“Any leader who doesn’t genuinely step into culture as a business imperative, five years from now will look back at this as one of the greatest missed opportunities of their time in leadership. Your culture can unleash all sorts of creativity that you can’t begin to imagine. And if you’re a leader and you don’t see the chance to do that right now, you’re missing the greatest opportunity – that’s being handed to you, on a plate.” (Hilton Barbour, 2020)


Hilton Barbour


Think Do Say by Ron Tite
“Think Do Say” by Ron Tite




Talk About Talk & Dr. Andrea Wojnicki



Dr. Andrea Wojnicki: Thank you, Hilton, so much for joining us here today to talk about culture.

HILTON BARBOUR: It’s an absolute pleasure, Andrea, what a delightful opportunity to reconnect. So thank you for that.

AW: Let’s start with a definition. What is culture?

HB: Well, I can tell you first what culture isn’t. Culture isn’t beer on Fridays and vegan muffins in the cafeteria. And often those wonderful posters that people put on the wall. There are two definitions of culture that ring very true for me, one quite academic, which is: Culture is how we act, behave, and make decisions to fit into an organization. And I think there’s a lot of truth around the two parts of make decisions and fit in. The second, and this is a definition that I’ve heard quite recently: Culture is how the edges of your organization behave on your very worst day.

AW: Wow.

HB: And I think in light of COVID, that probably was the most profound statement that I’d heard from any executive about the impact of culture.

AW: So in both definitions, it’s really about the people. So in your first definition, it’s about how they’re acting, how they’re behaving, how they’re making decisions, and fitting in conforming or not conforming. And in the second definition, it’s also about that, in particular, the ones that are on the periphery. So is culture really, people management?

HB: I would say culture is everything to do with humans inside our organization. You know, I always have a visceral reaction to the notion of management. There can be all sorts of weird misinterpretations of the word manage. And certainly I have an even more visceral reaction around the word human resources.

AW: I was gonna ask.

HB: Well, there are certain phrases that I think management theorists coined, whether it’s the 1960’s or 1980s, where they seem to put people in boxes. And I think the unfortunate thing is, the connotation becomes that this is something to be used and casually tossed aside when I’ve finished with it.

AW: It sounds like an asset that you can leverage. And then throw out.

HB: Absolutely, and I have no problem. And in fact, I think this an excellent point around humans, actually are some of the greatest, most incredible assets that any business has. I think the struggle that I have is when those assets are seen as easily replaceable, and asset to be exploited or an asset to be underutilized, which can often be as crushing as anything else. That part of the asset stripping is what really gets me around some of these terms and how they are applied to culture and organizations today.

AW: Right. So I just want to clarify a little bit more in terms of the definition, you said that it’s looking at humans that are inside the organization. And I’m curious, what about customers and consumers?

HB: Well, I think the customers and consumers so profoundly impacted by the culture. I will talk to leaders around customer service, which is for many organizations, the most explicit objective that they will put down, we are a customer centric organization, which then you and I would both love it in terms of: what would be the alternative? But the irony is that customer centricity is actually an outcome of your culture, not an objective, it’s an outcome, your culture will determine whether your people are profoundly interested in serving customers, or see customers as a necessary requirement. And I’ll put a plastic smile on the face and do the very bare minimum to serve them. I think the wonderful examples obviously, Starbucks would be an organization whose customer centricity is without debate. And I think the profound and deep training for the people highlights that they recognize that customer centricity is what happens when you get your culture right.

AW: Have you read Ron Tite’s “Think, Do, Say”?

HB: I have indeed, Ron is an old friend, and just a fantastic all around human being.

AW: Yeah, I adore his mind. I have to be honest. And I just finished his book recently. And I’m thinking now that you’ve mentioned Starbucks, he talks about lots of examples where I’m not sure that he actually uses the word culture, but he is describing a culture where the corporate beliefs are articulated. That’s what they think. And then they do it. And then they say it. And he talks a lot about, for example, the Westin Hotel in Vancouver that bent over backwards to delight him and that was part of their culture.

