Every organization has a culture. What’s yours? Learn from how to create a culture that delivers the results you want from renowned culture expert Marissa Levin.
In this episode you’ll learn:
- The two ways organization cultures are created
- The importance of intentional culture creation
- Specific things you can do to create an exceptional culture
- How your culture and outside world impact each other
Read more about creating great company culture.
Brad Wolff: 00:01
Welcome to the, “It is about you podcast”. Today, I’m honored to have as my guest, Marissa Levin with “Successful Culture International”. Marissa, welcome to the show.
Marissa Levin: 00:49
It is such a pleasure to be here, Brad. Thank you.
Brad Wolff: 00:51
Absolutely. Now I’ve really followed you for about a year and a half. So, you know, I’ve read, you know, some blogs that you’ve done and I’ve really learned a lot from you. So I’m really honored to have you on our show today.
Marissa Levin: 01:10
Thank you. That’s so kind.
Brad Wolff: 01:12
Now would you share a little bit about yourself and your organization?
Marissa Levin: 01:16
Sure. So I am
Brad Wolff: 01:56
Terrific. Now can you tell me a little bit about the journey that brought you to where you are today? Because I’m sure it’s been quite a journey.
Marissa Levin: 02:04
Yeah. Well, so that’s what we all have, right? We all have our own independent journeys. So as I mentioned, I launched “Information Experts” 27 years ago and I actually launched that after working for someone who had told me that I would never be worth more than $35,000. So that was a job that I had after college I was a journalist on Capitol Hill. And from there I went to a very small consulting firm was introduced to the whole field of consulting. And it was at that firm where I got my
Marissa Levin: 03:00
I built that and decided it was time to leave because our primary customer was the government. And as you and I had talked about this in previous conversations, I reached a point where the government went on a pivot in terms of what they valued from their industry partners. When I built my company, the government really valued things like relationships and innovation and transformation and high value.
And around seven or eight years ago, there was a shift to what was known as the lowest price, technically acceptable model, the LPGA model. And that kind of decimated my culture that I had built with an “Information Experts”. It was extremely destructive to me organizationally as well as personally. And because I then had a misalignment of core values with my customer, I really was at a crossroads and I had to make a decision on whether or not I was going to continue to run “Information Experts”.
Marissa Levin: 04:07
Even though I didn’t align with what they believed or if I was going to put a succession plan in place and exit. And I made the decision that because I didn’t align with the core value system of my largest customer, I probably wasn’t the right person to be running a company that served them. And that was a really, really hard choice. I mentioned to you, it was kind of like a psychological bloodbath, but once I made the choice, I never looked back and I launched a “Successful Culture International”. I ran that on my own for about six years. And then two years ago I partnered with “People Tactics”, which is a National Human Resources consulting firm. And we launched the brand “Successful Culture International” FCI, and now we are a global corporate culture consultancy. So that’s where I’m focused now.
Brad Wolff: 04:58
Terrific. And I really want to highlight a key piece of what you said is the choice to adapt to a change in your environment rather than to fight and complain and resist and all these other things, which is easy to do when you’ve built something that was really successful is the choice that you made that was
Marissa Levin: 05:24
Well, you know, we all find ourselves at crossroads in our lives, you know, decision crossroads really every day. Some of them are really minor and we don’t even realize, you know what I mean? They are, they can be really inconsequential and minuscule. Should I take this road or should I take that road home? Right? What should I have to eat? Should I bother to eat? Should I go to the gym? Should I have another drink? These are all individual, very, very minor crossroads that we are in every single day. Other decisions that we make our lives are significant crossroads and will make every, you know, like lasting repercussions and ripple effects in our life. But we always have choices.
So I’m a big fan of Malcolm Gladwell’s theory, the tipping point. And I believe that you know, we decide to change when the pain of staying the same becomes greater than the pain of change. That’s what’s known as the tipping point. And quite often until we reach that tipping point, we kind of go through life. So many of us kind of in these unconscious days thinking that we really don’t have a lot of choices. But the truth is, is that we have choices all around us. It’s just a matter as of you said, do you have, can you create the courage to actually make that choice and be okay with the discomfort and the difficulty and the chaos that change often rains temporarily, but ultimately leads us to somewhere better.
