By Chris Deaver and Ian Clawson
Photo Credit: Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels
Where do we go next in a Great Resignation world? The data’s telling us people aren’t just leaving for more money. They’re leaving toxic cultures.
As the dust builds on ping-pong tables, and the free food sits uneaten, leaders are left to wonder: “What levers do I have left?” This is predictably followed by pushing to throw money at them.
Too little, too late. They’re out the Zoom door before you can say “counteroffer.” What remains are perplexed leaders with little hope for changing the equation.
Between a neverending pandemic, stacked home responsibilities, and work that now seems inescapable, this is an existential moment. It’s also a bit of a hot job market. But that doesn’t explain the real reason people are leaving YOUR company.
This isn’t a moment for giving up. It’s time to move toward our future. It’s time to transform. How? Culture. In the past it’s been categorized with soft, HR-speak words. At best, a word to insert into surface discussions about why a place is better for work—fill in the blank with a reason tied to a perk.
Most leaders have never been intentional about culture. They’ve said the right things, but prioritized profits, a rapid career path for themselves, and sought rewards for siloed “hero” behaviors.
This leaves us with questions: What if cultures were reimagined? What if the question on every leader’s mind wasn’t “How do I keep my people?” but rather “What do they want to feel and how do they want to be treated?” and “How can I inspire them?”, and “How can we shape a culture that we love?”
THIS IS THE WAY: THE CO-CREATIVE CULTURE
Look no further than Pixar. In Creativity, Inc., Ed Catmull shares the power of “the Braintrust”—a collection of passionate people focused on working together with egos off the table and building blocks on the table. The Braintrust was once a small team, but Catmull (the head of Pixar and president of Disney Animation) says it’s become “part of the DNA of the culture, and that Braintrust meetings have become the norm”—inspiring connection, collaboration, and cocreation.
The Braintrust at Pixar has also influenced everything from Marvel to the Star Wars universe. Jon Favreau was the “one Disney director who didn’t just ask for advice but had gone to Pixar and experienced the Braintrust himself,” Catmull shared.
This has led to endless joy for Star Wars fans, including those dissatisfied with movie episodes 7, 8, and 9, by giving them The Mandalorian and an undeniably cute and powerful Baby Yoda. How? Favreau built a team of directors as diverse as a band of empire-fighting bounty hunters in the likes of Bryce Dallas Howard, Taika Waititi, and Deborah Chow. They’ve selflessly created context together, rather than in silos—avoiding the story-destroying mistakes of “heads down” story-building that left JJ Abrams and Rian Johnson facing forever online debates about the quality of the sequels. How does deep collaboration (or lack of it) impact the larger story arc of Star Wars? How does this have anything to do with culture building in any domain?
The Braintrust approach is not just the hope of the future, but of reimagining how we engage in work and life. Building with pods. Breaking the silence of boring meetings and changing them into co-creative conversations. Where we don’t “download” others with data (something AI can do better than us anyway). We explore together. Different ideas we’ve never imagined. Experiences, products, and services that surprise and delight us and our customers.
It’s the difference between a disjointed DC universe and a fully connected Marvel ecosystem—or a dispersed set of products and an intuitively connected experience, like Apple has built by design.
The difference between employees feeling detached and jaded or part of a world-changing cause.
DEFAULT CULTURE OR CULTURE SHAPING?
Leaders facing broken cultures they’ve shaped have failed themselves and their people. And the toughest news is this: there’s no quick solve for it. No overnight fix. Culture is shaped over years and decades. And if it wasn’t by design, it likely isn’t what the people want.
So, what’s a leader to do? Look in the mirror. Get clear about how uninspiring and complacent or complicit they’ve become. Not that they haven’t built a successful business. Not that they haven’t built a high performing team. But they never got intentional about culture.
