Building an Authentic and Inclusive Culture that Lasts | Brett Putter


A strong and positive culture creates cohesion, enables talent retention, and fuels productivity — all of which creates a more future proof business. How do you get there? Culture development expert, Brett Putter, has worked with companies all over the world, ranging from startups to successful remote companies like Buffer and Zapier. Here, he shares how it’s done.


Brett Putter

Founder & CEO of CultureGene, Author of “Own Your Culture



Jo Meunier [00:00:19] Hello and welcome to the Future of Work podcast by Allwork.Space. I’m Joe Meunier and today I’m talking about one of the core assets of any successful business and any business that wants to be successful, and that is company culture. A strong and positive culture creates cohesion. It brings teams together. It enables talent retention. It fuels engagement to fuels productivity. 

Jo Meunier [00:00:41] All these things make for a successful business and one that’s more likely to be future proof. So that’s why we’re talking about culture today. And to tell us more about that, we’re joined by Brett Putter, who’s an expert in company culture development and works with companies and leaders worldwide to design, develop and build high performance cultures. So, Brett, welcome to the podcast and thank you for joining us. 

Brett Putter [00:01:04] Oh, thanks for having me, Joe. My pleasure. I’m looking forward to it. 

Jo Meunier [00:01:07] Me too. We’re happy to have you. Now, you are the CEO of CultureGene, you have an extensive background in executive recruitment. And today you’ve published two books. And the most recent one was published just last September 20 20 called On Your Culture How to define, embed and manage your company culture. So, you are definitely the right person to be speaking with us today. So just to start with the basics, can you tell us about company culture, what it is and why it’s so important to businesses and why they should spend a lot of time and money building one? 

Brett Putter [00:01:42] Yes, company culture. Really, the way I like to look at company culture is it’s the one sustainable competitive advantage that a CEO has complete control over. And most companies, most leaders don’t seem to treat company culture in this way. And it’s what differentiates you. 

Brett Putter [00:02:05] It’s the glue that makes your company tick. And it’s actually in a lot of cases now, one of the main drivers of what’s going to make companies come out of this very difficult pandemic and in a strong position to take advantage of, they’re the future of the future of work, really. So, I believe company culture is the missing link. And I believe it should be recognized as a business function in the same way that sales, engineering and marketing are in companies. 

Jo Meunier [00:02:37] And you mentioned just then that business leaders have complete control over their culture, potentially. But I was just curious to know how accurate is that? For instance, if you’ve got a long-standing company, quite a large company, and they’ve had they’ve got staff there that have been there for years and perhaps stuck in their ways. How easy is it to change that? Their thoughts and the business leaders really have complete control over that? 

Brett Putter [00:03:04] Yes. Yes, they do. Assuming that they have the board, if you’re talking about a large company with a long-standing history and a board, if the board are behind what the CEO and of the team all are paid to do, then they do have complete control over it. Then if you look at somebody like Satya Nadella, you know, Microsoft is a supertanker sized business. And over the last since he took over as CEO, he literally has turned that culture around and turned the business around. And that’s because he had the board support and he understood what the power, the power that culture could bring to his leadership and how he delivered on his plan. 

Jo Meunier [00:03:48] And I’ve always believed that culture was something that was all about people, but at CultureGene you also utilize technology. So, could you tell us more about that and how it works? 

Brett Putter [00:03:58] Yeah. So about 18 months ago now, I was approached by two remote work companies to help them with their culture development. And I realized at the time that my in-person workshops weren’t going to work because obviously remote companies don’t get together all the time. So, I started to develop this piece of software around my process, replicating it digitally. And so, I basically, over the last 18 months have pulled the product off and built the product. And now we’ve built a platform where fortunately in this pandemic’s period, I’ve been able to work with companies because I use software and tools to run the workshops I do and to help with the gratitude or feedback, giving, et, etc. in the company. 

Brett Putter [00:04:50] So it was very lucky, but it’s put us in a very good position moving forward to help companies who are either distributed or fully remote. 

Jo Meunier [00:05:01] And when you start working with a company, whether it’s remote or whether it’s some face to face it, hopefully we’ll be back working face to face soon. And where do you start? What is the process like when you when you go to a company and you know exactly what Initial conversations, do you have to sort of get the ball rolling? 

