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The Secrets to Building a World-Class Company Culture With Bestselling Author Stan Slap

14 Mar 2022

The people behind the voices:

Stan Slap

Author & Speaker

Gillian French

Employee Experience Officer


The Employee Experience Podcast Ep. 8

The Secrets to Building a World-Class Company Culture

This week’s guest on The Employee Experience Podcast is Stan Slap, NY Times bestselling author and CEO.

Stan Slap is president of the international consulting company SLAP, renowned for achieving maximum commitment in manager, employee, and customer cultures. Stan is also a frequent keynote speaker and the author of the New York Times bestseller “Bury My Heart at Conference Room B”. His new book “Under the Hood: Fire Up & Fine Tune Your Employee Culture” has just been released.

Here he shares his secrets to building a truly world-class company culture.

His work has produced an impact for a who’s who of successful companies — the kind that doesn’t include ‘patience’ on their list of corporate values. SLAP’s sole focus is on achieving maximum commitment in the three groups that decide the success of your company: your manager culture, your employee culture, and your customer culture. 

“I have never met anyone who knows more about employee culture than Stan Slap. If you want your own culture to stay great or get great, you must read his book.”  – Robert Hohman, CEO @ Glassdoor.

About The Employee Experience Podcast

The Employee Experience Podcast, hosted by Gillian French, is the podcast series for leaders pursuing innovative ideas to engage and connect with their employees. We’ll speak to leaders about how to best connect with employees, build healthy cultures and deliver an employee experience where everyone can reach their potential.

Guests so far on Season 1 of The Employee Experience Podcast include:

  • Claude Silver, Chief Heart Officer at Vayner Media, on building the best human empire
  • Leslie Caputo, People Scientist at Humu, on empowering people to improve themselves
  • Gary Keegan, CEO at Uppercut, on the secret to elevating performance (Part One)
  • Gary Keegan, CEO at Uppercut, on the secret to elevating performance (Part Two)
  • Niamh Gunn, CEO of the Dialogue Code, on creating a workplace for Humane Leadership
  • Dave Ulrich, the father of Modern HR on shaping how people and organizations deliver value
  • Scott McInnes, Founder of Inspiring Change, on engaging people to build a great culture
  • Ryan Jenkins, bestselling Author on how to decrease loneliness at work
  • Margaret Heffernan, bestselling Author and CEO on how to improve the Global Employee Experience
Full Transcript

Gillian French (00:02):
Hi, I’m Gillian French from Workvivo. You’re very welcome to The Employee Experience Podcast. We speak to leaders about how to best connect with employees, build healthy cultures and deliver an employee experience where everyone can reach their potential. This week at the Workvivo event, vivowire22. I had the pleasure of talking to Stan Slap, who is the president of the international consulting company SLAP. Renowned for achieving maximum commitment in manager, employee, and customer cultures.

Gillian French (00:35):
He is the author of the New York Times bestseller Burying My Heart at conference room B and Under the Hood: Fire Up and Fine-Tune Your Employee Culture. We’re delighted to have Stan with us this week. So we’ll get straight into it. I think it’s really important to define what company culture is. I think a lot of people have different definitions, particularly a lot of people would say that company culture is how we do things around here, but I know that you have probably a different definition and I’d love to hear your thoughts on that.

Stan Slap (01:14):
Sure. I would say the first thing that culture is, the definition of culture, culture is the most overused yet, typically least understood concept in business. Culture was actually Merriam-Webster’s word of the year, a few years ago. So what that means is according to the most popular dictionary in the entire English language, culture was the most newly searched for word in the entire English language. And in our company, because maximized and the commitment of cultures is what we do. We like to say if banana had made word of the year instead, then companies would understand what a banana is and recognize it’s not going to peal itself just to feed you.

So here is the definition of culture, here’s the accurate working definition of culture. And the simplest way I can do this is to say imagine that you lived in the jungle. And as far as you knew, you were the only person who lived in the jungle because for all of your years of wandering and hollering, you had never met a single other person who lived in that same jungle.

Stan Slap (02:17):
If that was the case, that was your living circumstance, what would be your obsessive daily hourly, minute-by-minute concern? Stay alive, right? I mean, quality of life is great. Quantity of life is probably the priority. So you’d constantly be acutely monitoring the potential threat conditions, is this cave safe to take shelter? Is this path safe to travel? Is this watering hole safe to drink from?

Now, if this was your circumstance, a great thing that could happen to you would be is if you finally met somebody else who lives in that same jungle because now you have all the information you’ve been able to collect about how to survive, and you have all the information that they’ve been able to collect. Both of you are experts. The very best thing that could happen to you is if you finally met a lot of other people who lived in that same jungle, because now you have all of that survival information and you can turn to secondary, but important considerations about how do we get rewarded emotionally and avoid punishment.

