How The Best Organizations Create, Drive, And Sustain Culture With Al Curnow – Episode 152

LFL S4 152 | Sustain Culture


Culture is the bedrock that holds not only society but every organization. In today’s episode, Al Curnow from CultureWise discusses how the best organizations create, drive, and sustain culture. He clears out the misconceptions that often cloud what culture really means and the changes happening that affect how people behave in the organization. Al then shares the systems in place to create a company culture and the importance of having processes to reinforce it. In this changing environment, there are more threats to the way our people perform in the organization. Lean and learn from this conversation to overcome these challenges and better position your organization as one of the best!

Listen to the podcast here


How The Best Organizations Create, Drive, And Sustain Culture With Al Curnow

Thank you for joining me on another episode of the show. This episode is all about company culture. We’re going to be talking with Al Curnow from the company CultureWise about what it takes to build a great culture and what great organizations share in how they create, sustain, and drive it. Let’s get into it.

Al, thanks so much for being on the show. I’ve been looking forward to this conversation about culture. Even though we talk about it a lot, I think there’s a lot of confusion about what culture really means. It means different things to different people. That’s your specialty. I’d love for us to start from that space and talk about what are the systems in place that we create a culture within organizations.

Thank you very much for having me on. It’s a pleasure being here. When it comes to the definition of culture, if you ask a room full of 50 people, you’re likely to get 50 different definitions. Each one of them probably is a bit fuzzy and maybe a bit ambiguous. Historically, culture has been one of those things that’s difficult to define, which is a bit problematic because, in our experience working with close to 700 organizations, we find that it’s incredibly important and influential in everything an organization and a person does.

From our standpoint, when we look at defining culture, we feel that the clearer and more specific we can be, the better. I love one of the definitions I’ve heard. It’s what happens amongst our team members when we’re not in the room. That’s the culture. I know you are too, Patrick. I’m a big sports fan. I use a lot of sports analogies. If I’m a basketball coach, my culture isn’t me with my team in a pre-game or pre-practice huddle. It’s my players in the locker room without me there or what happens after practice. From our standpoint, it’s all the more reason we as leaders need to be very clear and influential in defining our culture and culture being how we do the things we do.

If you look at it from a corporate standpoint, particularly in industries that are highly commoditized, it’s not the widget, the screw, or the wrench we manufacture. It’s how we deliver it. If you look at the hospitality industry, it’s not necessarily our thread count on our sheets, although that’s important to some. It’s what the experience I get when I stay at that particular hotel. For us, it comes back to, as leaders of organizations, being clear in the beginning to define what our culture is as opposed to letting it grow and morph as it will without our influence.

As I heard you talking about that, in regards to when you ask people what their culture is, they can also say what their culture is by definition. If their behaviors don’t align with that, it doesn’t matter what you say your culture is. Your behaviors will trump whatever you want to say your culture is.

I go a step further. Not only will it trump it. It can become dangerous and problematic if what we say as leaders our culture is, and if there’s a misalignment in terms of what it is and what happens. That’s why people leave. “I came to work for you, Patrick because you told me we have a culture of collaboration and teamwork. We have each other’s backs. The second I find out it’s anything other than that, that you don’t support me as a leader, or I’m surrounded by a bunch of teammates with big egos that don’t care, I’m out of there.” To your point, oftentimes, what we say our culture is and what’s actually happening can be two very different things.

Oftentimes, what we say our culture is and what's actually happening can be two very different things. Click To Tweet

I’m going to volley back to you for that one. Have you seen a difference since COVID? I always hesitate now to go back with BC in terms of Before COVID now. That’s what BC stands for. Have you noticed a difference organizationally in terms of what people are willing to tolerate and how this is revealing itself?

Yes, in a few different ways, Patrick. It’s a great question. One, I generally think, not just amongst our clients, but based on my own personal anecdotal experience. People generally are operating at a much higher emotionally charged level. It seems like our collective patience is a bit thinner than it used to be, our tolerance. You probably do the same. I do a lot of travel for my work, so I’m always on crowded airplanes and airports. That’s where you begin to see it firsthand. We see some elements of that. What we’ve also seen is since COVID, we’ve never been busier.

