Understand and Control Company Culture with Bretton Putter

Reading Time: 15 Minutes

After interviewing more than 500 senior executives over the past 16 years, Bretton Putter has become a specialist in understanding how individuals define, develop, and implement their company’s culture.

After the Interview:

About Bretton Putter

Bretton is a leading expert on startup and high-growth company culture. He is the founder and CEO of CultureGene, a culture development platform helping companies transition effectively to remote work.

Read the Transcript

This transcript was auto-generated from the original video recording using Otter Voice Meeting Notes. While the transcript has not been human edited, we hope it will still help you to quickly find or reference useful information from the interview.


Deliberate Leaders I am your host, Allison Dunn, Executive Coach and Founder of the deliberate Leaders podcast dedicated to helping leaders build strong, thriving businesses. Each episode we feature inspiring interviews to help you on your leadership journey. And today’s guest is not only an author of Own Your Culture, he is also a culture expert and CEO Brett Putter. Brett is a leading expert on startup and high growth company cultures is the founder and CEO of culture chain, which is a culture development platform, helping companies to transition effectively to remote work, no small challenge here. After interviewing more than 5000 senior executives over the past 16 years, Brett has become a specialist in understanding how individuals define, develop and implement their company cultures. Brett, thanks so much for joining us here today on Deliberate Leaders.


Andy, my pleasure really, really great to great to join and thanks for having me.


Absolutely. I love to kick these off with a quick deliberate conversation. So the question of the day is, what would be your number one leadership tip for our listeners?


Number one leadership tip for your listeners is to have what I call the we’re on the moon conversation. Tell me you’re on the moon conversations basically saying to your team, the world has changed so that it’s almost unrecognizable. Obviously, we do recognize it. But I would rather you looked at it as if we were on Earth, we were warned ahead of time that Earth is gonna be obliterated by an asteroid. So we all flew to the moon. On the moon, the gravity is different, what we wear is different, what we eat is different, everything’s changed. And we’re not going back to the way the earth was, yes, we may go and visited from the moon from time to time, and we may experience some of it. But we’re not going back. And I think the sooner leaders have this conversation with their people, the sooner they can move forward into building a new, relevant hybrid or remote work culture for their business.


That’s a great tip that I have to admit that one has not been shared before. You may be up there as the most unique tip yet. So thank you very much. I think one of the things that really interests me, and I’m going to enjoy your perspective on it, but that you’ve basically pointed out that the lack of cultural development may be its own pandemic. So could you share your brilliance and insights into that?


Sure. So essentially, a pandemic is a global phenomenon. And, and it’s a threat. And so the lack of culture developments happen is an existence in the vast majority of companies around the world. When I wrote, Own Your Culture, I’m on an interview just over 50 cut 50 leaders, but to interview 50, I had to speak to over 500. So one out of 10 companies has done something about the culture and only half of those have done a good job about their culture, essentially. So what we have is we have people working in environments where they shouldn’t be they working in the wrong culture, the wrong environment, they have mismatched values, which then puts stress on them. And people have to wear a mask when their values don’t match the leaders values or the rest of the team’s values. And wearing a mask is hard. It’s stressful, and you can’t be yourself. And that is one of the reasons why engagement globally, according to Gallup is so low. That is one of the reasons why I believe this is this you know, we’ve been in this slow building bubbling pandemic of legit lack of culture development for years. And this moment in time is going to force leaders to realize how critical culture is because we don’t have the officers to fall back on. We can’t be lazy about our culture and expect our officers to give us learning through osmosis and learning through informal communication etc, etc. So that’s really my point on this pandemic. The second pandemic that isn’t as immediately threatening but is just is a really serious issue.


