CultureGene – Why The Lack Of Culture Development Is Its Own Pandemic with Bretton Putter

Today, we have Brett Putter on from CultureGene to talk about a topic that I’ve wanted to talk about for months now, actually since COVID hit: Why the lack of culture development is its own pandemic. We obviously had the pandemic and we are thinking about culture in a much different way.

Brett’s an expert at this, so we’re along for this ride. We’re going to have some fun. 



Brett is the co-founder and CEO of CultureGene. He ran an executive search firm for 16 years, working with high-growth early-stage tech companies, helping them source senior executive leaders. He realized that culture was the missing link not just for startups, but for all companies and I decided to focus his energies on understanding company culture. He founded CultureGene based on a process he developed to help companies define, embed, and manage their process of developing their culture.  


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William Tincup:0:35

This is William Tincup and you’re listening to the RecruitingDaily podcast. Today, we have Bretton on from CultureGene and we’re going to be talking about a topic that I’ve wanted to talk about for four months now. Actually since since COVID hit is why the lack of a culture development is its own pandemic. So, I mean, we obviously have the pandemic that we all know and and also thinking about culture in a much different way. And Brett’s an expert at this. So we’re along for this ride. We’re going to have some fun. Brett would you do us a favor to the audience, a favor and introduce both yourself and CultureGene?

Bretton Putter:1:13

So, William, thanks very much for having me join you today. It’s great, great to be part of the show. So I’m the co-founder and CEO of CultureGene. My background is I ran an executive search firm for 16 years working with high-growth early stage companies, mainly tech-focused companies that were VC-backed and helping them source senior executive leaders. About four, four-and-half years ago, I realized that culture was the missing link not just for startups, but for all companies. And I decided to focus my energies on understanding company culture and really getting done and deep into it. And we founded CultureGene based on a process I’ve developed to help companies define, embed and manage their process. Of developing their culture.

William Tincup:2:04

And you’ve written a book or two?

Bretton Putter:2:07

Yeah, that’s right, I’ve written two books. The first one is called Culture Decks Decoded. And this is there are many, many companies have published their culture decks online, which is basically an explanation of their culture. And I took the best culture decks or what I thought were the best culture decks and the best slides from those culture decks and created a template. So if you want to write about your culture, use this template. Is that is the best way to do it? I believe. And the second book is called Own Your Culture: How to Define, Embed and Manage Your Company Culture. And that’s based on the interviews I’ve done with leaders in Canada, US across Europe and in Africa. And it’s really a technical deep dive into understanding what it is that those companies I interviewed over 50 companies and understanding what those companies do on a day to day basis to really embed and manage their culture.

William Tincup:3:10

I love that. Let’s start with something basic that maybe the audience didn’t get out of the title, that they will, and that’s the phrase culture development. When when you say culture development, I’m know that you’re obviously–you’ve studied in this. But what do you what do you generally mean and how does it prefer H.R. and for recruiters, what is culture development? What does it mean? And what is what should we be doing, in essence, to create culture development?

Bretton Putter:3:41

The culture development essentially means taking control of your culture. Company culture is the one sustainable competitive advantage that a leader has complete control over in their business. And most leaders don’t take control of it or didn’t take control of it, because their culture was allowed to develop by default and that was propagated by and assisted by having an office. The four walls allowed some form of structure to happen, which is one of the challenges of where we are in a pandemic. But the best leaders are deliberate about their culture and almost go so far as to treat it like a business function in the same way that sales, engineering and marketing on and essentially it’s about culture development is about understanding what your culture is, what type of culture you want to build, and how to embed that into the organization as you grow and as you expand and as you go international and et cetera, et cetera, you need to make sure that the people you employ and the way you want to operate and the way they operate are aligned essentially. So culture development is, I believe, one of my my mission and one of my goals in life is actually to turn culture development into a recognized business function.

William Tincup:5:06

I love that. And we’ve touched on location, which is where I wanted to ask you questions, because it seems especially here in the states and probably the coast in particular, the most of the culture was, OK, it’s we have free lunches, we have beanbag chairs. You know, we have a masseuse that comes by on Fridays. We have pet insurance. You know, it’s the things that make up the office, the workplace, I guess. And that’s our culture. And and obviously, the pandemic kind of unraveled that or at least shed some light on that. And so when we get past the pandemic, whatever that is, this year or next year or two years, whatever it takes, when we get past the pandemic, do we go back to location based culture or do we go to kind of a hybrid workplace model? And how does that impact or how do you think that that interacts with culture?