Brad Wolff: 06:58
That’s a fantastic point, Marissa. And to pivot from that, what are the key things that you do to help your clients develop extraordinary cultures where people can really blossom and be at their best?
Marissa Levin: 07:14
So gosh, I mean that’s, that’s a loaded question. I mean, we, you know, we work and I specifically work with CEOs of companies. I’m most comfortable working with the CEO, the business owner, the entrepreneur because that’s what my journey has been. I am one of them. I am a CEO, so I understand the mindset. I’ve, you know, I’ve been a CEO for the last 27 years of a company. I’ve never worked in a Fortune 500 company. Like I’ve never been, I’ve never worked my way up, you know, through middle-level management to different levels. I don’t have the knowledge or experience with understanding how to navigate political structures and organizations. I mentioned that because my partner Jen, you know, in “Successful Culture International”, she came up through the ranks of Accenture and Anderson consulting, Freddie Mac. And so she’s really comfortable helping clients navigate those types of scenarios.
Marissa Levin: 08:15
So it works out really well. It’s a great balance. I personally love working with the entrepreneur and my goal is to help, well the CEOs and the entrepreneurs that come to me really create an environment of one that I think is very much like servant leadership, where the CEO truly believes that they are in the position to equip the employees with everything that they need, the knowledge, the resources, the psychological safety, the skills, the tools to thrive. And so the work that I do with my clients really focuses on how can I create really great leaders, which are different than managers? There are roles for both
Brad Wolff: 09:23
So you’ve hit on culture quite a bit. And my experience and all the research I’ve done has been so clear that an organization, whatever we see in our organizations is a result of our culture. So can you share a little bit of what do you see as the key things to create that type of culture that you’re speaking about?
Marissa Levin: 09:45
Yeah, and I love that we talked about this a little bit earlier too. Every organization has a culture. It’s either intentional or by default, but even companies who don’t pay attention to culture have a culture, right? I mean, it’s like the human body, that you have a level of health. If you pay attention to your level of health, it’s probably positive. If you don’t pay attention to your health, if you abuse your body, if you don’t take care of it, you have a poor level of health. It’s very similar to culture. If you pay attention to the culture and you’re very intentional about it, it will be a lot healthier than if you don’t do anything. But it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. So for us, our company has what’s known as a culture development life cycle. It’s a six-phase model.
Marissa Levin: 10:36
And the first phase in that model is what we call the foundation creation. And that is where we go into companies. And we help to create their values, mission, and
However, when we develop these for our clients, we roll them out in a workshop that educates employees on the connection between culture, values, and leadership, and we, and we also introduce a concept that we’ve created called shared responsibility so that employees have an opportunity to weigh in on the behaviors behind the values and take ownership of that.
Because we believe that there are no bad employees, there are only undesirable behaviors that that occur when an employee has taken their eye off the ball of what a core value is. So we train the leaders to spot the behaviors and how to actually navigate them back to the value. That’s what you know. That’s what we believe is really the foundation of culture is a value system and strong clarity on your mission and vision so that people feel like they’re part of something bigger than themselves.
Brad Wolff: 12:01
And you said something that you said a lot of things there that are interesting, but one thing that really caught my interest is your statement that there are no bad employees, there are just bad behaviors, I believe you said.
Marissa Levin: 12:15
Brad Wolff: 12:15
Okay. So with that mindset, that’s really interesting. If we choose to look at that, okay, rather than this is a bad person or whatever it is that we say, can you expand a little bit on the difference, the shift in mindset when the leader takes that approach?
Marissa Levin: 12:35
So, when that happens in a company that’s actually at the micro-level, let’s even take it up a little bit to a larger notch where
Marissa Levin: 12:45
You know people are not defined by one thing that they do or one event that happens in their life. Life is a trajectory of events. Life is a series of decisions, right? And so often when people are in a bad place in their life, when they’re going through something really difficult or really dark or they’ve made a mistake, they have a tendency to define themselves based on the right where they are at that moment in time. And the truth is, is that that’s just literally a blip on a larger radar screen and it doesn’t define them. It’s just one thread in a very rich tapestry that makes them who they are. So I kind of take the same approach with employees that you know, you bring someone into your company if you’ve done due diligence and you’ve done a really good job of vetting them and making sure that you’re bringing in people that are aligned to your values, aligned to your mission, you know, really are excited and passionate about the work that you do.
