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This article was based on episode 018 of The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, and Stitcher.

Rockstar managers strive to create strong company cultures and high performing teams. In episode 018 of the Modern Manager podcast I speak with Wes Kao, an expert in marketing, product, and growth, about how to create both. Wes is the former Executive Director of Seth Godin’s altMBA, and has launched over 150 campaigns, features, products, programs, and initiatives at Fortune 500 brands and startups.


“There's no such thing as just an objective normal” for workplace culture, says Wes. “It really is about, ‘How do we do things around here? What is the norm?’ And what one group considers normal could be really foreign and weird to another group.” Culture is ever present and encompasses both high performing and dysfunctional teams, and it can change from team to team, even within the same organization.

Think of culture like “that water that we're all swimming in,” continues Wes. It “can subconsciously impact whether or not we're either stepping up, pushing ourselves and taking on more ownership or kind of sitting back with our arms crossed waiting to be entertained or waiting for someone to tell us what to do.”

The Relationship of Culture to Marketing

Wes encourages managers to think like a marketer when it comes to changing culture. You should consider how to “position your ideas and encourage behavior that you want to see so that people feel comfortable taking action and there's trust.” Remember, we are all selling something - products or ideas - all the time.


At one point or another, you’ve likely faced resistance when advocating for change. Perhaps you felt frustrated by needing to convince your colleagues that just because they’ve done something one way up to now doesn’t mean it’s the most effective way. In these situations, Wes has two suggestions: 1) Move to an organization that’s more in line with your values, or 2) “position and frame your idea in a way where the people who are attached to the status quo don't think that whatever it is that you're proposing is that scary,” says Wes.

Make sure your idea is “new and interesting,” and not “new and scary.” Something that’s “new and scary” might ring alarm bells, especially for senior management, for its potential workload or backlash within the organization. Frame a proposal so that is it “new and interesting” by aligning it with the “self-interest” of those whom you need to convince. Show them how it will improve processes and the bottom line, and potentially reduce workload or other challenges in the long run.

“Ideas are a dime a dozen, but getting buy-in and getting that institutional support can often be really, really hard,” says Wes. You must learn to get good at generating buy-in. Put yourself in the position of the colleagues you are presenting to and anticipate their concerns, such as increased workload or personal incentive for taking on a new project. Empathize with them and appeal to their desires and goals. Make it easier for them to say “yes.”

Changing Culture Within Your Team

Perhaps you’re trying to change the culture within your own team, regardless of what’s happening within the greater organization. This is a valid approach. As Wes explains: “Culture change happens person by person, one by one,” even though we may think about it as “this massive thing.” Because culture is inspired by the action of individuals, we can also reinforce it on a daily basis based on the behaviors we encourage and the behaviors we punish.

There’s a common pitfall here, though. Sometimes managers will encourage a specific kind of behavior and then inadvertently dismiss that behavior when it happens. For example, if managers ask their team members to contribute more out-of-the-box ideas in meetings, and then reject these ideas when they happen, this leads to less, not more trust. The more often this happens, the less likely employees are to take their managers’ directions at face value. It’s important that the actions of managers align with what they say they want to see.

Rigor + Psychological Safety = No Lazy Thinking + Caring

One way to reduce the mini-trauma caused by managers shutting down team members when they take mini-risks is to introduce the combination of rigor plus psychological safety. Using the previous example of presenting out-of-the-box ideas, team members must be willing to explain their ideas and answer questions about them. In a culture of rigor, “it's expected that any idea really goes, but you should be open and excited about presenting that idea and defending it and talking through why it's exciting and why there are data points rooted in reality,” says Wes. In other words: #NoLazyThinking.

In order to have this type of rigorous discussion, there must be some groundwork of psychological safety. People must trust that everyone on the team cares about you and the success of the team. No one is trying to make anyone else look or feel foolish. With this understanding, the team is free to “vigorously debate with each other to try to come to the best possible outcome and the best possible solution, because it's way better for your team member internally to point out that there are all these gaps in a certain idea than to find out eight months later when you're at launch or when a bunch of customers are complaining about why something doesn't work,” explains Wes.


Wes offers three elements of a high performing team.

1) Everyone Thinks Like an Owner

Individuals on a high performing team don’t wait for their leader to tell them what to do. They ask themselves, “How can I continue to drive this project forward?” As a manager, it’s important to reward this kind of proactivity. “When people take on more ownership or when people volunteer to help out another team member without being asked or when they prioritize something that they know would make two other team members' lives a lot easier but would make theirs a little bit harder in the short run, those are all acts of generosity,” says Wes.

2) People Care

A second related quality is that of caring. High performing team members care about the work and each other. Says Wes, “It's the shared understanding that we're all in this together and that we each hold a really deep responsibility for whether this organization works or not.” Beware that it’s difficult to get people to care if they don’t already enter the organization with that sensibility.

3) Rigorous Thinking

A third quality of a high performing team is rigorous thinking, or asking critical questions about each project. Questions like, “‘How would something work? Who is this for? What is this for? Who do we need buy-in from in order for this to move forward? What are a couple different models of organizations or teams that have done this before? What can we learn from them? How is our unique situation different? Do we have different assets and levers? Do we have different competitive advantages?’" says Wes. Asking these questions and adopting a point of view about the viability and time frame of the project helps to create momentum and move it forward.

Try This Tomorrow

If you’re ready to move your team towards high performance, Wes suggests that the next time a team member approaches you with a question or challenge, throw it back at them. Instead of answering their question, ask, “What do you think?” Many times the person will have thought through the scenario already but doesn’t feel the confidence or authority to move forward. When you take this avenue as a manager, you empower your team member to be a leader in figuring out and articulating a solution.

Are you up for the challenge of changing culture and creating high performing teams? Want to learn more from Wes and get your questions answered? Join a special live Q&A call on Thursday October 11, 2018 at 1pm Eastern when you join The Modern Manager community on Patreon.

This article was based on episode 018 of The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify and Stitcher. Never miss a worksheet, episode or article: subscribe to Mamie’s newsletter. Join the Modern Manager community on Patreon and get additional exclusive resources and services.






Twitter: @wes_kao

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