Stan Slap (03:19):
And so this is a culture. Whenever you have a group of people, this is how a culture happens. Whenever you have a group of people who share the same basic living circumstances, here we all are in the same jungle, all in the same tribe, all with the same chief or we all work in this same industry in the company on the same team for the same manager, it is what are the common beliefs about the rules of survival and emotional prosperity?

What does it take for us to be bathed in this common environment and recognizing we know how to be okay, how do we get rewarded emotionally and avoid punishment? And very quickly, a culture is not the beliefs as you say about the way things are around here, that’s just the currency of the culture. The culture is a self-protective organism that obsessively collects information and attempts to validate it for its own relevance and shares it exclusively amongst itself.

Stan Slap (04:17):
So when you think about your culture, it is an independent organism living right inside the enterprise with its own purpose and all of the power to make or break any management plan and any manager. Now its purpose is to protect itself. Not you, not the company, it will do that as long as it perceives a reliable through-line between what happens for the culture and what happens for the company. And just one more minute on this, because if we get this right, we don’t have to go off in all the wrong directions.

Because a culture exists to protect itself, its antenna is working constantly, 24/7 tracking you if you’re a manager seeking information, its credibility detector is nearly infallible. Its perceptions are alarmingly accurate. Its memory is elephantine. You cannot bribe, bluff, or bully an employee culture into sustainably believing or doing anything.

Stan Slap (05:20):
You can’t tell it what to believe and you can’t stop it from existing, but you can take great comfort from recognizing that a culture is the simplest operating system in the world. It’s a once you understand it as this information gathering organism designed to protect itself, its motives are pure and its decision to commit or not commit to company goals is predictable. And the most important thing here is your culture will give you whatever you want.

It’s not anti-management, it’s not anti-change, it’s just anti-unsafe. It will give you whatever you want, you just have to give it what it wants first. And respecting what it wants from you is the difference between its defiance and its compliance. So the last sentence in this projectile vomiting answer to you is the most important epiphany for any company and really any manager, certainly anybody in human capital, human resources is it’s not the responsibility of your culture to understand the business logic.

It is the responsibility of your business to understand the culture’s logic. Now you get that one thing right, then you’re unbeatable in any market you choose.

Gillian French (06:34):
Maybe expand on that because I think that’s a key part of how do leaders understand that? How do they put that into practice?

Stan Slap (06:43):
I think the best way for a leader to understand or a manager to understand an employee culture is to recognize that they are also a culture. Managers are an independent culture, right? I mean the rules of survival-

Gillian French (06:58):
Managers culture isn’t employee culture and customer culture. Is that how you break it down?

Stan Slap (07:02):

Gillian French (07:02):

Stan Slap (07:03):
Yeah. Because the rules of survival and emotional prosperity for a manager and the sources of information are distinct enough from the general employee population that they really are their own culture. And so if you really want to understand the hesitation to commit from your culture and understand it as entirely reasonable and pragmatic and repairable, look at your own hesitation to commit as a culture. I mean, that’s the best way to empathize and understand your culture. But to be very clear here, if you’re a manager listening to this right now, you are not part of your employee culture, don’t ever make that mistake.

Stan Slap (07:45):
You may be friendly with your people, maybe you’re friends with some of your people, maybe you used to be one of your people, you got promoted. You’re not part of your people’s culture. You’re standing outside the culture trying to sell it something. You have a special place in your culture. It’s a lonely place, but it’s special. You’re the chief.

And don’t begin to swell head about that either because chief is not some honorary title bestowed upon you in abject appreciation by a devoted humble employee culture, it’s just short for chief subjects of all the stories they tell about you. So don’t get a swell head, they’ll shrink it right down.

Gillian French (08:28):
But in a lot of culture books and things that you read about culture, it generally says it’s values of founders, values of leaders that translate into culture. Do you agree with that statement or are you saying no that the employees… Is that the stronger component of the overall culture, the employee culture, or do the employer, manager, and customer have different levels or of importance?

Stan Slap (08:55):
I don’t know if it is different levels. If I had to stack rank, I mean, that’s a really tough question. If I had to stack rank, because they’re all important. If I had to stack rank, I’d probably put managers first, because managers have such an important place in the employee culture. A culture place is more importance on proximity than position. The CEO has a good day or a bad day. That’s a mild interest to me in the employee culture. My manager has a bad day, that’s a wild interest to me. And so if managers have that kind of emotional commitment and can ignite it in their employee cultures, that’s a key difference. Because you can’t sell it outside if you can’t sell it inside. I would say securing the internal support, even before you turn to your customer culture is important. And the thing about your customers is that their employees somewhere themselves. And so they’re part of the overall employee culture. So they’ll decide-

Gillian French (09:57):
They’re part of the organism.