Marissa Levin: 13:46
And then something goes South, right? I mean, something happens, they mess up on a project, they have a bad day, they do something that is undesirable. I think it’s important for leaders to look at their people as human beings, like the whole scope. Right? And understand that, you know, was this something that was habitual? Was it a pattern or is this something that is out of the ordinary and it’s something that can, you know, be coached so that we can get an employee back on track. I’ve never believed in throwing out the baby with the bathwater. I believe that people are redeemable. And that’s kind of what I’ve always looked at when I look at my people who work for me is always seeing their humanity, which means also seeing their flaws.
Brad Wolff: 14:35
So when, when leaders adopt that viewpoint and behave in that way, how do you find that that impacts their cultures?
Marissa Levin: 14:45
It creates a safer culture. Like, you know, a culture where employees feel that they don’t have to just watch their own back because they believe that the people around them have their backs. They believe the leaders have their backs. I think leading with empathy and compassion is really essential, especially in today’s world. You know, where there’s just so much volatility and there’s so much anger and there’s so much, you know, judgment and ugliness inside and outside in the workplace. So I think it’s really important for leaders to lead with empathy and compassion to look at people and recognize that we’re all doing the best we can and to have a little bit of humanity when they’re dealing with their employees.
Brad Wolff: 15:33
So those are great philosophical advice that people lead with that mindset and keep going back to it. What do you find are the key things to help leaders actually put that into action? Because I imagine it’s often very different than how people have been conditioned from their past.
Marissa Levin: 15:54
So that’s a great question. So the first is lead by example, right? So if you want people to show up 100% and come to work and be 100% all-in you as the leader, you have to put yourself in their a hundred percent. You’ve gotta be fully connected with your people. You’ve got to be engaged in communication. You’ve got to be transparent in what’s going on. Transparency will lead to more transparency.
Secrecy will lead to more secrecy. So if you want an open, trust-based culture, it all starts with the leadership. Also, communication is essential and I don’t just mean one-way communication. That’s typically how communication is done in organizations. When I was running “Information Experts”, I was really committed to making sure that there was two-way communication. So for example, I didn’t like to have all-hands meetings. I like to have town hall meetings where I would allow employees anonymously to provide feedback several days ahead of what the meeting would be to tell me what we needed to be covering because I never assumed as the leader that I knew everything that was going one.
Marissa Levin: 17:01
In fact, my employees, they were living in the trenches every day. They had much more insight into what was happening with the nitty-gritty of the company than I did. So it was really important for me as a leader to get their point of view and I would ask them, what are the challenges? What are the, you know, what are they, what are the problems? What are the issues we need to be addressing? And by getting that feedback, I would incorporate that into my presentation and that allows my employees to know that they had a voice, that it truly was our company and that they were heard. So creating that type of two-way communication. So it starts with leadership at the top, making sure that they’re being, you know, authentic and they’re living the values they’re being true to who they say the company is.
Marissa Levin: 17:47
It’s creating a culture of two way transparent, trust-based communication. And then it’s also being very clear about what your expectations are. And this is where accountability comes in. So I’m not saying that you create like this kumbaya place where nobody’s responsible for anything. On the contrary, if you have very clear communication about what’s expected of you and what’s expected of your employees, and you put communications measures in place so that people feel comfortable saying, I’m not, I don’t feel like I’m set up for success. I need more coaching. I don’t have enough information. If you create an environment where they feel comfortable speaking up, then you’re able to hold them accountable because you’re, you’re able to say to them, do you have everything you need? And they’re gonna feel safe either saying yes or no. And then you put in very clear measures of accountability that are very specific. So this is how you create a culture of trust and 100% commitment is through leadership, leading by example, creating trust-based two-way communication and setting people up for success with clear expectations and measurable accountability.
