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Successful businesses today are those with an excellent culture where everyone feels engaged, included and valued – part of a team striving for success and a common vision.

I was listening to an episode of Philip Stutts’ “The Undefeated Marketing” podcast recently where he was talking with Kyle McDowell, the author of “Begin with WE” and was struck by the sense of having the cultural values of a business begin with “We” – meaning everyone is a part of them.

So much so, I bought the book…

As I’ve written and talked about before, a strong company culture is a key success factor, and having people understand and buy into your company values, together with the vision, is critical, so involving them by using the collective makes a lot of sense, as do the 10 principles outlined.

These are the 10 principles McDowell outlined, with notes to my own experience of each.

  1. We Do the Right Thing. Always.

This is not about doing the easy, or the convenient, thing, but the right thing. And sometimes that’s tough – it could cost the company money and some (short term, if handled properly) reputational damage.

The book cites an excellent example of this in the case of Baxter International and how the CEO, Harry Kraemer, handled a tragic problem with its dialysis machines – Fast Company has the story here.

In most cases, though, companies have stuck to the proverbial letter of the law, rather than embracing the spirit of it, or even going beyond that to do the right thing – so have been putting profit ahead of integrity. Would you want to be associated with a company like this?

True leaders have integrity and a “We” mentality – they seek to always to the right thing, even when it’s hard.


  1. We Lead by Example.

As leaders, we all lead by example, all the time. What we need to do is be sure we’re setting the right example – not following the “Do as I say, not as I do” approach.

But, of course, you don’ have to have a leadership title to lead. Leading is about action, not position and everyone in the business has the opportunity, at times, to lead in some respect – it might be as simple as keeping their workspace clean and tidy, or as complicated as leading a project, but if you set an example, others will follow.

When taking an action, any action, think about whether, if somebody wrote about it, you would be happy to see that action in writing. If not, it’s not an example you want to set.

And for the designated leaders, remember what Sam Rayburn said, “You cannot be a leader, and ask other people to follow you, unless you know how to follow, too.”


  1. We Say What We’re Going to Do. Then We Do It.

Probably one of the quickest ways to lose customers is to have a reputation for unreliability, for not keeping to your commitments.

Yes, people, and businesses, make mistakes and don’t always keep their commitments. When this happens, though, take ownership and do the right thing: apologise, and try to make amends in some way. In fact, studies show that when you do mess up, by taking ownership and making amends you can turn an unhappy customer into a strong advocate.

I had a case a few weeks ago: flying back from Europe to Cape Town on Turkish Airlines we missed our connecting flight in Istanbul due to the incoming aircraft being several hours late. We spent 24 rather uncomfortable hours sitting in the airport waiting for the next flight.

Despite the airline’s own, published, passenger rights document which said delays of more that 8 hours entitled us to hotel accommodation, and the fact that we were business class passengers, the airline simply told us no accommodation was available. The staff were disinterested, unapologetic, and not willing to help in any way. Even when they rebooked us on the next flight to Cape Town, they placed my wife and me 8 rows apart and then told me to make my own arrangements to change seats so we could travel together on this 11-hour flight.

The airline has subsequently refused to provide any compensation at all.

I chose Turkish Airlines for this segment because they market themselves as one of Europe’s best. Needless to say, I will never use the airline again and will advise anybody else to avoid, it, too.

When your business, or one of the people in it, messes up – take ownership, make amends and delight the customer (whether internal or external). You’ll see a great ROI.


  1. We Take Action.

As McDowell goes on to say, “Taking action and making a mistake is okay. Being idle is not.”

So often, company culture – especially in long-established companies – discourages people from taking action; they’re afraid of consequences and so defer all decisions to their leadership.

Leaders, too, are often unwilling to take action for fear of taking a wrong decision, failing or looking foolish – this fear often showing itself as a constant request for further information before deciding: analysis paralysis.