I will share that I really very consistently here How am I supposed to have a company culture if People don’t come to the office at how do we maintain that? What would be some of your suggestions for people to be thinking about and broaden their mind about it not just being around the physical space?


your company culture is a random combination of things, values, mission, vision, behaviors, communication styles, rituals, habits, routines, good and bad. And actually, your culture develops over time. So as you learn what works, you develop these good and bad behaviors. And actually, if you as a leader step back and say, What are the what’s the underlying foundations of my culture, it’s the values because they are your values, and hopefully the rest of your team’s values. And it’s the mission, what you do every day, and the vision where you’re planning on going. And so I think if you haven’t done any work yet on values, mission and vision, that’s where you start. And then what you need to do is you need to start to build a culture around what I call remote first work. What that means is you have to be more deliberate about communication, you have to be more deliberate about social connection, you have to be more deliberate about documentation about process, sizing your business. And ideally, you would look at companies like gate level buffer or hot jar, these companies that have been remote for five or 10 years, and learn about what they do so well, because this is your future. Your future, even if it’s hybrid involves people who we were working remotely for some time. So if you study what remote companies do, well, you can then start to adapt your business over time, which helps you your culture adapt, remember,most people see culture is this amorphous, invisible, subconscious intangible thing. But actually, it’s a very visible conscious, tangible thing to great leaders who make it so whether you’re remote, or whether you’re hybrid, or whether you’re in an office.


That’s a great definition of culture, and how many facets of that actually, like incorporated in that it’s building every time you add someone new every time you allow something to happen. You have a way to create a magnetic company culture through decision checklists. Can you just explain what that is? And why people should review their checklist?


Sure, so this is particularly focused at leaders. The decision checklist is based around how you how culture is embedded in an organization. So there are only six ways to embed culture. And essentially, this is the checklist, the checklist is what do, we reward and recognizing, what are we measuring and paying attention to? What are we doing when it comes to allocating resources? And how are we allocating resources in our in our organization? What are we doing when it comes to training when it comes to learning, l&d? How are we doing when it comes to crisis behavior or difficult decision behavior? And then how do we how are we hiring, firing and promoting? That’s it, those six things are your decision checklist. In other words, if you say Customer Success is important, but you’re not rewarding and recognizing it, you’re not paying attention to it or measuring it and you’re not hiring good people for it, your people know you’re lying. So your culture is being broken is being as you’re creating a false expectation for your people. So if you look at these six, embedding mechanisms and go do do I and my team, live it live the values against these embedding mechanisms? And do we look at our culture through this this lens of these six embedding mechanisms, these six checklists, points, then I think it’s a lot easier to run a business and embed a strong functional culture.


For you, you’ve interviewed a lot of executives and to come up with just a handful of good ones. Why do you believe that companies and or its leadership struggles with the accuracy of defining their culture and then living it as well?


So actually, culture is hard to define because it’s changing all the time, and it is all over the place. So if you know when, when companies when leaders say to me, I hire for culture fit, after I’ve said nonsense, I actually asked him to accurately define their culture and they can’t because it is hard. But if you understand what your foundations, your values, your mission and your vision are and then you start building it from there, you can start to make more of come to the surface, more of invisible conscious, intangible. So that’s really the great leaders are doing this every day all day, they’re thinking about how do I apply my culture here? How do I think about how this matches against my culture. And so the best way really to approach this is to, is to go and say, who I use, I use this example, the easiest way to help people think about culture is who is person x. Person x is somebody who you’ve worked with who you just didn’t get on with, they didn’t work the way everybody else did. They just didn’t fit in for some reason, or they behaved badly or they behaved incorrectly. And so what I say is, first of all, put person remember who person x is from your past or from your current role from your current position, or from your current role, and then the fine person next, and then hire people who are not person next, and start building your culture in that way, the things that you expect from your team.


And in, in helping a business develop and implement a value-based hiring process. Is there any other tools that they can use other than taking an example of someone who, who you don’t want to hire? What other tips might you give, so that we really are honing in on like the right value type, value based that connects with that person, so we’re not wearing our masks?


So this is this is a, this is a really important point for leaders, because there are only two ways to break your culture, if you have a strong functional one. The first one is if you start doing things that do not work with the embedding mechanisms with those six embedding mechanisms, basically, you lie to people, or you allow people in who are the wrong fit with your values. So what most companies do is they say, these are our values, we’ve done this exercise, and they used to stick about a stick, they stick them stick them up on the walls, and nothing changed. But what we do as a company with our clients is we say, Okay, let’s define your values. And now let’s define the expected behaviors against those values. So for example, if a value for the company was teamwork, teamwork is actually it’s, it’s vague. What does teamwork mean? We kind of have an idea, but we could all have different interpretations. So on the one hand, it could be a group of people coming together with a common goal. On the other hand, it could be the team always comes first, depending on who’s interpreting this word. So what we do, let’s say in my company is I say, the venue is teamwork, the expected behavior is the team always comes first. And then what we do is we build an interview question against the behavior against the value. So the interview question here would be when last Did you take one for the team? And why? And this is a really powerful question. Because you can’t lie. It’s very hard to lie around this. It’s very, because then you ask deeper and deeper and deeper questions about the impact why they did that, what their preparation was, what they what the results were, and what they learned from it. And if you ask every single candidate, exactly the same question, then his base question, you can evaluate them and score them against it. So you need to take your values, define behaviors, and then both interview questions against those behaviors.