Stan Slap (09:58):
Yeah. They’ll decide to protect or reject your company based in part on how they perceive you treat people just like them. If your people have legitimate enthusiasm for your products, your pricing, your policies, the way your customer culture will interpret that is, well, you must be being treated with a deep level of respect because I’d never show that legitimate enthusiasm unless I was.

So yeah, your customer culture which exists because your customers have in common a dependent relationship with your company, they all function the same way and they all exist for the same reason, but the hierarchy, if I’m pressed, manager to employ to customer.

Gillian French (10:38):
Okay. And I’ve seen a bit of research as well, where the customer satisfaction and employee satisfaction, they generally mirror each other which makes sense. And I thought it was interesting recently that a global customer satisfaction is way down now that we have the great resignation so it’s kind of mirroring that as well. You know? But within your book, you talk about culture being measurable. And I’ve heard other people talking about that before. And I wonder is it really measurable?

I mean, sometimes the things in life that are really, really important aren’t measurable. And I wonder, I sometimes think that maybe it isn’t immeasurable, but what is your view?

Stan Slap (11:22):
I think it’s definitely measurable. Although to your point about many of the most important things in life don’t seem measurable unless you start to lose them, then they’re immediate measurable, right?

Gillian French (11:35):

Stan Slap (11:36):
But I’m asked all the time that for the definition of a great culture, I think people expect me to say, oh, it’s a happy culture. Well, that’s not true. You do not want your culture to be actively unhappy. That would not be. But from the enterprise perspective, the definition of a great culture is a committed culture. Because if your culture wants something to happen in your business, it’s going to happen. If it doesn’t want something to happen, nothing’s going to happen.

So if you want to know whether you have a great culture from the corporate perspective or management perspective, the culture’s commitment is measurable with any metric you used to manage the business. That’s an easy way. If something’s happening the way you want to in the business and as fast as you want to and as sure as you want to, then that is because your culture is committed.

Stan Slap (12:25):
It’s a different definition for the culture. But from a corporate perspective, one last thing is you’re right that many of the most important things can’t be measured. The biggest metric a culture can show you won’t be seen unless your culture needs to show it. And that’s if your company gets into trouble, only a committed culture will step up and save it. And so you can’t bank that kind of thing when you need it, you have to put it away ahead of time. So really the stuff that you’re talking about that this conference is about, this is not just about achieving performance, this is about achieving performance insurance.

Gillian French (13:04):
And I’m assuming that most leaders and most managers that are listening today, or one of the biggest things on their mind is how do I get employees committed? You can see with the great resignation people are leaving at epic levels. How do we get people committed in this day and age? It is a real challenge, and probably the number one challenge for leaders.

Stan Slap (13:24):
This term, the great resignation is if you unpack it, there’s a subtle denial of accountability from a company. [crosstalk 00:13:40]. Resignation sucked us into the void.

Gillian French (13:42):
Yeah. Yeah.

Stan Slap (13:43):
I think it’s probably better to look at it as the great departure. The level of detachment between a culture and a company has been going on for a long time, increasing a long time. And this is the trigger event.

Gillian French (14:01):
How long do you think it’s been going on?

Stan Slap (14:04):
Well, 3,500 years recorded business history subtract the five, about 3,500 years.

Gillian French (14:13):

Stan Slap (14:14):
Before we were talking about the great resignation, I was asked a lot in interviews how do you be successful in the fourth industrial revolution? And my comment is why don’t we start by learning the lessons of the first industrial revolution?

Gillian French (14:27):

Stan Slap (14:27):
Is that people are not easily replaceable components with naturally limited ability to commit to the company. So yeah, you’re going to need your mighty love from your culture now. You need it to stick with you and urge others to do the same, but that means your culture needs some things more than ever from you. It needs certainty. A culture because it exists to protect itself, it places a premium on the surety of its environment. Does it know how to navigate safely? It needs a real surety test. It needs to know how to confirm what’s real in the environment.

Stan Slap (15:08):
It needs a sense of belonging to the companies. When people moved to working from home, the effort understandably was to make sure you could take work home. That’s very different from making sure you bring the company home. And there’s an emotional component, a belonging component, a sense of self component. So we’re talking about big stuff here, but the culture is the same as it ever was. This didn’t change anything for the culture, it just amplified the culture’s concerns that it has always had.

And it gave it choices that it didn’t have before. This is a horrible example, but in Vegas when Siegfried and Roy, they had the tiger in that one tiger just ate, I think it was, let’s say Siegfried’s head, I got to assume that the other tigers were saying to themselves, we can do that? I didn’t know we could do that.

Gillian French (16:04):
Geez. Yeah.

Stan Slap (16:06):
And so it’s kind of like we can work from home. We can do this. We have flexibility, and I didn’t know we really had that. That’s a great departure.

