Oct. 6, 2022

200 How to Cultivate a Thriving Organizational Culture with Brad Federman | Partnering Leadership Global Thought Leader

200 How to Cultivate a Thriving Organizational Culture with Brad Federman | Partnering Leadership Global Thought Leader

In this episode of Partnering Leadership, Mahan Tavakoli speaks with Brad Federman, Leadership and Culture Expert, Speaker, Coach, and Author of Cultivating Culture: 101 Ways to Foster Engagement in 15 Minutes or Less. Brad Federman shares how leaders can cultivate a company culture that will help them succeed in creating a two-way dialogue and improving teamwork. Brad Federman also highlighted the eight key focus areas that will amplify values at work to achieve a healthy and productive organization. Finally, Brad Federman outlines how cultivating culture brings your team together and keeps them committed to the company's core values.


Some highlights:

- Brad Federman's upbringing, personal influences, and how that impacted his perspective in life

- The importance of understanding the culture of an organization and how it contributes to making better decisions

- The reason behind organizations struggling to keep good people

- Brad Federman on the definition of organizational culture

- How leaders can build better and more robust cultures 

- What leaders must do to foster better relationships with customers 

- Brad Federman on the pandemic's impact on organizational culture 

- Best practices and recommendations for leaders on how to cultivate culture and collaborative decision making


Greg Satell (Listen to  Greg Satell’s episode on Partnering Leadership here)

Books Mentioned: 

The Trusted Advisor by David Maister

At the Heart of Leadership: How to Get Results with Emotional Intelligence

by Joshua Freedman, Peter Salovey

Emotional Intelligence 2.0 by Travis Bradberry,  Jean Greaves, Patrick Lencioni


Connect with Brad Federman:

Performance Point Website

Cultivating Culture: 101 Ways to Foster Engagement in 15 Minutes or Less on Amazon

Brad Federman on LinkedIn

Connect with Mahan Tavakoli:



More information and resources available at the Partnering Leadership Podcast website: 



Mahan Tavakoli: 

Welcome to Partnering Leadership. I'm really excited this week to be welcoming Brad Federman. Brad is the author of Cultivating Culture: 101 Ways to Foster Engagement in 15 Minutes or Less. He's an author, speaker, and consultant with more than 25 years of corporate experience in leadership, creating employee and customer experiences and building resilient relationships and promoting collaborative cultures. 

I really enjoyed this conversation because Brad's book is filled with specific exercises and conversations that teams can go through to foster that engagement. Engagement and culture is not something that exists in the abstract. It's something that can be worked on through the questions that we ask and through our conversations. So that's why I'm sure you will gain specific, tangible insights on conversations you can have with your team on how you can develop and cultivate a thriving organizational culture.

I really enjoy hearing from you. Keep your comments coming, mahan@mahantavakoli.com. There's a microphone icon on partneringleadership.com. You can leave voice messages for me there. Don't forget to follow the podcast on your favorite platform. Tuesday conversations with magnificent change makers from the Greater Washington DC, DMV region, and Thursday conversations with brilliant global thought leaders like Brad.

Brad Federman, welcome to Partnering Leadership. I'm thrilled to have you in this conversation with me,

Brad Federman: 

I'm thrilled to be here. 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

Excited to talk about your book: Cultivating Culture, 101 Ways to Foster Engagement in 15 Minutes or Less, Brad. But before we get to your book and talking about culture would love to know whereabouts you grew up and how your upbringing has impacted the kind of person you've become.

Brad Federman: 

I grew up on the east coast. I live in Memphis now, so I live in the south, I was born in New York. I grew up in Connecticut and Maryland DC area. And definitely impacted the way I thought about things. I really watched my father make choices to sacrifice for family.

And he did that, not just with his family. He did that for other people and. My father's been a big influence in me. And his perspective has always been, we need to do whatever we can to allow people to be the best version of themselves, to give people access to things that are gonna open up their eyes to see what else is out there in the world.

The mission of our company, which is a personal mission for me, is to inspire others, to discover and live their possible. That comes directly from my upbringing, comes directly from my father. And I think moving around, because after DC, I went to Nashville, Louisville Memphis, and I've also traveled for work.

