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On this episode of Dare to Lead

Kevin Oakes is the head of the world’s leading HR research firm, the Institute for Corporate Productivity, and we are talking about his new book, Culture Renovation: 18 Leadership Actions to Build an Unshakeable Company. The best playbooks are a combination of reliable research, relatable examples, and actionable strategies. And this is the best playbook I’ve seen when it comes to creating organizational cultures that create competitive advantage, unlock performance, and rehumanize work.

About the guest

Kevin Oakes

Kevin Oakes is the author of Culture Renovation: 18 Leadership Actions to Build an Unshakeable Company. He is also CEO and co-founder of the world’s leading HR research firm, the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp). Oakes has been a pioneer in the human capital field for the past 25 years and is an international keynote speaker on culture, talent management, leadership, innovation, diversity, metrics, and strategic learning in organizations. After serving as CEO of the first company created by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, he created and served as the president of SumTotal Systems, one of the largest providers of talent and learning solutions in the world.

Show notes

Culture Renovation: 18 Leadership Actions to Build an Unshakeable Company, by Kevin Oakes

Culture Renovation: 18 Leadership Actions to Build an Unshakeable Company, by Kevin Oakes

Culture Renovation identifies 18 proven leadership actions for turning any culture into an agile, resilient, and innovative high-performance organization. Learn how to best understand the culture in place today and set a new cultural path for decades to come; develop a co-creation mindset; identify influencers and blockers; ferret out skeptics and nonbelievers; measure, monitor, and report progress; and implement “next practices” in talent strategies to sustain the renovation.

“This was the hardest part of all this. I appreciate all those bands more so than just the individual song, so it’s much more about the collectiveness of the band than it is about the song.”


Brené Brown: Hi, everyone. I’m Brené Brown, and welcome to the Dare to Lead podcast. I do a lot of work with organizations, with teams, with leaders, and still, decades after we’ve learned about the importance of culture, and we have been talking about cultural transformation and culture change, it is still so gauzy and so hard to get our heads and our hearts around what is culture change. How do you do it? How do you measure it? How do you think about it? It’s really still difficult.

BB: And I’ve got good news, because today I am talking to Kevin Oakes, who—his new book, Culture Renovation: 18 Leadership Actions to Build an Unshakeable Company, is one of the best playbooks on culture change that I have ever read. And I have read a ton. This is a book that combines reliable research, really good examples and case studies, and actionable strategies. You can read this book and engage in culture change; 18 specific actions in order, broken up by three phases, this is a blueprint. This is what I think we’ve been looking for and needing. So I’m really excited to talk to Kevin Oakes today about the new book, and we’re going to go through the 18 steps and what they mean, and I’m also going to ask some hard questions about pushback and resilience, and here’s what I hear when we try to do this often in teams or in cultures and organizations, How do we respond?

BB: All right, so Kevin Oakes is the author of Culture Renovation: 18 Leadership Actions to Build an Unshakeable Company. He’s also the CEO and co-founder of i4cp, the Institute for Corporate Productivity, which is the world’s leading HR research firm. You’ll see very quickly that he’s got the goods and he’s got the data and research to back it up, which from research geek to research geek, I love this. Oakes has been a pioneer in this field for the last 25 years. He’s an international keynote speaker on culture, talent management, leadership, innovation, diversity metrics, and strategic learning in organizations. After serving as CEO of the first company created by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, he created and served as president of SumTotal Systems, one of the largest providers of learning solutions in the world.

BB: Welcome, Kevin Oakes. Kevin, I am—you know, it’s weird, I’m a weird combination of excited and anxious to talk to you about the new book. So I’ll start with this, how are you?

Kevin Oakes: I’m doing great. How are you?

BB: I’m good. We are recording this on Friday, January 8. Is today the 8th?

KO: Yes, but this seems like a very, very long week. It felt like Friday two days ago.

BB: I haven’t really been tracking months or days since the pandemic started, but now that we’ve got this really scary, anxiety-fueled uncertainty in Washington—we’ve always had some level of that in the last several years, but it’s at a new high. So before we jump into the book, this is a book about culture renovation and your approach to culture. I go in and do a lot of culture work, I feel like—and I wrote this as an endorsement, I will just tell you full media disclosure here, on the book, because it really is probably the most comprehensive playbook I’ve ever seen for culture change. So thank you for that.

KO: Well, I love that you picked up on that, Brené, and I love that you have that endorsement, of course. And we put it on the front of the book. But that’s really what I was trying to do with this book. I think so often, CEOs and people in companies, they want to change culture, but they just don’t know how. They just don’t know what are the right steps to take. And so this is a very research-based approach to providing a blueprint, or, as you said, a playbook, for how you can go about having a successful culture change.

BB: You know, and I love this threaded metaphor in the book about renovation because so often when I go into an organization, it’s, “Let’s pitch everything, let’s just get right, we just have to start over from zero.” And you talk about renovating a culture, like renovating a beautiful historic house. There are so many things that are foundational to an organization, foundational to that historic house that make it what it is, and it’s about knowing what to keep and knowing what to change and the why. Is that fair?

KO: That’s very fair. And it’s funny, because this all started from a research study that we had conducted where we were trying to examine how do organizations successfully change culture? Because most that try to do this, they fail. In fact, our research and any study I’ve ever seen on this shows that about 15% of companies that set out to change their culture will later declare that that was a success for them. What we did with the study itself was looked at many, many organizations, thousands of organizations, and tried to understand of those that succeeded, what were some of the commonalities in that success and create the study, which then the book came from, a blueprint, as I said before, just a step-by-step approach to, how do you do this? And I felt like everything I’ve read on culture—I shouldn’t say everything—but a lot of things that I’ve read on culture, they tend to be very ethereal. They tend to be very strategic—high in the sky—as opposed to, “Let’s get down to brass tacks. What can you do to make an impact in your organization?” And I was so grateful to the CEOs of the companies that I worked with and the CHROs who really lent to the book some of the things that worked for them so that we created what we call 18 leadership actions to build an unshakeable company.

KO: And those 18 actions are set out into a three-phase approach that we took with the renovation theme, and that approach was plan, build, and, probably the part that gets ignored or neglected, is maintain—a lot of times, it’s very easy to revert back to the way it was—and just tried to highlight some of those actions that you could take. But I love that you love the renovation title. You’ve loved that from the start. When we started out, we were calling this culture transformation, which is the way most people talk about culture change, but no successful company ever transforms a culture. They don’t start completely anew or from scratch. The best ones are keeping the core purpose. They’re keeping some of those core tenets, the things that really made them great to begin with, and then they’re future-proofing the company by renovating for agility, renovating for resilience, which in the day we live in right now is just so critical for so many organizations.

BB: It’s interesting, because I’ve been thinking a lot about these words “transformation” and “renovation,” and I almost wish we would have thought about renovation when we talked about digital transformation. And I’ll tell you why. To digitally renovate something as opposed to digital transformation, which is often when the shit hits the fan and I get asked to come in because people are getting entrenched and not changing and there’s a lot of resistance. But I think the resistance sometimes is unnecessary because it is renovation, it is we’re going to take this house built in 1920, and we’re going to bring it up-to-date, up to code, and we’re going to keep what’s special about our traditions and rituals and culture, and then we’re going to up the Wi-Fi and be able to turn on the lamps. The reason why I think renovation is important is that, from our research, what we have found is the greatest shame trigger at work is the fear of being irrelevant. And the way you’ve laid out this playbook, which I want to get into quickly, but the way you’ve laid out this playbook really aligns with my belief that if you are willing to lean into change and renovate and also keep the organizational history and purpose, that is gold.

