top of page

Culturing - Discipline that Creates Healthy Companies

Over the past month I’ve had several conversations with friends on the topic of “culture” in reference to our society and within companies. All the conversations have been different, but very interesting. Most of the conversations revolved around friends looking for their place in how to make cultural change. I don’t feel like a “culture” authority, but they encouraged me to write about my thoughts on the topic.

Before I share my thoughts, I have some caveats:

  1. I’m not going to touch the broader country cultural dynamics, but I can address what I’ve seen within companies where I’ve worked and companies where I have consulted.

  2. I’m not a perfect example of being a catalyst for cultural change. This is as much about my observations of what works and what’s important, as it is about what I’ve actually put into practice.

  3. There are good books on this topic and many recent articles referencing Satya Nadella’s book “Hit Refresh” and his cultural transformation at Microsoft. Check out that book, articles about Satya and other books/authors I write about below.

Take Action

Let me start by sharing something that someone shared with me a long time ago that really changed my perspective about “culture”. Simply, they stated that I should think of “culture” more as a verb than a noun. You hear so many people talk about their corporate culture in a whimsical or mysterious way. It seems ethereal. However, if you look at the term and its origin, it refers to the latin “cultus”, as in “caring for” and French “colere”, as in “to till”. What I loved about this insight is that the etymology promotes ACTION. There is a sense of personal responsibility to take a nurturing action. You are cultivating your environment. Nourish your teams and others around you and occasionally pull some weeds as well.

Breaking it Down

If I were to break down the actions you perform to “culture” your company into some simple categories, they’d be the following:

  1. Create CERTAINTY. This means cultivating a shared identity around a mission people can rally around. There’s not much worse in company than to have employees uncertain of what they are trying to accomplish.

  2. Clearly articulate and LIVE the company STANDARDS. These are memorialized in processes, rules and both formal and informal communications. All shared experiences, ideally, would uphold the standards. Social interaction is what makes a standard real.

  3. Exhibit and encourage HABITS and behaviors that support #1 and #2. Encourage customs.

  4. Failures are incredible learning opportunities, but ACHIEVEMENTS are what people wear around like badges. Win. Build upon wins. Memorialize wins as what you do. Be proud of achievements. Represent achievements and the people that made them possible with veracity. Leave something really impactful behind.

Healthy Cultures

The four categories above do not guarantee a healthy company, though. You could execute within each of the categories above and could still be cultivating toxicity within your company. What if…

  • everyone is rallying around you, but you can't describe the mission in a way that allows your team to take action?

  • everyone is upholding the company standard, but the standard is rigid and stifles creativity?

  • everyone is following your lead with their behaviors, but the behaviors isolate instead of foster collaboration?

  • you win at all costs, but you sacrifice your future and arrogance rules the day?

That is, of course, not what we have in mind related to “culture”. You’ve heard of cultures being toxic or sick. What, then, is “Healthy”?

Here are four healthy culturing characteristics I’ve observed:


Everyone wants to know their individual impact on the bigger mission. Progress is made with simple and personal actions. I love following Jocko Willink, and he was influenced greatly by Colonel David H. Hackworth and his book, “About Face”. When Hackworth inherited the 4th Battalion, 39th Infantry in Vietnam, they were "not even a military organization". They had zero enemy KIA and zero wounded or captured, but had personally sustained 14 KIA and 480+ wounded. One of the first things Colonel Hackworth did was to modify little daily disciplines. Thousands of changes were needed, but he started with five changes a day. Yes, some comforts had to be given up, but he knew when to not push too far or too hard. He was still caring for his people. He put in place leaders who did the same. He gave his people an identity that was rooted in discipline and winning. Simple daily disciplines can turn into big movements.

I like the way Eric Greitens put it in his book, “Resilience”,

“…a mantra does more good than a manifesto.”

Give people a sense that they are in charge of their destiny every day. This additionally aligns with self-determination theory. Sebastian Junger writes in “Tribe” about the impact this has on personal well-being,

“When people are actively engaged in a cause, their lives have more purpose…with a resulting improvement in mental health.”

Also, don’t get caught in the trap of thinking that technology can sustain culture. At best, technology can reinforce your standards, but it’s the daily simple disciplines displayed through social interactions that make a standard real.

Practice HUMILITY.

You're reading this article. You're an information seeker. You recognize the value continuously learning and adapting. Your recognition that you can be better is important for your evolution. It's important for your company as well. The nagging feeling that you can be better has to be pervasive throughout your company or you will stagnate. Working in a place of continuous learning with humble regard toward one's coworker is a wonderful environment. One of my favorite quotes, that I believe is attributed to Charlie Munger, is

“Acquiring wisdom is a moral duty.”

Another humble quote along those same lines, is from the stoic Epictetus,

“It is impossible for a man to learn what he thinks he already knows.”

Whatever chord these quotes strike within me, is likely the same thing that draws me toward Bayesian ways of thinking. Seek more evidence. Seek more information. Adjust your path. To do this properly, you must be open to testing hypothesis often. Banish things that are unfalsifiable. Encourage healthy and polite reciprocal criticism (something that is hard to find in our country’s culture at this time.) Make critical note of your achievements and analyze failures. Listen to your customers. Understand their pain. Take notice of their calamities and those of your competitors.


I’ve witnessed again and again how hiring managers try to hire their facsimile. I have fallen into this same trap in my past as well. This behavior will crush the innovation of a company and will destroy the generalization of its products.

If you go back to the comment above regarding my predilection for Bayesian ways of thinking and dig into that concept, you’d find that when it comes to algorithms, the most diverse training data sets produce the best generalization. We see this on display in any machine learning application. Likewise, a diverse set of employees brings with them their own personal range of “life cases”, filled with stories and philosophies. Your company has the privilege to learn from them. Drawing from these stories, you can make better predictions. A lack of diversity increases bias and bias reduces generalization (i.e. potential).

When hiring, draw from different social and economic backgrounds. Look for insight from young and old alike. Search for different ethnicities. Discover people from different geographies or who travel. This will constantly give you a perspective of the outsider. It is always the outsider that disrupts.



One of the biggest mistakes I’ve seen companies make, who have had long histories of organic and inorganic growth, is to discard the past in favor of the new. "This new bright and shiny thing, must be our beacon toward the future!!" Your past (even near past), however, is critical for understanding the present and making predictions about the future.

For those engineers that have worked with me in the past, they would be familiar with my admiration for James Burke’s philosophy of technological achievements over the centuries. You might be familiar with Burke from the Connections TV series and all of its derivations. He asserts that no technology development can be looked at in isolation. It is the interplay of seemingly disparate activities coming together in novel ways over time that drive advancement. In other writing I have come across, there is an additional assertion that the number of seemingly disconnected things being brought together from a greater variety of domains, the more novel, innovative and impactful is the change.

This all aligns with the Diversity characteristic discussed above. Design spaces for connections to be made. Design spaces where diversity, in all forms, can mingle. Design spaces where the new and old can collide and build on each other. Things won’t be boring. Your company will not become stale.


The topic of “culture” fills volumes. The thoughts I've shared above are just the themes I continually come back to in conversations. There is much more that can be discussed. As a leader, I find it helpful to continually check myself against these concepts though.

To summarize my modest thoughts on Culture:

  • Think of “culture” as a verb. Take ACTION.

  • Create CERTAINTY.

  • LIVE the company STANDARDS.

  • Exhibit and encourage HABITS.

  • Memorialize ACHIEVEMENTS.

  • Practice SIMPLICITY.

  • Practice HUMILITY.

  • Ensure DIVERSITY.


bottom of page