that from day one had decided that their model of doing business was what they called, Everybody Wins. And “Everybody” means: the employees, the vendor partners. They were a technology solutions provider, so even the vendors we do business with, we’re going to help them win. Of course we’re going to help our clients win, and our shareholders are going to win. And so every decision that was made was filtered through this lens of: does everybody win? Or are we prioritizing one over another for the long-term.
Engaged Work Culture
And so when you have a company like that, and then I come on board, they already had the most engaged workforce I’d ever seen. And so we got to do a lot of really advanced culture things to see, you know companies that are just dabbling their toe in culture aren’t ready for this, but we can figure out what works. We were able to do a lot of A/B testing with different groups of the workforce to figure out what moves the needle. And that was just a ton of fun.
But all of it was because, before I ever arrived, that Everybody Wins mentality meant you had 50 employees who were all-in. All-in in the company’s success, all-in believing that the company was invested in their success, and that is a really fun, sort of Petri dish to work in when you’re in the business that we are.
And that really leads into a broader thing that excites me about what we do and what we’re seeing now, is using more data. Using more metrics. Measuring things to figure out what works and what doesn’t. Instead of just throwing around culture like it’s this nebulous … like, marketing: I’m sure you’ll get a return somewhere! And then, well, why didn’t anybody ever measure that return? And I know now, some people do. But in culture for a long time, nobody ever measured the return. It was all, well, we need to invest some money in team building, we need to invest some money in manager training. And then you’d ask ’em, well, what do you get for that? And you’d just get blank stares.
And so with things like A/B testing, or just measuring in general, knowing what are we trying to accomplish, and how will we know whether or not we accomplished that? What do we have to measure to see whether this initiative succeeded? To know whether we got a good return on this investment? I like seeing more and more of that in our business. I think it gives us more credibility with executives. And it gives us the ability to sell what we do with greater confidence because we can show people the data. Here’s what works! And here’s how we know it works.
Culture and Metrics
Josh Sweeney: Yeah, I feel like, in general, that’s one of our differentiators. There’s a lot of people that talk about culture; some are doing training, some are doing software, engagement, some are doing marketing culture. There’s all different types of ways to do it. And one of the factors just given my software background, and the businesses I’ve been part of before, is we wanted data to be a core piece of this. So we’re always updating the information, and the retention metrics, and all kinds of other information.
And I felt like with some people it’s kind of a surprise. When we talk about culture and metrics. They’re like, I don’t know how those go together. But when we speak to an executive and tell him, look, the two numbers, two of the top numbers we’re looking to impact are your retention rates, because we can tie that to value, and ROI. And then revenue per employee, that’s another one that kind of captures people’s attention because, again, a lot of people do team performance. Like, okay, well how do you measure team performance? Oh, well they’re going to work better together, they’re going to identify better with each other. I’m like, well, to me team performance means … if we’re going to roll it all the way up to its highest point, revenue per employee seems like the easiest way to have an impact.
More Ways to Measure Culture
Now there’s lots of other measurements we sure, and sub-measurements, but we continue to go into more and more ways to measure culture, as do you, to try and show this isn’t just a touchy-feely thing that doesn’t have a return.
We also, in a lot of my presentations, talk about Chick-fil-A. We talk about Chick-fil-A as the culture for the customer, for the employee, for the management, and then I say, well, you can think it’s touchy-feely, and everything that goes into it, but Chick-fil-A per store does four to one revenue against a McDonald’s. On average.
Paul Mulner: In six sevenths of the time open a week.
Customer Acquisition Efforts
Josh Sweeney: Yeah in six sevenths, right! They’re closed on Sunday! I’m like, that’s culture. That’s what we’re looking for, and that’s the way that we want to be able to measure it for an executive team to be able to make a good ROI and expenditure
Paul Mulner: Look at all the great culture companies that are top of mind. Chick-fil-A’s one, Southwest Airlines is another one. Ford is doing amazing things and transforming their culture. All these companies that have huge financial investments in culture, also measure it. They’re not just throwing this money out there to see what sticks.
Invest on the Under-Performers
I see this all the time when I do things like sales force assessments. And just, hey, let’s get the information; a bunch of data on a bunch of different axes, of how you’re sales team, sales management, sales strategies, sales training, all these things, are performing. Let’s see where the gaps are and then we know where we can invest some money to see the highest return on investment to improve our sales force! And you hear so many sales managers just say, “Oh, well, you can’t measure those sorts of things”. Or, I had one a couple weeks ago tell me, “Well our sales are up 30 percent this year”. Great, why? Total silence. Couldn’t tell me why. And you know why. You go in and you do the data and they’ll be a handful of rockstar performers dragging along the rest of the team.