One of the things that I've realized is change can be hard. It can be difficult but it can be so exhilarating and rewarding and learning about yourself in that process is even more rewarding. I loved moving around. I loved the different places I've lived and I found things in each of those places that I can admire, I can enjoy and take pride in and know that there are differences, but those differences aren't meaning that one's good, one's bad. They're just uniquely different.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

Learning to appreciate those differences, helps us also recognize the value that different people bring to the culture of whether it's a city, a community, an organization, or even a small team. Brad, you started out at Accenture, which is an organization that has gone through a lot of transitions over these years. What was that initial work experience like for you?

Brad Federman: 

So, when I worked for them, they were Anderson Consulting Society Cooperative was the name. Wow. It has gone through a lot of changes and the consulting side and the other side of the business split, which was lucky because the accounting side actually went out of business. It went to fund largely because of scandals like Enron. It was a great experience to cut my teeth.

I learned a lot when I worked there culturally, it wasn't what I really wanted to do and where I wanted to work the rest of my life. It was very conservative in nature. I'm not conservative, but it was one of those things where at the time, and it's not like this anymore.

So, I do want to make a clarification at the time you could walk onto the floor, so you could open up the refrigerators at every floor and they would be empty. And there's a beautiful kitchen, but it was never used. And it was because no one wanted to be seen brown bagging it. There was a concept that you had to look good and look the park for clients.

There was a park next door, but you couldn't be seen at the park because homeless people might walk through the park. There were rules about wearing a jacket within a two-block radius of the building. And culturally, I just said, I don't really wanna work in an environment like this anymore.

I wanna work an environment where we can be ourselves. So, I took the time and I learned what I could about change management, knowledge transfer, and a variety of other things when working there. And I used that to propel my career forward. I also used the experience of understanding the culture of an organization to help me make better decisions as I move forward in my career as well, because your career is based on two things, are you doing work that you love and that you can be talented at? And are you doing it in a place that you love and can be proud of? And that's different for different people. 

Again, I'm gonna make clarification just because you're not proud or you don't love something doesn't mean it's bad. It just means it's not a fit for you. And there are people that loved working there at that time under those circumstances. I just, wasn't one of them.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

It's great that you found the kind of environment that you were able to thrive at eventually starting your own organization. But the other thing that I find interesting Brad is the fact that the consulting firms were very conservative. Many of them having gotten their roots in accounting, some not, they were still extremely conservative.

And if you look at it, they've done a 180 with respect to their organizational culture in order to be able to recruit and retain the best talent. 

Brad Federman: 

I agree. I also think not only was it important for them to change in terms of recruiting or attention because you're right. They were losing people and they were struggling to keep good people because they had an up or out mentality. The consulting firms back then they mirrored the accounting firms.

And what it meant was your best people, if they didn't want to sell, or they didn't wanna manage, but they wanted to continue to do great work would leave because they were forced out of what they loved to do something that they didn't enjoy. And so, these organizations had to rethink what they were doing to keep their very best because they were losing their very best.

And the second part of that too, was clients started to change. There's that wonderful, soft drink, commercial. I forgot which one it is. It might be Sprite. Was it? Image is nothing, thirst is everything or something like that. Do you remember that commercial? And the consulting firms flipped that it was like, image is everything and the work, I don't say it's nothing, but it wasn't as important.

It was coffee grinder kind of approach. It was, we have a methodology, we'll use it, we'll grind it out. You're not gonna get the most innovative stuff from us, but you're gonna get a consistent product from us. And yet the image was really important. Right now, companies started to change their perception of that.

They liked working with the brand that had this image, but over time clients started saying, you know what, I don't care what you're dressed. Like they saw a lot of companies that were over the top of image that had ethical problems. All kinds of things started shifting in the industries.

And so, companies started to say, I care more about the work you're doing and laughs about the suit that you're wearing. As that happened, the culture of these consulting firms had a shift because they mirrored their customers and the customers changed so, they had to change and that's what's happened over the years.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

One of the things that is really important for organizations, is this concept of organizational culture. And you've studied and written quite a bit about culture, including your latest book: Cultivating Culture.