Bretton Putter:6:06

Yeah, so so you’re right, pre COVID people did rely on their offices and beanbags and table tennis tables, et cetera, et cetera, but that’s actually not culture. That’s that’s it. That’s a small part of your culture. Culture is this largely invisible, subconscious, intangible thing that I like to define as the way we do things around here. So the way we do things around here is covers behaviors and habits. It covers communication styles. It covers principles. It covers the rituals. It covers how we dress their culture. Culture covers a myriad essentially umbrella’s the entire business. And so company culture, if you if you take control of it, if you if you own your culture, then you have the ability to to guess some of the, you know, the free food and all of that was good. But now that people are moving to a hybrid environment, you’re always going to have people who are working remotely at some stage during your working week. And this actually makes leading a hybrid organization harder to do than leading a even a remote or an office based environment, because you’re always going to have something. You’re always going to have somebody or a 20 or 30 or 50 or 80 percent of your team who are working remotely. So this is this is the big challenge for when we do get through this pandemic is how are leaders going to adapt their leadership style? Because they thinking currently that things will just go back to normal and we will never going back to normal.

William Tincup:7:49

So you get asked this question culture, values, mission, vision, ethics. How do they play together, like what do you think the overarching and how do you think that they relate to one another or or or possibly do not relate to on.e another? But how do you explain this this nomenclature to folks?

Bretton Putter:8:17

Yes, this is I believe that a company should have the trifecta. So a vision statement, a mission statement and values. The vision statement articulates the why the company exists so the business’s medium to long term goals and aspirations, if everything goes right, this is how the company will change the world. The mission statement is essentially describes the company’s visible, tangible work in the world. That’s what the company does, who it does it for and how this helps the the clients. And if you do your mission right, it translates into delivering on the big picture of the vision, which is in five to 10 years time, the values of how how we do, how we behave and the values drive our behavior. So essentially the values are how we behave to deliver on the mission, which is what we do to deliver on the vision, which is why we are here. And those are really the three pillars of a strong, functional culture.

William Tincup:9:24

I love that. So culture people will have asked me, I’m sure you get asked this as well. Is culture, is it static? I know you already believe that culture is fluid. So is there is there culture now versus culture that you aspire to? And like how do you how do you reconcile that with leaders that you know right now or your culture? Is it this but you want it to be this. And so you aspire, you aspire to be culturally this place. But but you also need to be truthful with your employees, your partners, your candidates and all that other investors, everybody else, that it’s an aspirational culture, not necessarily a culture of today.

Bretton Putter:10:08

Yeah. So this is a great question because leaders leaders have, leaders have and initially leaders have this aspirational mindset for their culture. But over time that that then becomes what they believe their culture is. Right. And this is where when I work with my clients, I said I don’t I if it’s if it’s a small company and this isn’t the case, but if it’s a large company, I don’t invite any of the leadership team into the processes we run. And I run with the rest of the team.

William Tincup:10:40

I love it. And to find out what’s really there.

Bretton Putter:10:45

Exactly. We define the current values, we define the aspirational values, and then we define the impediments to delivering on those aspirational values. And when we go back to the leadership team, everything we tell them is not a surprise. Sometimes they kick up again. They sort of argue a little bit about it. But it’s the reality because we use examples and I use examples in the process of what’s happening. But that is a great question because it is the mistake that most leaders make is they allow the aspirational yearnings for that type of culture to then become it in their mind when they have to actually develop their culture to become this. So if you say we are, we are transparent, but you hold all your leadership meetings behind closed doors and nobody from the organization can sit in on those leadership meetings. You are not transparent, etc., etc., etc..

William Tincup:11:43

So culture development in your mind, there’s probably a formula underneath that. The things that it needs time, money, resources and respect for the, you know, the energy of the board and the C suite to place it at the top of the list.

Bretton Putter:12:02

Yeah, absolutely. So so I, I say no to more company, to working with more companies. I say no to them, I say yes. And the reason for that is because the leadership team have to be on the same on that wavelength. The CEO particular because the CEOs will, whether they like it or not, have to change some of their behaviors and have to change some of their communication style if they want to get this right. So so it’s invariably the issues of within the organization come from the leadership team and or the CEO. And so you need to change that first in order to get everything else right down to the nitty gritty.