KO: Yeah. One of the companies I featured in the book was F5 Networks, which is a smaller organization but a public company in Seattle. And the CEO, François, is just a very, very interesting guy. He grew up in Africa, spent a lot of time in France, and then came to the U.S. And when I was talking to him, he said, “You know, Kevin, it’s funny, when I came in as CEO of the company, I wasn’t using the term ‘renovation,’ but that’s exactly what I was trying to do with the culture, because what I really wanted to do was respect everything that had been done before I got there.” I think if you come in as a CEO, and this happens a lot—a new CEO can come into an organization and very quickly say, “Hey, so much of what you did in the past was wrong. The reason I’m here is because there was some issue,” you are going to disenfranchise that organization and you’re disrespecting all the great work that they did to build that company up to what it is today before you arrived.

KO: And so for François, it was, “I wanted to respect that. There were some great core tenets that the organization had that we wanted to keep, but there were several things that we knew we needed to change in order to be more competitive going forward.” And he really partnered with Ana White, the CHRO there, to make those changes happen. And it’s been a great success story, but as you know in the book, there’s several different success stories, several different companies that I just love talking about that have had great change inside their organization.

BB: It’s interesting. I never thought about it really, to be honest with you, so clearly until I read this book, because when you talk about chucking it all, you create a level of fear and anxiety and disrespect in the culture, and a level of resistance that is unnecessary and will actually 100% of the time block the change you’re seeking to create. Does that make sense to you?

KO: Yeah, it does. And a psychologically safe environment is such an important tenet of being change-ready. One statistic we’ve always found in our research is that the companies that embrace change, and they look at change as normal but also as an opportunity, those are going to be the most successful companies in the world. It’s the companies that fear change, despise change, try to avoid change, and also the cultures where it’s not psychologically safe—if you make a mistake, you’re going to be punished, you don’t use it as a learning opportunity—those are going to be low-performing organizations generally. So we always try to make that bifurcation of what are high-performing organizations doing differently with their people practices versus low-performing organizations.

KO: And I think you see that from a cultural perspective in those organizations. It’s really a stark contrast. Every single company that I’ve featured as a successful culture renovation case study, those are companies that really embrace change and probably change quite a bit. I also think that there’s something to the idea that you should almost induce change on a regular basis inside the organization just to keep it fresh and alive rather than waiting for change to happen to you. And I think the pandemic has shown us the companies that have gotten through this the best, those are the companies that probably had been inducing change, that looked at change as normal in their organizations. The ones that are really struggling, many of those companies, they’re resting on their laurels. They just didn’t really embrace change at all.

BB: And this is where I think our work intersects with your work because another word for change is “discomfort,” and so companies that have normalized discomfort as part of growth, as part of courage, as part of innovation and creativity, the normalization of discomfort, I think that coupled with a growth mindset are the two things that are the real predictors for these companies, especially as both of us have seen companies that are almost thriving during the pandemic in terms of culturally and revenue bottom line. It’s interesting. And I just have to go back and I want to make sure that everyone caught this: Only 15% of companies that embark on making cultural change are successful. Fifteen percent! And God, the money and anxiety and time dedicated to these big overhauls and then with a success rate of 15%, man, this is why you need a blueprint because that is not a good ROI by any standard. Right?

BB: All right, so plan, phase one, develop and deploy—and these are your 18 strategies. I’m not sure we’re going to get through all of them, but I’m going to pick the ones that I think we need to talk about—because the ones I think people don’t understand or where I see the most resistance. So number one just never happens, which is develop and deploy a comprehensive listening strategy.

KO: And today, that’s so much more important than ever. What we’re finding is that organizations that really truly listen to the workforce and understand the sentiment of the workforce, those are the organizations that are going to set themselves up for success long term. I always say this to organizations that I talk with: “The worst thing a senior executive team can do is lock themselves in a room when they’re starting out on a culture change initiative and decide for themselves what the culture is today because they will get it wrong.” They need to go out to the workforce, to the employee base through a number of different methods and really understand what is the culture that exists in the organization right now.

KO: Now, a lot of companies have spent tons and tons of money on the annual Employee Engagement Survey.

BB: Of course.

KO: And a lot of organizations, I feel like if you’re using that as the barometer for what your culture is today, it also is not going to be accurate. It’s too infrequent, it’s too impersonal, and frankly, I think too much money has been spent on those engagement surveys. And what more and more companies are doing today are more-frequent pulse surveys, so some companies are asking questions every week. Some companies are asking a question in a day, which I think is a really, really interesting strategy. And many are using technology to help here. I think there’s some very interesting natural language processing technology where companies are using a combination of artificial intelligence and NLP to let employees write in their own words what they’re feeling and what they’re experiencing, and then the engine can help categorize that for somebody looking at that data and make sure that you understand where are the major themes coming from.

KO: Previously, when you let employees fill in the open-answer part of the engagement survey, that was a very laborious process to have to go through and read every one of their answers, and then generally those are categorized into two broader category, like “leadership” or “communication,” and you don’t get down to the true issues. And so some of these sophisticated listening strategies I think are really helping executive teams or helping HR really understand what that employee’s sentiment is. I gave some examples around what certain companies are doing, and Amazon does an interesting thing. They’ve been asking a question a day. And I think a lot of people—when I say, “Go out and survey the workforce,” they worry about, Are we over-surveying the workforce? Are they getting fatigued by that? In some ways a question a day gets you into a rhythm, right, and it becomes just a normal part of your day.

BB: It’s habitual, yeah.

KO: Amazon does it a little strategically. They want to implant an idea or a theme with their workforce that people can talk about. So one of the questions they had a while ago, which I just love, is, Is your manager a simplifier or a complexifier? That got a lot of managers thinking, “Oh, crap! What am I doing with my employees? Am I making things more complex? Or am I really helping to simplify for the workforce?” So that’s just one example of how you can be creative around those questions, but I think that comprehensive listening strategy is so critical to setting everything up for success long term. And I know I talked a lot about T-Mobile in the book, how they changed their culture, but John Legere, the former CEO of T-Mobile, had some great quotes around listening and how, when he came in as CEO to a failing company—a company that was just absolutely losing customers, bleeding customers left and right—the first thing he did was just start listening, just start listening to the employees, listening to the customers, and then trying to implement what they were telling him. In some ways, it can sound very simplistic, but it’s amazing how many companies just don’t do that. They don’t start out with a listening strategy.

BB: So let me ask you this question. A lot of entrepreneurs and small-business owners listen to the podcast. Let’s talk about the tricky nature of a listening project or a listening strategy. First of all, let me just back up and say hooray for qualitative research and collecting those things, and getting thematic analysis through the help of AI is really exciting and more accurate than those broad categories that are not helpful. But for someone who has a small business where anonymity is important but hard to get when you’ve got 20 people, what does listening look like? How do you do that?

KO: I usually counsel those CEOs and small companies to not worry too much about anonymity, but make sure they’re promising confidentiality, and I think that’s what it really boils down to, is you want to make sure that your employees feel safe with their viewpoints. And so if you are trying to aggregate data in a small company, it could be tough because you can immediately– Where did that come from?

BB: Yeah, of course.

KO: You want to promise confidentiality. It’s really hard to do anonymity in a very small company. As the numbers grow, then anonymity gets a lot easier.

BB: Helpful. Thank you. OK, so number one was develop and deploy a comprehensive listening strategy, two, figure out what to keep. So this is like a little heart-wink to social workers, because the way we’re trained is we’re trained from a strengths-based perspective, so we tackle problems—whether it’s an individual, a family system, a community, a culture—by figuring out where the strengths are and using those to deploy change against where the limitations are. And so I love this, figure out what to keep. Let me start with this question very specifically: What gets in the way of people doing this step?