How do you define organizational culture before we get some of the, your thoughts and perspectives on how leaders can build better and more robust cultures in theirs team and organization?

Brad Federman: 

I define it a couple of different ways because I think it's a complicated concept that people wanna simplify. It is simply a shared way of doing things. That's the first thing. The second thing I'll say is it's simply a shared way of doing things that's built around your customers.

And a lot of people build their culture around themselves or around an individual or around a CEO. And unfortunately, when that CEO leads and somebody else comes in, it means that employees have whiplash. I've worked with a company that had six CEOs in four years. I felt so badly for the employees.

The other thing is it doesn't really make sense to do that because culture is supposed to help your strategy move forward. So, your culture should be defined from the outside. It should be customers backwards. It's simply a shared way of doing things that fosters better relationships with your customers and drives your business. That's the first way I define it. 

The second way I define it is that culture ultimately is the behaviors that you are willing to tolerate. What do I mean by that? Even if you have an outside in culture, you built it based around your purpose, your why you exist, your brand identity. Then you build values around. What's gonna foster that and you have defined behaviors that are gonna drive that even if you do all that and you do it well, the real test to culture comes when your very best salesperson behaves like a jerk. And you have to say to yourself, Yeah, but there's $10 million on the line. And everybody else that works for me brings a half of what this person brings in. I can't afford to tick them off and that wasn't that bad. So, we rationalize letting it go. 

Or you have an incredible manager that creates massive results, and they're well known in the industry. If they walked out the door, you could lose business, they behave themselves most of the time. But there's about four times in the year when something bad happens where they have a meltdown and they might scream at an employee or berate an employee or whatever the case may be, and you sit back and say, that's just Joe, you just roll it off your shoulders, kind of thing. Those four days. That one salesperson that becomes your culture. It isn't what you do most of the time. It's what you tolerate because people look and they define culture based on not when it's easy, but when it's tough. So, if you're gonna say we value employees, it's not good enough to do it generally. It's not good enough to do it. Most of the time, you have to do it all of the time. That doesn't mean people don't make mistakes. It means that when you make a mistake, you own up to it, you acknowledge it, you apologize for it, and you deal with it. 

If you tolerate it, here's what happens. We all remember Matt Lauer, right? Matt Lauer: Today's Show. You remember the damage and the weight that that left. That's what happens when you ignore people's behavior because they're so important or so powerful that becomes your culture and it takes a lot of work to overcome that.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

It really does. And I love that Brad I want everyone to write down behaviors you are willing to tolerate. And just this last week, I had another conversation with the CEO I'm working with. An outstanding CEO that has a very high functioning, well liked to the external clients, Presidents, who is extremely toxic inside the organization.

He has gotten this vice president a coach. Things haven't worked out. There has been turnover. I felt for him because that's when these words become real. People listen and nod and say, yes, behavior is you're willing to tolerate.

But when you say behaviors you're willing to tolerate, its behaviors you're willing to tolerate with people that are contributing enough to the organization where it would be painful to stop tolerating those behaviors. Not someone who is not performing, whether in sales or in this instance, this individual is not in sales, but well-liked by many of the external stakeholders, despise by the internal team in the organization. And it’s because of turnover.

Brad Federman: 

You know, they say leadership is lonely. And there's a reason for that. You have to make tough decisions and if you're not willing to do it, then you have to deal with the repercussions of that.

Sometimes there are repercussions on both sides. So, my test is if dealing with it means I will lose that person and I might lose clients versus not dealing with it means I might lose employees, which would then in turn potentially make me lose clients. If I'm dealing with that kind of an issue, then I sit back and say, there's risk and challenges and problems on both sides.

When I look in the mirror, where will I feel prouder if I go down road a or road B and yes, it's difficult. It's tough, but you've gotta look at the risk on both sides. And you have to say to yourself, I need to make the decision that's right, that preserves people's dignity. That preserves my word.

If you're not going to live up to the words that you choose, don't go there. Don't build it. Cuz the worst thing you can do is say things like we value and respect our employees and then demonstrate that you don't. 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

Brad, the difficulty always is in the messy middle. And this instance that I was mentioning to you is that the leader himself is living by those values. However, this individual is not willing to make the hard decision that it takes for the organization to stick by those values. 