Brett Putter [00:05:20] So that the process we run is a three-stage process where we define or refine, embed and then and then manage? So, we help the companies, help the company define and refine the values, mission and vision. And then we embed the culture into the leadership team, the processes and functions of the business, and then we help the leadership team manage that on an ongoing basis. And where we start is with mission, vision and values. If most of my clients have done some work around the values and the mission and the vision, but to be frank, it’s mainly aspirational and not really loved. 

Brett Putter [00:06:03] So the first thing we will do is actually understand what the current values of the business are, what the aspirational values of the business are, understand what the impediments are within the business to achieving the excellence that they want to in in their culture. And that’ll be done through surveys will be done through workshops. 

Brett Putter [00:06:23] And I do one on one interviews with the leadership team and an extended group of the broader company. So essentially, we’re a mirror and we will basically put the mirror up to the company and say, this is what you told me and this is what I’m seeing in all of the data. So, these are this is what you’ll. This is where your values should be and maybe your mission and vision of. Right. But currently your values are slightly off. So, we need to refine those and then we start then to embed those into the business. 

Jo Meunier [00:06:58] And this might be a finger in the air question. How long does it take for a company to work through these processes? Is it an ongoing process? 

Brett Putter [00:07:05] So we work with companies for three months or 12 months and then it’s ongoing process. So, culture never stops. As you know, you’re always you’ve always got to work on it and invest in it, but either three months to help them with the definition and refining or and start the embedding process or we do 12 months where we go through the entire process with the company in a very hands-on way. 

Brett Putter [00:07:31] So the company on a weekly basis and sometimes daily basis. 

Jo Meunier [00:07:36] And what are the sort of key differences between working with a large company versus a smaller a startup? So, what are the differences between sort of fixing something as opposed to starting from a blank canvas? 

Brett Putter [00:07:52] Yeah, the undoing. I do a lot of undoing with larger companies. 

Brett Putter [00:07:58] And the main difference is politics, politics and politics, because people like some of the changes that I’m proposing. But I will only work with a company no matter how big or small, if I work directly with CEO for a lot of a lot of the interaction. 

Brett Putter [00:08:19] And then with HR people, one of team will help me deliver because we if the CEO doesn’t change their behavior and adapt their messaging, etc. cetera, to the way we need to, then nobody will. So, it’s the bigger companies are definitely slower. There’s a lot more. There’s a lot more making sure that people are on board and you’re not stepping on too many toes, even though you always are. And the smaller companies are you know, I probably work with 60, 70 percent smaller companies and then 30 percent the but I like to call the hairy gorillas. 

Jo Meunier [00:09:08] And one thing I wanted to ask you about was about diversity and inclusion. And I’m sure this is a big part of the work that you do. And I’m not alone in recognizing that not a lot of companies walk the talk. And so, they might want to be more inclusive, but perhaps don’t necessarily put that into practice. 

Jo Meunier [00:09:28] So how do you work to build that into the work that you do? 

Brett Putter [00:09:32] So there’s not much I can I can do about the current diversity and inclusion in the company. 

Brett Putter [00:09:41] We can obviously, if this is an area that company feels is weak and leadership, we can start to do some work around the values there and possibly push some initiative through down the line. But the most companies are needing to bring in to be more inclusive and to bring in a more diverse workforce. And so, one of the things we do is we use values-based interview techniques to ensure that the interview the interviewer is not the decision is not being made on gut instinct or culture. 

Brett Putter [00:10:17] Culture implies we’re going to hire for our current culture and your current culture, if you are just a company of middle-aged white men, is really not what you’re aiming to hire for. You want to have your values cut. And so, you can it’s easier to find broad people who fit your values than it is to find people who are similar to you in a way. So that’s the first thing we do, is we change the way the interview process happens so that the decisions are not being made based on how I feel about this, but based on how this person fits the values and how we score them to put our values as well. So, it’s actually a data driven process that we use. And we build a list of interview questions so that it whether it’s senior or junior, you choose the right interview questions and then you ask each candidate exactly the same questions and score them on the on their answers for believability inhibiters. So that’s we also we also change the way CDs come into the company. We change. So, there are different things you can do. But the fundamental element, the really critical piece of this is the actual hiring process and eliminating or trying to eliminate that gut instinct, hire and make it more a data driven by values, not, you know, versus everybody else. 