Here are some things you can do now to start shaping culture:
Make meetings personal. Studies show people are feeling burned out, more alone, and exhausted. The last thing they need is to be bouncing from one meeting to another “getting right down to business” at every turn. That’s a surefire way to get them to leave. The best approach? Give them space. Start with two questions: “How are you doing?” and “How are you really doing?” Give them the opportunity to check in, share their dog story, let their 5 year old daughter wave at the camera. Bonding is one of the best ways for people to feel part of a team and want to stay. “Anything but work” check-ins are great, along with sharing stories, and highlighting what we’re grateful for.
Give people permission to build. Your people aren’t as much interested in random rewards as they are in challenge, or the dearth of it. They want to tackle impossible challenges, disrupt things, and build it together. They want to be trusted so they can expand the impact of their work in every direction. Let people loose on a big challenge and give them explicit permission to connect with whoever they need to make it happen. Bust the barriers for them and they’ll raise the bar themselves.
Turn “boring work” into inspired cocreation. If people don’t feel inspired by their work, they’ll leave. It’s that simple. They want to be part of something big and feel that they belong. People want to be part of the wave where work matters. It may not be your job to keep their work from feeling boring, but you can create the environment where the work feels and is cocreative. How? Connect the dots with them. Tell people you want them to “cocreate” solutions and get in the trenches with them to see what they see and feel what they feel. Show them a template of co-creation by how engaged you are to involve them and build collective progress. There’s nothing like leaders who build meaning and purpose as they shape products and solutions as one.
Culture is about embodying principles. It’s about reimagining meetings as conversations versus downloads, and building bridges across teams versus building more islands and silos. It’s about giving people a sense of joy, where they speak of feeling energized. Where leaders care about them personally and bring them together. A place where the word “love” may even emerge in all its simple yet powerful ways.
Isn’t this what every single one of us wants?
A beautiful future we can imagine and shape together. A future every leader can start building now. By design. Intentionally. Sacrificing their own ego for the greater good of others. Knowing that people will feel the truth of their motives deep in their hearts by how we make them feel, not through pithy memos. They’ll feel the strength of shared purpose, building success together—for each other and for customers. A joy that has staying power, weaving itself into the fabric of our personal lives and with our families. Shaping a future where we not only show up better in work, but far better in life.
We stand now in a critical moment in leadership: What will you do with it? How will you lead others into the future through the power of culture? And how will you design it to make it a place so inspiring people dream of joining?
FIRST STEPS TO TRANSFORMATION
How can we build cultures more like Pixar’s Braintrust? Here are some ways to take it to the next level (that we learned from Ed Catmull):
Give people permission to change the world starting with changing their work. Be open to where people take their passion for building solutions. Billion-dollar businesses have emerged from a single idea someone had for years—once they were given permission to unleash it. Lead with questions to provoke a culture of curiosity, where anyone can imagine and express a better future, and partner with whoever they need to make it a reality—without fear. Show them you mean you care about them by providing the space to create, collaborate, and shape with others.
Encourage people to be brave enough to cocreate with others. Don’t let your culture slip into workplace politics, leaders building personal empires, or self-inflation. Embrace the future that is about seeking to become a selfless force. Make others the mission by setting aside ego and pursuing work based on one measure: how your culture inspires the lives of others and how the “lowest ranking” person talks about your culture to a stranger. Embody and encourage bold empathy to help others feel seen, respected and understood.
Bring together misfits to build insanely great things. The future is calling. People are reaching for a higher way of work and life. Let them drive the deep work that not only is different but makes a difference. Get inspired by the story of your future and seek to be that now. Don’t blindly follow popular opinion or general consensus. Your competition doesn’t have the innovative elixir, your people do. Have the courage to align principles and be brave enough to manifest the best outcomes—whether now, 10, 100, or 1000 years from now. Build infinite confidence in your team.
The Braintrust is about cocreation. At the heart of it, cocreation solves the deepest problems of toxic workplace cultures and why people would ever leave.
The world needs cocreative cultures.