And to your point, and Greg Satell also says this it's not a value if there isn't a cost associated with it. So, if it's just something up on the wall and you aren't able to show, this is a cost we paid or are willing to pay for this value, it's not a value.

These are not easy decisions, but if you take the time to come up with the values, if you take the time to come up with what that intended culture is, and you don't align with it, it's even more cost.

Brad Federman: 

Oh, yes, definitely. To the point that I've seen it, put some companies out of business and I think the reality is, promises mean nothing, experiences mean everything. And so, you can't just talk about it, not just internally, but even the promises you share with customers, external. Your brand promise can only come true based on the culture you define for the company and you live up to.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

The actions that follow the intentions, save volumes to whether it is the internal stakeholders or people on the outside of the organization. 

Now, one of the frustrations that sometimes I hear from people, whether through emails to the podcast or in my interactions in the business community, is they think that culture is something the senior leadership of the organization needs to think about or behave differently around. Your exercises. Make sure that this becomes a shared responsibility throughout the organization.

Brad Federman: 

That was purposeful. I think that we are still utilizing 1980s, sometimes even 1970s models and approaches. Culture was traditionally thought as totally a top down perspective. Now, if it's about an outside and approach, if it's about your customers and the marketplace and working backwards, to define what your culture is, so that you can best meet the needs out there. Then, what that means is once it's defined, it becomes everyone's responsibility. 

You also have flat organizations with more span of control and less of a hierarchy. More diversity, more generational diversity. All of these things that are happening that create a breakdown in norms, shared values, shared expectations. So, it isn't just good enough to say, here are our values. We actually have to, wrestle with them. We have to talk through it with each other.

We have to push each other to understand them and to come to a shared understanding about them so, they're real. 

Culture's a living, breathing thing. You have to feed living breathing things. You can't make it a one and done approach. It cannot be event based. It has to be nurtured over time. The best way to do that is to have a cadence. One of the best cadences you can use is your meanings.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

For the listeners, you can ask yourself how important is team and organizational culture to you. I would imagine most would say very important. And when was the last time you focused some effort intentionally on it. And I would imagine, in a lot of cases as I see with a lot of people and organizations I interact with, it was the last time there was an organizational retreat or something to that effect, part of the point being that if you believe culture is really important, then spend a little time in each one of your meetings, having the kind of conversations that can help nurture that culture. 

Now you break down the activities, Brad, into eight categories. Leadership, communication, talent development, team harmony, inclusion, solution seeking, safety, and then serving your customers.

So, I wonder if you could share one or two of the exercises so, the audience can get a sense of the types of questions that would be asked and the type of conversations that can come about as a result of the question being asked for five, 10 minutes, which then supports the organization's culture.

Brad Federman: 

Absolutely. I'm happy to. One thing you said that I do want to go back to and point out is you said we don't spend time in this. Usually until the last time we had that big meeting.

Here's what's terrible. Think about that. When's the last time a lot of these companies have had a big meeting? COVID. For some of it's been three years.

And so, you're talking about a massive hiatus on culture. A massive hiatus on culture. That's, it's scary, but in terms of the book and some of the activities, I'll share a couple x-rays in the book. I might share one that I do that might not even be in the book. 

One is and I know you like this one, cause we talked about this offline is there's an exercise that we use about familiarity and taking things for granted. And in order to do that, we ask people to look at a penny. You have to give everybody a penny. And you actually don't have 'em look at it first. We actually ask them to draw a picture of a penny. The reason we do that is because I don't remember the number off my top of my head. The average number of times people have seen a penny in their lifetime. It's something like 30,000 times. So, everybody knows what a penny looks like. And everybody's yeah, of course. So then say, okay, I want you to draw both sides of the penny on a piece of paper and people struggle drawing, or even describing what's on the penny. They might get a piece or two, but there's large pockets of information on the penny that they just don't remember or can't identify. And so, then we have this really interesting discussion about it and we talk about why we can't remember those things and you end up having this conversation about familiarity doesn't mean that you're paying attention. And that you have this kind of pattern that you might have that you don't recognize is going on. We make unconscious decisions all the time, like driving home and not remembering the drive. We've all had that experience. And when you're doing that, you miss important things and details.

