Why The Best Companies Use A Culture Blueprint: An Interview with Robert Richman

By David Mizne

What is the most important factor that drives business success? Sales and marketing strategy? Bringing your product to market at the right time? No, the answer is far more subtle and counter-intuitive and permeates all aspects of an organization. The answer is company culture.

Robert Richman is a culture-strategist, speaker and author of The Culture Blueprint. In his book, he distills his years of experience teaching culture-building to companies like Zappos, Intuit and Toyota, into a step-by-step guide to empower and enable employees so that the company can succeed. I recently caught up with Robert and asked him several questions on building and maintaining a high-performance workplace.

Why is culture so important?

Culture exists. It is present when more than one person is in the room. While business results are out of your control, what you can design for is who comes in to the company and clearly establish what behaviors are allowed. Design the company culture and get to your desired results from there.

In The Culture Blueprint, you enroll managers in co-designing relationships with employees by asking questions rather than just telling people what to do. Why is that important?

Culture exists in language, and whoever has a repeatable protocol of language can institutionalize it and scale the culture.

You can always just tell people what to do. Why throw down the trump card so early in the game, especially when your alternative is to create relationships and inspire sustainable levels of success.

By asking questions you open up space to the unknown. Ask people “how do you like to be managed?” or “what makes a great boss?” As a manager, I want to know if you respond better to praise or bonuses or if you thrive on being challenged. That way I know how to specifically drive the team to get results.

I include a checklist in the book for this new manager conversation. Instead of just showing people where the copy-room and break-room are, you start developing a relationship from the first day. You don’t have a second chance to make that impression.

Leaders need reliable, high-leverage information to make decisions, but employees don’t usually volunteer bad news. How do managers encourage candor and honesty?

Again, this comes down to language and protocol. Ask an employee, “What do you think of my leadership abilities?” and they will be uncomfortably diplomatic. They think, “my manager has the ability to fire me and I am going to try to be as tactful as possible”.

Some companies believe that the 360 degree review is the answer, but this method is not personalized. With anonymous feedback, people aren’t held directly accountable and the opportunity to build a relationships is lost.

During one-on-one meetings, a manager and employee have to look each other in the eye. Instead of asking “what do you think of my leadership?”, the manager can restructure the protocol. Hack the question so that employees provide information that they wouldn’t otherwise want to discuss.

By asking, “David, please tell me what is it that you think I don’t want to hear” the manager essentially says, “I want you to say the thing that will make me cringe right now.” The manager gives permission and will solicit a response. But to face the employee again, the manager has to figure out a way to improve and make a change.

That’s a once or twice a year question that builds safety. The manager is essentially sweeping out the debris before he starts mopping. This question makes a great lubricant for 15Fives. If you clear out the energy a couple of times a year, the rest of the weekly 15five check-ins will be clean, authentic, and helpful.

You talk about culture-hacks. What are some of the top things that can be done to shift a culture? Can you create a culture later-on down the road?

Culture can only be shifted, rather than created. Leaders set a standard with the values and vision, the rest happens through the right language and dialogue. Saying what someone “should” do doesn’t work, people don’t respond well to that. A higher leverage approach is to share inspiring stories and expectations and a clear understanding about what is required. Set standards that you stick to and everybody lives by or people will be asked to leave the organization.

That seems harsh.

Does it? The most respectful, honest thing a manager can do is to tell someone what the rules and expectations are. Managers always have the power to fire someone, so clearly setting expectations creates an honest framework so that things don’t get personal or political.

Who has the strongest culture in the world? It’s not Google, it’s not Apple. It’s the NAVY seals. Their values are so strong that people literally die for them. They are not looking for people who will get along with each other, they test candidates over and over again because it literally means the difference between life and death.

Your book outlines the process to discover and implement values. When do you use the culture hacks?

Culture-hacks are tactics for when the beast gets larger and you need everyone driving the culture in ways you can’t see.  To hack culture, find a vulnerable point, a breakdown where a small change can have a huge impact. Ask questions to discover the problem. For example, the marketing team gets frustrated when the engineering team can’t develop a feature that is promised within the timeline. Find the pain-point and trace it back to its root cause. Hack it there and then shift the conversation back to other departments.

One culture hack that surprised me was making meetings voluntary. That works?  

Culture is about respecting people for being people. They aren’t just human resources or human capital. So the worst thing you can do is tell people what they “should” do. People by nature want to opt-in to something they agree to or be given the space to say no. When the organizer frames it as invitation they’re saying “if you find this relevant or interesting, then show up”. Then the onus is on the inviter to make the meeting relevant and meaningful. If someone doesn’t show up, they believe that they can get the job done without the meeting.

Optional meetings require managers to market to employees and even personalize the message:

“Hey David, I loved those biz dev ideas you had for the last product roll-out. I need similar ideas for our next initiative, and I think that yours will be priceless. Can you attend this meeting?”

This is the ultimate culture hack. When people want to be there, their energy is infectious.

Doesn’t it seem counter-intuitive to make a meeting voluntary?

All business innovation begins as counter-intuitive. The first time that any company offered a break or paid vacation they were probably seen as a crazy. Outsiders would say, “What? You pay people for 2 weeks for not coming in to work?!” A counter-intuitive measure is often a clue that you are onto something big.

Don’t believe me? Just do an experiment and let the results speak. Business is based on experimentation so find an experiment that’s small and safe enough to try once. That way you can get enough data without risking destroying the company.


Robert Richman is a culture strategist and was the co-creator of Zappos Insights, an innovative program focused on educating companies on the secrets behind Zappos’ amazing employee culture.

As one of the world’s authorities on employee culture, Robert is a sought after keynote speaker at conferences around the world and has been hired to teach culture in person at companies like Google, Toyota, and Eli Lilly. He has pioneered a number of innovative techniques to build culture, such as bringing improv comedy to the workplace.

His new book, The Culture Blueprint, is a systematic guide to how a workplace can help people grow, inspire amazing service, and ultimately drive revenue through amazing culture.

Image CreditLoozrboy 

How strong is your company culture? Do you use culture-hacks? Leave a question for Robert below…

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