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  • Nathaniel Measley

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.