And so, if that's the case, if we are familiar but we're not paying attention, how can we create a change in that where we pay attention, we see things differently, more uniquely?

So that's one of the activities that we do and it really gets people to stop taking things for granted. One, that's probably not in the book because it's a little bit more complicated or intense, but I think it's doable and think anybody wants to use this activity, they can, but it's similar to the ones that are in the book is I will actually have people either draw a picture of the way the team is operating, and the picture should not be literal. It should be an imaginative metaphor analogy something that represents the way the team operates. And then everybody shares the picture and explains it. 

For some reason, people will draw this picture and then they'll explain the picture and you have this robust conversation. But if you ask people, tell me how the team's operating? Give me some perspective about what's not working right. And you'll look around and you're gonna get a bunch of blank. Stare. Everybody's to go first. And so, it's a great way to break down the defenses and get people to share things in a much more open way.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

You provide the tools that managers can use to effectively have these conversations, Brad. I also did a solo episode about the fact that we now spend more time in meetings than we even did pre pandemic. People are spending 21 and a half hours, average professional in meetings. Vast majority

Brad Federman: 

That per week or per day. So, per week, per day,

Mahan Tavakoli: 

but vast majority of those, as I also see with my clients and many people, I interact within the community are useless update meetings. People's time is wasted as they go one to the next, in reporting out as opposed to using some of the tools that you're talking about.

If anyone's thinking, we already have too many meetings. I don't have time for this. I would push back and say, yes, you do have too many meetings where not everyone in the team or in the meeting is actively engaged and participating. 

Brad Federman: 

I completely wholeheartedly, a hundred percent agree with you. We have a rule. Our rule is that meetings are for collaborating. Meetings are for making decisions. Meetings are for those types of activities. Meetings are not for informing people. The reason you bring people together is because they need to come together to accomplish something.

And so, you need to distinguish between the two types of meetings. One is a type of meeting where you have the entire team there, which should be mainly about a few things. How are we doing against the backdrop of how we're supposed to be doing? What's happening between now and the next time we have a meeting? Let me recognize and demonstrate appreciation or any of us recognize, demonstrate, appreciation for some things that people have been doing, because gosh, everybody needs to know you've been doing this and you need to be recognized for it.

And let's improve our business and our culture and have a call to action to make it better. And that meeting should be short. I would say if you're a long version at meetings, 30 minutes. Most of those meetings can be done within 15 to 20 minutes, max. They're built that if you have a shift and you're doing it on a daily basis, you can do this as a shift standup meeting. 

That's one kind of meeting and that should bring the whole team together. The second kind of meeting is a work session, which requires a lot of collaboration decision making, planning. That's gonna take longer. That might take two, three hours, but we shouldn't have the whole team there. We should have the people that need to be in there. And that may be two or three people, right? And so, we need to distinguish, is it a work session meeting or is it a culture building meeting. And by the way, if you do that and you cut all the other stuff out, you will actually have those two meetings and you'll have extra time.

So, if I'm gonna make a decision between a three-hour update meeting that no one can tell me makes a difference. And a 15, 20-minute meeting building my culture that I know can dramatically improve my business. I'm picking a 15, 20-minute meeting. It saves me time and it makes a difference. It's a no brainer. It really is.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

Brad, it takes a different perspective on leadership and different confidence level to be able to pull it off. I'm even looking at some of the boards that I've been involved with, including nonprofit organizations, where even after consistent urging the structure is very much the same.

It's a few talking heads which lent itself well to the way leadership used to be. Information was at the top. A few people had the information. They would gather people together to communicate to them. This is what we are all about. This is what we intend to do. So, from a comfort perspective, a lot of leaders that have grown up in the hierarchies of organizations are still used to that thinking model.

Therefore, it's making it very hard for them to have an agenda that primarily relies on asking a question or having someone ask a question and it can go any which direction.