In fact, we’ve had unbelievable growth since COVID because I believe it’s forcing leaders to think about their culture. They’re either dealing with remote employees, hybrid employees, or they’re struggling to recruit, hire, or retain. All of those things come back to that underlying culture. It’s interesting. We’ve seen the impact in a couple of different ways. In the end, it has presented a lot of opportunities for us to help, coach, and guide.

It’s interesting. When you mention that, I think of a book I read during my graduate work in leadership. I won’t get the title exactly right, but it was along the lines of the light versus shadows in leadership. When we expose the light on things, that’s when we start to see what’s there. To your point, the light has been shown in a lot of areas that were hidden before. It was in the shadows, and it couldn’t be anymore.

You’re right. Indications are changing a bit now in terms of the labor market, but it’s amazing what an incredibly tight shrinking market will do in terms of enhancing or awakening leaders’ thinking around the subject of culture. When it’s in the light of day, we tend to view things differently.

It's amazing what an incredibly tight shrinking market will do to enhance or awaken leaders' thinking around the subject of culture. Click To Tweet

I had heard this from somebody not that long ago. This was an organization I was in, and they were talking about turnover and a lot of the things going around this quiet quitting. Once the economy changes and the labor market tightens up, their thought was a lot of that stuff would go away. What are your thoughts on that?

From my personal experience from a narrow perspective, I don’t know if I totally agree with that. There are a couple of factors. One thing COVID has done is awoken all of us. A lot of us have taken a look back inside and said, “What’s important?” We’re thinking in terms of meaning and impact. They’re here to stay. I don’t think that’s something that ebbs and flows with an economy or a market and so forth. There’s that. As the dad of a sophomore in college and a senior in high school, I’d say that our youth, our next team-up, view the world differently. I don’t think that’s going anywhere anytime soon. In fact, that’s going to heighten the importance of all of this. There might be some short-term blips in terms of rates of quitting, retention, and so forth, but long-term, I don’t know. Some of these things are here to stay.

I would agree with you. The conversation that went on after that was although the physical numbers of people leaving an organization might change, my belief is that this will go back underground again. We’ll just have disengaged individuals that have quit, but they didn’t go anywhere because they didn’t have an opportunity to. Those are going to be worse because then they will resent the fact that other people got out and are stuck at an organization that they should have left when they had the chance.

The collateral damage when that happens is huge, as you know. I conducted a webinar on the topic. I don’t have the statistics at hand, but they’re mind-boggling, the impact of that phenomenon and those around them. When you have that one who can’t leave or won’t leave yet is unhappy and disengaged, what can that do to our best people? That’s where it becomes problematic and dangerous. Our best people can leave. They are the most talented. It creates a very problematic dynamic when that’s going on. It’s a dangerous thing.

On your site, you talk about high-performing organizations doing three things. It’s about creating, driving, and sustaining culture. I was wondering if we could step on each of those to get a better understanding. For those people that are out there saying, “How do I go about this in terms of culture and developing it?”

At least with our approach, it begins with creating clarity in defining and taking ownership of your culture. We see the responsibility, particularly for the most senior leader of an organization, like a president or an executive director. The same could apply within a department or on a team with the leader of that team. We see it as their responsibility to draw a line in the sand or put the white stake on the ground. Use whatever analogy you want to use. It’s the responsibility of senior leadership to define clarity in terms of, “What is our culture? What do we want it to be? What are the elements of our culture that are non-negotiable? What are the elements that perhaps might be a bit more aspirational where we need to grow?”

It's the responsibility of senior leadership to define clarity in terms of what our culture is. Click To Tweet

In our experience, it absolutely and positively has to start there. Until we’ve taken the time to do that, I’d argue we’re operating in the shadows, as you referenced before. We’re operating on hunches, best guesses, and so forth. What’s interesting about that is that even some great companies haven’t necessarily gone that far. Historically, what most organizations have done to try to establish and define their culture is create a mission value statement. They’ll establish some core values. While that can be good and important, particularly if they’re meaningful and live to what they espouse, in our experience, it’s not enough.