Jo Meunier [00:11:45] Yeah. And the tools that you use, do they help, do they enable that to happen? 

Brett Putter [00:11:50] Yeah, definitely. The I’ve actually we’ve borrowed so I’ve interviewed a number of companies, over 50 CEOs of high growth companies around their recruitment techniques, etc., etc. and we borrowed some recruitment techniques from remote some of the remote working companies like Jo and some of the tools that they use from a evaluating client evaluations to ensure that that the candidate who is coming through the process are not knocked out for the wrong reasons. 

Jo Meunier [00:12:27] OK, and talking about remote companies, which is obviously a huge topic at the moment, a lot of companies have been thrown into remote work, whether they like it or not. Some companies were born remote and some a lot of a lot of those you’ve worked with, such as Buffa, CPA, and also some companies are transitioning now to a more hybrid way of working long term. So, what are the key differences between building culture at remote companies or semi remote companies versus a more traditional office company? 

Brett Putter [00:13:02] Yeah, so this is this is actually one of the challenges that leaders are facing now is how do we if we if we do if we were working on our culture pretty covid how do we transition? And if we weren’t, what do we do now? Because essentially the office space culture is degrading on a daily basis and people as people are feeling less and less connected and less and less community and as a community, that’s a result of where we are and this pretty, pretty remote environment. So, the fundamental difference is based on the fact that remote work companies never, ever had an office to rely on. So, they didn’t have osmosis, they didn’t have informal communication, they didn’t have those watercooler moments. They had to work harder on these things. So, if you look at what remote companies do, they first of all design work so that you don’t say that it’s more asynchronous. You don’t end up spending eight hours a day on Zoom so that by the time somebody wants to do a Zune call at five o’clock to have a drink, you’re exhausted. And the last thing you want to do is stare at this computer screen for another hour, having a drink or having cookies or whatever it is. So, they design work around asynchronous communication. And then what they do is they build micro communities and they build. Strong sort of agreed behaviors around values around the mission and vision, and you find the leaders talk more about the values and mission and vision that a coworking office based, collocated leaders do. They’re much more deliberate about culture, much more deliberate about hiring for their culture because they just couldn’t get away with not being they had to be deliberate about it from the outset because there was no officer doing the work for them. 

Jo Meunier [00:15:10] And for those companies that were mostly office based before the pandemic. And they’re now worried about their culture dissolving. Is it fair to say that their culture perhaps wasn’t strong enough in the first place? 

Brett Putter [00:15:23] Yes, there are. There are two situations. The culture by default, where it was just allowed to happen and we did a little work, little bit of work around values and mission and vision and not much else, and that that really was a weak culture. 

Brett Putter [00:15:47] On the other hand, you had companies that invested very, very intensely in their in their culture. They’re finding it easier to do the transition now and they’re finding it easier to to to adapt. They’re still struggling. You know, very few companies are finding this a walk in the park. They still people are still struggling and companies are still struggling. 

Brett Putter [00:16:11] But really, what the what the remote companies, they focused on things like documentation. How do we do documentation? Right. So that when we on board a new a new person, they can read about our culture. They don’t have to meet 17 people to talk about our culture. How do we recruit so that we recruit people who work the way we do? So, they actually design tasks with candidates to ensure that those people can work with the company, not just be interviewed by the company. They vote and build communication architectures. So, they will say that is for this email. As for that, we do not do we do we do not use this technology for that. So, they build different communication architectures. And you can just you can see how they are designing their business, where for areas where we are co-located, environment would have taken a lot of that for granted. 

Jo Meunier [00:17:12] And one of the ideals of any company is to create a transparent and trusting and psychologically safe culture. In my mind, this should be number one on the priority list. How do you get there? How can you encourage CEOs to trust their people to be more transparent and to create a safe and inclusive space in a company? 

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    Brett Putter [00:17:33] Well, I always start with transparency, because if you can be transparent, then you’re leaning towards trust because people have to trust you, because you have nothing to hide. So, if you can start to demonstrate transparency in the decisions, business decisions you’re making and the why you’re doing certain things, if you also can demonstrate transparency around your own personal behavior. So, if my team, for example, I have a one-year-old and a three-year-old and I in a couple of months ago, I just put my hand up and said, I am really struggling to get eight hours of work done today. 