Gillian French (16:15):
And you talk about certainty there. Is it that there’s so much uncertainty going on? I would think the opposite… There’s so much uncertainty going around externally that they would want certainty internally.

Stan Slap (16:26):

Gillian French (16:26):
And then logic, I’m probably logic when I think of my logical brain, I would think because we’ve been through trauma together, technically it was a trauma that COVID, and now we’re heading into other unprecedented situation that the sense of belonging and attachment to our coworkers and our business should have been stronger. So I don’t understand what went wrong.

Stan Slap (16:53):
Well, what went wrong is there is that the roots weren’t there in the first place, the sense of self to be gained by the connection for the culture. If I make the company more successful, the world is better in some way. So it’s important for me to do that. I can really trust that this company will pass the humanity test. COVID and all these circumstances, they stripped the veneer right off every company. So if you only saw your culture as manipulative chess pieces, primarily ponds, and you only saw your customer culture as a transactional relationship, that’s very clear right now. So what was always real was exposed. Now for those companies who just instinctively did the right thing for the right reasons, and many companies did.

Gillian French (17:42):

Stan Slap (17:44):
They did get what you’re talking about, but those companies who were always faking it, and really the only value proposition for your employee culture was to enrich already bloated senior managers and mythical shareholders, that was really clear too. And so, yeah, this is the great resignation, the great departure. It’s not an action, it’s a reaction.

Gillian French (18:07):
So it’s basic under the hood of people that got time to look under the hood or was exposed for what was really there.

Stan Slap (18:14):

Gillian French (18:15):
And it’s much bigger than that than just a movement that we’re generally talking about. So if that is the case, and you’re talking about sense of belonging, sense of purpose, really stripping back to humanity, as a leader again on this call, I’m presuming there’s a bigger shift that has to take place. It’s real change that has to take place within their organizations.

So what would you say is in order to get employees committed going forward, sense of belonging, sense of purpose, this is all important. What can leaders do to get people committed and start changing this trend?

Stan Slap (18:54):
As a one size fits all answer? I would say that there’s a couple of first steps. The first step is to recognize that, well, by this point, I’ll try to make this as brief as possible, but at this point, 2022, any company of any reasonable intelligence and sophistication understands culture is a thing, they may not know what that thing is, but it’s a thing, and it’s a thing they should do something about because apparently, it’s better to have a good culture than a bad culture.

And so there’s a flurry, let’s roll back to the beginning of Q1. There’s a flurry of activity and we have to have campaigns and L&D and this and checked off boxes. So by the end of Q4, we show we’ve done stuff about culture, so that’s one road that the company is looking down.

Stan Slap (19:54):
We’re starting here by the end of the year, we need to do something about culture. It’s a feeder road, it’s not the main highway. It’s kind of a fog and shrouded road that nobody’s really sure where it goes or why it exists. But everybody knows the big road and that’s company performance. By Q1 everybody knows where you got to end up by Q4. That’s the main road.

So my first just meta recommendation is collapse the roads, it’s the same road. There is no better way of getting down that main road than by securing the maximum commitment of your culture. That’s the engine that’s going to get you down that road. Working on culture is not some subordinate ethereal unmeasurable thing, it is highly measurable, highly effective, and about the only way you’re going to do it. In terms of very quickly, what can anybody do still in a larger sense?

Stan Slap (20:44):
The first thing you have to do is secure the energy of your culture. Now, your culture’s an organism. Like any organism, it needs energy to survive, but it only has so much energy. Most of your culture’s energy is being used just to navigate through the day to try and confirm rules of survival and emotional prosperity in an environment it cannot reliably control or anticipate.

So it’s exhausted all the time because that never stops for a culture. So anything else you want the culture to do, work harder, work different, work more, reattach like you were saying, means you are focusing on what energy the culture has left over, thin ozone layer of discretionary energy. Your culture will prioritize the use of that remaining energy to protect itself, not the company. So if you’re asking the culture to do something, if you’re going to step on the gas and have the culture make sure there’s fuel in the tank.

Stan Slap (21:41):
So it wouldn’t be that your culture doesn’t get what you want, it doesn’t have any left to give to it, doesn’t have any discretionary energy. Three sources of discretionary energy. First, give context to your culture. Why is this happening? Because if your culture can understand why what’s happening now, where it comes from, then it doesn’t have to dispatch any extra energy to keep a nervous eye on the threat potential of the unknown. The energy stays in the tank.

How do you do that? Stop talking about what’s changing without talking about what isn’t changing. Give the culture the security that not everything is changing. These five things are changing, this isn’t, this isn’t, this isn’t, this isn’t, this isn’t. The good things, the bad things, the big things, the small things that most of your world is not changing.

