The Culture Killer
The Culture Killer The Intro:
When I was 29 years old, I witnessed a murder. It felt slow and by all metrics, not painless. A man in his mid-fifties stood proudly in front of me and 100 others. He opened his mouth. He spoke for 25-minutes. And at the end of his prose, he had swiftly and efficiently, brutally killed his company culture. This is the story of the most excruciatingly long and emotionally violent half-hour I've ever witnessed.
I have been working with companies for 15-years to design and build mechanisms to support great teams. Most often, an important piece to any company's culture plan is the annual kick-off meeting. This yearly rendezvous can be incredibly valuable. The gathering offers a chance for co-workers to reconnect, to set and state goals, to reinvigorate each other, the work they do, and the reasons they do the job.
In most cases, at some point during these meet-ups, some leader will make a statement. I've seen short, encouraging briefs. I've seen long, poetic and strategic soliloquies. In most cases, the leaders' talks have been good reminders or reaffirmations. They can offer support when times are tough or a directed vision for growth during prosperous runs. In most cases, and in most times, the leaders' addresses impact the organization positively. The Culture Killer - the acting agent in the murder I witnessed - was exactly the opposite. I can assure you, the case of the Culture Killer represents an extreme anomaly. I've only seen leaders truly fail brilliantly at the retreat-keynote a handful of times. The killer's negligent talk was the worst, by far. And in this epic failure, in 25-minutes, this leader (let's call him Bob), beat the morale of his entire organization into a pulp. What was left was confusion, anger, hatred, and distrust. And what it presents is a case study on exactly "what not to do" when speaking as a leader at your annual retreat.
I first met Bob (the Culture Killer) in mid-December of 2012. I met him, his administrative team and a small planning committee to design and orchestrate an annual meeting for their organization. The company was a regional medical services office. They had seven different locations, each with roughly ten staff members, and one main office, housing other business functions like management, marketing, and HR. After a few design and consultative meetings the organization decided on a date, time, theme, and even agenda for the half-day annual meeting. It was determined I would be the lead facilitator - a role I have played hundreds of times. I always suggest to the organizers that the lead facilitator should kick-off the meeting, first-thing, welcoming the group, setting the tone for an engaging and educational half-day via a very short "hello" (less than 2-3 minutes). I would then quickly turn the floor over to an executive for an official welcome to further share the bigger vision for the day and the organization moving forward. After the executive introduction, the lead facilitator takes back over, introduces the official agenda and "housekeeping stuff" like the bathroom locations and timing for the day. This sounds simple, but it represents culture event design at the highest level. And, after all, if any organization is dedicating a full half-day to their employees not working, it better be worth it. Think about the time spent away from the office. Simply put, the calculated opportunity cost equals the number of people multiplied by their hours multiplied by their average income-to-employee-per-hour ratio. So, the time needs to be valuable. A simple, efficient agenda most often solves this problem. This simple retreat format of lead facilitator to executive to lead facilitator to start any meeting also allows the lead facilitator to take the immediate pressure off of the executive. It's a small, professional move that the best organizations practice.
Think about a stand-up comedian. They rarely come right out onto the stage. They get introduced. Why? It's an old, expert production piece. It protects that speaker (or performer). The lead facilitator immediately becomes the "bad cop" when the crowd is restless, anxious to get started, excited to start a fun-filled retreat. If the executive steps in front at first and asks everyone to be quiet, to settle down, to sit down, to shut up (I've seen it all), this most often immediately positions that person as the "bad cop". That leader should be the "good cop". If affordance allows for this format, use it every single time you speak - especially at an annual retreat, in front of a larger, more formal audience or group, and especially - as was the case of the Culture Killer - if this is your first time ever addressing your new team.
