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Beneath the Veneer

Everyone wants to improve their brand. Hardly anyone wants to improve themselves.

I get it. I love to exercise, but will be the first to admit that buying workout clothes is more fun than actually getting myself to the gym. Writing about having difficult conversations is infinitely more enjoyable than actually having them. Talking about your great company culture is much simpler than figuring out how to make sure it lives up to your description every day.

The problem arises when we confuse appearing to do the thing with actually doing the thing. Doing research about the best weight-lifting shoes feels like progress, so I can convince myself it is. But it’s not. As Alfred Montapert famously wrote “”Don’t confuse motion and progress. A rocking horse keeps moving but doesn’t make any progress.” Looking at shoes I’m too cheap to buy is definitely less effective than just getting to the gym to deadlift in last year’s cross-trainers.

Organizations eager to expend time and energy on cultivating their corporate and employer brand often seem far less inclined to engage in the actions required to make their culture match their image. What concerns me is the number of recent conversations I’ve about culture in which this distinction doesn’t even seem to register.

Organizational culture has been broadly misunderstood for far longer than I’ve been complaining about it, but this feels different.

At a time when organizations risk public exposure and backlash if an employee takes to social media to share the ugly truth behind a shiny brand image, one might think companies would be far more concerned with closing the gap between their brand and culture. Instead, many seem to have either forgotten these are distinct things, or ceased to care.

Is this purely anecdotal? I’d argue it isn’t. Nike’s recent executive exodus was apparently prompted by an employee-led survey that revealed a culture inhospitable to female employees despite claiming to believe “that diversity fosters creativity and innovation” and having an admired ‘Civility Code’.  Uber (the garbage fire that just keeps burning) made the news again this past week, when their CHRO resigned, reportedly due to her handling of discrimination complaints. This despite her public claim last year that Uber was “so dedicated to diversity and inclusion, more than any firm I’ve ever known”.

I wonder how many of these public brand meltdowns must play out on social media before organizations consider that all the time spent on claiming to be a great place to work might be better spent on actually being a slightly better place to work?

Finding a “diverse” stock photo for a careers page is an order of magnitude easier than actually digging into making an organization more inclusive. But investing in the former actually increases the difference between the image we project and the reality it obscures.

Recommended Listening:

I’ve been dipping into some new podcasts over the last couple of weeks. Here are a few I really enjoyed:

Juggling and bicycles – Seth Godin, Akimbo

I really like the format of Godin’s (fairly) new podcast. It’s the right length, covers a diverse array of topics, and wraps up with answers to listener questions about the previous episode. In a recent show, Godin makes a strong case that the best way to learn how to ride a bike (and many other things) is by not learning how to ride a bike. He believes that breaking down skills into their building blocks allows us to bypass the distraction of status.

Reclaiming Leadership for the Human Spirit with Margaret Wheatley – Human Current

I’ll confess that I haven’t read any of Wheatley’s work, but my limited knowledge suggests that she has quite a following. Ignorant of any of that history or context, I still enjoyed this interview with her about the state of the world and its leaders, and how leaders can experiment with complexity theory and systems thinking to better understand the role of emergence and interconnectedness.

Sweet Rejection: Cutting Out the Noise – Bob Sutton, Friction

Sutton’s Friction podcast is great. This episode touches on a relevant topic for me right now: brainstorming and rejecting ideas. This week my husband and I, along with our younger brothers, spent a couple of hours brainstorming (non-theoretical) ideas for dispose of a 40-foot shipping container, as normal people do. We ended up debating whether all ideas are good ideas when brainstorming, and this podcast provides a great perspective.


You may notice that I’ve relaxed my weekly publishing schedule a tad over the last month or so. I’m working on a few other projects and enjoying the summer, so you can expect this weekly-ish cadence to continue through August.

Photo by Toni Hukkanen on Unsplash

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