There’s a lot of discussion around the fact you know, there, there’s a lot of words that you can’t actually figure out how to behave to, to achieve them. And so that’s a common exercise that I work through with clients of you know, so exactly what does integrity look like, right? And so what are better words that we could use so that people can understand like, Oh, that’s, you know, being, you know, trustworthy or something else that they can resonate with. So I like the fact that you’re, you’re driving and aligning with the concept of it’s a behavior driven value system.


So you can’t  see you can’t normally you can’t easily see a value in action. But you can see behavior, you can reward, you can recognize it, you can measure it, you can pay attention to it. So it fits back into the framework and the six decision points.


What would be your advice for a company that thought that they were hiring know an end in hand image individual that had aligned values, but then it doesn’t fire them?


Um, how quickly yesterday, yesterday, okay.


So this is I’m being a little bit you know, there’s, I’m being a little bit blunt here, but actually, ultimately, if somebody as we discussed earlier, if somebody is their knees don’t match, they have to wear a mask. And actually, they then become a candidate, they strongly not don’t do not fit your values and they become toxic to your organization. And I think there’s this great saying a leopard will not, cannot change spots. You know, you can teach somebody, that person can learn new skills, and they can learn new capabilities, but they cannot change their behavior, they can’t change their values, it’s just not worth the effort, get rid of them, you’re doing them a favor, because they’re in the wrong place. And you’re doing the business a favor, because they don’t want the wrong person, you don’t want the wrong person in the company.


So can I take that to another level, and maybe have you also, you know, weapons, if I, a leader inside of the organization has a good performer, but is actually concerned that they are wearing a mask? How can you even tell.


But you’ll you will pick it up in their behavior. Because if it assuming everybody is quite consistent in terms of everybody else’s living the values, then this person will ultimately slip up, it’s really, really hard. If you’re under stress, which most people are at work and you’re under deadlines, or you’re being pushed for numbers, or you’ve got to get the code out, or whatever it is, it’s really hard to maintain the mask all the time. So you’ll start to slip, that personal will start to slip, they’ll start to snap, they may, they may, they may start to behave in a brilliant jerk kind of way, or just a bad, you know, and you if you have your finger on the pulse, you get a sense from your team, that that this doesn’t thing, you know, they they’re almost a blocker there, there’s politics there is, you know, they try and do things around that, and then they don’t deliver the values and you can see it that doesn’t, doesn’t really, you know, it’s the problem is most companies do not have a well defined set of values and behaviors. And they don’t have a strong culture and a functional culture, which means that people can sort of get away with because it’s all a bit of soup rather than specific vegetables.


Right? Sometimes the recipe is pretty unclear. When you’re identifying candidates. What do you think companies should be thinking about when they’re trying to train their managers on how to be hiring managers based on values? Like what would be some of your recommendations if it’s not part of their training process yet?


So I would have the person x conversation with them. And I would look for them to really expand on those behaviors and to really understand what could have driven this person what, you know, let’s unpick person x really unpick them. The second thing is, I would I would ask them to come up with their own questions against the behaviors. So you can’t just it’s creating behaviors based interview questions is not it’s, it’s, it seems quite simple. But actually, you’ve got to ask a question that communicates against an actual behavior at a time that gives you a lot more insight into this candidate. So you can’t ask a simple question. You know, it’s the if you’re looking for, you know, what, another example of good interview question, let’s say feedback is one of your values. You know, a good interview question for feedback is when last did you give somebody feedback in a situation that wasn’t easy? Take me through that process. And, and I would say, give me a detail, take me through a detailed step by step of that process. And first of all, if they don’t give me detail that will knock them out, because I need detail. Secondly, I really want to understand how they approached it. I want to understand what they said, and I want to understand what they learned and how they dealt with this difficult. What’s their emotional intelligence, like, did they just steamroll the person or where they where they were, you know, where they considered where they considered, etc? So it’s how you ask the question. So I would get a get those, those hiring managers to think about this and get them ready and teach them to be really good at it. And then I would get somebody who has experienced that doing these interviews, just sit with them and the first interview, and actually and actually, either roleplay, but, but also interview a candidate with them, and show them how to do it. I do that with my clients, every single client, I sit with the hiring managers, the VP of HR if they haven’t been through something like this, and I’ll say, Okay, let’s run through an interview that we do with a candidate and, and you will see, you get the insight it’s literally you can actually see their eyes go wow, okay. There’s so much more depth.


Do you have any additional guidance regarding the fact that we have almost a work from anywhere situation going on worldwide? Is there things that hiring managers should be trying to do when you can’t get a sense of someone’s full body language? Or, you know, how they’re expressing things? Are there any other tips that are assessments that we can use to make sure that we’re hiring correctly, based on the values?


Yeah, this should be this should be a company wide change in process rather than hiring manager trying to ensure things over this year, which is really hard. So what I do with my clients is we will we set up a task, and depending on the seniority, the task is longer or shorter. So the more senior the person, the longer the task. And as part of the hiring process, all candidates are informed that they will go through this task evaluation once if they get to the shortlist stage. So it’s very clear. And so basically, what we do is we let’s say it’s a product manager role, we’ll create a product management task where they have to speak to somebody in engineering, somebody in marketing, somebody in sales, and somebody in the C suite, and that they have to actually come up with a software solution to the task and present it. But actually, over two weeks while doing that they actually working with the team. And what I encourage my clients to do is to actually pay the person for two days of consulting work. So yes, you’re working? Yes, you’re giving us value. If you don’t get the job, we’re going to respect you and who you are. This is obviously quite a senior hire. But on the junior on the junior roles as well, we’ll do something similar.


Okay. So engaging them in the team and really seeing how that dynamic lives out in in the task. Okay. That’s a great suggestion.


You work with the candidate. It’s not a it’s not an interview process. It’s a work with the candidate process.


Great suggestion. And I think to answer the question of do you pay them for that time you do? For sure.




So own your own your culture is the book that I’m going to point folks to what do you what do you have planned out? What’s in the future for you, Brett?


I mean, your culture broke me. I’m not a very good. I’m not a very good writer.


That’s not funny, but I am laughing. I empathize.


Yeah, it I actually, I published the book in September. And apart from responding to emails, I haven’t picked up a pen since then to write anything creative. But I’m getting there. So at the moment, I’m actually I’m working on expanding my software. So we’ve built a software platform. And, and what we’re doing with the software platform replicates my process. And I designed it over 18 months ago for distributed teams, and just by chance, and we have unfortunately gone into this pandemic, but actually, it’s positioned me really well to be able to deliver the service that I do anywhere in the world now. So we really, I’m really investing quite heavily in the software now and building culture development initiatives around that so that my clients can use more and more of the software once they’ve gone through the process with me.


Fantastic. So you’re so your current future focuses on making sure the platform kind of coincides and helps people implement that inside their business. That’s fantastic. But is there anything I didn’t think to ask you that you were hoping to share today?


No, I think I think you’ve covered I think pretty much all I think the only thing that that I settled on, one might explore a little bit is the difference between leading in an office environment versus leading in a remote environment, which is a little bit more much more coach focused than it is alpha, sort of male or female focused. Because there is there is a there is there are a number of studies showing that the leaders of remote environments are not the same people. As the leaders of office space environments, they end up being much more supportive and operationally minded versus you know, the charismatic You know, talker speaker that that person will be used to following in an office. But other than that, I’ve really enjoyed the conversation and I think you’ve covered it all.


Awesome. I love. I love the fact that you’ve added that in I think that that is something worthwhile for our listeners to be thinking about as we have leaders who are leading remote workforces that is requiring maybe some different skill sets and some different talents than if you’re in office. That’s such a great, great point. Thank you, Brett. I so appreciate you joining us here on the podcast today and look forward to getting update sometime in the near future.


My pleasure and thanks very much for your time. I really enjoyed it.


Thank you.

Transcribed by https://otter.ai

I'm Allison Dunn,

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