The team agreed to the flow of the day. And, Bob would be the executive. The format was set for a great day and a great start - just as important. But, before we share the infamy of what happened during Bob's culture-icidal attack, let's explore a bit more about him, his position and the organization. After all, he was the obvious pick to be that intro-executive speaker for the day. Bob was the newly hand-picked CEO. He was selected by the board of directors for two main reasons; he had executive leadership experience, and he was a thought leader on customer service. He came to the medical offices from an executive position with a larger, regional employer - a state-of-the-art entertainment venue with hotel, conference spaces, restaurants, bars, live music, massive event-spaces, and more. Part of the strategic decision by the organization's board of directors in bringing Bob in to lead the medical staff was that he would apply some of his expertise, content, and methodology for enhancing the customer service at the medical offices. After all, the hotel, restaurant, entertainment model is built on customer service: friendly, helpful staff.
Think about the best hotels in the world and how attentive the staff are to the clientele. Top notch customer service is ingrained in that particular industry. The approach made sense. The stage was set. Theoretically, the retreat was to be a resounding success, further engaging and connecting a workforce to their new leader.
The 25-Minute Murder: I replay this half-hour in my mind often. And, I cringe every time.
The annual retreat for the medical staff started off well. All 100 team members converged on a local conference center before the official start time of 9:00 am. They shared coffees, light breakfast treats, stories, rekindled friendships of staffers who had moved offices, and even enjoyed light music in the background. They settled into their seats at large, round, banquet tables and were greeted by the lead facilitator (that's me) with a quick opening to remind them that they were away from the office for a few hours and had the chance to build and bond. They loved it. One med-tech, sitting at the second row of tables even gave a quick "woo hoo", referencing her escape from the medical office. The outburst was met with laughter from the entire room. There was a growing atmosphere of excitement in the room. This was going to be a great day. Then, the lead facilitator turned the attention to Bob.
Bob was introduced as the opening speaker. The audience applauded. Bob approached the front of the room, took his place behind a podium with a microphone and then he began. I don't remember what the opening sentence from the Culture Killer was exactly. But, that first string of words from his mouth accomplished two things. First, he immediately positioned himself as a customer service expert. He touted his past work experience with a certain air of dominance. Without saying it explicitly, the murderer seemed to think his past experience was better than his current role - that the room would be lucky to be as good as he and his team was at the entertainment venue. Second, he told the entire room how bad their current customer service scores were. He flicked a clicker in his hand which projected a Bob-designed slide on a massive screen at the front of the room. The slide showcased the medical offices customer service scores. The large, colorful graphs had a dotted line marking average scores. A solid line well below showed the medical offices current average. The scores were low. To add more insult, Bob also noted where his old company usually performed and reminded the entire team that he promised to help them implement the new scoring system since, believe it or not, this system was something Bob himself had interjected into the culture just the month before the retreat. He also promised they would raise the numbers to the level of Bob's old teammates at his previous place of employment.
Then, for just a second, between the vitriol, Bob stopped to catch his breath and take a sip of water from a bottle he'd stashed away behind the podium. The energy in the room completely deflated. Bob was less than 25-seconds into his 25-minute intro and already he had lost a majority of the team.
Have you seen Oprah hosting her talk show? Sometimes she'll give away vacations to everyone in the live studio audience. Well, Bob had taken a similar approach, but with much less gusto and with insults instead of trips to Hawaii. You get a "you suck". You get a "you suck". Everybody gets a "you suck". He continued for the following 24-minutes and 35 seconds and his tune never changed. He shared long-winded stories about his accomplishments from his past organization and promised to bring customer service scores up to a level that everyone in the room could be proud of. He droned on and on and on. In fact, although Bob had already killed his culture in the first 25-seconds of his 25-minutes, his lecture actually lasted closer to a full-hour. At one point he made reference to team members who might not approve of the new customer service system and how replaceable those people may be. Though he didn't say it explicitly, he threatened to fire anyone who didn't agree with his system. I've seen angry leaders before. Bob wasn't angry but he was serious. He was simply aloof of the disconnect and message he was sending. You could see the eyebrows furrowing in the crowd.