In their book, “CEO Excellence: The Six Mindsets That Distinguish the Best Leaders from the Rest,” the authors, McKinsey senior partners, Carolyn Dewar, Scott Keller, and Vik Malhotra, suggested that a successful CO today has to be bold, willing and able to take big decisions to move the company forward – in other words, willing to take action.

And when mistakes happen, as they do, we should treat them as a learning experience, modify out action accordingly and continue moving.

As Norman Vincent Peale said, “Action is a great restorer and builder of confidence. Inaction is not only the result, but the cause, of fear.” 

If we don’t move, we get left behind, we stagnate. It’s much easier and quicker to change direction when we’re moving, if we need to, than to always start out going the right way.


  1. We Own Our Mistakes.

This follows directly on from the previous WE, for when we take action mistakes will happen from time to time.

The key is to own them, learn from them, adjust and move on – quickly. This is what successful leaders do, and how companies move forward.

Clearly, some mistakes are less problematic than others – the best kind are those made, genuinely, in good faith, often when trying something new or trying to stretch oneself. Fortunately, this is the most common kind, and the type where one really can learn and move on – think about adopting The 5 Whys as a model to get to the root cause of a problem.

Then there are those that are, quite simply, careless mistakes. These can be tolerated, but repeated carelessness cannot – it shows a lack of respect for oneself and the team as a whole.

Finally, and fortunately, very rarely, are mistakes made from malice (cover-up attempts fall into this, too). These mistakes cannot be tolerated for they will poison the team.

Remember the earlier example of Harry Kraemer and Baxter International? This was a great example of owning the mistake – for that’s what it was: the filters for the dialysis machine were designed to help, not kill, people and Kraemer owned the company’s mistake and took immediate action. He wasn’t afraid of looking foolish or being seen to have failed – the primary causes of people at all levels failing to own mistakes – and immediately stepped up to own the problem, even though it occurred in a distant subsidiary, recognising that the proverbial buck stopped with him.

He recognised the problem, owned it, and took immediate (and painful) action.

True leadership!

Hiding mistakes (or trying to cover them up) becomes more complicated and toxic as time passes. Owning mistakes allows us to move forward, and leaders need to ensure a culture where people are comfortable owning their mistakes and can continue to develop and are encouraged to look for solutions to problems that arise.


  1. We Pick Each Other Up.

A critical element of a strong company culture is that of having each other’s backs. Unless there is malice or repeated and deliberate carelessness (often inter-related), people don’t want to make mistakes and are normally worried about the outcome if they do.

When this happens, understand how the mistake came about – was it a problem with the process of the task, was it a lack of understanding, or did the person have some other weighty matter on their mind that was distracting them?

True leaders do not ‘rule by fear’ but by seeking to understand, to improve processes and understanding, and helping their team members through a difficult time.

Similarly, the sort of team dynamics where everyone believes they look more competent when somebody else makes a mistake are bound to end in failed teams.

Working together to achieve the goals and helping each other over obstacles unlocks amazing levels of potential and results in great benefit for all. And an open culture that encourages questions, where input is embraced and true accountability runs through the organisation from top to bottom gives the level of support that this WE is all about.


  1. We Measure Ourselves by Outcomes. Not Activity.

There is the old adage about if you want to get something done, giving it to a busy person. But that’s not always true – being busy does not necessarily mean being productive.

I remember early in my career in my first senior management role, I was presented with a series of lengthy weekly reports (this was in the days when line printers were still used for these, so a huge stack of that lined, perforated paper would arrive). Apparently, “management” would get these reports (several copies for each) and go through them looking for anomalies.

I queried why and was told it had always been done like that. Coming from a programming background, I understood that it was relatively easy to produce exception reports instead of these massive transaction ones and implemented a fast change, reducing the report volume by more than 95% and freeing up considerable time for me, and others.

Nowadays, it seems, reports have been replaced by email as the primary waster of time – essentially copying everyone, and anyone, on any email, “just in case.”