KO: Usually what gets in the way are individuals worried about fiefdoms, worried about control and trying to hang onto something that has given them power in the past. It’s hard for companies to look at things that were big revenue generators, that made them successful in the past and make the decision, this is something we’ve got to give up—this is an old product line, old technology, or it’s an older business that we need to let go of in order to have progress going forward. And it’s the same with different cultural tenets, and some organizations in the past, they really built themselves around the fact that knowledge is power, and for certain individuals, having knowledge was a safety net, because it gave them power and made them indispensable.

KO: And organizations that I think are really succeeding today have taken that notion and shifted it, and now knowledge sharing is power, and the more that you are spreading your knowledge out inside the organization, the more powerful you are. And as a company, the more you’re doing to enable that really, I think collectively taking the wisdom of the crowd and making sure that that crowd is helping you be current—you know, going back to our change conversation, that’s how you become resilient and ready for change, is when your employee base can very quickly share their knowledge and have current conversations, and that’s what a lot of organizations are doing today to be more resilient in the face of change, so figuring out what to keep can be tricky.

KO: I think that listening strategy is so important because you want to understand what people really value, but you’ve got to be willing to let go of certain things so that you can have progress going forward. Now, most companies have a purpose and they have set out values inside their organization, and I talk in the book about the importance of rallying around that purpose, but it has to be the right purpose. And a great example was Microsoft. When Satya Nadella came in as CEO, he had been there a long time, but it had always bugged him that their purpose was to put a computer on every desk in every home. He said it was a purpose that had kind of an end state. We’re already there. We’ve already achieved that.

KO: And so he wanted to create a purpose that was much broader for the organization and that would apply to a lot of different individual situations. And so in the book, I tried to outline what kinds of purposes are really working for organizations, and then I gave specific examples of purposes that I thought made a lot of sense. But you also have to be ready to change that purpose if it no longer is serving you, and—so Microsoft was an example where Satya came in and he changed the purpose. Patagonia was a good example. Their longtime founder decided one day, “You know, our purpose is good, but it’s not perfect,” and he changed their purpose.

KO: And so I think you’ve got to be willing to get rid of something that maybe isn’t quite working the way you want it to work in order to have progress in the future. And so that aspect of figuring out what to keep in that chapter in the book really explores companies that have dove down deep into what makes us us, but what’s going to make sense for the company in the long term?

BB: I have this weird story, a metaphor story. This is like kind of squirrel non sequitur, but I’m going to tell it just because this is what I thought about. We’ve recently moved and I painted a lot of my house this beautiful green, and it’s a new color. And there’s an old story, it’s a British paint company, and the story was that they found it in a 200-year-old cottage, but there was an old cupboard or gun rack or something that they never wanted to take down, and they finally took it down, and when they took it down, they discovered this color behind it, and I kept thinking of that because this new discovery has been a huge payday for this company, but standing in front of this thing debating whether they’re so defined by it that they can’t remove it, only to remove it and find something that is not just sacred to them, but now has become shared everywhere. I just, I kept thinking about the renovation metaphor.

KO: And that’s a great story and it’s a great metaphor for so many things in companies where you almost have internalized something that’s untouchable. “That gun rack—you know, we can’t take that down. That’s been there forever.” And you do that in organizations, too. Certain lines of business or products—“We can’t change that. That’s been there forever.” But it’s amazing what happens sometimes when you make that tough decision to move on, and it just opens up so many other possibilities, so I love that analogy.

BB: It’s a hard decision. So there’s a couple more under path. There’s set your cultural pathwe’ll let people read into that. But I want to get to number four, which is define the desired behaviors. So it’s very interesting to me, because in our research, we found 100% of the organizations whose leaders we interviewed, 100% of them had values. Eleven percent had operationalized the values into desired behaviors. I get to the point where it’s better to not have values than have bullshit up on a poster and of the workroom that hasn’t been operationalized. Like, tell us about defining desired behaviors.

KO: Too often, culture change fails because leaders in the organizations aren’t living what the words in the PowerPoints say. I’ve seen this happen in a lot of organizations where they get very aspirational about what they want for the culture, but then they don’t walk the talk. If leaders are not following what you’ve set out to do in the organization, employees see through that. And so some of the best organizations that have changed their culture, they’ve spent a lot of time training leaders on what the desired behaviors are. The leadership team from the CEO on down is constantly reinforcing those behaviors.

KO: And the goal is to make sure that everybody in the organization is behaving in line and is aligned with what you’re trying to do from a cultural perspective. You can have culture change get thwarted very easily by having just one or two key people in key roles not walk the talk. And people pick up on that. They do what leaders condone. So if you’ve put down some values but you don’t really follow them in real life, that’s what’s going to thwart the culture change that you’re trying to enact, and that’s going to be the culture that you have, what those leaders are doing from a behavioral standpoint. So I think that was a very important step in all of this, and it’s one that is a little challenging, I think, for some organizations to try to make sure it happens.

KO: And it flows into the next one, which is identifying influencers and blockers, because those blockers, I think, are the ones that aren’t walking the talk, and it’s important to move them aside or just get them out of the way so that you can really have the change that you want to have.

BB: It’s really interesting, because we do this work very on the ground, specifically with senior leadership teams. We’ll say, “OK, here are your five values. Here are 100 behaviors. I want you to end up with three behaviors under each value, and if it’s not on this list, you can make it up.” And they’re just shocked and startled because the first question is, “Well, we need to model this?”

KO: That’s the whole point.

BB: And we have very specific behaviors in our organization, things that are specific as we talk to people, not about people, we—

KO: I love that.

BB: We do not do the meeting after the meeting. And so it’s powerful because I would bet a lot that if you came to a meeting here and it was done and you were walking back to your office with someone, then we’re like, “Oh my God, I can’t believe they think that shit’s going to work. That’s never going to work.” I would say 90% of the people that work here would turn to you and say, “Happy to go back in there and talk about that, but I’m not going to talk about it afterwards, like we had a chance to weigh in there,” it’s just—these are the behaviors that have to be observable.

BB: And you know the other thing I’ve noticed, Kevin, that’s really powerful for us: We have three values, and then we have operationalized them into three to five behaviors under each value. It’s great when we’re interviewing people, because we say, “Here’s what it needs to look like. Here’s how you need to show up,” specifically, and then we’d take it again from interviewing to onboarding: “What questions do you have about these?” And it’s so explicit that you can interview for culture fit in ways that I don’t see a lot of companies interviewing for culture fit because they don’t have the behaviors nailed. Have you observed that?

KO: Yeah, and that’s the best way to do it, Brené. I love that you have those values and behaviors that flow under it. It’s a trait of a healthy organization, frankly, and maps very well to some of what we found in the research of a healthy culture. But I think from an interview standpoint, sometimes culture fit has gotten a bad, bad rap lately.

BB: Tell me.

KO: It can be used to say, “You’re not hiring a diverse workforce if you’re only hiring for culture fit,” which I don’t agree with, frankly, but I’ve heard a lot of talent acquisition professionals talk about that, that if you really swing too much towards culture fit, then you’re going to be too homogenous and not bring in those diverse points of view and people with different backgrounds, different upbringings. But the way you’re doing it is the right way because you’re looking at those values and behaviors and talking about specific things in that interview process that you want your employees to emulate and that they’ve got to be comfortable with going forward, and your example about talk to people, not about people, is perfect.