William Tincup:12:47

So I’m going to explain a culture hack that I’ve used in the past, and I want you to tear it apart and give me advice on things that you know, especially as it relates to culture development. When I’ve done this in the past, I’ve asked the employees, OK, we’re going to open an office on Mars, and when you go through all of our employees and pick out three people that we’d send to Mars and give me examples of why they’re emblematic of our culture. And that helps me that has historically that’s helped me understand what’s what’s what’s there–not what I think is there, but what do our employees thinks is there and using real employees with real stories, et cetera. So that’s kind of hack for me as a leader that I’ve used just to kind of figure out how far off I am from the reality of the culture that everybody sees or everybody feels every single day. Well, first of all, what do I have wrong about that? Which, you know, I’m totally open for that. And also what’s what’s your hack that you that you use?

Bretton Putter:13:55

So so if you if you’re asking the question, it really depends on how you phrase the question. Right. Otherwise, you know, if what if what’s the purpose of going to Mars? Is that is that an exploratory? Is it a save the world? Is it. So that’s that’s setting for me is the critical piece, because that will then if you need somebody who can go and fight Martians, then you’re going to choose A, B and C, but if you need somebody who can go grow corn and then you need maybe people, other people.

William Tincup:14:28

Yeah. So is it two ways, one anonymously. So asking people to not give their names and things like that. So yeah. So they can be free, but basically it’s a new office. So instead of opening an office, which would be easy, it’s, you know, it’s, it’s more or less I want people to think outside the box. So margins and easy. The moon could be the place, but it’s opening an office and being a better version of us by using those examples of, you know, three, five, ten, whatever the number is and why I want to know not just who their names are because of the popularity contest. I want to know why you feel that way. And again, anonymously.

Bretton Putter:15:09

Yeah, yeah. I actually I quite like this because I use this in my in my, in my process. So if I, if it, if it’s a 60, 70, 80 percent tip. Right. Then I can’t interview all of them.

William Tincup:15:23

That’s right.

Bretton Putter:15:24

But I then but I do want everybody to feel engaged so the entire company will get a survey. And one of the questions I ask is which person, excluding the leadership team just represents the company culture and why.

William Tincup:15:39

Oh, I like that. OK.

Bretton Putter:15:40

And then so it’s a survey and I get a Jack Hobson because Jack does this and this., he’s always there to help, is a really giving person. And actually in companies that have been around a while you will see maybe Jack Hobson gets seven or eight votes and then Lily gets four and then you’ve got a there is definitely one person who always does stand out, one or two people. And then there’s a long tail that is very interesting to see the consistency in the answer from my point of view, in understanding these companies and understanding their cultures. But I like I like the question and I like the the the fact that it’s anonymous is important because I’m asking the question anonymously. Yeah. So so I think it’s called it’s something I use. So yeah. I like it.

William Tincup:16:28

Awesome. So this is part of three years ago The New York Times wrote a cult, they wrote a piece on Amazon and how Amazon’s culture was bad. And that, they gave me a bad taste in my mouth. And I’ll tell you why. And I want you to rip that apart. The way that they positioned it is they positioned it as it’s a shark tank, it’s type A personalities. They work one hundred and twenty hours a week. There’s no work life balance. And so they basically essentially said, here’s an example of a bad culture. However, it was a bad taste in my mouth, most of the Wall Street firms that I’ve interacted with through the past and people I went to business school with, that’s the exact same culture that they operate, like Goldman Sachs and Amazon. You could just take the names off the top and then say, like it’s type A personality. You’re always on. You’re working 120 hours. Like, all that stuff is still there. But they positioned Amazon in the way of saying bad culture. And I why I had a bad taste. It is like, well, that might be a bad culture for you. And it’s definitely a bad culture for me. But that’s not necessarily a bad culture for somebody else that wants that that wants that environment. Now, what do I have wrong in all of that?

Bretton Putter:17:50

No, you’ve actually you’ve actually got it right that there’s no such thing as a good or bad culture. There are there is there is there is a good or bad culture in relation to whether I would want to work there or not, I would enjoy working there or not. But there are any there are any essentially four ways to look at culture. A culture can be strong or weak, functional or dysfunctional. So a strong functional culture means that on the strong side, the culture is defined, it is clear why it is understood and it is lived by the organization from the receptionist to the element of the board. Exactly. That’s a strong culture, but a functional culture means that–

William Tincup:18:43

Sorry to interrupt, but does that mean it also repels people that aren’t that?

