Breaking The Culture Code: Part 3

April 23, 2018 | blog | By Mike Sullivan

Daniel Coyle’s “The Culture Code” is all about what it takes for an organization to build an extraordinary culture. In the introduction, Coyle asks the question we all ask as leaders:  “Why do certain groups add up to be greater than the sum of their parts, while others add up to be less?” According to Coyle, the answer is culture, or, more specifically, “a set of living relationships working toward a common goal.” Getting that right is the key to unlocking the promise and potential of the team you’ve assembled.

In the book, Coyle lists three requisite skills that every leader must master to create a healthy and thriving culture. The first is “Building Safety” — creating a culture where people feel valued, heard, and able to deliver honesty and truth without fear. The second is “Sharing Vulnerability” — creating a culture with a clear sense of vulnerability from everyone involved, a selflessness that puts team before individual and an after-the-fact process for discussing performance in an honest, transparent, and sometimes painful way driven by questions meant not to assign blame, but to uncover truth.

Mastering those two skills alone are enough to fuel extraordinary transformation in most companies. But it’s the third skill — “Establishing Purpose” — that sets that fuel ablaze leading to transcendent growth and the realization of your full potential.


In any organization, purpose isn’t a me orientation. It’s a WE orientation. “Purpose isn’t about tapping into some mystical internal drive, but rather about creating simple beacons that focus attention and engagement on the shared goal,” says Coyle. “Successful cultures do this by relentlessly seeking ways to tell and retell their story. To do this, they build what we’ll call high-purpose environments.”

Purpose is the thing that gets us from “where we are” to “where we want to go.” Seems easy enough. But, too often, purpose comes in the form of some top-down edict announcing grand intentions without the actions to back it up. Not big, demonstrative actions but, rather, the hundreds and hundreds of small, vivid signals that say “this is our vision,” “we’re in this together,” and “you are an important part of our future and our success.”

In “The Culture Code,” Coyle tells a story of an experiment run by researcher Robert Rosenthal called the “Harvard Test of Inflected Acquisition.” In it, Rosenthal tested a group of elementary school students and then identified for the school’s teachers which 20% of the kids were “gifted and showed academic promise.” The purpose was to test if the narrative would affect how teachers taught the kids who were advanced. And it did.

Over the course of the next school year, teachers showed more warmth to the gifted kids (they were kinder and more attentive), they gave them more input (providing more material for their learning), they gave them greater response opportunities (they called on them more often), and they provided the advanced kids with more feedback, especially when they made mistakes.

Not surprisingly, when Rosenthal retested the 20% he’d identified before, they showed significant improvement far ahead of their other peers. Teachers described the kids as being more curious, happier, better adjusted, and more likely to experience success as adults. Additionally, the teachers said they enjoyed teaching more that year than ever before. But here’s the rub — it was all fake.

The “gifted” kids who made up the advanced 20% were all chosen at random. But because of heightened expectation, thousands of tiny behaviors by the teachers over the course of the school year, and countless cues of belonging, every kid in the cohort achieved at an advanced level.

What stories are you telling yourself about the people you work with? What assumptions are you making that consciously and unconsciously affect the way you interact with your employees? How you encourage them, isolate them, push them, hold them back? When you rally people around purpose, it requires complete buy in — not just from them, but from us as well. If building extraordinary culture takes safety, vulnerability, and purpose, those things have to flow both ways and they must be reflected in everything we do. Anything less is just pretending.


“How we treat each other is everything. If we do that well, everything else will fall into place.” That’s a quote from Danny Meyer, owner of Union Square Café and one of the most successful restauranteurs in New York City. In an environment where 80% of restaurants fail within five years, Meyer has managed to keep 24 of 25 restaurants open and thriving – each a different concept. “You have priorities, whether you name them or not,” Meyer said. “If you want to grow, you’d better name them and you’d better name the behaviors that support the priorities.”

In Meyer’s restaurants, he’s orchestrated every recipe, every moment of service, every response to something negative that could happen. Purpose isn’t realized by accident. But we also have to recognize that it isn’t realized in the same ways for every company. In a restaurant culture like Meyer’s, or IBM, or Ford, success looks like executing and delivering unwavering consistency, day in and day out. But in a culture based on extraordinary creativity, like animation icon Pixar, delivering uniformity day in and day out is a recipe for failure.

As Pixar head Ed Catmull notes in Chapter 16 of “The Culture Code,” “building creative purpose isn’t really about creativity. It’s about building ownership, providing support, and aligning group energy toward the arduous, error-filled, ultimately fulfilling journey of making something new.” For Catmull, that’s not just a nice idea. It’s the foundation of every system Pixar has, every decision they make, and every success they enjoy.

Pixar has created a culture of safety where everyone is empowered to speak up with suggestions about how to improve the movies they make. It’s a culture of vulnerability where even when millions of dollars are at stake, leaders and followers alike aren’t afraid to raise their hands and say: “this isn’t working.” “I don’t know the answer.” “I need help.”

As you might imagine, Pixar is also highly driven by purpose. But it’s an unfolding kind of purpose that reflects the difference between leading for proficiency and leading for creativity: Danny Meyer needs the people running his restaurants to know and feel exactly what to do, while Ed Catmull needs the people creating the next Toy Story, Finding Nemo, or The Incredibles to discover that for themselves.


Purpose can be overwhelming for leaders and employees alike and we’re not always going to get it perfectly right. In fact, sometimes, we make a great mess of purpose. But as Coyle notes in the book, many great cultures emerge from a moment of crisis. “The difference with successful cultures seems to be that they use the crisis to crystallize their purpose,” he says. “The crisis was the crucible that helped the group discover what it could be.”

“This gives us insight into building purpose. It’s not as simple as carving a mission statement into granite, or encouraging everyone to recite from a hymnal of catchphrases. It’s a never-ending process of trying, failing, reflecting, and, above all, learning. High-purpose environments don’t descend on groups from on high; they are dug out of the ground over and over as a group navigates its problems together and evolves to meet the challenges of a fast-moving world.”

As you consider what you can do to build a culture based on purpose, consider these “Ideas for Action” from the closing section of Daniel Coyle’s “The Culture Code.”

Name and rank your priorities

  • It’s all in how we treat each other
  • The greatest project is building and sustaining the group itself

Be 10 times as clear about your priorities as you think you should be

  • Inc. Magazine asked execs at 600 companies to estimate what percentage of their workforce could name their company’s three top priorities. They guessed 64%. The reality? Only 2%.

Figure out where your group aims for proficiency and where it aims for creativity

  • For Proficiency: Provide repeatable systems
  • For Creativity: Outfit the expedition

Embrace use of catchphrases

  • Keep them simple, action-oriented and forthright

Measure what really matters

Use Artifacts

  • Display things that signal “this is what matters.” At SEALs HQ, they display the gear of SEALs Killed In Action. Pixar displays early sketches of films beside the Oscars they won for them. The San Antonio Spurs display a rock and sledgehammer as a reminder to “Pound The Rock.”

Focus on bar-setting behaviors


If you missed Part 1 of this blog series, you can read it here.

If you missed Part 2 of this blog series, you can read it here

“The Culture Code” by Daniel Coyle is the first book from The Next Big Idea Club and in our humble opinion, should be required reading for every leader.

MIKE SULLIVAN is the president at LOOMIS, the country’s leading challenger brand advertising agency. For more about challenger branding, subscribe to our blog BARK! The Voice of the Underdog

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Mike Sullivan

President at LOOMIS, the country’s leading challenger brand advertising agency


We challenge underdog brands to think differently. We help them find their voice, and urge them to blaze new trails to make sure they stand out from the pack. Whether you need an agency of record or support on a project, we are here to help you win.