KO: Too many organizations have that same kind of issue inside their company. People remain silent in the meeting and then afterwards they completely disagreed. They didn’t say anything afterwards. They’re going to tell everybody about why they disagreed. You’ve got to have a psychologically safe environment where people can share that information, and I love that that’s part of your organization because honestly, that’s what some of the best organizations have done inside the company is create that kind of culture where you have to agree to disagree and then be a team and be united and move on.

KO: It’s one example of a cultural tenet that I think high-performing organizations have in spades. But this whole step of finding the desired behaviors is where you can really get derailed, I think, around having a healthy culture overall inside the company. One person I comment on in the book is Bob Sutton. He’s a professor at Stanford, and he wrote a very popular book years ago called The No Asshole Rule, and it’s a very simple concept, but so many companies tolerate brilliant assholes inside their organization that are just so detrimental to the overall culture, particularly when they’re in very senior roles, and you have to give up some of that competence that they brought and product knowledge or industry knowledge if their behaviors just really aren’t fitting in with what you want to do as an organization, and that can be very challenging for a lot of companies.

BB: A couple of thoughts. So I have to say that I’ve got a pushback and I want to play it out with you. I have a pushback on people saying culture fit can be used as an excuse to create a homogenous workforce. I would say only if your culture is not defined by a need for diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. So if that is a cultural priority, then culture fit by definition would not—that would be a flag for me to hear someone say that.

BB: If someone told me, “Well, culture fit might lead us to hiring all the kind of same kind of people,” my response to that would probably be, “Yikes, let’s dig into what your culture is then, in order to have to fit here.” That is for us—diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging are the heart of our organization, and so culture fit for us would be defined as having to agree with that principle. So it’s really interesting because I have heard that too, and it’s not until you broke it down for me right now that I didn’t understand what the pushback was until right now, and now I get it.

KO: I feel like it’s simplistic pushback, honestly. I agree with the way you’re looking at culture fit. You have a certain set of values that are critical to the organization, and as long as you’re finding the right people who can fit into those values and fit into those behaviors, then you’re going to have that culture fit. I do think it’s not a very accurate criticism of the term. I hope the talent acquisition community kinda moves beyond that. Maybe I’ll write an article about this, Brené, and I’ll send it to you—

BB: I would love it.

KO: Around how we can—we have to move on beyond culture fit.

BB: And if I had a dollar for every time I turn to a team and said, “Listen, this person is single-handedly destroying the trust in this team, because this person is just disrespectful,” and if I had a dollar for every time I heard, “But do you see the revenue they bring in?” It’s so hard to quantify the cost of having a disrespectful culture-buster in power in an organization. Can you figure out how to do that for us? Can you figure out—Kevin, you’re such a research nerd, and I say that as a research nerd, but, God, is there a way to quantify that? How do you do that? What if you were working with me and I said to you, “I get it. He’s hard, he’s demeaning to the people who work for him, he does not embody who we want to be, but the guy’s a polymath. Like, the guy is brilliant and he can run this department like no one else.” What do you say back?

KO: Well, that’s the ends justifies the means. So what you’re signaling to the workforce is, we don’t really care how you get it done as long as you get it done, and as long as you’re successful, and that is not the way top organizations work today, especially today. I think more and more companies—we just did a study on succession management that actually did bring this out, and I will send this to you, that showed “the how” is more important than the end result. So how you got there is more critical today in organizations than the end result. And top companies, they understand that and they enforce that, they value that.

KO: You cannot be a caustic employee inside the organization and have everybody tolerated as long as you get results. I’m the same as you, Brené. I’ve seen this happen many times in my own organization, and every time that you end up solving that problem, it’s a breath of fresh air. You feel so good afterwards.

BB: Oh my God, yeah, huge.

KO: Right, and everything you were worried about, it wasn’t usually as big a worry as you thought, so companies need to move beyond that. In that same phase of culture renovation, I talk about the influencers inside the organization and how critical finding culture ambassadors are. We’re big proponents of organizational network analysis. This was a discipline that Rob Cross, who’s a professor at Babson, who you’ve met before—he’s really the father of it, but it’s—in any organization, you’ve got go-to people. You’ve got these people, they are the center of the beehive, that all the workflow goes through, all the questions go to.

KO: But many times it’s not obvious to senior management or a lot of others who those people are. Those people aren’t always the extroverts. Sometimes they’re the introverts. Sometimes they’re very buried in the hierarchy. And so unless you do an organizational network analysis to really understand where that workflow is happening, you are going to miss a lot of those core influencers, and when you’re trying to change culture, it’s important to know who those people are, because you want to enlist them as culture ambassadors. You want to make sure that they are in line with what you’re trying to change in the organization, because they’re the ones who are going to get it done at the ground level.

KO: And so we talk a lot about identifying the influencers and the energizers. There are certain people, Brené—you’re one of them—where you talk to somebody and you leave that conversation just energized, fully enthusiastic based on that conversation. And then there’s other conversations you have where it’s like Darth Vader. They just suck the life out of you, right? And so you want to identify who brings that energy too, and you can do that through some surveying techniques as part of that organizational network analysis. That’s going to form what Microsoft called the culture cabinet. These are people that you want to make sure that at the grassroots are championing what you’re trying to do. And I think it’s such an important part of making culture renovation successful long term.

BB: God! I’ve got to tell you that when I read the influencers, energizers, and blockers, I was like, “Oh hell yes!” And I’ll tell you what’s hard is I have facilitated work online since the pandemic with big leadership teams, and leadership teams where there are too many of the Brady Bunch squares to fit on one screen. And the difference—because I can be in a room for five minutes with an extended leadership team and know exactly who the energizers are, who the influencers are on that team, and who the blockers are. But when I’m remote, it’s really tricky if you’re used to facilitating this kind of work in person, and it is like—it is so difficult because in a room, you can ask a real sacred-cow question to a leadership team, and it’s often not the CEO or the COO, that person that holds the halo and the influence in the room. Sometimes it’s the very quiet person who is somebody’s chief of staff, and everybody’s waiting to see how he or she or they will come in. But online, it gets tricky, so I really felt very validated when I read that.

BB: And everybody listening right now, listen, if I put any of you listening right now in a room of 20 people and you’re tasked with finding the influencers, energizers, and blockers, it’s so clear quickly. Now, doing that in a big company, I love that there’s a way to do that research methodology, but even in a room, we know when we walk away, like you said, feeling like, “Oh, my God, I’ll never get that 20 minutes back,” or, “I can’t wait to talk to that person again.”

KO: Right, exactly.

BB: OK, last one here is determine how progress will be measured, monitored and reported, which I have seen 10% of the time people define the metrics for culture change or culture renovation.

KO: Yeah, this was a very interesting stat that we found in the study: Two-thirds of the companies that were successful, they did this right up front. They determined, How are we going to measure our progress? How are we going to report on it? How are we going to monitor it going forward? Ninety percent of companies that were unsuccessful didn’t do this. They didn’t set up any set way to measure that progress, and there are a lot of ways to measure culture, and some of it depends on the industry you’re in, the kind of company that you are. But we talk about employee Net Promoter Score as really interesting measure. We talk about employee referrals as an interesting measure. How much you’re collaborating inside the organization. Internal transfers, or talent mobility, is another really interesting aspect of successful culture change, and are you measuring that inside your organization?