    Brett Putter [00:18:14] So I am going to be working between nine and 11 most nights. I’m not going to be emailing you. I’m not going to be slack in messaging you. I’m not going to be doing anything to demonstrate it, but I don’t want to do it behind you in any way. So, it appears wrong. I just want to tell you I’m doing it because I’m getting so much joy out of spending this time with my children because I’m enjoying it. 

    Brett Putter [00:18:36] But I also have to because if I don’t, my wife will kill me because children are hard workers, as all parents know, especially with a one-year-old and a three-year-old. And so that’s I put my hand up and I’ll say transparent. I just can’t. And I’m going to have to do this. I’m not going to do it every night. But I don’t want you to do it unless you feel this is the way you want to work and prefer to work. And one of my colleagues said, look, as you know, I’m an actor and I’ve done this anyway. You know, this is just the way I work. And if you need to get hold of me and check, we can chat. But I try not to because, you know, I don’t think I don’t think it demonstrates the right thing. 

    Brett Putter [00:19:16] So for me, it starts with transparency, because then the transparency demonstrates there’s nothing to hide. And the psychological safety piece is also around being transparent about your own issues, about the things that you’re struggling with that then demonstrates to your people that they can have the same have a similar conversation and talk about similar things. 

    Jo Meunier [00:19:36] And those things that you were talking about just now, the having the ability to put your hand up and say, you know, I can’t keep this up, it’s not sustainable. I do need some time. That’s a really important thing to do is but it’s not necessarily an easy thing to do and to be able to say to people that you need to take a break and to be that transparent. And that’s a huge part of a lot of the wellness discussions that are happening now at corporate level. So how important is that to build that into a culture, any size business? 

    Brett Putter [00:20:12] Yeah, it’s really important and it’s hard. 

    Brett Putter [00:20:15] One of my clients said to me that we she was the head of people for an 80-person company. She said, but don’t our people look at us like if we are if we are weak, then then we have all the answers. You know, it was sort of like if we show, we demonstrate weakness, people won’t respect us. And I actually say the opposite. If you demonstrate weakness, it’s not weakness. But if you demonstrate human fallibility or you demonstrate that you are struggling, if you demonstrate that you are underneath all of this tough leadership exterior, just a person like everybody else and people can relate to you better and people can share their feelings. And if you look at what remote work companies do, they actually a lot of them train their leadership teams to have these conversations and management teams to have these conversations. And they ultimately do a lot more, one to ones with a team. They have smaller teams that they need and they have one to ones that it’s not always about business. It’s about what the employee or the coworker or the or the line person you line manager. It’s about what they want to talk about. So, you know how people are and you get that you build that friendship in a different way than we used to build it in a in a collocated environment. So, I believe it’s really important. There’s a there’s a tsunami wave of health and wellbeing issues coming down the track. 

    Brett Putter [00:21:41] And it’s already starting now. And I just think this is one of the ways to get ahead of it is to pull the psychological safety into the environment. 

    Jo Meunier [00:21:49] Absolutely. And we’re only human. 

    Brett Putter [00:21:53] Yeah, at the end of the day. 

    Brett Putter [00:21:55] Very human. 

    Jo Meunier [00:21:55] Absolutely 

    Jo Meunier [00:21:59] Yeah. We need to look after each other. And we always say that the future work is all about the people. So that is so important. And taking that another step further, looking at skills, you refer to proactive learning environments as part of building culture. In my mind, this ties into the need for employees to constantly reskill and up skill as jobs change and evolve. And of course, this is a huge a huge component for the future of work. So could you tell us a bit more about proactive learning and how that ties into building culture? 

    Brett Putter [00:22:33] Yeah, so if you’re not if your team aren’t learning, then they’re not developing and most of the companies I work with, high growth companies, they have to learn and most companies are developing in these high growth stages are developing faster than the people can actually develop themselves. So if you’re if you create the ability within your team to learn, that’s often through learning, through mistakes, learning to forget, which is where we go to that environment of psychological safety. If I fail, if I make a mistake, and if so, it’s a valid mistake and say, you know, it’s not me being really stupid idea. This is what I tried. This is why I tried it. And this is the mistake I made and I learn from it. 