Gillian French (22:28):

Stan Slap (22:30):
The second is predictability. Again, if your culture can say, well, I know it’s going to happen next then that energy stays in the tank and it’s available for you. If I’ve got to use it to keep an eye on the threat potential, the unknown, you don’t know what’s going to happen next, but you can define what you do about it no matter what happens. So you need to conduct predictability drills. Here’s everything that could happen between where we are and where we’re going, we’re not saying it’s going to happen, but it could, and here’s what we would do in any of those circumstances. So that relaxes the culture.

Gillian French (23:03):

Stan Slap (23:03):
Okay. And finally, a sense of self and everybody who works, everybody who works has got to constantly answer two questions from people that you don’t know. It’s what do you do? It’s from people who know you the best, what’d you do today? And if the answer to those two common queries don’t create a positive sense of self in the culture, every time those questions are asked the energy is being drained. So stop talking about what the company-

Gillian French (23:33):
It’s not aligned with my values.

Stan Slap (23:36):
Yes. Give the culture a sense of self. This is who we are. This is how we roll. This is what it takes to be on this team.

Gillian French (23:45):
I think you said in your book, wasn’t it? That people have values, companies don’t have values as such. So it’s my values every day. So if I’m going into an organization that doesn’t live with my values and I’m trying to that expels huge amount of energy where I’m exhausted at the end of the week because it’s not lined up with who I am.

Stan Slap (24:04):
Right. Your personal values are very different from the company. And by the way, don’t even declare values. Declaring values are the gate. It’s one that when we get a company that’s in trouble, we can generally trace it back do they declare values? Okay. So listen, when companies declare values, they’re declared as absolutes. Like if you want to know the very DNA of this company, it’s these five words. Usually, those are strategies that are not even real values, but whatever. So if they’re presented as religious doctrines, the culture expects them to be treated religiously and protected religiously.

Gillian French (24:41):

Stan Slap (24:43):
And if that doesn’t happen and of course, it’s not going to happen, then you violated trust at a very deep level with the culture. The better thing to do is stop talking about them as values, talk to them about as obsessions. These are the things we’re obsessed with that this company runs this way. Will it always run this way? What are you nuts? Of course, it won’t always run this way. Don’t judge us whether always runs this way, judge us by the ferocity of our response, if it ever does. So take the weight off having to be flawless as a company.

Gillian French (25:16):
Yeah, no, I really like that. I personally think it’s important to have a sense of self to then kind of when you’re working away and you’re so busy and then go, are we still on track? Are we still who we were six months ago? Are we deviating off or are customers sending us in a different way or we’re doing things that we didn’t set out to do? And that’s why we’re not happy.

I think it’s always good to have a kind of sense of what is originally there and what you don’t want to lose as you grow really quickly. But yeah, no, I really like that. And I think it’s really interesting to talk about energy and organisms and these ecosystems. I’d be very interested to see what type of feedback you get when you go in because even in your bio you’re working with some of the most demanding and successful businesses, like how do they receive when you’re talking about energy and living organisms?

Stan Slap (26:12):
Well, four of the words that are sacred in our company, I actually think that everything I say is probably etched somewhere on stone tablets. Although I was in the office the other day, I couldn’t find them. I don’t know where they’re storing them. Probably offsite, probably just offsite. But four of the sacred words in our company are and then what happened? So we do this work for you and then measurably what happened. And if we don’t think we can tell that before and after the story going in, we won’t even go in. So what we’re talking about here is not culture for culture’s sake.

Stan Slap (26:44):
We recognize that companies have fiduciary responsibility and reward systems set up to this. They have to perform. So we’re making the business case for humanity. We’re saying if you want to perform, treat this culture and the humanity it represents with the proper respect and empathy, watch what it will do for you and that is measurable. But it works out. We work in 44 countries and it works. It works all the time. And like you said, our clients are companies who don’t include patients on their list of corporate values. So they’re pretty tough, but it’s been well proven. We’ve been doing this for two and a half decades. So, yeah.

Gillian French (27:29):
Yeah, because I loved one of the statements in your book. You said the passion that fuels my work is that nobody should be diminished by business, working in it, or buying from it. And I really like that statement. So I’d love to get your opinion as in today how do you think businesses are performing against that statement?

Stan Slap (27:49):
I don’t know. If we were going to look at it on average it’s… So let’s just say that it’s really an individual judgment.

Gillian French (27:58):

Stan Slap (27:59):
So again, some companies it was their intuitive response, hunker down, do the right thing and play the long game and we’re just going to do the right thing. Other companies really this crisis was kind of an amplifier. If you were already a good company, if you were not, that was going to be cranked up. Now for the companies that stumbled and had to be pressured into doing the right thing by crisis, some of them really got that message and it was really a wake-up call that maybe when it all gets stripped down, we really weren’t doing the right thing.