Bretton Putter:18:49

Exactly. It’s magnetic. It’s got to attract people like and repel people. Shouldn’t shouldn’t do that. And that’s actually what you want to aim for. The stronger your culture, the better that magnetic capability is. So a strong culture is understood and loved by the team. A functional culture means that the way the team operates fundamentally accelerates the business. So to give you an example of a dysfunctional culture, it would be a an organization where there is a lot of backstabbing or politics.

William Tincup:19:21

Or they don’t or they don’t live their culture. They say one thing or advertise one thing. And then once you get there as a as an employee, freshly minted, then you find out very quickly that that isn’t the culture.

Bretton Putter:19:35

Yeah. So if you look at look at companies like Amazon, companies like Bridgewater, companies like, you know, these companies, you they are very Netflix even they very clear about how they operate. They expect excellence. They expect you to deliver. They in Netflix’s case, they talk about being a pro sports team. And if you they’ll bench you. If you’re not if you if you have a bad week or two, that actually if you don’t get back up to excellence, they will terminate you. And that’s just it. If you don’t like it, don’t join. I actually I wrote an article on this a while back about how how do you get people who go to join the company and then complain about the culture. But actually, hello, there was a big neon sign there that said don’t join if you’re a sensitive sweetheart.

William Tincup:20:22

That’s right. So and again, there’s a there’s a right place for you. Yeah. And as a president, you know, as a candidate, you’re searching for the right fit for you that, you know, that’s that’s where we also get twisted is either the we didn’t see the neon neon sign because they were hiding it or it was telling us something different or we just didn’t listen to it and didn’t or thought we could get in and go, oh, I can change that. Or, you know, that’s probably not the culture. Once once I get in there, I’ll find out that they’re not really sharks and and that this isn’t the bit.

Bretton Putter:20:59

Or in the case of Netflix, you think, oh, gosh, they pay me a lot of money. I’m sure I can I can I can eat, grin and bear it. But actually, you also you ask for a hack. And what I do with this, I use this with my clients, some some some companies. The teams don’t necessarily get culture, get the need right. And so I use this as the hackers called person X. So I ask everybody in the team to think about the one person who they’ve worked with either in the company previously or in a previous company who they just they just didn’t get on with and they didn’t think that person was should be in that company. And I say person X is that is the opposite of your culture. That person is what attributes and you’re dealing with executive action and exactly then we break it down and say, how do they work? How do they communicate? How do they behave? One, what didn’t you like? And we said, OK, those are the opposites now flickered across. And look at look at the positives, the positives, the opposites of those are what your culture is. And that’s where that we go through the person X process exercise and people are OK. We get it now.

William Tincup:22:14

So first of all, I’m writing this down because I love that. And by the way, on your article, if you don’t mind sending it to me so I can include it with a podcast, I’d love for sure. So one of the I love HR. So one of the reasons I got out of marketing got into HR is because I fell in love with HR and so right or wrong or indifferent, that’s that’s the story. But HR “owning,” (I’m using air quotes.) “Owning” culture to me has been a historical failure and it might be even a future failure. Your idea of creating kind of culture, I’m thinking chief cultural officer or something like that. Do you see this as an extension of H.R. or something that’s done in tandem and in alignment with H.R., but separately, like how if you could, you know, go into a company and basically set it up the way that you want it to be set up, how would you do that?

Bretton Putter:23:10

I would add that first I would leave this up to the CEO because the CEO is going to know what their needs are, but actually the CEO must, must, must drive the culture in the same way that the CEO will have somebody reporting to them about sales and marketing and engineering. Somebody must report to you on culture. And if that’s if that person in H.R. or in the people function is strong enough on the culture piece, then you as the CEO should still be leading this because the CEO, you said you said, OK, we need to increase sales by 30 percent next year with culture. We need to do these following three things or four things. It’s going to do them now. So as a CEO, you do need you know, this is a big, big, big, big, big, big blind spot for most leaders is understanding that their culture is this asset that they can that they can use to accelerate their business. But I, I think actually they ultimately will be somebody responsible for culture I love a lot.

William Tincup:24:10

And again, it’s in the CEO’s best interest. And I think they’ve some CEOs have been historically good at this just naturally. And some basically try either for whatever reason have just never been good at it or want someone else to own it. And they don’t want to be a part of it. I do want to get back to two things left real quick. One is when we talk about culture or culture development, where do people where should they start? So let’s say they have the for the folks that are listening to the show, they’ve never they’ve never been down this path. Culture’s kind of been a byproduct, an afterthought, or it’s something that’s just happened. It’s nebulous or voodoo or whatever. Now you want them to be intentional about culture development. And for a lot of these folks, this is going to be, you know, new. So where do you suggest that they start with this process?

