In researching the new book (which launches Tuesday), I experienced the treat of spending time with people like Ed Catmull, co-founder of Pixar, R.C. Buford, GM of the San Antonio Spurs, and Dave Cooper, a SEALs Team Six commander. Yesterday, a friend asked me a question that caught me by surprise: has this experience changed how I parent? (My wife Jen and I have four kids; 22, 19, 17, and 16).The answer is, yes, absolutely.Four ways:
1) Learning to truly stop. Connection happens when you totally, utterly cease what you are doing and give someone your full attention. This sounds incredibly obvious, but I didn’t fully appreciate its power until I felt it in action, and saw how it creates the foundation for all conversation.
2) Seek to listen like a trampoline. As a parent, you want to be the Wise Person with All the Answers; you want to help solve your kids’ problems fast. The leaders I spent time with did the opposite. They almost never tried to solve problems quickly, or interject their own ideas. Instead, they focused on absorbing what the other person was saying, and responded, usually with questions. My favorite image for this comes from work by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman: listen like a trampoline: absorb the message, and then try to add height and perspective to the conversation.And besides, kids don’t really want answers anyway — they want to be heard.
3) Make fewer wisecracks. Confession: I’m the kind of parent who’s always looking for the joke — the pun, the call-back, the wisecrack. Spending time with top leaders showed me that this is not always a good instinct. A lot of little jokes have a message beneath them — I’m smart — that can undermine the sense of belonging that strong groups have. It’s not the joking that’s bad — it’s when you fail to balance things out with moments of real connection.
4) Lead with failure around the dinner table. You know the drill: you ask your kids how their day went, and they say “fine,” and so you dig for more, and the whole thing produces all the fun and delight of a tooth-pulling session. Here’s the solution: stop asking. Instead, tell them about something you failed at today. Some screw-up, big or small — and don’t hold back. Go into detail, show your fallibility. It sends a massive signal of belonging and openness, and it makes for dinners that are (I can testify) a lot more energetic and fun.
Great group chemistry is mysterious and elusive. It seems to descend by magic: certain groups have it; others don’t. But is that true? Or can it be built?
Here’s something I observed while reporting The Culture Code: strong cultures are obsessive about small courtesies. I’m talking really small stuff: opening doors for people, taking extra time to ask about family, getting everybody water before meetings — the kind of stuff that can be easily overlooked.
This is usually seen as a moral quality — they’re just being nice to each other. But it’s not just moral; it’s neural. Because they have aligned their interactions with an evolutionary wrinkle of our wiring: when it comes to belonging, our brains are either all in, or all out.
Here’s an example of how that hair trigger works: You might think there’s not a huge difference between making a request face to face, or emailing it. But you would be wrong. A recent study shows that you are 34 times more likely to receive a positive response if you make your request face to face instead of email.
That’s worth repeating: the exact same request is 34 timesmore likely to get a yes! That is not merely an improvement — it’s a whole different world. This is because our brains react to the two situations differently. In a face-to-face situations, we are able to send more signals. More safety. More cohesion. More belonging. And more yeses. Here are some ways to do that.
Type less, talk more: Taking the extra time to have a face-to-face interaction is always worth it, especially when dealing with anything important. For example, groups I visited tended to deliver negative news in person. It’s harder to do — and that’s why it builds relationships.
Focus on the first 5 seconds: The first few seconds of any interaction are when our brains are deciding whether they’re in or out. Making the most of them through body language and expression isn’t just being polite; it’s essential.
Pick up trash: this sounds trivial, but it’s true. Cleaning up a shared space sends a powerful cue of belonging.
Overthanking: When you work inside a group, it’s easy to skip thank-yous (after all, you’re supposed to help each other). But in the successful groups I visited, I saw the opposite. They overthanked each other all the time. San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich takes time at the end of each year to individually thank his players for allowing him to coach them. Popovich doesn’t have to do that — after all, the players paid millions. But he does it, because he understands how chemistry works.
Group chemistry isn’t random magic. It’s a process, an ongoing exchange of signals that send a clear message: we share a future. We are connected.
When you get down to it, every group on the planet is wrestling with the same problem: how can we learn better? That is, how do we build the skills to succeed in a fast-changing landscape?
When faced with this problem, our normal instinct is to press the accelerator — to do more. More professional development, more seminars, more online learning, more workshops. But one of the most effective tools in this area is also the simplest: the subtle skill of pressing pause. That is, stopping so your group can reflect on where you are, and where you want to go.
When I visited highly successful groups for The Culture Code, I saw this all the time. It often took just a few minutes. Leaders had a habit of stopping and asking big questions: What are we doing well? What could we do better? What are we going to do differently next time?
Here are some ways I’ve seen groups do it:
1) After-Action Reviews, (AARs): This is a tool used by SEALs teams, among others: a quick huddle after an event to create awareness consensus around three questions: what went well, what didn’t, and what the group should do differently next time.