So instead of spending money to give the rockstar performers tools and processes that they don’t need and don’t want and that aren’t going to move the needle, why don’t we figure out whether it’s sales strategy training, sales metrics, sales tools that we need to invest in our under-performers to bring them up. You know, what’s wrong with having data?
Josh Sweeney: Yeah. And it’s interesting ’cause going back to culture, a lot of people want data, they say they use data, but when we actually see how much it gets put together, and how much it gets referenced, the two don’t necessarily jive. What’s being said and what’s being done don’t correlate. I know we did a retention scorecard for a client, it’s like, on the surface, retention rate’s terrible. Oh, but when we dig in to by department, there’s only one department that’s really causing this. Dig in more, okay, well here’s what needs to happen in that department to fix the retention, fix all these other challenges. And, like you said, it’s a really good use of funds to do the analysis up front because instead of throwing it all out there and trying to do one big culture initiative, you know you gotta fix one or two or three areas.
Paul Mulner: And executives are drowning in data right now. I mean, they get so many uncorrelated, disconnected data points with no recommendations. I mean, part of the reason why I named my consultancy Decide is just: Decide! Just do something with the data. Make a decision. Let’s move forward with it. And if we’re not going to make a decision with it, if it’s not going to influence the way we do business, don’t get the data. It’s not going to help you, it’s just going to create hassle.
Company Culture of Trust
But executives have so much data, and so little help internally in how to use that data in ways that drive the company towards success. And bringing that back to culture, if they don’t have a company culture of trust and transparency, then that data’s the enemy. What you’re going to do with that data. People don’t want to give you honest data because they don’t trust what you’re going to do with it.
So that’s why I say, going back to where I started this, I do a lot of tactical projects. None of them are successful if we’re not doing the other more strategic initiatives for how do we have a high-culture, high-trust environment. Because without that, it’s … what’s the Lencioni book? Silos, Politics and Turf Wars, right? That’s what happens in any environment without trust. And then the smallest projects that shouldn’t be that big a deal, that shouldn’t be that difficult to get done, they go sideways! They fail. They get blown up. They take too long, and cost too much money. All because you have an unhealthy environment in which to do those projects.
Josh Sweeney: Yeah, I get the point around the swimming in data, going back to that. Because when I did CRM implementations for nearly a decade, I would always get, “Oh, well, I need this chart”. Okay, well, what are you going to do with that chart? “I just need it”. Well, what decisions are you going to make from it? And I would try to … my goal was to bring them around to a point of saying, if you’re going to put a chart on a dashboard, what’s the action you’re going to take off of that when you see a certain piece of data? Or are you just asking for more data? Because eventually, like you said, you’re swimming in it, you don’t know what to do, as opposed to you see this chart and you say, okay, if this number’s this high, I gotta do this. If this number’s this low, I’ve got to do this. And if it’s in the middle, that’s where I need to be.
Paul Mulner: And getting that data comes with a cost. And I think that’s one of the easy things, I see this a lot of times in organizations, but especially with sales managers, to forget is. If you tell a sales person, I want to start tracking this data so you’ve got to put these 87 things in sales every day. And she was being very successful at her job prior to your intervention; you’ve now added this extra burden. Well, if she’s a high performer, and she sees what you’re going to do with the data, and it’s going to help the company succeed, you’ll get a little grumbling but you’re not going to blow up your organization.
But so many people just say, well, we’ll get the data and we’ll figure out what to do with it later. Forgetting that it comes with a human cost. You’re driving that person’s quality of life down. For reasons that you can’t even explain. And so again you’re just gonna … you’re trading something of known value, of known quantity, this employee’s happiness, their effectiveness, for some ambiguous “yeah, but we’ll have more data and then we’ll do something with it one day”.
So hone in on … there are really key performance metrics for every organization and for every part of the organization. Spend the time figuring out what those are. And then only go get those. And then you solve two problems: you’re not drowning in data, and the data you get’s actionable.
Josh Sweeney: Yeah, definitely. I mean, it sounds like we’ve worked with a number of similarly minded groups of people. In both good and bad ways.
Paul Mulner: Yeah, yeah. I think so. I think organization’s trend very closely to the culture thermostat, I guess? Of their leaders. And the leaders that say, we’re going to be culture first, we’re going to think about employees, we’re going to think holistically. What’s good for the whole, what’s good for the long term. Those clients are a delight to work with. They have engaged, happy workforces. They also have a little less need of me. A little less need of you, right?