For example, you look at core values. In everyone’s core value statement, you’ll see something about respect and integrity, which is incredibly important yet tends to be vague and ambiguous. For example, let’s say we have 25 people in my company. Five come from an urban area, and five from a rural area. Maybe I have a few international employees in my group. If I were to ask every one of my team members, “What does respect mean to you?” I’d highly likely get 25 different definitions. Whereas if we can be clearer and more specific and focus on the behaviors we’re looking to drive, those things mean the same things to all people.

What are the behaviors we’re looking to drive that speak to respect? Is it listening generously? Is it being clear on expectations? Is it honoring our commitments and doing what we say we’re going to do? If we can operate on that level and create a language we can use with each other and our team members, it will help us be better leaders. It creates clarity for our team members. It gives us something that we can do something with and measure. In our experience, most organizations haven’t gone that far. That’s something we’re very involved with. The first step when working with an organization is getting at that. It has to start there.

I’d love to hear you say that. From my perspective, I fully agree with you. I look at mission, vision, and values as such a missed opportunity with most organizations. I’ve been in those organizations where cynically, I looked at them and said, “We don’t stand for any of these things.” We have this nice printout and plaque and whatever it is, and it’s on our badges and some places. It’s even worse when it’s on your badge, and you feel like people don’t model those behaviors because now you’re reminded of it on a daily basis, “What out of alignment this organization is.”

It’s so true. The opposite can be true as well if we truly live to them. In our experience, it’s challenging to live to them if we don’t have enough clarity in terms of what they mean, how we can practice them, and what they mean to us on a day-to-day basis. That’s where there tends to be a disconnect. In our experience, it’s also an enormous opportunity to begin to leverage, harness, and define your culture.

LFL S4 152 | Sustain Culture

Sustain Culture: Begin to leverage, harness, and define your culture.


That’s such a great exercise too for you to do because it involves people. Now it’s not just words. It’s asking people, “What do you think? How does this impact you?” You now get buy-in because people don’t feel it’s being sent down on high that they’re part of this process of, “What do these really look like?”

Patrick, you’re so right. It’s interesting because something happens when we’re given a voice, regardless of whether or not we end up in the same place. In other words, if an organization is trying to define that set of behaviors that they’re looking to drive, even if we would’ve ended up with that same list regardless of that participation or involvement, it brings it to a whole other level when it’s coming from us and when we’ve had a voice. That ownership is the key particularly when you come to that next step in the process of once you define it, how you integrate it, drive it, and so forth. Having that ownership in the first place can help along those lines.

Along those lines, when I think of the mission, vision, and values of this missed opportunity, I look and think, “What an easy way for us to have a roadmap for this organization.” I can look back and say, “Are my behaviors now in line with what we say we stand for, what our values are, and the decisions we’re making as an organization right now? We need to make this difficult decision. Is this in alignment with what we say we stand for as an organization?”

It’s interesting. In addition to being consultants on the topic, we’re practitioners as well. I can tell you firsthand that when you have that language and awareness, it’s almost inescapable in a good way. I’ll be in a meeting with 3 or 4 of my teammates. We’re trying to solve a customer-related issue. I’ll find myself saying in that meeting without having to even think about it, “If we’re going to do what’s best for our customer, we should probably be thinking about X, Y, Z.” I don’t think it’s by accident or a fluke thing that I’m thinking through that lens.

One of our fundamentals, which we call our key core behaviors, is always to do what’s best for the customer. When you have that level of clarity and are continually focusing on it, you’re always aware. As incidents arise, I don’t have to check my guidebook. It’s there. It becomes how we do things. That’s the power. You have to first start with being very clear in terms of what those things are before you can do much meaningfully about it.

LFL S4 152 | Sustain Culture

Sustain Culture: When you have that level of clarity, and you’re continually focusing on it, you’re always aware.