And some companies just resolved to we’re never going to learn, learning is not our thing. Improving? No, it’s not our thing, that’s stupid. So I think you have to look at it on an individual basis, but there are plenty of examples of companies that would always do the right thing and they did under pressure too. Companies that were fast followers got that. And then you can see what happens to the companies that just, no.

Gillian French (29:05):
Yeah. So say there’s a leader and managers on this call and they’re like, right, okay, this has been our wake-up call. How long does it take to change the culture? What do they need to do to change it? Is it possible?

Stan Slap (29:20):
Yeah. Yeah. A culture is actually the most rational organism in the world. Its motives are pure, its decision to commit or not is predictable. And so it’s an open system. It has to stay open to changing its beliefs, which drive its commitment because it has to stay current on the rules of survival and emotional prosperity.

So the thing is, if you’re asking for a massive change, I’ll give you a couple of answers to this question, that’s probably not going to happen. You’re asking for faith and faith is I believe but I don’t know. That puts a culture at maximal risk. That’s a very rare gift to culture to give. So what you need to do is earn trust a little bit at a time. And the first thing you do is you have to give a culture a way of determining whether it can trust you.

Stan Slap (30:10):
So you have to have an emphatic dramatic declaration of intention. So when you start doing those things, the culture can say, oh, said this, does this. And that has to go pretty deep in you that you’re not going to compromise that. It can’t be situational performance-driven, it’s the thing that is before, during, and after the performance. So you have to have that anchor so the culture has a surety test and it’s the same as a manager running an organization. What you’re able to do then is create legends. And legends are how a culture communicates.

There are stories that have been vetted by the culture and its own private database of survival information. So you said this and did this, that’s a good legend. You said this and didn’t do that, that’s a bad legend. A message from your culture to your culture has got more impact and credibility than anything you’ll send from outside the culture.

Stan Slap (31:06):
So set context so the culture’s got that way of testing and then allow the culture to develop its own proof points and communicate amongst itself. The other thing is to earn trust with the culture. You got to do it a little bit at a time. You basically have to say to your culture, listen, here’s where we’re going, everything’s going to be beautiful. Should you trust us? What are you nuts? No, you shouldn’t. How the hell do we know? We’re not asking you to trust us this far, in the next 60 days, the next 90 days, here’s two things, they may be small things.

Stan Slap (31:42):
Here’s two things that will definitely happen in the name of what we’re promising. In that same period of time here’s two things that will definitely never happen in the name of what we’re promising. Now, they could be small things, size doesn’t matter. And when you deliver on those, then you renegotiate for more trust and that’s how you build momentum. So, yes, a culture is always willing to revisit whether its commitment is safe. It’s better for the culture if it can safely commit. Much better, it’s a safe environment.

Gillian French (32:21):
I really love the fact that you say what you’re not going to do or say what you’re not going to change.

Stan Slap (32:25):
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Gillian French (32:26):
I think that’s a fundamental flaw sometimes in communication or in strategy decks or in communicating with employees like this is what we’re going to do, this is when we’re going to do it, but we never generally say we won’t change this and this will stay the same, which is so logical that people want to know, oh, Jesus, if everything’s changing I’m instantly in fear so therefore I can’t take it in.

Stan Slap (32:47):
That’s right. That’s right. Yeah.

Gillian French (32:51):
So I was just going to talk, I see a question has come in here from one of the people. So I’m just going to see what it is there, is there not an opportunity in the new paradigm of work to rewrite the culture and the purpose of enterprises allowing for a more holistic way of being and purposes?

Stan Slap (33:10):
Yes, yes, yes, yes, there is. Whether every company is going to see that opportunity and it really comes down to trust, whether it’s going to trust its culture, whether it’s going to really get that connection that-

Gillian French (33:29):
Please don’t go. Hopefully, Stan will come back in. Is there any holding music, Richard?

Richard Barrett (33:36):
It’s always the final talk of the day. Isn’t it? Look, you’ve got a lot of experience as a Chief People Officer, obviously years. There’s another question there, it says can employee culture be similar to your customer culture, in your experience, what do you think?

Gillian French (33:52):
Yeah, absolutely. We were just talking about that, actually. Stan kind of alluded to it, generally what I’ve seen and what you will see with trends and research is that the two data points would match each other. So how satisfied your customers are generally is how satisfied your employees are and the two lines are fairly equal. I think you see that you’ll know well-known companies that world-class cultures that prioritize customer care and those that don’t, generally their employee-customer opinion would’ve been definitely matched.

And just on the Niamh question that came in around the paradigm of work. I definitely think this is the time I think that why we’re seeing on unprecedented levels of resignations and why we’re seeing so much change is that it has become unpalatable for people, which generally means there will be a big shift and a big change. And I think you’re going to see lots of different innovations coming out of organizations and those organizations will be the ones that will progress and will get the talent into the organizations because the way we’re globally working at the moment is not working for people.