The point here is that a busy person is often far from productive in the sense of making meaningful progress towards their goals. So, rather than measure your activity, measure your outcomes – the results of your work, in effect. Activities are simply what can (but does not always) be used to achieve outcomes, and these are what really matters.

So, take a critical look at where you’re spending your time, and how. Are your various activities helping you move towards your goals or, perhaps, are you busy doing things that would be better done by somebody else, or don’t really need to be done at all?

By measuring ourselves, and others, on outcomes, rather than activity, we will be better able to focus on, and achieve, our goals. And that’s good for everyone.


  1. We Challenge Each Other. Diplomatically.

In companies where the culture is one of open communication and people are encouraged to ask questions and express their views, challenging others is a daily occurrence. But is it done in a way that doesn’t cause those on the receiving end to want to take cover?

Similarly, do you have managers and/or leaders that believe the only way to get a point across is loudly and personally?

If we have a culture of Taking Action (WE #4) we need to recognise that this is about improvement, too, and so this WE ( #8 – Challenging Each Other) is necessary to keep improvement going. But we need to be careful that people don’t perceive our challenges as criticism, to challenge diplomatically.

Rather than expressing your challenge as “I think you…” consider starting with something like, “Are you open to another angle? If so, I have some information you might want to look at.”

This is especially important if you are challenging your manager, unless that manager has asked for challenges and different points of view to consider, of course.

The point of challenging is improvement and, provided this is clear and everyone has bought in to the concept, it fosters great team spirit as everyone is working towards the same goals.


  1. We Embrace Challenge.

This is, of course, the other side of the previous WE – embracing receiving challenge, in effect.


Although the book has this as #9, and has challenging others as #8, my feeling is they should be the other way around. Have people comfortable with receiving challenges to what they’re doing, and then they’ll be more inclined to challenge others, and do so diplomatically.

Either way, though, you can’t have one without the other in a healthy culture – people must be able to give and receive challenges.

And this WE is about embracing, not just accepting, challenge – it’s about removing your personal feelings and subjectivity, having an open mind and believing that the other person is challenging you with genuinely good intention, so you should listen to what they have to say and be open to it.

Leaders that set the tone and really embrace challenge will find the culture throughout the company following suit, and the benefits of growth that follow.


  1. We Obsess Over Details. Details Matter. A Lot.

Details do matter. A lot!

The book uses a great example of a brick wall that needs to be built with, say, 1000 bricks. A small error in the laying of a brick – too much mortar, or slightly crooked, for example – will become more and more obvious as the wall grows higher, even though that single brick represents just 0.1% of the total.

Illustrating how small things can improve a business, I wrote about how the cumulative effect of several small changes in your business can really add up here: The Magic of Small Changes for Big Profit Increases

Or think of the classic mortgage issue. If you increase your minimum monthly payment on a typical 20-year mortgage by just 5%, you will chop nearly 3 years off your payment period, and save yourself some R200 000 in total interest payments on a R1 000 000 loan (assuming 10% interest p.a.).

The fact is, that if you pay attention to the small things, it really makes a difference. Spelling mistakes in a newspaper article devalue it, although the meaning and the overall message is unchanged.

So, we need to really “sweat the small stuff” – it can make a huge difference.


Interestingly, just as McDowell implemented twice-yearly WE Awards ceremonies to recognize team members who were “caught” making a difference by exhibiting the WEs, I’ve implemented monthly programs at several companies during the past 20 years which recognised a similar thing – making a difference and going the extra mile. They made a huge difference to the teams, and the businesses.

Think about these 10 principles. If you can inculcate them in your business, you’ll have a strong culture with people feeling part of a great team working towards common goals, and your business will be all the stronger, with greater growth and better profitability for it.



I work with successful owner-led businesses to enhance their growth, profitability, cash flow and business value.

If you’d like to have a conversation about your business, its culture and team dynamics, or any other business challenges or concerns, book a free 30-minute call with me here. I’d be delighted to talk with you.


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