Brad Federman: 

Yes. You have to be prepared for not being able to predict what's gonna happen. But here's what's amazing, people who work for other people, respect, value trust, and will give more to someone if they are transparent, if they are authentic. If it's not rehearsed one of the activities that we do is actually, especially during times change is we ask people to put a bowl or a hat in in a room and they'll, and the meaning might start at two o'clock.

And so, they tell people to come in 1:30, 1:45 drop any question they have into the hat, into the bowl. And leaders make a promise. I won't get defensive. I'll answer every question. If I can't answer the question, I will get you an answer and I'll tell you when I can get you the answer by. And they'll literally open up put their hand in the hat or in the bowl, pull out a question, read it and respond in the moment.

I can tell you when leaders have done that, the view the employees have of them dramatically changes because all of a sudden, they don't feel like the words have been altered, played with wordsmith. They don't feel like they're getting a marketing message. They don't feel like they're getting spin.

They feel like they're getting the real deal from their leader in the moment, and that's powerful. And it changes their view of leader. It changes the relationship. It creates massive trust. But you're right, you have to be willing to say whatever's in there, whatever comes my way. It's gonna be okay. I can work through it. 

And some leaders struggle with that. What I'll tell you is times have changed. And if you can't cope with not having predictability, you may be in the wrong job today. 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

It's true. I mentioned to you that for me Azhar’s book has been transformative in that. A lot of the changes that we experience around us. We might not want it, but it is happening in order to be able to adjust to it and adjust the organizational culture. We can have the kind of conversations that will help all of us navigate through. 

Now, I wonder, in addition to your own book, Brad, are there any leadership practices or resources you typically find yourself recommending to leaders as they want to cultivate culture, or as they try to navigate this faster changing environment?

Brad Federman: 

There's a great book, it's older, but it's called The Trusted Advisor by David Meister. It really is reflective of where we need to be a great leader without having to worry about our title.

And that's really what a trusted advisor is. I love that book. I think it's a fantastic resource and it's one of my favorites. There's also several books on emotional intelligence that I think every leader should read. So, I would encourage you to look at some of those books.

There's one called The Heart of Leadership. There's Emotional Intelligence 2.0. There's a bunch of 'em that are really good EQ is going to be a major driver moving forward. How you can navigate your emotions. How well you can demonstrate empathy. How much resilience do you have? How you can blend your thinking data with your feeling, your emotions to make the most productive decisions are going to be key. 

If your culture helps employees learn about other people's stories, that's a good culture. And if your culture could help your people become vulnerable and heal in front of one another, that's a great culture. We're in a time where those things are truly important and we have to recognize it. 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

That's beautifully put, Brad. It's the humans whose lives we impact through our leadership and interaction, which is why this culture is not just for the organization's performance, even though it has an impact on the organization's performance. There is a significant impact on the community and most specifically, there is an impact on the individuals involved, and that goes to the core of what leadership and its humanity should be all about.

So, for the audience to find out more about you, Brad, where would you recommend and send them?

Brad Federman: 

The first question goes is our company website. It's performancepoinllc.com. And it's a great place to learn about the company. Second thing is we have LinkedIn site. We have a Facebook page. We have Instagram, we have Twitter. You can find us on any of those. And personally, you can reach out to me on any of those as well.

Brad Federman is on each of those, and you can reach me at my email if you want. And I'm happy to share it. B as in Brad Federman, F as in Frank, E D as in David, E R M A N at performancepointllc.com. I am a big believer that social media should be social. I'm also a big believer that you don't do podcasts to be one way.

So, if you wanna reach out to me and tell me what you thought this conversation, if you have ideas about the conversation you have critiques about the conversation, or you just wanna reach out to me for a different reason, I welcome it. So please feel free to contact me in any and all of those places.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

That's wonderful. And I really appreciate Brad both the work that you've done on culture, including your book, Cultivating Culture: The 101 Ways to Foster Engagement in 15 Minutes or Less, because as I mentioned, it gives teams the tools and the questions that are needed on an ongoing basis to have the conversation that helps with the culture helps with the connection in the organization.

I really appreciate you. Taking the time to share some of your thoughts and perspectives on Partnering Leadership. Thank you so much, Brad Federman.

Brad Federman: 

Thank you very much. I appreciate you having me.