Richard Barrett (35:05):
I think you had an interesting conversation with the father of modern HR, Dave Ulrich on the podcast last week.

Gillian French (35:12):
Yeah, yeah.

Richard Barrett (35:12):
He had some really interesting insights. Can you share any of them that might be relevant for our audience as well?

Gillian French (35:18):
Yeah, yeah. Again, it was similar to what Stan was saying there. It’s very, very important for people that they are aligned with the organization. So this sense of belonging, this believing in what the company is doing and having a connection with the organization, so Dave Ulrich has the three Bs’ believe, becoming, belonging. Yeah. You put me on the spot, Richard, but yeah, so, and we were talking about they’re all pretty equal. So we were saying at different points in your life, each of those would become more important to you. So probably the older you get, getting up in the morning you want to make sure you’re going out and doing something that you really believe in.

Gillian French (36:03):
And maybe when you’re younger coming into work you want to belong. I think everyone wants to belong somewhere. Anyway, you always want to feel you belong, I think that’s innately in humans. So, yeah. So Dave just pointed to the fact that this is really important for employees and I think it’s a difficult one for organizations because there are probably more emotive areas of business that they’re not used to dealing with. So thank God you’re back, Stan. I was near going to have to start singing there.

Stan Slap (36:35):
Where were we?

Gillian French (36:37):
We were on about the… It was a great question from Neve about the paradigm shift of work at this point where we could rewrite culture and purpose of enterprise allowing for a more holistic way of being.

Stan Slap (36:50):
It would be amazing if this opportunity was really seen for what it is. And I think it will by some companies because they’ll see the example of other companies and they’ll see that the usual things don’t work and humanity, whether it’s COVID, whether it’s the Ukraine, it’s stupid to even say this, but it’s such an acute profound present issue in the world. How people treat one another neighbor to neighbor, country to country, it’s business to business, business to customers, business to culture, if there was ever going to be the wake-up siren, it would be now.

Gillian French (37:37):

Stan Slap (37:37):
So, hopefully, the early adopters will get it and those watching the early adopters, even if they don’t get doing it for the right reasons, if they just start doing it, eventually it will [crosstalk 00:37:51]. Yeah. We can only hope. It’s a great question. Yeah.

Gillian French (37:54):
Yeah. And is there any sort of movement you’re seeing as companies that are paving the way I know, of course, your organizations is doing so much in this area and you’re very passionate about it. Is there other movements or organizations that you’re seeing that have seen the light and are doing it?

Stan Slap (38:09):
Yeah. Yeah. We see and the companies that come to us, they’re not broken companies necessarily, but they are puzzled. They are saying what we’re talking about here is this doesn’t work. Do we have to throw out everything? Do we do it? And no, you don’t. So there are companies all over the world. Again, we work in 44 countries. There are 12 countries in Africa and some of those companies are saying we always wondered if it was safe to trust our culture and maybe not in those words, but now we don’t have a choice and wow, yes. The culture we really could. We don’t have to be able to watch them for them to be trusted. Right?

Stan Slap (39:00):
Listen, I’m not a perky guy. I think perky at best is annoying and at worse, completely delusional. But I am hopeful. I am pragmatically hopeful that these acute circumstances, if the old stuff simply doesn’t work, sooner or later scrambling around in the dark you’re going to find a tool that you don’t usually use and voila or a switch that, oh, this was always here. So yes, we see this with a number of companies. We see our clients is very serious, but this is no longer an initiative issue, this is an existential issue.

Gillian French (39:37):
They’re committed to it. Yeah.

Stan Slap (39:38):

Gillian French (39:39):
Yeah. Brilliant. Brilliant. I’m just going to read another from the audience here, Stan. What can organizations do to care for and protect a culture if there’s a great one?

Stan Slap (39:50):
Well, I mean, I think you protect the humanity it represents. It’s the kinds of things we’ve been talking about out. You keep it energized and confident. From a culture perspective, the things that will cause a culture to remain a great culture.

It’s fully energized so it has context, it has some sense of what the future holds and takes its own sense of self from its affiliation with the company and what it stands for and what it does. It can trust and is trusted. Both of those things are critical. So it can trust in people who call themselves leaders, that they really are true leaders.

Stan Slap (40:31):
It can trust when the company says these are our values, that under pressure they won’t be squandered away or trade it off. It’s that what you’re asking us to do is safe insane for us to do. It’s not punishing. It’s not threatening. That performance reinforcement, if we get recognized for a good performance, it’s linked to our safety in some way.

They sound like fundamental things, but they’re not. So all of those things will maintain a great culture. If you’re asking us to put our own good name as a culture on promises you’re making to customers, is that credible? Is that punishing? Culture’s not that complicated when you understand it. Yeah. Yeah.