On that last point, I’m going to jump to the end of sustain. You being able to leverage those and being able to refer back to that, to me, is about sustain. This isn’t just a nice thing we’ve put on the wall. It’s like you go to the gym training to build these muscles.

In between those two with the definition and sustaining, probably one of the most important in terms of, “How do we drive it? How do we implement a process that reinforces it?” that, to me, at least for our recipe, the secret sauce. It’s to get you from defining and sustaining that necessary part. The thing that’s going to get us to the gym, even on those days that we don’t feel like it, is that second piece in terms of how we can drive it.

Anything the biggest mistakes that you see organizations making in the drive component of this?

It’s interesting because our approach with the drive component is we utilize a fairly simple, straightforward, yet incredibly powerful approach and concept. We help client organizations establish what we call rituals. Rituals have no religious connotation. It simply means we help our client organizations create practices, routines, and habits to help their leaders and team members stay focused on those important behaviors. It’s an interesting and effective approach, Patrick. What our client organizations will do is they’ll come up with a set of fundamental core behaviors. They might have anywhere from 15 to 30 of them, but each and every week, they focus on one of them per week organizationally-wide.

They do that through any combination or combination of rituals or practices. It might be something as simple as some weekly messaging, getting a message out to all team members, “Team, this week we’re focused on X, Y, Z.” Other clients will do some interesting things like start every meeting or certain meetings, like department meetings, staff meetings, or client meetings with a brief discussion about that week’s behavior and fundamental. Some will use different ways of using tech to reinforce it. They do that every week over and over. When they get to the end of their list, they start all over again, and they do it over and over.

This approach isn’t novel or new necessarily. You’re probably familiar with Ritz-Carlton in their daily basics approach, where every day, every property around the world, or every shift change, they discuss one guest-centric idea per day. Think about the power of that, whether you were in Singapore, London, or Boston, to know that those team members are focused on delivering whatever that one concept is organizationally wide. In fact, we were heavily influenced by that model when we developed ours. Once you’ve established that framework where you’re focusing, it allows you and your team members to stay focused, continually improve, and sharpen your skillset when it comes to those respective behaviors.

That’s an important point or framework. Going way back to your question, where we see client organizations falling short when it comes to driving it is there. They don’t have a framework or a process in place. They might talk about these important things, but they don’t have a systematic way of operationalizing them. They might do a training program now and then, it gets hot for 30 days and then goes cold. That, in our experience, tends to be the norm versus the exception. They haven’t developed or even thought about a systematic way of keeping those important things front and center.

I have found that it’s worse to do the 30-day rah-rahs than to do nothing at all. I always equate it back to antibiotic treatment. If you think about going for antibiotic treatment, even if you’re feeling better, take it all because if you don’t, it’s either coming back or worse, you’re going to become resistant. The same thing has happened in the world of training. For most people, they get a little bump, they feel good, and, “I don’t need to take the rest. We don’t need to continue to run this thing out. We got it from here.” What happens is they become resistant. The next thing that gets implemented, employees are like, “Here we go again. It’s not going to work.”

When you look at the best companies and the great sports teams with a long history of success, they’re all about that continued focus because they’ll have players come in and out. Not always necessarily the top-skill positions, but because their culture is so strong and those expectations are so clear, they benefit from that continued focus. You’re right. When we’re rolling out our process to our client organizations, I take that head-on initially. I’ll be in there with a room full of employees, and you can tell, “Here we go again.” Give this 30 days. We can wait this one out too, but I take it right out and say, “This is different. You’re already good. This is about creating a great team for a sustained period of time.”

LFL S4 152 | Sustain Culture

Sustain Culture: The culture of the best companies is so strong, and those expectations are so clear they benefit from that continued focus.


That’s a higher level of commitment and responsibility. To do that, we can’t leave it to our own devices because it’s going to be like the New Year’s resolutions we broke. The way we’re going to prevent that is we’ve got this framework and this process, so we never lose sight of what’s important. We continually get better. We continually talk about those things that are important until they become what we do and how we do it. We never stop also because as we add new team members, they need that clarity too. They need to know what to expect coming onto our team because our team’s different than probably any other they’ve been involved with before. There’s real power in that.