KO: This has increased in importance of late. More and more boards of directors are now asking for culture measures, and they’re trying to better understand the culture of the companies they govern, and we’ve talked to a number of chairs of boards of large companies and also individual directors to really understand how widespread this is. And a lot of those boards are worried that they’re sitting on a Wells Fargo kind of problem, where you’ve got a sales organization that is doing unethical things because of the incentives that the culture had created, or they’re sitting on a Boeing, where the U.S. House called it a culture of concealment that led to the 737 MAX issues. So it’s a bit of a risk mitigation aspect for boards of directors to really try to understand culture, but I’m finding that some boards are now setting up separate culture subcommittees—just like they have the compensation committee, the audit committee, they want to make sure that they have a culture subcommittee that is really giving them the data they need around the organization’s culture.

KO: We want to make sure that there’s no problems. We also want to make sure that we’re set up long term to succeed. And so this step around measuring your progress, monitoring it, we think is just such a critical one, and I’m seeing more and more organizations put effort into dashboards and other elements that bring in different data sources to help them really understand what’s happening with the culture overall.

BB: It’s so hard to see these huge initiatives where people take off and spend so much money and time and heart and there’s been no conversation about, How do we know when we’ve arrived? Where are you even going? Yeah, to me, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure that gets really scary. Let me ask you this. I love what you say about boards creating committees for culture. Take apart this sentence for me: “Wall Street doesn’t give a shit about our culture. The Street doesn’t care.”

KO: Ultimately, a company is going to be measured by their financial success, and I don’t think we’re ever going to get away from that, of course. But today, Wall Street cares more about culture than it ever did in the past because they now recognize how inextricably linked culture is to that financial success.

BB: Thank you.

KO: And they’re looking for more disclosure, so this maybe flew a little bit under the radar, but the SEC made very significant changes to public company reporting just a couple months ago, and now companies are required to report on human capital measures that are material to their business. Now, what’s material and what’s not is very subjective, right? But we’re going to see a lot more disclosure from companies in their 10Ks and 10Qs around different elements of the culture. Now, DE&I is one of the first areas, and several years ago, Jesse Jackson kind of guilted high-tech companies into disclosing more about their diversity in their organization. But today, we’re seeing more and more companies do that. And they’re not just high-tech companies. Walmart now is doing a great job at starting to disclose what’s the diverse makeup of the workforce.

KO: Now, some of that doesn’t go deep enough. It’s one thing to talk about the diversity of the entire workforce versus as you go up the chain of hierarchy, what’s diversity look like? And typically it gets less and less diverse in a lot of companies once you do that. But it’s just the start, I think, of human capital disclosures that walk into a lot of different areas. So diversity is going to be one of the primary areas initially, but we’re going to see more and more data coming out of companies around attrition and retention and around internal promotions. And so HR heads, CHROs, need to get ready for this, and we’ve been talking to many who are starting to make sure that they’re measuring the right things—the right talent initiatives underneath culture—so that eventually when they are having more disclosure as a public company and are asked to do so, they’re ready to do that. I’ll be interested to see how this looks two or three years from now. We’re really at the very beginning of this, but I think it’s going to really change things long term from a disclosure perspective around talent.

BB: I agree with everything you’re saying, and I think—I will say in a very positive way, I hear that less and less. I hear less and less about—even beyond HR, people are starting to get, “I can’t use the excuse, No one cares about the company, except for the bottom line.” I think that is changing in front of my eyes right now. Do you feel that way?

KO: Absolutely. I think one of the things that the pandemic has shown to many companies is the importance of a strong HR leader and a strong HR team. Back in 2008–2009, when we went through the financial crisis, it was often said that a good CFO really made the difference of whether you made it through that time period or not, and I think a lot of organizations are recognizing during the pandemic, having a great HR leader and team is a huge difference to how we’re getting through this pandemic. And HR is becoming so much more strategic inside of organizations, and I outlined this in the book quite a bit. I love walking into organizations where the HR head is part of that three- to four-person inner circle around the CEO. And in many cases, the CEOs look at that HR person as their right-hand person, right?

BB: That’s right.

KO: You are helping me with the most important part of our company, which is our people, our workforce. And so the status of the CHRO has been elevated and escalated over the last couple of years. In fact, I’m seeing more and more CHROs sit on public boards now.

BB: Yes!

KO: And there’s more of an interest in getting that HR talent on boards because I think those boards have over-architected on financial acumen, and they’ve recognized particularly now in the pandemic, “We don’t really have that human capital acumen around the board table,” and so ex-CHROs and current CHROs are being asked to sit on those boards.

BB: It’s one of the ways that we vet companies that we’ll work with or not work with. And so if there is not a human resources person in the senior leadership circle, we don’t work with them.

KO: That’s great to hear in one respect, and it’s always a huge red flag for me when looking at an organization where you have the head of HR reports into the CFO.

BB: Or operations.

KO: You can tell right away they don’t really value human capital inside this organization.

BB: It’s interesting, too, because I was talking with Eric Mosley, who’s the founder and CEO of Workhuman, and he said, “Our people are not our greatest expense. Our people are our greatest asset, our greatest resource,” and it’s such a shift from how people often think about it.

BB: All right, let’s get into Build, and I know I want to be aware of time, so I’m going to go through these steps, just bring people through the bases. So, in the Build, we’ve got step seven, clearly communicate that change is coming, which I could just talk an hour about. This is a huge issue, isn’t it?

KO: It is, and it’s funny how many organizations screw this up and don’t communicate it often enough and don’t clearly communicate what they’re trying to do, and you’re seeing the examples in the book, whether it’s a 3M or it’s a Microsoft, they just do a great job in making sure they’re constantly communicating what they’re trying to do.

BB: It’s interesting, we have our own kind of NPS. We do a big assessment before we go in and do courage building, and we have a single question that is, I fully understand how this work, the courage building work, is relevant to my organization’s mission, goals, metrics, and it’s just a one-to-four, and anything under a three, we just go back and say, “We can’t start this work until you better communicate why it’s important and link it with existing strategies. Otherwise, this is thought leader of the day. This is one and done.” So I love that. Ferret out skeptics and nonbelievers early. What do we do with the skeptics and nonbelievers? Are you co-opting them, winning them over, or just pushing them out?

KO: I’ve often said this is the hardest step out of all of these.

BB: Yeah.

KO: Honestly, I think most organizations that have had great success, they’ve pushed them out. They’ve identified those nonbelievers and skeptics and said, “This is probably not the place for you, and so let’s make a change going forward.” And there are several CEOs that talked about that in the book, how they had to make some pretty tough calls when they came in, and it goes back to our earlier conversation around moving those people who just aren’t going to buy into what you’re trying to do. You’ve either got to convince them because it can be so detrimental to the effort, or you just got to move them aside or move them out.

BB: Yeah, it’s really interesting. This is like, I have to say, Kevin, this is the biggest learning from the work we go in and do, which is, I refer to it earlier—the biggest shame trigger at work is the fear of irrelevance. And so what happens often with the skeptics and nonbelievers is, they see the change renovation coming—the culture renovation coming. They’re afraid of their relevance because of what could change. That leads them to armoring up. The armor prevents them from being curious, learning new things, leaning in and being a part of the change. So their fear and their armor become a self-fulfilling prophecy around their future with a company.

KO: And oftentimes those people are sometimes hiding in plain sight. It’s not always easy to recognize what is happening, and that’s why this is such a tricky step and why I call it probably the hardest step of the whole process.

BB: We noticed behavioral cues of, that’s not the way we’ve always done it around here, people can get very territorial. It’s tough. Paint a vision for the future, which I think is really linked, when I was reading a book, to determining how progress is measured and monitored. Like, Where are you going?