Brad Wolff: 18:56
That’s tremendous advice. And you know, let’s say as a leader, because I’ve been a leader for many years, you know, we’re, we’re accustomed in our culture often just thinking the leader, the communication is the leader tells the employee there, you know, the subordinate feedback, you know, unpleasant feedback let’s say. But that it’s just important that it goes the other way. When, so you said that you did anonymously. People would give anonymous, when do you shift and how do you shift to allowing people to be direct that they feel safe enough? They can be direct. And let me know as the boss, let’s say that, Hey Brad, you said you were going to do X, you didn’t do X. You know, w you know what happened that they feel that, that I’m as accountable to them with my agreement as they are to me.
Marissa Levin: 19:46
So we can make as leaders, as much of an effort as possible to create that safe environment. And ultimately it’s going to reside with the employee and whether or not they feel safe. And I think to put in the anonymity, putting in the process, you know, in the end, the ability, the option to be anonymous, that is a safety net for employees to be able to be truly transparent. Now, you know, we did other things at “Information Experts”. We had an old fashioned suggestion box out of the front with paper and pencil and us just kind of let people drop stuff in whenever they felt like they had an idea. We can tell who’s hand-writing it was. So it’s just a matter of creating a culture that is saying, look, we want your ideas. We need your ideas to create the best company possible at “Successful Culture International”.
Marissa Levin: 20:31
When we go into our clients we always suggest doing the 360 assessments. In fact, we do those on a regular basis. I kind of look at 360 assessments on a quarterly basis as a, what we call pulse checks of an ABA company. And I compare them to going to the dentist twice a year, you know, to get your teeth checked. You want to make sure you’re getting the flack scraped off, you want to make sure that, you know, there’s nothing in there that’s going to cause a cavity down the road. It’s very similar doing culture checkups that we do at our clients every quarter.
These aren’t like exhausting surveys. They are anonymous assessments to give people an opportunity to weigh in on what’s working and what’s not working because they have great ideas. So I’m a huge fan of anonymous assessments, whether it’s just to get a pulse check on the culture or to go really deep on, you know, a leader to get an idea from, you know, 360-degree feedback. The people that report into that person, the people that that person reports into as well as a peer. We do three types of 360 assessments for our clients and it’s very brave work on their part.
Brad Wolff: 21:46
And that’s what I was wondering when you’re saying that is, you know, as human beings, we can all be defensive. Anything that challenges our ego and differs from how we want to see ourselves and wanting to sane, we’ll unleash defense of that. The amygdala gets fired up and we can all get defensive. What is it you do as a coach, as a leadership advisor, that to help your clients deal with that natural tendency to get defensive when some of that feedback really hits them close to home?
Marissa Levin: 22:19
So when they reach out to us for work for coaching, the first thing that we have to qualify is that they truly are coachable. And even though they might reach out, they may not be coachable. So we go through the process of what coaching involves and we talk about the assessments and we strongly suggest that we do the assessments so that we can create a baseline. That baseline gives us the foundation for the work that we’re going to do together to identify the blind spots that everybody has. And so we frame it up as an opportunity for them to learn and how to step into their greatest versions of themselves. So that’s, you know, that’s how we frame it up. And when we get the feedback back, we deliver it in as gently away as possible with, you know, the knowledge that we’re using this feedback, not from a place of judgment, but from a place of being able to improve so that they can show up, you know, in a better light. So we do definitely prepare them as much as we can psychologically and emotionally for the process of the 360. It can be really difficult, but I think that we gain our clients’ trust enough that we‘re able to hold their hands through it and it ends up being a very positive experience.
Brad Wolff: 23:48
I liked what you said, hold the hands because for any of us, as much as you know, we realize our ego isn’t who we are. When we hear something that really triggers some old stories and sensitivities, it can for any of us, no matter how far along it can at times, really potentially challenged what we want to believe about ourselves.
Marissa Levin: 24:11
Yeah. We all have blind spots. Yeah. One of us, you know, that doesn’t have some type of, you know, deficits, how we show up and it’s important that we are open to learning how to show up better
Brad Wolff: 24:25
And like a good dentist. There may be some things you can do, maybe some defensiveness, anesthesia so that when delivering this that you’re helping them deal with it in a positive way and not get, you know, over-reactive.
Marissa Levin: 24:40
Brad Wolff: 24:42
So every leader is dealing with a constantly changing external world that influences their business. Certainly, everything can be going great and everything is in sync today and then something happens tomorrow that throws things off. Tell me a little bit about what you do to address that challenge of this constantly changing external world.
Marissa Levin: 25:07
So and I’m glad you asked that because “Successful Culture International”, I think that one of the things that makes us very unique in aside from the fact that Jen and I bring collectively almost 60 years of experience of running businesses and you know, I mean it’s a lot of experience that we bring. But I think one of the things that also differentiates us is we really focus on the external factors that impact culture. So it isn’t just about how do I keep my people engaged and you know, how do I create great morale? And all of that is very important. But it’s really critical that leaders are attuned to what’s happening outside the company and how that will impact the culture. So we’ve actually written a white paper on that and I’m happy to share that with you, with your listeners.
Marissa Levin: 25:57
But there are certain things that really drive cultural shifts, whether it’s you know, the political shifts or regulatory shifts, the governmental shifts. I mean, I shared what our story was, right? That completely impacted our culture. If you’re a government contractor and the administration flips from one party to another, that‘s going to completely upend your culture because you need to change your strategy in terms of who you’re doing business with if your company goes through a merger, that’s a huge cultural disruption. If you bring in a new CEO, that’s another cultural disruption. If you have a company sec segment that spins off and launches and you know, in its own brand, that’s a whole cultural disruption, then you’ve got social, cultural disruption such
Marissa Levin: 26:53
All those types of things are things that are happening outside the business that employees bring into the business with them. And that just naturally permeates the business. You know, if we, you know, the rumors are that you know, 12 to 18 months from now, we might enter a recession. That’s going to completely shift organizational cultures because companies are going to have to dial back spending. They’re going to go into more of a scarcity mindset rather than an abundance mindset. But then there are other companies who might take advantage. So like if you’re in the construction industry and we go into a recession, then you might say, this is the time for me to go buy all of my lumber. Right, and this is the time to go buy all of my materials. Like recessions triggered different events in companies, so it’s just being aware of how external events can impact an organization
Brad Wolff: 27:49
And what I’m getting from that, Marissa is an element of the intentionality of intentionally adjusting a culture based on what the environment is really asking of them to adjust.
Marissa Levin: 28:03
Yeah. At the end of the day, if you’re not relevant, it doesn’t matter how good your idea is or how solid your infrastructure is. If you’re not relevant to what’s happening outside in the marketplace, you’re going to go out of business. I shared with you that I heard from someone who is in the Bitcoin industry and he reached out to me and he’s invested so much money in different Bitcoin platforms and different technologies and he’s got these patents and everything and he can’t sell anything to save his life. So, you know, an idea is great. Execution of an idea is great, but if it’s not relevant to what the market needs, you’re gonna fall flat.
Brad Wolff: 28:46
Right. So a culture needs to continuously evolve based on the external circumstances that it’s dealing with.
Marissa Levin: 28:51
Brad Wolff: 28:52
So that an intentional thing because if you don’t do it intentionally, it’ll happen unconsciously and likely not to be the way that you want.
Marissa Levin: 29:01
Yeah. In fact, you just triggered a memory for me when I first launched “Information Experts”, my first company, my background is in education and training and instructional design, curriculum development. So when I launched that company, it primarily focused on instructor-led, classroom-based training because that’s where things were 27 years ago. We didn’t even have e-learning. We didn’t have the internet available for that type of use. We didn’t have the bandwidth. This is when people were dialing up over America, you know, AOL. So you couldn’t, you know, do multimedia, web-based training. All of your training was done in the classroom. And then John Chambers, who was the CEO of Cisco at the time, I think he’s chairman now, he announced that e-learning would be quote-unquote the killer application of the internet. And literally, the day that he said that the whole industry for training changed.