Josh Sweeney: Maybe.
Paul Mulner: And clients who … culture was kind of an afterthought for them. And it doesn’t mean it’s too late to catch up. Companies are doing amazing things now and figuring out how to implement these things little by little. And kind of coming after the fact. But it’s not the same experience. There’s not the same caliber of trust within the organization, there’s not the same sense of ownership.
Josh Sweeney: Yeah, there’s a bit of baggage to carry along.
Paul Mulner: Yeah, you hear a lot
Josh Sweeney: At least for a while.
Paul Mulner: In those organizations you hear a lot of “that’s not my job” or you hear a lot of, “well, why do you want to know that?” Just that real distrusting of what we’re going to do. But, you know. It can change.
Culture Experience: Trust
Josh Sweeney: Yeah, so what’s an organization, you don’t have to name names, or what’s an experience that you had that was not a good culture experience? Something that just stands out where you’re like, “I’d never want to work for a company that does that again”. Or just wasn’t a good fit for you?
Paul Mulner: Yeah, certainly one comes to mind that I won’t name names. And I think the two disconnects between what I would expect in a thriving company and what was present in their environment, or two of the things we’ve already tossed around, the first I won’t re-hash, it’s just trust. But especially on their executive team. A real lack of trust among the executives, which meant you couldn’t have honest debate of ideas at the executive level. Which I think is just death to a company. Just because I’m over finance or I’m over IT or I’m over HR … I’m an executive with experience in the business, my input should be valuable as we debate ideas. I’m not going to be right all the time, but I’m going to think about things from ways that you didn’t! And your answer’s going to get better because of what we debate. And if there’s no trust on the executive team, so that people can’t stand having their ideas challenged, or having those, what I think are fun, honest debates of what’s good and bad, and right and wrong, and how should we carry this out … I just think that’s terrible for a company.But I mean, I think that trickles down.
Culture Experience: Authority to be Successful
And the other thing was I mentioned before how important ownership is. And I think in this particular company, a culture of fear had eviscerated any sense of ownership that the employees could have. And so instead of having employees that were willing to take risks, and do great work, they were so afraid of failing. And the consequences for failing, even in insignificant ways, were perceived as so disproportionate. So high. That you just heard a lot of: it’s not worth it. It’s not worth trying that extra thing. It’s not worth going the extra mile. A lot of the clocking out right at 4:30 kind of thing.
And you’d look around and you’d see … they allowed a lot of C-players in their environment. But even the A-players that were there … when you have A-players, they want to do great work. They wanna take risks, they want to do their best. And they’re willing to take responsibility for doing their best. But when an employee is going to take that responsibility, she also has to have the authority to be successful. And in a company like this one, and in other companies I’ve seen, they’re given all this responsibility but they’re not empowered to do anything. They don’t have the authority to make anything successful.
Culture Experience: Decisions
And so then they’re just banging their heads against the walls. Because this tiny little change, this tiny little deviation from the plan that they know if they would do it, it would make the whole project successful, they’re not empowered to do it. And it’s not worth taking the risk because then if it didn’t work out, there’s all this wrath that comes down from above, so. I think just any environment where every single employee is not empowered to make it right, that’s not a place where I want to be.
We used to say at the company I mentioned before, they’ve said this long before I got there, but you put the decision in the hands of the person who’s closest to the decision. So executives make decisions about strategy, and about compensation, because that stuff is, we’re the closest one’s to that. But a decision about what it would take to make this client happy? Or what we need to do to do right by a client on this particular project? That’s not a management decision, that’s not an executive decision, that’s an employee decision. In our work that was an engineer’s decision! Because he knows what we committed to! And he knows what the situation on the ground is. And so you need to free him up to do that.
Any environment that can’t let its employees do that, that’s not a place I’m interested in working.
Josh Sweeney: You got to have a bottlenecks there.
Paul Mulner: Yeah, I think so.
Data and Metrics Driven
Josh Sweeney: Yeah, definitely. So my last question for the day is what are you most looking forward to in company culture, in the space, or for yourself?
Paul Mulner: We’ve already talked about it, I think, it’s … I’m excited to see us become more data driven and more metrics driven within our own business. I’ll tell you what, another one I hadn’t mentioned yet: I am excited in the change that I’m seeing, it’s just starting, in some HR departments. In enterprises. Which is a shift in mentality from HR viewing themselves as existing to protect the company from the employee, and instead starting to think about the role HR can play in driving culture and making this a company that great people want to work for.