People were shocked that this was their new leader. You could almost imagine the following week's water-cooler bashing of Bob. What he had done was s*** all over his new team members for an hour straight, with no seeming end in sight. He publicly, proudly, and without any understanding of the lasting effects, shamed the entire staff. In fact, as a young entrepreneur and seasoned facilitator at this point in my career, I had simply never seen anything like this. I had so rarely seen a leader go so far off-center on message that checking in on what a leader may say wasn't an important part of my process in consulting and planning. But, you can rest assured, it is now. At a minimum, I can offer this story and support that speaker with some "what not to do's". It blindsided me as a lead facilitator, the planning team, and especially the team in the room some of whom, again, were meeting or hearing Bob live for the first time.
At the end of Bob's ridiculously off-putting rant, he turned the floor back over to the lead facilitator, the half-day retreat now almost half-way over, with much more to get through. Our original plan was to host a team exercise for 60-minutes after Bob spoke and then some company updates followed by lunch to end the retreat. I don't remember what I said, or how I rationalized it, but I made the executive decision to shorten that team activity and we got it done in 10-minutes. The reason was that there was no coming back from the hour-long prodding. The culture had already been killed. No amount of team bonding could bring it back in that moment. So, I thought, let's keep it really short.
Also, because of Bob's general pace, we were already behind by 45 minutes on our official agenda. The culture - in that moment - had been murdered. We all witnessed it. We all felt it. The ROI: The ROI of this case is clear. Bob didn't last long after his flash of fame at the annual retreat. He moved on from the company within 3-months. His scoring system went with him. At the very least, this medical company lost thousands on the system, even more on hiring, firing, and replacing Bob. And, the immeasurable lasting effects carried through the culture at the varying offices for months past the annual retreat. Bob moving to a different company was the first good news this organization had seen in that span of time. However, even in that moment, the culture was not what it was even the few seconds before Bob opened his big blabbering mouth. The customer service scores - tracked by an outside vendor - were expensive. Bob brought in a consultant who charged thousands of dollars for what amounted to one-month of work and the temporary death of employee motivation and morale. If you do the math, the 25-minute murder cost the organization in opportunity costs to host the retreat, on-going culture issues, and the simple act of finding, recruiting, firing, and replacing Bob.
The Big Basic Lesson: So, what can we learn from this case? Well, the odds are in your favor that you are not a Culture Killer. Remember, Bob's instance of leadership was an extreme outlier. However, we can still learn from what Bob did wrong. The biggest lesson for any leader hoping to make a splash with a culture change - from redesigning core values to customer service scores - is to understand that every word matters. Stop to think about what you as a leader are saying, to whom, for how long, and in what setting and format? Research continually points to emotionally intelligent leaders being more effective. The level of emotional connection to a certain group is dictated more often by the group, not the leader. It's why the leader's words and presentation are so incredibly important. There are endless articles and books that suggest starting with simple, positive communication can be much more effective in the long run. I even know an expert and keynote speaker on this subject whose entire message is about saying "thank you" more often than "you stink". It's really that easy.
In a 2003 article, Prati, Douglas, Ferris, Ammeter, and Buckley, posited that emotional intelligence reflects the ability to read and understand others in a social context. They suggest it represents an important competency for effective leadership and team performance in organizations. There was a different way for Bob to approach this problem, solve it, and motivate others to get to his desired outcome of higher satisfaction scores. Some of these are referenced in our Pro Tips video, below. Overall, had Bob simply sat and listened to his new teammates to know their wants and needs, personalities and struggles, maybe his message would have been different and better received. It is hard to imagine a message that could have been worse. In all, Bob could have said the following, and the culture may not have been affected in that moment, but it probably would have still been alive. Bob is introduced. Bob says, "Hi, I'm Bob your new CEO, I look forward to working with you all." Bob sits back down. Click here for some pro tips about how leaders in new roles or charged with culture-shifts can approach this complex problem and not, of course, kill their workplace cultures.
Leaders, take notice. Your words bear meaning.
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Prati, et al. “Emotional Intelligence, Leadership Effectiveness, and Team Outcomes.” International Journal of Organizational Analysis, Vol 11, No1, 2003, pp. 21–40.