Team members get that as well. Once they see it, they get it. The next important thing, going back to your original question of potential spots for problem areas, is as long as we’re sustaining those practices and rituals, as leaders, we need to make sure we’re leading by example and protecting that line in the sand that we drew. For example, what does a leader do if one of their team members says, “Those behaviors are good for you. Not important to me,” or worse, what if they continue to operate in a way that’s completely counter to all those things we said is important? That’s where and when leadership has to be willing sometimes to make difficult decisions in terms of, “Is this person a fit for my team in terms of what I’m looking to build and grow?”

Those decisions are a bit easier if those team members are underperformers. What do we do if it’s your top sales guy or one of your team members who manage your largest account, and the account loves them, but they’re wreaking havoc on the rest of your team and are becoming toxic? That’s the other area. Organizations are vulnerable if they haven’t been clear in establishing what they’re building, they don’t have a process to reinforce it, and if their leaders don’t lead with it and draw that line when necessary.

Organizations are vulnerable if they haven't established what they're building clearly. They need a process to reinforce it. Click To Tweet

I’m glad you say that because it exposes unfairness within an organization. Even if employees don’t say anything, they see it and think, “Sue or Jim don’t have to follow the same rules as the rest of us are, and nobody’s calling them out on it. It doesn’t fly.”

It happens all the time. It’s interesting, too, because we’ve worked with our client organizations and coached them through some of those things. It’s funny. When that happens and when the leadership ultimately makes the right decision, in those cases, as difficult as they sometimes are, the result is always the same. The team members around them breathe a sigh of relief, saying, “About time,” and the leaders, pretty much without exceptions, will always say, “I wish I did that six months ago or a year ago.”

We’re not one of those who approach things like, “You’ve got to get rid of 10% of your workforce now.” We’re all about coaching, skill improvement, and development. Every all boat rise. The reality of any organization is from time to time, you’re going to have a bad apple or two that we need to deal with if we’re serious about creating an extraordinary culture.

LFL S4 152 | Sustain Culture

Sustain Culture: The reality of any organization is you will have that bad apple or two that we need to deal with if we’re serious about creating an extraordinary culture.


Going back to defining culture, one of the definitions I love, and I don’t know who this is credited to, is there’s a saying that the true definition of your culture is the worst behavior you are willing to tolerate as a leader of that organization. In other words, if I came to visit your company, organization, or team and I knew nothing about you, and I spent some time with you behind the scenes without the leaders in the room so on and so forth, what I witnessed as the worst behavior is how I’m going to define you and your organization. That is insightful and accurate.

I would argue that you owe it. There’s a responsibility you have to that. Whatever that person looks like, they’re not in the right place. You are not serving them well by having them remain. It works in the organization’s best interest to have that person leave. It opens up the spot for somebody that should be there. It sets a precedent for other people to say, “This company is serious about this stuff.” It releases them in a way to go somewhere else that’s going to be a better fit for you.

Could you imagine if you worked in an environment where everything you believed and performed was counter to what was being stressed? It’s not healthy. Sometimes we get stuck. That can be hard. Have a leader to be able to identify and help. We owe it to that team member and get them on a path that’s right for them. That’s the thing. It’s not good or bad or right or wrong. It’s more of a fit. Sometimes it’s a matter of some of our team members might not fit. It doesn’t make them bad people. In fact, it’s likely to flourish in the right fit in an organization that’s the right fit for them.

That was my last organization. I was so unhappy. I look back on it now. The values I held were not the same values that I was experiencing around me. I didn’t have the courage to make the jump I wanted to make at that point until it was forced upon me. It was comfortable.

How long were you there, Patrick? I’m curious.

It’s a total of five years. That part wasn’t until the end that there was a misalignment between what I wanted and what I was receiving. I said, “I can’t do this anymore.” It was a gift.