HB: Look, I think we can both agree that any organization that delivers Diet Coke to Ton Tite’s room is going to be considered a high point of customer service. And all joking aside, his point is incredibly valid. Customer Service comes from a deep understanding of what is unique about that customer and the things that they value. But here’s a great Canadian example, a great international example board. Here in Canada, which is the Four Seasons, I mean, is Izzy Sharp’s understanding of culture as a differentiator, particularly in the hospitality sector is unprecedented. There is an organization based on a very simple cultural premise of the golden rule. And following that up with, we trust our people to solve what our guests require, and having the trust again, I think that that’s something that is he pioneered.  Four Seasons was decades ahead of everybody else … pushing trust and confidence down to the point where the guest and the organization meet. And I think many other organizations came to that realization decades later, but it really does set the Four Seasons apart. Sadly, I don’t get to enjoy the Four Seasons, as much as I may have done before COVID.

AW: Exactly.

HB: But I desperately look forward to that day. Hello Four Seasons!

AW: The hotels are gonna be overflowing with happy people. So you mentioned the word intersection. And before we move on, I just, I have to ask you this. At the top of your website, it says, strategy is the engine culture is the fuel.

HB: Mmm hmm.

AW: can you elaborate on the distinction or maybe the interaction between culture and strategy?

HB: Sure. Both of us come from a marketing background. And, you know, my foray, and deep and abiding passion for culture really is informed by what I’d say is our shared marketing background, you know, which is, you create this wonderful strategy, this this breathtaking plan, ideally, in less than 400 PowerPoint slides.

AW: Haha.

HB: And then you march it into an executive team, and they anoint it. Go make that happen. And then you leave the boardroom with a big smile on your face, and you take it into the organization and the organization says, What do you want me to do with that?

AW: Yeah.

HB: Didn’t you ask me to do something different last year? Last year I did that thing. I actually didn’t get rewarded for it the way you told me I would. All of us have seen Peter Drucker’s sadly mis-quoted thing about culture eats strategy in LinkedIn, at least 10 or 15 times a day, right? There is an inherent truth in that, because there is no organization whose strategy and critically importantly, the ability to execute that strategy that doesn’t have to come face to face with the culture’s willingness to do it. And that, for me, is always the most critical part. A strategy is a fantastic blueprint and a roadmap and ideally set of objectives. But somebody somewhere is going to put their hand up and say, I’m on board, what can I do to make that happen? And that’s all about the commitment of your people. And again, that to me, is culture.

AW: Got it. So is a simple way of thinking about it would be to say that the strategy is the objectives and the priorities that are articulated. And the culture is the how?

HB: Absolutely. Andrea, the truth of the matter is, unless your strategy and your culture are aligned, you’re never going to be able to as effectively execute what you’re trying to set up. You know, in previous conversations, you had said to me, why this passion for culture? Isn’t that the domain of HR people?

AW: Did I say that?

HB: No, you would never do something like that. But I think it’s a sad and unfortunate reality. HR has been given the responsibility for culture, where the truth of the matter is, it is almost the catalyst for everything that does or does not happen inside an organization is a tremendous responsibility. And that for me is why there is a role for marketing, a very important role for marketing to play in culture formation. Because the end of the day, I believe that your culture is truly your only sustainable competitive advantage. What gets any marketer out of bed in the morning? A sustainable competitive advantage.

AW: right. So my next question for you was going to be Why does culture matter? Culture encourages loyalty, it encourages consumer resonance, and it ultimately would contribute to the bottom line. I think what you’ve identified here is something that kind of supersedes all of that. It’s like an umbrella over all of that.

HB: So one of my favorite people who work in the culture space, this is great guy called Stan Slap. I mean, Stan gets kudos just for his incredible name. But Stan’s belief is your culture is actually a mark of the commitment of your people. And I can’t think of a better way to define it. And I think anybody be listening to this can probably do a quick little mental analysis and probably point out at least one organization where their commitment was head and shoulders above the commitment they had to any other task or role or job that they had.