Performance Appraisal Initiative
I see it a lot in what will start as a performance review, performance appraisal initiative, whereas it used to be the case where, hey, we’re going to find the best CYA one that we can. That puts enough paperwork in the file that we’re not going to get in trouble for the decisions we make. And I’m seeing more and more HR leaders stand up and say, I’m not worried about that. What if we had a performance appraisal system that managers didn’t hate? And that employees actually derived some value from? And saw that it might help them to develop professionally? And just some of those small changes. But I think over time, if that really takes off, if HR really can transform itself as a service bureau within an organization that employees see as an asset to them, as something that actually helps their job and makes their job better instead of just a arm’s length enemy, or a nuisance, I think that could be really good for the whole business of working on the people in the business.
The companies I see that trouble me the most are the one’s that are dominated by legal and HR, entirely from a risk-aversion standpoint. As if companies make great decisions based on fear. And so we have to avoid as much risk as possible. Rather than, of course there’s a prudent amount of risk analysis, but then it’s just, how do we get great people, how do we retain great people, how do we get them to recruit great people on our behalf? By the way look at how many expensive problems we’ve just solved by having a great company culture. And then how do we get those people to do their best work for our clients? That’s a much better approach, and I think it’ll take legal a while to get there. It’s not really their job, or their thing. But I think HR could get there sooner rather than later. And I’m excited to see that actually happen.
Josh Sweeney: That’s an interesting viewpoint of having them shift because, I mean, I follow a lot of the HR material. And things that they put out and I know there’s definitely HR people out there that are making that shift. But I’ve always seen it as a head of culture, or a culture department, will be the new standard. HR will, for the most part, there may be some shifts one way or another for ten or twenty percent of what they do, and may but I would almost foresee a new department coming in, a company culture department, much like engineering has become a required department for any company nowadays, right? You used to not have a development group in every single organization and now it’s pretty much required.
So I’m interested to see over the next ten years, like does HR shift into culture? Or does culture really end up laying on top of it and aligning with HR so that it becomes the best outcome. Because a lot of it, like you said, it’s a different mindset, right? A protection, protection of the company, and processes, and the legal, and everything else is a completely different mindset than a culture department, a head of culture, and what they’re mandated to do.
Paul Mulner: Yeah, and what concerns me, ’cause I think you’re right. And I think for a lot of companies of a certain size, that will be the right approach. Is to, instead of having HR report, sit at the executive table, there’s a culture office that sits at the executive table. Of which HR is a department.
There’s going to be a lot of companies, though, and ones even that aren’t that small. I mean, I think of clients that I have that are 150 million dollar companies.
Culture Focused HR
Few hundred employees, they don’t have the headcount to have both. And so what they really need is a culture-focused HR department. And if it’s truly about protecting the company from real risk, I don’t want to get rid of that anyway. I think that’s valuable for all of us to have, certainly for shareholders, we want companies to handle that fiduciary responsibility well. But so much of what happens now is just laziness in risk. We’re not protecting ourselves from real risks, we’re saving ourselves what we perceive as a headache from having a meeting to figure out what the risk really is.
And that just requires a mentality shift for the leaders of HR. And I am working with a few organizations, very small sample size, but a few organizations that don’t have that background of culture first that I am starting to see their HR groups make that shift. And it’ll be slow progress, but hopefully steady progress.
Josh Sweeney: Well, I look forward to talking to you maybe ten years from now and see how that fleshed out and how the size difference comes in as a factor.
Paul Mulner: Yeah. Me too. Interesting times ahead, it’ll be fun to see what people do.
Josh Sweeney: Yeah! Well thank you so much for joining us on the podcast!
Paul Mulner: You’re welcome, thanks for having me.
Speaker 1: Thank you for tuning in to today’s episode of the Epic Company Culture podcast with Josh Sweeney. If you enjoyed this content, please subscribe on iTunes, SoundCloud or Stitcher. For additional content and transcripts, visit EpicCulture.co. If you have questions or topics you would like us to address or expand on, tweet us at EpicCulture1 or email at podcast@EpicCulture.co.
Podcast Highlights and Resources
- Whenever you lack trust, you lack transparency, and whenever you lack transparency, you just create a whole lot of problems for getting stuff done right.
- If you don’t trust that manager, you see all of that through a negative lens and a negative filter.
- The more I can sell managers on that, and coach them to do those effectively, the more the rest of those dominoes fall.
- Whether you do it as groups, which I think is really valuable to help people have that sense of team, and that sense of us. I think you can really help build trust. Just by helping people see through a different lens.
- Everybody Wins.
- She also has to have the authority to be successful.
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