2) Pre-flight, Mid-flight, and Post-flight meetings: IDEO uses these as a way of creating team check-ins at three key moments in every project: before, during, and after. The focus is often on asking big questions around the team’s functioning: are things going the right direction? What have we learned about the project, and about each other?
3) Daily Huddles: quick, more informal gatherings to get everybody on the same page and to create awareness of shared problems. Teams at Google are particularly good at this one. When everybody shares the biggest challenge they are working on, the group gets smarter.
The deeper key is to recognize that most of us have an allergy to anything that doesn’t feel like progress. That’s why pressing pause is hard to do, and also why it’s so important. So don’t think of it as a pause. Think of it as a group version of mindfulness — a quick path to shared clarity and awareness.
By now, you have heard how Oprah’s Golden Globes speech triggered a tsunami of emotion across America and the planet. In eight minutes, she achieved what every speaker and leader wants to create: an indelible, inspiring, and defining moment. What’s interesting, however, is to look more closely at precisely how she did it. Specifically, how she used a simple narrative technique to build this moment.
The usual explanation for moments such as these goes as follows: Oprah succeeded because she’s Oprah — queen of communication, force of nature, empath supreme.This is partly true.But when you look more closely at why her speech succeeds, it has little to do with her personality, and everything to do with how she uses the oldest and most underrated communication tool in the book: the power of opposites.
Opposites are the secret jet fuel of narrative. They work according to a simple rule: If you set two polar opposites next to each other, they generate energy that drives connection, meaning, and interest. For example: Which of these two sentences is more compelling:
1) A big, broad-shouldered man walks into a bar and yells in a loud voice, “Hello, everybody!”
2) A big, broad-shouldered man walks into a bar and whispers in a soft, childlike voice, “Hello, everybody.”
See what I mean? It’s not even close. The answer (2), because it contains a tension, a question we crave to explore.This is not an accident — it’s storytelling physics. Our minds are inescapably drawn to narrative tension. In fact, if you want to get geeky about it, the word “interesting” comes from the Latin roots “inter,” which means “between” and “esse,” which means “to be.” When something is “interesting,” it literally means “to be between.” And nothing creates more in-betweenness than a set of opposites.
Oprah’s speech starts with a rich set of opposites: Oprah as a kid, watching TV, seeing an awards show where Sidney Poitier is being honored. Here you’ve got: 1) Oprah young and poor (opposite from today); 2) watching TV (opposite from being on TV, as she is now); and 3) being transfixed by a moment of when white Hollywood was turned upside-down by a black man (Sidney Poitier accepting his Oscar). With these tensions established, she pulls her narrative camera into a wide pan, and talks about the anonymous women like her mother, whose names we’ll never know. Then she tells a story.
In 1944, Recy Taylor was a young wife and a mother. She was just walking home from a church service she’d attended in Abbeville, Alabama, when she was abducted by six armed white men, raped and left blindfolded by the side of the road, coming home from church. They threatened to kill her if she ever told anyone, but her story was reported to the N.A.A.C.P., where a young worker by the name of Rosa Parks became the lead investigator on her case and together they sought justice. But justice wasn’t an option in the era of Jim Crow. The men who tried to destroy her were never persecuted. Recy Taylor died 10 days ago, just shy of her 98th birthday. She lived, as we all have lived, too many years in a culture broken by brutally powerful men. And for too long, women have not been heard or believed if they dared to speak their truth to the power of those men. But their time is up. Their time is up. Their time is up.
It’s a remarkable moment, pairing the brutal, painful story of Recy Taylor to the soaring justice sought by the civil rights movement; pairing a woman who just died and her message, which is living on. Oprah ends her speech by linking back to the original scene — girls watching TV — except that now they are hearing a call to arms: “fighting hard to make sure that they become the leaders who take us to the time when nobody ever has to say, ‘Me too’ again.One more juxtaposition — the pain of yesterday and the promise of tomorrow —that has people standing on their feet and cheering, experiencing the power of the moment.
Let’s be real: none of us can deliver these moments like Oprah can. But nevertheless, there are some useful ideas that might be worth borrowing, especially for leaders of cultures that depend on story and communication (which is to say, all of them). Call them Oprah’s rules of storytelling.
1) Seek opposites, and place them next to each other. If you have a story about your biggest success, pair it with a story about your biggest failure. If you have a story to tell about your youngest, newest employee, seek to connect it to a story about your oldest, most veteran employee. They will frame and contextualize each other, and make each resonate more powerfully.
2) Don’t shy away from the painful stuff — lean into it. There’s a natural tendency to gloss over the darker parts of any story. This is like taking the engine out of the story. The pain is where the power is located, because it frames the other side of the story. And speaking of which:
3) Tell a story. This is obvious, but worth mentioning. Stories aren’t the just sugar that helps the medicine go down — they’re more like the cannabis edibles of the whole experience. They generate the vibe.
4) Make it personal. Don’t hold back your own emotional reaction, because it is proxy and permission for others to have a reaction too.