Bretton Putter:25:06

So this is going to come across like a shameless plug. But they should start by reading my book on your culture, because essentially what I do is I take I take people through the journey of let’s understand what culture is, understand how culture impacts your business and understand how to define your values, mission and vision, then understand how to apply that to different processes in your business. Understand how to how to change the way your community company communicates about culture. Understand how to then use it in the onboarding processes, feedback processes, et cetera, et cetera. And then look at how you are embedded into the functions of the of the business. And so I take you through this journey of of of of of understanding culture. And then there are lots and lots of examples because of the offer from the 50 plus companies I’ve interviewed, I use actual examples of what companies do to embed their culture on a daily basis, what companies do for recruitment, what they do with onboarding, what they do in hybrid environments, in fully remote environments, et cetera, et cetera. And and so that’s that’s there. But actually, if you’re not going to read my book, I believe I believe you should start with your values, your mission and vision, because they are the DNA. And if you then start to think about embedding those values, mission and vision into your business, that’s the next step. And it’s really critical that you are from a values perspective, as you mentioned earlier. Don’t make them all aspirational, they should be a balance between current and aspirational values in your values and you must be at some stretch, but not all of them.

William Tincup:26:50

Right. And I love empowering people to recruiters and HR alike to talk openly about what’s aspirational and what’s what’s now. You know, like it’s OK to talk with people about that, like, hey, right now, this is exactly where we are culturally. We aspire to be here. We might not ever reach it, but we aspire to be here. And so we want you to know that we have this aspiration, you know, talking openly about the the title of the show. Lack of cultural development is its own pandemic. Last thought on that as we as we close out the show, because the the phraseology of the title is one in the subject matter is what really got me. Is there anything else that you’d like to leave the audience with?

Bretton Putter:27:36

Yeah, I think I think it’s it’s a leader’s responsibility to do more than lead the organization. It’s a leader’s responsibility to give people strength, conviction, stability and and and purpose and and a reason to to do what they doing. It’s this pandemic has forced us into a responsibility greater than we previously had, because that’s what our people need. And I think I think this is where culture is such a powerful asset because a good culture has the why why are we doing this? How are we going to do it? And what are we doing? It has that it has that purpose. We are changing the world. We you can get a get out of bed, walk around the walk around, walk around the bed and sit in your desk and have a purpose versus think, oh my God, I’ve got to go to work again and I’m not going to work. I’m just sitting at a desk next to my bed. In some in some cases I think this is it’s a pandemic because it is a global problem. The lack of culture development is a pandemic because nobody understands it and not enough people are working on it.

William Tincup:28:54

And one of the things I leave the audience with is, as we’ve talked, some of these things are fixable. This culture at six, but we have time, money, energy, you know, focus with respect, all of those things, but it’s fixable. So if you find yourself in a situation where, you know, let’s just say it’s it’s not a great situation culturally, by and large, if you’re, you know, anywhere in the spectrum. But if you’re if you’re a leader, this this is something that can be fixed just like sales. You know, sales are down, but we can get sales up. You know, it’s like what does it take? What is the muscle memory? What does it take to then get sales to a certain position? But, brother, I could talk to you for days and days and days, but I know you got to go. So thank you so much for coming on the show and breaking this down. Wonderful topic. I love what you’re doing. is Brett’s website, his company’s website. Go and take a look at them and just thanks again for carving out time for us brother.

Bretton Putter:29:58

My pleasure. Very happy to chat. It is a pleasure. And yeah, if anybody wants to reach out to me, I spend 25% of my time learning and sharing so people can reach out to me directly at [email protected].

William Tincup:30:12

Awesome. And thanks to the listeners for listening to the RecruitingDaily podcast. Until next time.

The RecruitingDaily Podcast

William Tincup

William is the President & Editor-at-Large of RecruitingDaily. At the intersection of HR and technology, he’s a writer, speaker, advisor, consultant, investor, storyteller & teacher. He's been writing about HR and Recruiting related issues for longer than he cares to disclose. William serves on the Board of Advisors / Board of Directors for 20+ HR technology startups. William is a graduate of the University of Alabama at Birmingham with a BA in Art History. He also earned an MA in American Indian Studies from the University of Arizona and an MBA from Case Western Reserve University.


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