KO: Right. I had several examples in the book where it’s really easy to blame the past, and in most of the successful culture change that we monitor—the successful culture renovation—they got beyond that pretty quickly. They acknowledge that maybe we had some issues in the past, but they focused most of their effort on, What does the future look like? And let me paint that vision for you going forward. Microsoft did a fantastic job of that, and as you saw in the book—I really hold up what Satya Nadella has done in a relatively short period of time as an example that many organizations, big or small, can follow, because he put in some just really core tenets around growth mindset, for instance, and followed so many aspects of the culture renovation steps to have a complete turnaround in that organization. I can remember 10 years ago, every time I talked to a Microsoft person, they’d be complaining. It’d be miserable. And I don’t live that far from the campus. Today, it’s a complete turnaround in just their hope for the future and how they feel about what they’re doing, what Satya is doing. So it’s a nice model, I think, to take a look at and see how Microsoft has had successful culture change.

BB: And stock prices have followed.

KO: Again, culture is inextricably linked to financial performance and you’re exactly right. Microsoft today is, I think, number two in the world from market capitalization. They were number one for a little while. They’re going back and forth with Apple. And Amazon is there, too. But it’s one of the most valuable companies in the world, and it’s really amazing how they’ve been able to keep that success over a period of time. It wasn’t that long ago that people were likening Microsoft to Sears. They said Microsoft is passé, it’s not innovative, they don’t have great products, etcetera. Today, it’s just great to see the success that they’re having on all levels of the company.

BB: And I would argue as someone who’s been inside of Microsoft doing work led by culture awareness and culture change.

KO: What Kathleen Hogan, the head of HR, have done with Satya is great. I love that partnership. They just formed such a formidable duo in trying to continue to have culture change, and as Kathleen says in the book, it can be sometimes tempting to plant a flag in the ground and say, “Yep, we’ve done it,” but culture change is not something you ever are finished at. You’ve got to constantly work at it. And while I go in there and I tell them what a great job they’re doing, they’re constantly telling me, “Oh, we have so much more work to do. There are so many other things that we’ve got to change inside the company.” And Kathleen and Joe Whittinghill, who’s a great friend, they’ve just done a great job with the culture there.

BB: And I think also, culture has to continue to ebb and flow and grow and change, and it’s not that different in some ways than product design. It’s got to iterate because the world changes, and we look now at people, consumers, saying the world in many areas has gone crazy, and I’m not interested in a brand that’s not taking a stand. One of the things we tell leaders is, you go to work the day after George Floyd has been murdered, and you have a team meeting that morning. What you as a leader have the courage to bring into a room is what is allowed in a room.

KO: That’s right.

BB: And do you have the courage to say, “Look, we’ve got a big agenda, but we’re people first and we need to talk about what’s happening right now. We need to talk about George Floyd, we need to talk about—we need to check in, we need to see each other.” And so culture can never be done because culture by definition is a living, breathing thing that constantly needs to be formed and responded to. In social work, we’d say praxis. And so this whole part of, you go from ferret out the skeptics, paint a vision, consciously collaborate, establish a co-creation mindset, provide training and desired behaviors, and then maintain, and so the minute you stop paying attention— would you agree or disagree?—the minute you stop paying attention to what you’ve renovated or transformed or changed is the minute it starts dying.

KO: You’re exactly right. And we’re seeing this today. The pandemic has changed company culture like it or not, in almost every organization. Now, in a lot of companies, it’s opened them up to a level of empathy from leadership that employees have never seen before, and a window into their co-workers’ environments and living rooms and kitchens really, as well as their leadership, that they’d never had before. So there’s definitely been some silver linings to culture from the pandemic, but we’ve also lost some things. I was talking to Ashley Goldsmith at Workday about this a little while ago. Just the serendipity of the encounters in the office, and the creativity and innovation that occurs from that, that’s hard to schedule over Zoom and hard to replicate. So there’s aspects to our culture that have suffered, and a lot of organizations from the pandemic. But just going back to what you were talking about in the wake of George Floyd’s death—this year has given senior leadership more opportunities than any year I can ever think of to be authentic and to have those tough conversations.

KO: And given what we just went through with the rioters reaching the Capitol, I advised companies, this is not a time when the leaders need to be quiet about this. You need to get out in front, talk to the workforce, and really remind your employee base about your purpose, about your values, in that a team wins when it’s united, and you have to unite the team despite having probably political differences across the board inside your organization. You have to unite the team around that purpose and talk about how you feel and let the organization talk about how they feel about what we just witnessed in D.C. I think this year has provided many of those opportunities, unfortunately, and the top companies have done a very good job at having those very candid conversations across the organization, and it’s really a trait of healthy cultures overall in my opinion.

BB: I agree 100%. And I really hope—I’ve done a lot of work virtually with organizations and teams this year, and I don’t think I’ve ever, I haven’t worked with one of them—I just want to make sure I’m not being hyperbolic here, but I’m thinking through—I don’t think I’ve worked with a single team this year, and I’m talking about senior-level leaders of Fortune 100 companies, where there has not been profound crying on the phone in front of each other, with each other. People burying their parents and not being able to go to the funeral. Black people saying to team members for the first time, “I can’t let my kids out,” “My son’s outside. I’m afraid of what’s going to happen right now.” And we’re doing this while we’re seeing each other in our bedrooms. And I’ll be honest with you, this has been just the shit year of shit years—2020 was—but I will always be grateful, much to your point, for how this forced us to see each other as people. Someone thinks they’re on Zoom and their toddler’s crawling up their back and they’re yelling at their partner, “It’s your turn, it’s your turn, I’m in a meeting.” And you see people as people.

KO: Yeah, that work persona has left, and now you’re seeing the total persona of your co-workers, and it’s given a lot of people much more appreciation for the lives of their co-workers, and I think many people are giving each other a break now, and I just hope that continues—

BB: Me too.

KO: When we eventually move out of this pandemic, I hope that continues. From an organizational perspective, I think what it’s shown us is we need to be very flexible as a company. Everybody’s situation is pretty different. And you suddenly found out, OK, you have a lot of little kids at home, or somebody has elderly care and big responsibilities there, or whatever it is. The organization—it’s hard to make blanket policies right now, and I think it’s teaching them, we can’t make some of these blanket policies going forward. We have to have more individualization given everybody’s different situation, and really respect our employees for who they are in the situation that they’re in.

BB: This is why if you call me and you’re a leader and you’re not co-creating and in partnership with an HR senior leader who’s got influence and authority, I can’t work with you, because already you’ve presented a challenge that I’m not willing to scale. I just can’t do that. So under maintain, make onboarding about relationships versus red tape, promote those who best represent the new, change performance management practices. I just have to ask here very quickly, are we going to get rid of forced evaluations, forced ranking?

KO: Yeah, that really is a thing of the past, and we’ve seen most organizations get rid of forced ranking. It’s so caustic in organizations, and we’ve done a lot of work on just how detrimental it is to the culture of a company. And that’s the Microsoft story, right? They used to have forced ranking, and if you were my co-worker, I was much more interested in beating you versus the two of us teaming up together to go out and beat the competition.

BB: Yes. Yeah.

KO: There’s a time and place for it when you’re trying to thin the herd, and Jack Welch in GE made that popular a long time ago, right? And they were trying to thin the herd and I get it, but generally, it’s a pretty detrimental thing to the health of an organization.

BB: Yeah, the more I get into this work, I have to just confess, the less Welchian I am in terms of being a fan. Leverage employee affinity groups, increase the focus on talent mobility, what does that mean? Help people understand what that means?