AW: Can I just interject, as you’re saying that I’m thinking about the employers that I’ve had. And it turns out that the ones that are at the top of that mountain that you’re describing, have incredible brands with incredible brand equity, and the ones that I would say had a questionable culture, the brand was not as impressive.

HB: I would say, you know, you reap what you sow. For me the simple definition of your culture, it’s not whether it’s good or bad. I think those are rather binary pre-sets and actually obscure thigs.  What culture really is, if your culture is able to accelerate the delivery, the execution, the activation of your strategy, and your culture is actually delivering what you need it to do as a business leader, right? If your culture is impeding the execution of your strategy, then something’s wrong. It’s either your strategy isn’t believed by your culture, or your culture looks at your strategy and says, what exactly you wanting us to do? Are you insane?

AW: They’re inconsistent. Yeah.

HB: The incongruence is where the issue lies. You can’t look at your culture as a binary term and say, Is it good or bad? And as outsiders, it’s impossible for us to really make those determinations. I can’t comment of working at Amazon, or Apple or Facebook, or Google or JP Morgan, right? As outsiders, we can look at artifacts. And you know, the famous culture guru, if you will, Edgar Schein would say, there are artifacts, but it’s, it’s when you get down to the level where decisions are made to really understand how our culture works. And it isn’t the posters on the wall. And it is the cute things that we say on coffee mugs, etc, etc. It’s how our decisions are made. And those decisions are driven by your culture.

AW: So I am dying to hear some of the stories that you have. And I do know that you are the son of an African father and a Scottish mother and you are a heck of a storyteller. So I’m wondering when someone asks you to illustrate an example of a highly effective or maybe a highly ineffective culture and the impact that it has on an organization, what stories come to mind?

HB: How long is this podcast again? How many days?

AW: Three hours. Go for it.

HB: Fair enough. Okay. There are two examples for me that solidified my belief in culture is something that has an impact on strategy and culture is something that marketing people, I think, should be paying infinitely more attention to. One, I was but a young pup, does that sound like a wonderful story starter?

AW: Yeah. Okay, grandpa. Okay, Boomer,

HB: I was at Ogilvy here in Toronto, and some colleagues that I worked with, on one of the global heads of business said, Have you ever considered working in New York? And obviously, the immediate answer was, yes, I can be on the next plane. And they said, Well, we had this very interesting client, very progressive, very sort of innovative, doing all sorts of weird and crazy things. We need people who would be invigorated by that type of assignment. I said, sign me up. What’s his company called? And they said, it’s called Enron. Yeah, you might have heard of them. Or you may not in Canada, because they’re in oil and gas, and they’re based in Texas, but they diversifying into all sorts of other things. But they are a remarkable organization. So I went down to New York, I moved to New York, and I went immediately to work on the Enron business. And I must tell you, it was probably nine or 10 months later, when I was flying back to Toronto, and Enron was plastered all over the front covers of every business magazine that you could read.

AW: I remember that well, yeah,

HB: …that I sort of reflected on Wow, I’ve never been exposed to an organization with such an incredibly dense feeling of winning at all costs. It was a win at all costs, peppered with more alpha males per square foot than almost any other boardroom that I’ve been in anywhere in the world. It’s easy in hindsight, but there was very much a sense of the rules don’t apply to us. It was certainly something in the air, where those belief systems were very evident, even to an outsider like myself. So that was one example. The other example when I was working in the UK, and a dear friend and I were presenting to a group of technology engineers, and he held up the very first Apple iPhone. And if we can all remember what that looked like? And then with this wonderful British accent he said, you gentlemen realize that this is the future of mobile telephony? And they burst into laughter and one of the gentlemen leaned toward me and said, what does that music company know about mobile phones?

AW: Wow.

HB: And we were at a presentation in Espoo, Finland, which is the global headquarters of Nokia. So at the time, you have an organization that had upwards of 80, to 85% penetration of mobile phones globally, looking at somebody like Apple out in California, on the other end of the world, other side of the world and going, what does that upstart know about what we’ve done? What we’ve created in almost every other market in the planet, there isn’t a data point about mobile phones that we do not have in this building. In that moment, I think I must have hidden under the desk when my colleague said that. I was like, Oh, dear Lord, you’re not gonna embarrass us again with the Apple is the future comment. But as I think back on those two episodes, I look at them as reflections or manifestations of the culture inherent at those organizations. Now we can paraphrase them as blind spots, we can paraphrase, you know,…

AW:  What comes to mind for me is that they seem myopic. So for the Enron story, you said they win at all costs.

HB: Yeah, right.

AW: And then for the cell phone companies, you’re talking about one player who’s looking at the future. And another one that’s saying, but we already know everything, which seems really myopic.

HB: And this is, again, one of those interesting things about culture, culture, sorry, let me, let me rephrase.

AW: I’m gonna edit the heck out of this…Haha. Actually, that’s going to be in the bloopers now. Go ahead.

HB: There we go.  Organizations that are successful, inherently create a self-fulfilling prophecy around the culture. Otherwise, they would have gone out of business. So the reality of we’ve been successful, we are brilliant, can be very much a big glass of Kool Aid, that everybody starts to drink. It can quite quickly occur. What was originally an entrepreneurial spirit can very quickly become what I would call classic calcification. The culture hardens into a we know everything about everything. There’s nothing that’s a surprise to us. And I think that’s a dangerous point for cultures, if you’re not keeping an eye on have we hardened our culture in areas that exposed us to missing signals in the market, or changes in the way that people think, act work, behave. I mean, I think for the organizations that perhaps have struggled the most with COVID is the ones whose culture was so hard and fast around aspects like what if I can’t see my team, they’re obviously goofing off on Facebook, right? So there’s no way that remote working could ever happen inside this organization. Because I don’t trust my team. There’s no way they’ll be productive. Along comes a global pandemic that didn’t get that memo about how you think about culture. So I think for the organizations and the leaders that I’ve been most inspired by, they’re the ones who recognize that culture is not a one and done thing. It’s something that you have to work on every single day. And much like a professional sports team, you’ve got to be testing the edges all the time to say, am I getting the maximum out of these people? And what can I do to inspire them to even greater heights? And what am I doing that’s possibly impeding their ability? And that’s what true leaders who get culture obsess about.

AW: So what’s the relationship between culture and values, then, like corporate values?

HB: Well, if you’re asking the idealist me, the idealist would say your values are a reflection of what you want your culture to be and what your culture is, or could be.

AW: Okay.

HB: If I’m being a realist, our values are the things that we bang up on posters on the wall, and we put on coffee mugs, and every quarter somebody from our executive team comes in chance them at the start of some old staff meeting. And then 20 minutes later, we go back to behaving the way that we do. That is where the schism exists.

AW: So that’s a beautiful segue then into my next question, which is about communication. And as you know, Talk About Talk is all about communication. So if creating and sustaining a positive and strong culture is not about identifying values and plastering them all over the walls, how does an effective leader communicate the culture that he or she wants in an organization?

HB: I would suggest communication is absolutely foundational, Andrea. Well, it is. It’s absolutely foundational. All communication is always a signal of intent. You communicate to signal a direction and intend to a purpose. Those are all vitally important for your culture. Your culture needs some sense of where do you want to go? What do you want to achieve? Why do you want believe that your culture looks to communication in its multitude of artifacts, because those are signals, but then it looks at those signals and it says, What do you told me this one thing? Yeah. And now shockingly, I’m now going to evaluate your behaviors against those. And if the delta between what you say and what you do, you can drive an ocean liner through, well, then you can expect people not to feel skeptical.

AW: I love how you brought up the term artifacts a few times because I feel like the artifacts are almost like the communication medium, or tools that are being employed to encourage the permeation of the culture. Yes, that makes sense.

HB: It’s very easy for me to call on Stan Slap again. Your culture is perpetually looking for signs that validate its survival. And I think as humans inside an organization, we can probably all look to our own behaviors and the way we’ve acted inside companies and said, there’s an enormous truth in that. I can’t say enough, particularly in the spirit of this particular podcast, that communications are absolutely vital. Yeah. As they are in any interaction between two human beings. Communication is one of the most primary things that we do to connect to understand each other, to bond with each other. These are all outcomes of communication. They’re also all outcomes of communication that has clarity that has consistency. That is an idiom, as old as time.

AW: Yeah, consistency. And, and integration of everything of all of these elements that we’ve been talking about is a mantra of mine, which reminds me that I recently read an article. It’s actually an interview that you wrote, where you interviewed the CEO of the Citizens Bank of Edmond and and she said, she heard someone in a beauty salon talking about the this horrible bank with a horrible woman leading it. And she said, Well, that’s me. And she did manage to turn it around. And they have a mantra. They call themselves the MacGyver of banking. And I thought, That’s beautiful. implicit in that entire interview that I read is communication, communication, communication, do you find that mantras are common in corporations with strong positive cultures?

HB: Yes, I would say most organizations probably have some way, a manifestation or a manifesto of we believe these following things are critically important. I think, again, this is me speaking as perhaps a marketing person, I look at many of those and go, those are just statements of fact, I look at the banking industry. And I would encourage anybody listening to this to open the website of 100 random banks across the world and go to the values of culture section of those websites and see if the woods trust and honesty and…

AW: that’s the baseline, it better be, right?

HB: Absolutely. If honesty is not wired into the DNA of the people on all of my financial business, I’ve got a really big problem. Again, I’m always struck by – regardless of what you say, if that isn’t reinforced by what you do – a subtle hat tip to our dear friend, Mr. Ron Tite.

AW: I was just thinking, think do say. I have one more question for you, before we move on to the five rapid fire questions. My last question here for you is do you have any specific advice for leaders who are aspiring to create a strong positive culture these days? Before we press record, we’re talking about now more than ever, and what I’m talking about is in in these day of the COVID pandemic, and working from home, what kind of advice would you give to senior executives and leaders who are really trying to create a strong positive culture in their organization?

HB: Let’s say two things. Let’s say number one: Do you honestly and objectively know the culture you have today? Time and again, leaders are probably the least objective about the cultures inside their organization. So that would be number one. Do you know that and are you being objective about that culture? The second thing, and this is reflective of all of us going through COVID. This is this is a time unlike any of that in modern history. So for any leader who still consider themselves omnipotent and omnipresent, and the owner of every single answer, the only person you’re fooling is yourself. Leaders prepared to publicly recognize they don’t have all the answers are the ones that will gain significant credibility, because the truth of the matter is, nobody’s crystal ball is working right now. So if you continue to suggest that you know everything and are invincible and invulnerable, I think you lose immediate credibility, there’s never been a better time and a better opportunity more likely for you to be objective about your culture. And for you to be objective and vulnerable about your leadership, both of those things I suggest will provide the opportunity for your organization to genuinely thrive and for you to create a culture that attracts talent like a magnet. And isn’t that what every leader wants today?

AW: Very true. And now, we’re gonna move on to the five rapid fire questions. Are you ready?

HB: Is this not the time that I hang up and move on and do something? This is the most terrifying part of this entire podcast. Andrea, please be gentle.

AW: Okay, ready. Number one. What are your pet peeves?

HB: I live with three incredible and beautiful women, my wife and two daughters. Pet peeve? makeup everywhere. But then they would say: you never put the top on the toothpaste, dad. So this is our revenge.

AW: Nice, nice. Okay. Question number two, what type of learner are you?

HB: I would say visual. It befuddles my wife, but I can sit with my headphones on listening to music quite loudly, and read a book and write, which is like how do you manage to do that? Because the music inspires me. And then I learn more as I’m reading.