5) Embrace refrains. Repeating a key phrase isn’t boring, if it’s done right. It’s the best way to make something memorable. Refrains work because, as Oprah shows, speaking isn’t all that different from singing. It helps to have a memorable lyric.
People call Oprah a magical communicator, but it might be more accurate to say that she’s a smart builder. She understands that moments like that don’t happen by accident, but by understanding and using the bedrock principles of good communication.
From a distance, learning and innovation look simple and elegant — effortless.
But that’s an optical illusion. In fact, it feels far closer to the process captured here (tip: skip the intro and go straight to the 10-second mark):
I love this because it demonstrates a deep truth: innovation is about a willingness to get obsessed with solving a problem. About embracing the pain of feedback and improve a little bit each time. About wiping out a bunch. And about having a group rooting you on.
For groups, this means having leaders that embrace the discomfort of this entire painful, insane, rewarding process. My favorite moment happens at the 1:20 mark, when Jerry points at his head and says, “That’s it! I found it… I found it.” I love that. Because it shows that failure is not really failure; it’s seeking.
For some time now, organizations have fallen in love with the idea of maximizing engagement at work. This has led to a proliferation of fun: foosball, Nerf, ping-pong, and pinball games — and, along the way, perhaps contributed to the frat-house vibe that marks dysfunctional bro culture. Here’s a great article from Jacob Morgan that unearths a simple truth: there are two types of engagement. The first type is shallow fun: when employees play games. The second type is deep fun — when employees take ownership of their experience inside the group.
Organizations are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on employee engagement programs, yet their scores on engagement surveys remain abysmally low. How is that possible? Because most initiatives amount to an adrenaline shot. A perk is introduced to boost scores, but over time the effect wears off and scores go back down. Another perk is introduced, and scores go back up — and then they fall again. The more this cycle repeats itself, the more it feels like manipulation.
How do you create deep engagement? Carve out space to let employees improve the fundamental systems of the group. For example: allow employees to design and build conference rooms, hold a brainstorming session to rebuild the HR function, or invest in real-time feedback systems that help people know how they are doing. Morgan calls this investing in employee experience. According to his research, companies that invested in experience did well. Really well.
Compared with other companies, the [experience-investment] organizations had more than four times the average profit and more than two times the average revenue. They were also almost 25% smaller, which suggests higher levels of productivity and innovation.
Capturing your culture – distilling it to a few powerful sentences, a radiant set of core values — is a helluva task. Get it right, and you’ve created an identity. Get it wrong, and you sound like a cheesy advertisement.
First, how important the voice is. The best of these speak from a distinct POV, with attitude. There’s a truth-telling vibe that goes beyond the usual corporate-speak. They lean into humor and wit.
Second, how often they go beyond just values (which, to be honest, tend to be pretty interchangeable) to spotlight specific behaviors that drive their culture. For instance, here’s a slide from IDEO’s deck:
And here’s one from Hubspot:
All of which adds up to reinforce the old truth. Culture isn’t something you are; it’s something you do.
You should check out Chip and Dan Heath’s new book, which is essential reading for anybody who cares about culture and leadership. The core idea: the most important things in life arrive in the form of moments — and those moments follow a template that can be learned. The Heaths identify four types of moments in which positive change occurs: pride, elevation, insight, and connection, and they explain how these can be built to help individuals and groups thrive.
My favorite part: learning about the Magic Castle Hotel, which is one of the top-rated hotels in California. Their success has little to do with the facilities (which are utterly average) or the location (same), but rather with fact that the hotel has a knack for engineering peak moments for their clientele. For example:
Let’s start with the cherry-red phone mounted to a wall near the pool. you pick it up and someone answers, “Hello, Popsicle Hotline.” You place an order, and minutes later, a staffer wearing white gloves delivers your cherry, orange, or grape Popsicles to you at poolside. On a silver tray. For free.
The book is filled with moments like that. They’re not complicated. But they’re kinda beautiful.
Culture is impossible to measure precisely, because it can’t be distilled. But while I was reporting for The Culture Code, I came across a cool culture-assessment hack. It comes from someone who knows a few things about starting and sustaining a healthy culture: restaurateur Danny Meyer, who founded Gramercy Tavern, Union Square Cafe, and Shake Shack, and many other successful ventures. Here’s Meyer’s method:
Step 1: wait for a problem
Step 2: monitor the group’s energy level, to see if it goes up or down
On the morning I met with Meyer at one of his restaurants, we got to witness a problem. A waiter dropped a tray of glasses with a huge crash. It was a giant mess.
As the other waiters started reacting, Meyer explained: “One of two things will happen. Either the people will work together well, and the energy level will end up being higher than when they started. Or, there will be subtle signals of blame, resentment, and anger, and the energy level will drop lower than before the problem.”
That’s it. Energy up, or energy down. If it goes up, Meyer says, the group’s culture is strong. If it goes down, it’s not.
On the day we watched, the energy level went up, and Meyer smiled. The culture was strong. And the larger truth was clear: Every interaction matters when it comes to culture — especially those around solving problems.