KO: So we have found over and over again that high-performance organizations, they do a great job at moving talent inside their company. It’s human nature—if you have a really good set of employees that work underneath you and are making you successful as a manager, you want to hang onto those employees. The top companies, they incent those managers to move those employees around the organization. If I can get my high performers into other areas, not only is it good for that high performer—right, they’re getting exposure to a lot more other aspects of the organization—but it’s also good for the organization. The organization is now having better communication and collaboration across divisions, departments, and business units, etcetera. And so talent mobility really is around moving that talent and promoting talent. If you can promote from within, that’s generally a hallmark of a high-performing organization. Those managers who typically were talent hoarders before, if you incent them to develop and move that talent, or even just recognize them for doing so, there’s a funny thing that happens. If you get known for it as a manager, suddenly you become a talent magnet.

KO: Everybody wants to come work for the guy or gal who gets people promoted and advances their career. And so in healthy organizations, they’re moving talent around on a pretty regular basis, but it still is a relatively small percentage of companies that embrace this concept of talent mobility and incent managers to not be talent hoarders.

BB: Yeah.

KO: So we talk about the importance in culture renovation of embracing talent mobility because that’s what’s going to help change that culture inside the organization—if you have that healthy movement of people inside the company.

BB: And I think what’s interesting in our experience is, I think most people have gotten to the point now, there’s enough cultural awareness and awareness about psychological safety that people know that there will be no performance without trust. And I think one of the quickest ways we see to breach trust and corrode trust in organizations is to hoard good people who want different experiences. It’s interesting, are you familiar with or a fan of Reid Hoffman’s idea of tour of duty or submission, like “You’re going to be here for this many years doing this work, and then we’ll see what you want to do next”?

KO: Yeah, very much so. And I like when companies are very open about that. That’s also a healthy message to give to your employees.

BB: Yeah, it’s interesting to me, too. And then don’t underestimate the value of external sentiment.

KO: We do a lot of work with companies, just taking a look at what’s being said about you on Glassdoor, for example, and other external employee sentiment sites. And while those sites can be pretty caustic—it’s a lot of times you’ve got some disgruntled employees, ex-employees that are sharing their views—if you look at the data and what’s being said out on those sites in aggregate, it can be clues into your culture. And so if you’re trying to maintain the culture change or create it, this is a good barometer to take a look at. You know, what is being said by our current employees and ex-employees on Glassdoor or other sites? And are there major themes coming out? I can tell you, inclusiveness is a theme that will often come out of some of these sites—where I didn’t feel included, and the company could have done a better job around inclusiveness overall. So we talk about the importance of looking at that external sentiment as a barometer of whether culture renovation has really taken hold and is it going in the direction you want.

BB: It’s really interesting. I think you need some courage in a growth mindset to even take a look, but I do think it’s important because it’s where people go when they’re trying to figure out whether they want to come work for you, so if you don’t understand what they’re seeing, it’s a little — just to be like, “That doesn’t exist.”

KO: I can get in a group of CHROs and just throw out the name Glassdoor and the conversation will go on for an hour, right, about how—

BB: Oh, I’m sure.

KO: How tough it is. But you’re right. That is what candidates look at when they’re trying to assess whether I want to go work for a company or not. That is a place they’re going to check out what are people saying about this company, because there’s usually—there’s an element or thread of truth in what’s being said, even though it can be very caustic.

BB: All right, I have our Dare to Lead rapid-fire questions. Are you ready?

KO: I’m ready.

BB: OK, you know what, I’m going to pause you. Ooh, I’m like icing the kicker here. It is terrible. I want to talk about—I thought we’d talked about this upfront, but I want to talk about it now because I wanted people to get an idea of the depth and breadth of your understanding of culture before we talked about this. I have to ask you, much like I asked a lot of guests on Dare to Lead, about the current political leadership of the United States, about the Trump administration, about what happened at the Capitol. What do you see—I don’t know what your political affiliation is or party, but not what I’m asking—what do you see through the lens of someone who studies culture and leadership for decades?

KO: The most alarming thing is how divided we are today and the polarizing viewpoints of individuals. And it’s challenging for companies because that’s your workforce. Your workforce has very polarizing or different viewpoints and political affiliations. And so I think we’ve got to get back to being just much more united than we’ve been. I think Biden will get us there, and he’s going to surround himself with some good people, which I think is another good leadership tenet. It’s not all about the leader. It’s about the team you assemble. And I think he already is assembling a great team to support him going forward. But what happened—I said this in publications just this week—it was a dark day for America. I was appalled at the Capitol breach and just seeing what we had evolved into as a country.

KO: And maybe the most illuminating thing is to see what other countries are saying about us, just the shock that’s coming out of other countries in looking at what’s happening in the United States. These are things that we typically admonish other countries for and haven’t had to deal with. And so I think from an organizational level, I’ve said to leaders, this is a time to have candid conversations with the workforce, don’t be silent about it, and make sure that you are uniting, as I said earlier, the company around your purpose as an organization. It’s a great time to remind them of that.

KO: Maybe your employee base has sort of lost sight of what you have set out to be the purpose, what are those values, what are the behaviors. Remind them of that. The country, I think is—it could learn a lot from the book. Culture Renovation could apply to the United States right now. And I hope the Biden administration takes some of the tenets that are in Culture Renovation—I think they probably will just naturally—to heal this country, because we have to become much more united than we currently are. It’s shocking to me, just the amount of disinformation and the belief in the disinformation, and there’s sort of the circular argument around disinformation that has fueled a lot of this. And so I’m also appealing to my nerdy, as you said, data geek side that let’s make sure that we’ve got the data correct and the facts correct before forming opinions on certain things, because I think there’s a lot of bad facts, bad information that’s being floated out to our country.

BB: There has been a wholesale attack, I think, on science, on data.

KO: It’s shocking to me that we’ve had so much progress in the last 100 years in science, and I’m just constantly shocked at the dismissal of that. And I hope we can get back to trusting science and trusting data.

BB: Especially because it’s such a cornerstone of our best institutions and our better angels as a country.

KO: Exactly.

BB: I have a theory, Kevin, and I maintained it since early 2016, when I made a prediction that Trump would win the presidency. The first time I saw him go on the attack against political correctness, I thought he’s going to win over a lot of people right now. So my theory is that what we’re seeing right now, at least in politics, is white male power over—not power with or power to—but white male power over really making a last stand in this country, really fighting for a last stand. And unfortunately, I think I said early on, it will get violent because last stands do, and power over requires fear and flexing with violence often to maintain itself. I want to know what you think about this sentence—it’s controversial, but you have entrée into these organizations. I feel like the corporate sector is ahead of the political sector in this area, that it’s not white male power necessarily that is a bad thing, but white male power over. And I think we’re seeing a shift within organizations that the only way to build culture, to have high-performing organizations—no matter whether you’re male or female, white, Black, Indigenous, person of color, doesn’t matter—is power with and power to. And that power is not finite. It’s infinite through co-creation and collaboration and shared power. Would you agree that the corporate sector is ahead of the political sector right now?

KO: I do think the corporate sector is ahead. And Eric said this on the podcast you did with him recently, that people trust the corporations they work for more than other institutions these days, and that’s been a shift, right?

BB: Totally.

KO: And what we’re seeing in organizations is they recognize that we are more powerful as a company the more diverse we are, and the stats bare this out. It’s really diversity in experience, diversity in upbringing. We talk a lot about diversity of thought. That’s what makes organizations great. And we need to embrace the fact that diversity is something that makes us more powerful. It makes ideas better. Frankly, it’s more fun when you have a diverse versus a homogenous workforce.

KO: And I do think for that purpose, or for that fact alone, companies are a little ahead of the political climate and what’s being said politically. And I think there’s a lot of tenets of certain very successful companies that the country could learn from, and I’d love to see a better partnership between corporations and government around some of those tenets. How can we take what’s really worked well in some of these companies? And some of these companies are huge, right? They’re the size of small cities. How can we take what they’ve done with their population and implement it from a governmental perspective for the benefit of the country? That’s a partnership that would be great to see going forward. Right now, there’s a little bit too much animosity between government and corporations, and we’re constantly hauling CEOs in to testify before Congress. And that’s—I’d love to see us get away from that, frankly.

BB: Boy, talking about the tension, I’m thinking Silicon Valley and tech monopolies and —. All right, now we really are going to do the rapid-fire.


BB: Number one, fill in the blank for me: Vulnerability is?

KO: It’s a learning opportunity.

BB: What is something people often get wrong about you?

KO: I think a lot of people think I’m an extrovert, and I really ride the line between introvert, extrovert. And I think people would be surprised to learn that I’m much more introverted than they may see externally.

BB: Would you consider yourself an ambivert then, just right on the—both?

KO: Yes, I would. It depends on the situation.

BB: What’s one piece of leadership advice that you’ve been given that’s so remarkable that you need to share it, or so crappy that you need to warn us?

KO: I’ll go on the remarkable side, although I don’t know how remarkable this is, but I’ve always run my companies under the theory of open-book management, so that once a month, we go over all the financials with the employees. And all of my employees have equity in the companies, so they’re all owners of the company, but we’ve taught them what EBITDA means, and we go over how we’re doing versus our plan, and it’s just a much easier way to run a company, frankly, in my opinion. And so I read the book on open-book management years and years ago. That’s always stuck with me is just that basic core of leadership and how you should run a company, and that’s the way I’ve always run my organizations, and I talk to new entrepreneurs about this a lot and tell them, “Hey, do this, put this in place. It’ll make your life so much easier.”

BB: Really interesting. OK, what’s one stereotype or myth of leadership that we need to let go of?

KO: That extroverts are the best leaders.

BB: Oh my God, yes. What would you say to someone that doesn’t consider themselves a leader?

KO: Oh, everybody has the ability to be a leader in their own way. And if you get rid of that notion that a leader is charismatic and just this certain picture that we have in our head of what a leader is, leaders come in all shapes and sizes, forms and colors, and I think anybody has the opportunity to be a leader. They just have to be confident in themselves and the knowledge and the skills that they bring to others. I love seeing people who you would not think would be leaders just emerge as great leaders.

BB: What’s the hard leadership lesson that you just have to keep learning and unlearning, that the universe keeps putting in front of you, Kevin? What’s the one thing?

KO: My management team reminds me of this all the time. As sort of a serial entrepreneur, I always have new ideas, and I always come up with different things that we could be doing, and I sometimes have to just slow down and put some of those ideas on the whiteboard for later. I will often introduce too many things too fast, and I want things to happen more quickly, and I’ve got to make sure that I spend the time to let everybody assimilate those new ideas and really think them through. So I get hit in the face with that one on a pretty regular basis inside my company.

BB: I have no idea what you’re talking about. What is one thing that you’re deeply grateful for right now?

KO: Oh, I think the pandemic has made me very grateful for family. And I’ve had the family home—I’m actually taking my daughter back to college later today, but she’s been home for many weeks. It’s been great to have her here with the other kids. And so I’m grateful for immediate family, but I’m also grateful for my i4CP family, the employees in the company. They’ve done a great job through the pandemic, and we made a very strategic decision as a company back in March that we were in a unique position to just help companies get through this, and we did, and have continued to do so. And it’s really the employees in the company that did that. They went overboard to make sure that we used our platform, our network, to help these organizations, whether the situation nobody had ever experienced before and did not plan for, and I’m forever grateful for all the effort that those employees put into that.

BB: Man, you were really positioned to show up for folks. Thank you for that. OK, Kevin’s five songs. You gave us a mini-mixtape. You choose “Bad”; Led Zeppelin, “The Rain Song”; Steely Dan, “Deacon Blues”; the Smiths, “How Soon Is Now?” and the Pixies, “Where Is My Mind?” In one sentence, what does this mixtape say about you?

KO: This was the hardest part of all this. I appreciate all those bands more so than just the individual song, so it’s much more about the collectiveness of the band than it is about the song. I didn’t go for one-hit wonders, as you can see. A couple of quick stories. So on that list, Steely Dan might kinda stick out because you can tell I’m kind of a rock guy, but when I was writing this book, I had Steely Dan playing in the background almost the entire time. It’s just very soothing to me and great music, and Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, I just love what they’ve done over the years, and so that was my soundtrack when I was writing the book. But the band that people might not know that well is the Pixies. The Pixies actually started in my parents’ garage, and my brother was the original bass player for the Pixies back when they were just getting going, and he told me the story—

BB: No way!

KO: Yeah, he told me a story just recently how he was there when they came up with a name, Pixies, so it’s been fun to see that band blossom, and the song I picked is this song that closes out the movie Fight Club with Brad Pitt and Ed Norton Jr., and it’s just a band that I’ve followed for a long time because of that.

BB: I love the Pixies. I can’t believe they started in your garage. I feel like I’m just so close to them now. All right, thank you so much, Kevin, for this conversation. Thank you for the book. I hope that people across organizations, industries, sectors, nonprofits, faith communities, corporations, political leaders—you just lay it all out, you back it up with data, you tell great stories, and it’s actionable as hell, which it’s so rare to find something actionable and strategic and tactical around culture. So I am grateful for you and this book. Thank you.

KO: Well, I’m grateful for your support of the book as well, Brené. Thank you. You’re just amazing. And it’s been an honor to be on the show. Thanks for having me.

BB: Thank you.


BB: I loved this conversation. I love to talk about heady, theoretical ideas, big strategies, and sometimes I love to just get super tactical, because without both, we can’t move forward. We need the ideas, the iteration, the creativity, and then we need the execution in equal measure. So I hope you enjoyed the conversation. If you want to learn more about Kevin or follow Kevin, he’s @KMOakes on Twitter. LinkedIn, he’s Kevin Oakes. The company website is, and the website for the book is So things to remember, some church bulletin at the end of the service here, the Dare to Lead podcast has an episode page on, where you’ll find all the notes, all the links.

BB: We also have resources, downloads, guides, and about a week after the podcast, we have a full transcript. We record some of them very close to the time we launch them, so that’s why the transcripts are not always ready. You can also go to and sign up for our newsletter there in the content section at the bottom of every episode page. You can just click “Join Our Newsletter.” And the newsletters are great. They give you a highlight of what we’ve talked about, the key learnings from some of the podcasts, new books I’m reading, things I’m listening to, news updates. I think you’ll enjoy them, and we do them very sparingly, once a month.

BB: And just a reminder, too, the Dare to Lead podcast is available exclusively on Spotify. It’s free to everyone. And the end of this month, January 2021, Unlocking Us, my other podcast, will be moving also exclusively to Spotify, where again, you can listen for free. Stay safe, stay centered, and always awkward, brave, and kind. And I’ll see you next week on Dare to Lead. The Dare to Lead podcast is a Spotify original from Parcast. It’s hosted by me, Brené Brown, and it’s produced by Max Cutler, Kristen Acevedo, Carleigh Madden, by Weird Lucy Productions. And the sound design is by Kristen Acevedo. Music is by the Suffers. The song that you’re hearing, that regardless of how hard things are going, it always puts a little spring in my step, “Take Me to the Good Times.” Amen, sister.

© 2021 Brené Brown Education and Research Group, LLC. All rights reserved.

Brown, B. (Host). (2021, January 11). Brené with Kevin Oakes on Cultural Renovation. [Audio podcast episode]. In Dare to Lead with Brené Brown. Parcast Network.

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