The other element and one thing that certainly has grown in terms of an area of concern, need, and awareness is the whole wellness. I’m a big believer and supporter that it tends to look at things holistically. When we’re in a spot like that, it’s not healthy for our mental or physical well-being. All of these affect performance, but to me, more importantly, they affect our health at the same time. It can happen. Going back to establishing clarity as a leader of an organization, what it does, too, is it helps from the standpoint of those situations where we’ve got a team member that’s not a fit. It does shine more light on them more quickly than it might hadn’t we taken the time to provide the clarity and expectations of our team members. It forces the issue a little bit in a positive way to make better decisions.

One other topic that was very interesting, especially as it relates to culture in an environment where we’re finding more remote work, is how we keep that together. What does that look like?

One thing we’ve all learned is the answer is not necessarily another Zoom happy hour. The First 1 or 2 weren’t bad. In our experience, what we’ve found is we just need to double down. As this one is, it’s putting those consistent channels of communication in play. It’s providing opportunities to listen, particularly our remote team members, to be heard, those connection points, not just at the weekly check-in but more frequently and systematically. In our experience, that’s the most critical. An event here and there isn’t going to do it. It’s got to be more substantive and consistent. It’s by having some framework or schedule that isn’t necessarily forced but provides those real opportunities to connect to be heard, share at the same time, and establish the flow. To us, that’s been one of the biggest factors.

One thing I have observed is that we don’t know what this is going to look like. The organizations that are best suited for navigating what culture will look like in a remote versus brick and mortar are those that stay curious and open to exploring how we are going to do this successfully and maintain a positive identity in this new environment.

It’s a tricky one, Patrick. I can see both sides. Early on in COVID, I had clients who were adamant that they were going to keep their employees at work as long as they could. They’re going to bring them back as quickly as they can. I had others that were much more open. I can see. There are certain advantages and benefits of being with others. If you probably can recall the author’s name in The Culture Code, Dan Coyle, it’s the whole idea of bumping into each other. Like water coolers, we share things. Things happen. There’s a certain magic to that. We lose that. Therefore, we need to be mindful of how we, on a remote basis, replace those connection points and establish those so they won’t be the same.

We can get close as long as we’re mindful of it and flexible in terms of it. The whole other element of it is we all perform differently. I don’t know about you, but I’ve always worked remotely. This isn’t for everybody. Some need that structure and that separation. There’s that element too. To your point, the best strategy is to try to be as open-minded as you can, recognizing the realities of your business. Some businesses require hands-on. Trying to be flexible, open-minded, evaluating your team members and where and how they operate best, creating those clear expectations, and creating those systematic, regular communication touchpoints are a good start.

I would agree. Al, this has been such a great conversation. Thank you so much for taking the time. If people want to reach out to you, what’s the best way to contact you and the company?

If they want to contact me personally, my email address is If they want to check out our company, our website is I know everyone says this, but if you’ve been on our site, we produce a lot of good content that we freely share on the topic. If there are any other culture geeks out there, we have lots of materials. We do a very comprehensive biweekly blog. We have lots of videos on the topic, white papers, and things. It’s a great resource. Even if it’s just a conversation, I’m always happy to help. I’m passionate about the topic and looking to help as much as I can.

There’s certainly a huge need for it. Thanks again for taking the time to share what you guys are doing. Best of luck.

It’s my pleasure. Same, Patrick. Thank you.


Important Links


About Al Curnow

LFL S4 152 | Sustain CultureAl has over 25 years of experience in the employee benefits industry. His diverse experience includes facilitating employee engagement, corporate training, product development, sales, and sales management. Al has spoken at numerous events on the topic of culture and has worked with more than 80 organizations helping them design and sustain incredible cultures. In both his professional and personal life, Al is a consummate coach. He enjoys nothing more than bringing out the best in his corporate clients as well as the youth basketball teams that he coaches. Al is a graduate of The University of Rhode Island. He’s also completed graduate work in Business Administration at The University of Missouri at Kansas City.


Love the show? Subscribe, rate, review, and share!

Join the LEARNING FROM LEADERS Community today: