Thursday, January 6, 2022

Does Your Organization Have Culture Champions and Cultural Stewards?

Over the last 13 years, thanks to social media, I have had the privilege to meet a variety of amazing marketing, leadership, and customer experience experts. One of these experts is Gregg Vanourek based in Denver, Colorado. We recently had a discussion about leadership and culture, and highlights follow below Gregg's bio.

Gregg Vanourek is an author and entrepreneurial leader. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion, co-authored with Christopher Gergen) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (called “the best book on leadership since Good to Great,” co-authored with Bob Vanourek). His writing has appeared in or been reviewed by the New York Times, BusinessWeek, Entrepreneur, and more. He is adjunct faculty at the University of Denver, Stockholm Business School, and Stockholm School of Entrepreneurship. Connect and follow on Twitter (@gvanourek), Facebook (, Gregg's website (,  Triple Crown Leadership website (, and watch his TEDx talk (

QUESTION: Since the Covid-19 pandemic began in early 2020, how has it impacted the role of leadership?

GREGG VANOUREK: We’ve all been tested by the pandemic, and especially leaders. Andy Grove, former CEO of Intel, once said, “Bad companies are destroyed by crises; good companies survive them; great companies are improved by them.”

We saw how humanity, grace, and love rose to the surface during the pandemic. Organizations are communities, not just workplaces. With the best leaders, we’ve seen a renewed focus on humanity and community, the giving and receiving of grace, bonds between people during brutal times, and the common challenge of overcoming hardship together. Leaders have had to double down on empathy, vulnerability, trust, authenticity, communication, and integrity — always important for leaders, but even more so during a crisis. The pandemic has called into question what kind of work and workplaces we want, and it’s an opportunity to accelerate our move toward “conscious capitalism” via conscious leadership.

TWEET THIS: Organizations are communities, not just workplaces. -@gvanourek #EmployeeExperience #EmployerBranding #DebbieLaskeysBlog

QUESTION: What three traits define a good leader?

GREGG VANOUREK: We like to change the focus from the “leader” to “leadership” — to the act of leading (which can be done by anyone, regardless of their position). With leadership, it helps to know what your ultimate aims are — your “quest,” as we call it. Where are you going, and what kind of organization would you like to build? With that in mind, our top three are “excellent” (achieving exceptional results and impacts not just for shareholders but also for employees, customers, suppliers, partners, and communities), “ethical” (doing the right thing, even when it’s costly or hard), and “enduring” (standing the test of time and operating sustainably, i.e., being excellent and ethical over the long run). Put together, that’s what we call “triple crown leadership” (which is exceedingly rare).

A little clarity: The "we" refers to my Triple Crown Leadership book co-author (Bob Vanourek, my father) and me.

QUESTION: How can a President/CEO become an organization's number one brand ambassador?

GREGG VANOUREK: An executive can become an organization’s number-one brand ambassador by maniacally focusing on the shared purpose, values, and vision of the organization and communicating them repeatedly for consistency. (It goes without saying that the shared purpose, values, and vision must be genuine and not just words on the website. The key is to inculcate them into the organization’s DNA.)

When we interviewed Dr. Shirley M. Tilghman when she was president of Princeton University, she said, “My most important job is to articulate clearly and consistently what the values of the institution are.” We agree, but we’d also add purpose and vision.

A counterintuitive key of becoming a number-one brand ambassador is to talk mostly about others (team, customers, partners, community) and not make it about you as the CEO. People want to know how your organization will help them with their problems or dreams, not why you are so good.

QUESTION: How can a President/CEO create a culture that inspires employees?

GREGG VANOUREK: Here are the ways:
* Place the shared purpose, values, and vision at the center of everyone’s agenda.
* Make culture-building a priority by placing it on weekly agendas and priority lists across departments.
* Appoint culture champions: Empower a small group of trusted colleagues across departments to be proactive about culture recommendations and to take independent action.
* Unleash what we call cultural stewards. Though people all work in their functional areas (HR, IT, Sales, etc.), they should all have another job: steward of the culture. That means they have an irrevocable license to speak up, protecting and defending the desired culture and shared values.
* Celebrate and reward people who serve as cultural stewards though public recognition, awards, bonuses, raises, and promotions.
* Be a role model for the desired behaviors in the organization, including doing what you say you’d do, admitting and taking responsibility for mistakes, actively soliciting feedback (and responding to it), and demonstrating character, competence, courage, passion and emotional intelligence.
* Conduct periodic assessments: Monitor the culture regularly and take decisive action when problems arise.

QUESTION: In a post on your Blog entitled, “The Trap of Caring Too Much about What Other People Think,” you wrote, “The problem is when we’re so influenced by what others think - or, to be precise, what we think others will think — that it causes us to make choices that won’t serve us well over time.” What was the impetus in writing this post, and the background behind it, as it impacts leadership?

(Check out the post here:

GREGG VANOUREK: The idea was that caring too much about what others think can cause us to drift away from who we really are and what we really want to do. We lose bits of ourselves because we’re haunted by the expectations of others. I can relate to this as the son of a five-time CEO and one who has moved around so much and felt the pain of not fitting in, and I see it in many of my students and clients. Much of leadership is an inner game, and it begins with leading ourselves first, including our mindset and self-talk. Can we let go of all the noise and just do our best and trust that all will be okay? A key here is taking the focus off ourselves (how we’re viewed and whether we’re successful or appreciated) and switching the focus to serving and being in relationship with others.

QUESTION: One of my favorite leadership quotes is from author and consultant Mark Herbert (@NewParadigmer on Twitter): "Leadership doesn't require you to be the smartest person in the room. It requires you to block and tackle for others." What does this quote mean to you?

GREGG VANOUREK: It’s a great quote! It reminds me of what Robert Greenleaf called “servant leadership”: an approach focused on putting the needs of others first, helping people develop and perform, and sharing power.

In our “triple crown leadership” framework, we talk about leadership as a group performance, not a solo endeavor. The best leaders unleash other leaders throughout the organization, giving them an automatic license to lead and to take ownership and initiative, as long as they uphold the shared values.

Unless you multiply your efforts by unleashing other people and inspiring their full engagement, you will drown in your overflowing inbox. So, yes, block and tackle for others, but also serve and unleash them and then see how they soar!

My thanks to Gregg for sharing his inspiring leadership insights and for appearing here on my Blog.

Image Credit: Debbie Laskey.

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