The Building Blocks of a High-Performing and Sustainable Culture

Establishing a “not-afraid-to-fail” organizational culture seems trendy within the start-up community, but does it apply to an established business? And if it does, what are the components that encourage people to feel like they can take a chance?

My first job, at the age of 12, was a local paper route which I operated for two years. I learned the virtue of tenacity — you’d be surprised at how many people tried to avoid paying their $10 per month subscription.

At 14, I was a dishwasher at a restaurant where I worked my way up to line chef. This is where I first learned to interact with customers, and how to follow directions from a manager.

One vivid memory from this job, which I look back on and laugh about, is something I’d like to share. Both young and naive, I exclaimed to my boss “Hey, Josh! I just saw an industrial dishwasher at a restaurant where my friend works, why don’t we get one of those!? I bet we could do dishes twice as fast!”

Calmly, and without missing a beat, he replied, “Matt, that’s a great idea, except for one thing…” “What’s that?” I said. “Well” he replied, “I would have to fire you.” He meant it to be a joke, but at that moment, I thought I was bringing insight and value to the company. For the rest of my four years there, I thought twice about bringing new ideas to the table without thinking them through.

At college, I worked for a local entrepreneur. “Strategy” would come from quick brainstorming sessions, then high-stress quick rounds of design where he wanted to see “five design options in the next 15-minutes, or you’re fired.” These situations really made me think “how could anyone produce something thoughtful when all your thoughts are focused on not being fired?”


So What?

The unifying theme of these stories is that at one point or another, I felt that my initiative was trivialized before taken into consideration.

Could purchasing a dishwasher been a better idea? I’ve wondered since then how long would it have taken to pay for itself.

Did we really need five design options in 15-minutes? I have looked back and thought a more meaningful conversation would have helped nail it the first time.

How are we currently limiting the capability of ourselves and those around us? Are we knocking over someone else’s “building blocks” because that’s the only way we know how to keep our tower higher? If this is the case, how can we change our perspective to maximize our individual and collective potential?

Humor and Humility

The solution is a multifaceted approach that seems simple but can be difficult to implement. It begins with a mindset — encouraging personal integrity in your team, having confidence in your colleagues, and the empathy to understand that everyone operates a little differently.

I believe that two of the most fundamental social building blocks of this fresh mindset are humor and humility.

We’ve all been there when the inevitable happens, someone made a mistake that impacts the business. Obviously, first, you must determine if the mistake was truly a mistake — or if it’s a repeating behavior. From the words of my wise 95-year-old grandfather, “there’s nothing wrong with making a mistake, but there is plenty wrong with repeating one.”

So, when a flub is made, how do we address it at KPS3? Quickly and honestly, with a helping of playful humor. Something I love about our company is that people don’t hide behind their mistakes, they embrace them wholeheartedly and share with the rest of the team. This allows us quickly learn from an otherwise bad situation and put together our collective brains to determine the best solution.

If you notice you did something wrong, call attention to it before someone else. If someone else calls you out, own whatever it is that you did and thank them for the favor. They’ll (hopefully) appreciate it next time you do the same for them.

Humility is one of the hardest emotions to teach because our society promotes instant gratification, and it’s easy to believe that if you don’t “take what’s yours,” then you’ll never get it.

We notice this “take what’s yours” mentality in others when they’re toting around a big ego. Generally, this is perceived to be a negative personal trait, but when balanced with humility, it’s a recipe for success. Sometimes you need to be your biggest cheerleader, and calling your ego off the bench is just what you need.

It all starts with a change in thought process. Humor and humility create foundations of respect, they both lead to a culture built around civility. This way of interacting with people allows you to leverage positivity to encourage a productive atmosphere where people can feel free to expose their ego and reach their full potential.

“Do it with radical candor, be wildly aggressive and extremely empathetic. An approach that is tough-minded but light-hearted.”

— Christine Porath, Associate Professor of Management at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University

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