Gillian French (41:16):
We do overcomplicate it.

Stan Slap (41:18):
Wow. There’s that consulting trip.

Gillian French (41:18):
Or simplified it.

Stan Slap (41:22):
A real consultant track. You wouldn’t understand. You better let us.

Gillian French (41:25):
Yeah. Very good. Yeah. I can’t believe our time has passed so quickly, but I do want to ask you, with all your years’ experience with company culture, if you have one takeaway for our audience today, what would it be? What would you like them to walk away and have with them for the evening and tomorrow sitting with them?

Stan Slap (41:46):
I think looking at the real circumstances we’re all living and working under, I would say, despite all this uncertainty, unprecedented unforeseen uncertainty, there are two things that we know for sure. The first is that these tough times won’t last forever.

And the second is that the story of how you stood up to them will. Now, you’re going to be living with that story for a long time. It’s time you start writing it so that it ends the way you want it to. And I think the path to doing that is to consider how many of us justify the gift of life. How do we do that?

Well, I mean, we give back to those less fortunate because of the gifts that we have, we practice empathy and kindness, and respect. We strive to make the world both a better place and not a worse one.

Stan Slap (42:37):
Why should it be any different in justifying the life of an enterprise? And to be trusted, to care about what matters most, let this be the defining grace of your company and what matters most is your humanity. You could have lost a lot of things in the last couple of years, market share, revenue, talent, your mind for a while, but you cannot lose your soul and survive.

And for all of you as managers, as well as your company, you’re going to be having to answer a question because what you do now will be remembered, but who you are now will be remembered far longer. And so you’re going to have to answer this question for years, for decades, you’re going to have to answer it to the company, to your culture, to your customers, to your community, to your conscience, your children, who were you when everything inside of you and around you was finally tested?

Stan Slap (43:36):
So my number one recommendation, this will just take about 45 seconds, I’m going to wrap this up. My number one recommendation for all of you as managers. Now, this is whether you actually have the title of manager, whether you are managing some critical responsibility for your company. That’s what I mean as a manager.

And so for yourself, because it’s your life that’s at stake here. This time, the time you’re spending in the business, you’re not getting this time back. Your life is happening to you right now. For your family, because the healthier family outside the job depends in large part on the health of your family inside the job. For your employees, your culture, because it’s not easy working in environments of constant uncertainty and pressure with regular reminders of how little control you have over your work life.

For someone who you only know as management. For your customers, because people don’t trust companies, they trust people. For your company, because you’re not a products company, a services company, a technology company, you’re a human company selling these things.

Stan Slap (44:49):
And the pivot point upon which any strategic success rest is a discretionary effort of your human organization. And finally, for the world, let’s face it, things are very weird out there right now. I mean, the world is a scary, uncertain place, and we actually have every indication that things are like to get a whole lot weirder before they get any better.

Now, what is it that all of the good people gathered together here for this event can possibly do about the conditions that affect the world at large? Not much, except to extend our own humanity to the people that we are closest to, including the people we see every day, including our employees and our customers, and so for all of these reasons, I urge you to be human first and a manager second.

Gillian French (45:47):
That is amazing, Stan. And I’m going to finish up by just reading a quote that when I read your book, you had me at this quote. “If we lose humanity in business, we’re all doomed. If we save it company by company and manager by manager we will have saved ourselves.” And I think that’s a beautiful quote. And that’s out of your book Under The Hood, which is great, Stan.

Stan Slap (46:11):
Quite a pithy read, if I do say so myself.

Gillian French (46:14):
No, it is. And I read obviously a lot of culture books, a lot of HR books, I really genuinely enjoyed it. And you had me hooked at that quote and it’s on page two.

Stan Slap (46:25):
That’s great.

Gillian French (46:27):
Yeah, no really, I enjoyed it. So thank you so much for today. It really warmed my heart and it was a beautiful talk. So thank you so much, Stan, for taking the time to speak to us today.

Stan Slap (46:38):
All right. Take care.

Gillian French (46:43):
Thank you so much for listening to The Employee Experience Podcast, subscribe on Acast or wherever you get your podcasts, and check out to find out more.

This transcript was prepared by a transcription service. This version may not be in its final form and may be updated.

The people behind the voices

Stan Slap

Author & Speaker

Author ‘Under the Hood’: Fire Up and Fine-Tune Your Employee Culture

Gillian French

Employee Experience Officer

Employee Experience Officer

Gillian French is a veteran people leader and organizational behaviorist with over 10 years of experience as Chief People Strategist.

She is passionate about coaching, strategy, building resilient and sustainable organisational culture, and improving global employee experience. She has also contributed to Forbes and is a regular panelist on the future of work.

Gillian is also the founder and CEO of SISU consulting, a business that specializes in organisation development and design.