AW: Wow.

HB: Maybe I’ve just highlighted another weird thing about me. Maybe we can edit the weirdness out of this podcast if that’s possible.

AW: Well, if you’re a visual learner, I would love to see your visual depiction of what culture is.

HB: Hmm, that sounds ominously like a homework exercise.

AW: You don’t have it, or you have it? Or you’re saving them for your clients? Haha. Okay.

HB: Isn’t this the moment where I do the Austin Powers strokey beard thing?

AW: LOL. You know what? When I work with clients, and they describe things, I’m so visual, I’m also a painter, like I paint and I’m so off the charts, which is kind of strange for a podcaster. But I grab a piece of paper and I start making arrows and maybe it’s a common marketing thing. I wonder?

HB: Well, there’s no strategy person in the world who doesn’t know the power of an intersecting Venn diagram now. Look, what happens when these three Venns intersect?

AW: Haha. Yeah, forget the two by two. Okay. Question number three, introvert or extrovert?

HB: Well, that’s tough. Extrovert. Extrovert, I think, if that’s okay with you, I’m a Canadian extrovert. If it’s right with you, I’m an extrovert.

AW: That’s funny. Okay, question number four: communication preference for personal conversations.

HB: Pick up the phone and bore them to tears by talking at them for three hours.

AW: Oh, there you go. Really?

HB: I probably have about 200 annual reviews from various organizations that say we really wish Hilton would get to the point and stop being so loquacious. And I said, Well, nobody told Chaucer that, or Shakespeare that, or Milton that. So why do you want me to be less loquacious? Come on now… Yeah, so I prefer a phone call over sitting like my teenage daughters texting their friends, even if they’re in the same room…

AW: And yet you’re not an auditory learner.

HB: I’m also mixed up. Andrea, I make no apologies.

AW: You’re very ambiguous. Okay. Question number five. Is there a podcast or blog or an email newsletter that you find yourself recommending to people lately?

HB: There’s a multitude. Obviously, I will be adding this particular podcast episode to everybody on the planet.

AW: that goes without saying

HB: there are a couple that are my go-to standards. Obviously Scott Galloway and Kara Swisher. Absolutely phenomenal.

AW: I just I just interviewed Andrew Jenkins, who’s a social media guru. Do you know Andrew Jenkins?

HB: Yes I do, indeed.

AW: And that was his first recommendation as well.

HB: Yeah, those two are all full of piss and vinegar, which makes it an interesting podcast. There’s a Swedish podcast in English by this wonderful gentleman called Tobias Sturesson. That’s around building adaptive organizations. And Tobias in such a wonderful fashion manages to find people on the edges of management thinking people who talk about ethics, people who talk about integrity, people who talk about, it just has these wonderful conversations with him. So you know, Tobias, if you’re listening to this, you’re doing great work, Brother, please keep it up.

AW: Great. I will put a link to that in the show notes. Is there anything else you want to add about culture?

HB: My closing thoughts on culture would be the following. The times that we are living through now provides such an incredible opportunity for any leader to genuinely step into culture as a business imperative, and then as a competitive advantage. And that any leader who doesn’t do that now, five years from now will look back at that as one of the greatest missed opportunities of their time in leadership. Your culture can unleash all sorts of creativity that you can’t begin to imagine. And if you’re a leader and you don’t see the chance to do that right now, I say you’re missing the greatest opportunity handed to you on a plate.

AW: Very, very well put. Thank you so much for everything Hilton. It was lots of fun to chat.

HB: Always a delight speaking with you, Andrea. Let’s not make it so long next time. Okay?

AW: And so formal!  Haha.

HB: Of course. I didn’t know how to – I didn’t know what to do for the final finish here. If I was on the ball I’d have a little meme of me dropping a mic. I don’t know. I don’t know. I guess BOOM – sign off…

Transcribed by https://otter.ai


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