    Brett Putter [00:23:13] Then I learn the company learns I get better and I don’t make that mistake again. And this idea of developing yourself deliberately and in an office environment or in a work environment is I think it’s it really is part of the future of work. It makes me think about is a wonderful book called In Every Everyone Culture. 

    Brett Putter [00:23:37] And it’s by Bob Keeghan and Lisa Lahey. And it’s looking at three different companies, Bridgewater to carry in the next jump and looking at how they are deliberately developmental organizations. Everything they do is about improving you as a human being. It’s tough. It’s not easy. They work on your weaknesses, et cetera, et cetera. But they are. I’ve had the privilege of working with next jump and being inside their offices when we could go back into offices. And it’s just incredible to see how these people, they develop so quickly and so incredibly, so incredibly. 

    Brett Putter [00:24:11] The impact is so incredible and they’re such adaptable organizations. Without learning, you don’t build adaptability and without adaptability, you don’t survive these sorts of pandemics. You really struggle versus companies that are going, OK, let’s Bettcher how do we how do we change? 

    Brett Putter [00:24:30] What have we learned from the past and what can we learn now? 

    Jo Meunier [00:24:33] And given the choice, would you happily go back to the face-to-face environments that we were in before, or do you think we can we can carry on building culture and doing a lot of the things that we’re doing remotely, or do we really need that face-to-face element? 

    Brett Putter [00:24:48] I think personally, I like a bit of face to face, but I don’t need it to say it’s it’s nice to go and have a drink with friends and off to work and that kind of thing. But it’s not. But there are a lot of people who do need it and younger people need it as well. Younger people don’t realize this and they also like the vibe, etc.. So I do feel sorry for the people coming out of uni and that kind of stuff. Now it’s and can’t be easy to be sitting in your bedroom doing this when you should be. Do you think you should be having fun somewhere in Soho or wherever you are? 

    Brett Putter [00:25:20] But the opportunity. I think is for companies to. To try to learn what they need to learn from remote, from remote work environments and then adapt a hybrid situation. Use your office as a place for meetings and for people. If they want to work, they can work there, but also use it for bringing people together, building the physical culture element, even remote with companies like your still met twice a year and they gave their employees a annual travel budget to go and work with colleagues because they understand how important it is. So, use your office now as a as a means of of getting people together. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be building a hybrid work culture, a deliberate hybrid work culture, because in the future, candidates are going to be asking, what are you doing around asynchronous communication? What is your documentation look like? What percentage of your processes are in people’s heads versus actually defined and written down? Tell me about how you are your trust and transparency, as we were talking about earlier. Tell me about how you work. What percentage of your or your managers are micromanaging? These are the questions that are going to be coming up in interviews. Just because you know this. People are burning up and people realize that this is a new and you’ve got to work on a new way of working. And the companies that build this capability are going to be the ones that can pick and choose their employees in the future. 

    Jo Meunier [00:26:57] And it’s all about choice, isn’t it, for the employer and employee if they have the option to choose where they work and how they work and have more flexibility, that’s empowering. And that’s quite powerful for a culture for a company, isn’t it? 

    Brett Putter [00:27:10] Yeah, it absolutely is. 

    Brett Putter [00:27:11] And the ability to create an environment where the people working outside the office do not feel Second-Class citizens, that is that’s I think that’s the future of the it is the future of work is building network capability. 

    Jo Meunier [00:27:26] Yeah. And I’ve got a little phrase here on my list of questions I have to ask you about, and it’s “brilliant jerks and bad hires”. Now, I picked up on that when I was reading researching your book, so please tell us what that means. 

    Brett Putter [00:27:46] So a brilliant jerk is somebody who can literally turn water into wine is either just an incredible salesperson or the best engineer or, you know, just an unbelievable marketer. 

    Brett Putter [00:28:04] And they are absolutely incredible. But they are also incredibly destructive to the culture of your business. So they are brilliant, very Jo. So they are rude. They are selfish, they are political. 

    Brett Putter [00:28:17] They manage up. They are snide. They can be you know, there are lots of negatives that that a brilliant jerk. Can be, and I think we’ve all we’ve all worked with at least one of them or two of them in our careers where you just go, wow, you’re so good, but I can’t stand working with you. Yes, no. 