Marissa Levin: 30:04
I mean it was overnight. And I remember being at that crossroads that I mentioned to you and I said, I am either going to have to shift and become an e-learning company or I’m going to go out of business. And I had to figure out very quickly how to become an eLearning company. I had to hire people I had never hired before, like multimedia developers and web developers because instructional designers back then weren’t web developers. Now you can meet an instructional designer and they know how to do all the programming. Back then those roles were completely separate.
So I had to learn how to reconfigure my whole company based on this shift in the industry because the pendulum, and this is what happens with disruption, after it hits that tipping point, the pendulum swung all the way to the right, like everybody was doing classroom-based training and then the next day, no one wanted classroom-based training.
And it took a while for the pendulum to come back to the center where blended learning was the solution of choice because that means the needs of all different types of learners. And that’s where we still are today. That classroom-based training still exists. There’s a place for it, just like there’s a place for web-based training. But overnight I had to shift my entire service line, how we were marketing, what we were marketing. I mean, you know who I needed. Literally, my entire organization shifted with one announcement from John Chambers.
Brad Wolff: 31:42
Wow. Talk about unpredicted and strange.
Marissa Levin: 31:46
It was crazy. So if you’re a CEO and you’re not flexible and you’re not ready to pivot on a dime, you’re going to go out of business,
Brad Wolff: 31:54
Marisa. And what I get from that is your willingness, which you can help model and guide your clients with your willingness quickly say, what do I need to do now? Because otherwise, it’s easy to get stuck with complaining and resisting how things were. And it shouldn’t be this way. These are kind of natural responses that people can get into, but these responses are maladaptive.
Marissa Levin: 32:20
Yeah. You have to like emotionally detach from what was in order to move forward to what is,
Brad Wolff: 32:27
And that’s a skill. And it sounds like that’s a skill that you work with your clients on developing one of the most crucial skills I imagine that there is today. So Marissa, as we wrap this up, because this has been hugely informative and
Brad Wolff: 32:40
I consider a very practical way for anybody, whether you’re a leader or not, everyone’s a leader in reality and that you’re influencing yourself and others. Would you share some with respect to websites and books and other things that all the audiences can dial into you to get this valuable information or reach out to you?
Marissa Levin: 32:56
Yeah, sure. So our website is Successful Culture dot com we have a lot of information on there, a full library. We invite everybody to sign up for our newsletter on that website. I’m very active on LinkedIn, constantly posting. So find me Marissa Levin on LinkedIn. We also have “Successful Culture International” on Facebook and “Successful Culture International” on LinkedIn. And my book is “Built To Scale” and that is the only model on how to build advisory boards, which I know we didn’t even talk about, but that book is on Amazon and then it’s also at “builttoscale.info”, so the word of built to scale dot info people can get the book there and learn about how to build a great advisory board there.
Brad Wolff: 33:40
And I believe that was a best seller that in your book also. Okay, I wanted to add that because that was my understanding.
Marissa Levin: 33:45
Yeah. It’s the number one bestseller on the topic.
Brad Wolff: 33:48
Wow. Well, you left that part out.
Marissa Levin: 33:51
We haven’t talked yet. We haven’t talked about building advisory boards all to come back.
Brad Wolff: 33:55
Okay. Yeah, You know what? Yeah, because we don’t want to overwhelm. Marissa look, it has really been a pleasure and an honor to get you to spend the time here and share what you obviously freely share information that’s a value that can help everybody in dealing. We’re all living in the same world, which is constantly changing and unpredictable. So I want to thank you for making those investments.
Marissa Levin: 34:19
Yeah. Anything that helps other entrepreneurs. You know, I’ve always believed that entrepreneurship is really the backbone of our country’s financial stability. And you know, my lifetime legacy mission, that something I created, that idea, a lifetime legacy mission, is to educate, equip, and empower 100 million leaders to reach their greatest personal and organizational potential. So when I do these types of podcasts and I speak and I write, you know, write for Inc magazine or whoever I’m fulfilling my lifetime legacy mission.
Brad Wolff: 34:52
Thank you. Thank you very much, Marissa.
Marissa Levin: 34:55
It’s been a pleasure.