    Brett Putter [00:28:44] And actually, the thing about that is there are only six ways to embed company culture. And the people you hire is one of those those six. So if you’ve got a team of people and we’re all building this great, great business, we’ve got a strong functional culture. We are known we can see we’re tracking in the right direction. We’re working really hard. We’re putting are all in and we’re loving life. And then you bring in a brilliant Jo who doesn’t communicate, doesn’t collaborate, doesn’t share, but is hitting is as an individual, is doing incredible things. The rest of the team look at this and go. You you’re not you’re breaking this there’s a disconnect here between the culture, you claiming you want to build and the person you’ve hired here, and that has an incredibly negative impact on your team. And there are a few leaders, and I’d count them probably on my one hand, who might be able to get away with managing brilliant jerkiness, but most companies can’t and shouldn’t. And the brilliant jerk, in my opinion, should be it should be terminated as quickly as possible. There is a there is a short term hit on the business, but there is a long-term gain for your culture and for the people who have been there and want to want to continue to be a Jo business. That being said, if you want to if you if you’ve hired a brilliant jerk to take your company down a different path and you are happy for your culture to change and you’re going to manage that culture change, then that’s fine. But that’s deliberate versus hiring somebody that you said that is just interviews with very well. But then when they get into the office, they are they are a toxic, toxic, toxic asset. 

    Jo Meunier [00:30:36] Yeah. And what kind of hallmarks of a toxic culture are out there? What sort of things what are the alarm bells that business leaders should be looking out for? 

    Brett Putter [00:30:48] So the challenge for business leaders is they have often had a a somewhat skewed view of what their culture is because they’re at the top of the pile and they are getting a certain level of communication. But essentially, your culture can be strong or weak, functional or dysfunctional. So, an example of a strong, strong culture is where your values are understood and your mission and vision understood. 

    Brett Putter [00:31:19] Loved by the team, left by the leadership. You can you can you can see the culture in action and a culture where actually the way the company functions accelerate the business. So, to give you an example of a dysfunctional culture, a dysfunctional culture, maybe where there is a lot of politics in your business, the politics actually slows the business down and hampers the success of the business. And a weak culture is where nobody knows the values, cares for the values. And so, a weak, dysfunctional culture is where the toxicity is its worst. And that’s typically where your team don’t know what the values are. 

    Brett Putter [00:32:02] They don’t love them. They don’t care. They’re you’ve got a high turnover of staff. 

    Brett Putter [00:32:07] You hire people that you don’t recognize why they’ve been hired. You don’t you don’t recognize your company in them. And there is a lot of backbiting and backstabbing and politics going on in the organization. So weak, dysfunctional. This is what you really want to avoid. 

    Jo Meunier [00:32:27] OK, OK, that gives us food for thought. And we’re just getting near the end of our episode now. 

    Jo Meunier [00:32:35] But before we go, can you tell our listeners how they can find out more about building a positive culture and preferably one that does turn water into wine, not sign up for that and how they can get in touch with you? 

    Brett Putter [00:32:50] Yes, so I. My website is  

    Brett Putter [00:33:00] People can reach out to me directly. Brett s culture green dot. I am I’m a scholar of culture, so I love talking to people about their businesses and their culture and what they doing and how I’m happy to give advice in areas where I feel I can. 

    Brett Putter [00:33:16] I’m on LinkedIn and on Twitter and my books are available on Amazon. And your culture is the most recent one, as you mentioned. And Culture Text Decoded is the first book I wrote, which is a breakdown of the best culture decks on the Web. And I’m I’m spending quite a bit of time on this newfangled thing called clubhouse at the moment. So, if you want to find this new social media that I’m not really sure I fully bought into, but yeah, please have, you know, reach out. I’d be happy to chat. 

    Jo Meunier [00:33:52] Fantastic. That sounds great. Well, thank you for sharing your knowledge and your experience of all things culture today. We’ve really enjoyed it. I’ve learned a lot and we really enjoyed having you on. So, thank you very much. And we hope to have you on the podcast again sometime. 

    Brett Putter [00:34:07] My pleasure. Thanks. Thanks for your time. I really enjoyed it. 

    Jo Meunier [00:34:11] It’s been great to have you. Thank you. 

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