Don’t Work On “Company Culture” — Focus On Your Operating System Instead


Culture is complex.

By its very definition, “culture” is almost unreasonably complicated. Read just a few lines in a dictionary, and you’ll quickly trip over phrases like “manifestations of human achievement regarded collectively.”

Oof. Like I said, complex.

These days, leaders want to understand the impact of culture on their organizations, and it’s become even more popular since the pandemic. Overall, this is a very good thing, of course. We’re moving beyond seeing statements like “culture eats strategy for breakfast” as platitudes and moving toward grappling with the profound impact culture has on our organizations. But the intricate nature of “culture” itself is one of the largest obstacles to doing culture work, as its inherent complexity makes it difficult for organizational leaders to know exactly what to DO with it. 

That’s why, if we truly want to understand how to understand and impact the culture of an organization, leaders ought to forget about “culture” — and focus on something else entirely.

There’s a moderately famous quote from Steve Jobs about “design” that helps us better understand culture’s problem… and the solution.

“Most people make the mistake of thinking ‘design’ is what it looks like. People think it’s this veneer — that the designers are handed this box and told, ‘Make it look good!’ That’s not what we think design is. It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”

– Steve Jobs

Culture has the same misconception as design.

In organizations, culture is often equated with “perks” — things like food trucks at lunchtime, “mandatory fun” employee events, pets in the office, jeans on Friday, great snacks in the breakroom , etc. But perks are just the veneer — it’s what we see, NOT how it works.

And company culture, properly understood, is how it works.

You’ve probably noticed this is one of the more common ways you’ll hear culture defined at work: “It’s how we do things around here.”

So, to properly get to the “how” of culture, leaders ought to think of culture using the metaphor of an operating system.

In the hands of capable leaders, this metaphor is immensely powerful, because it does 3 very tangible things:

  1. It helps everyone understand what culture actually is, 
  2. It helps everyone see why most organizational changes don’t stick, and
  3. It helps everyone know how to make a more powerful impact.

First, the operating system metaphor helps everyone understand what culture actually is.

Most of us use multiple operating systems every day, even if we don’t realize it. An operating system, or “OS,” is that invisible thing that runs in the background on all our phones and laptops and makes them work. And even though most of us don’t give those operating systems a second thought, they are in fact dictating everything that is allowed (or not allowed) to happen on the device. 

Can I install this app? Can I type this here? Can I share this file? 

The OS determines it ALL.

And this is exactly what culture does for our organizations — it dictates what is allowed to happen and what is not.

Can I make this choice? Can we move this forward? Can we help this customer? What can I say to them? How much can I help them?

Just like the OS in a device, the culture of your organization is a decision-making matrix, providing the architecture and mental models people need in order to know what’s allowable and what’s out-of-bounds.

Culture = your organization’s operating system. And thinking about it in this way makes a very complex, intangible thing suddenly feel much more real and grounded.

Second, the operating system metaphor helps everyone see why most organizational changes don’t stick. 

We humans like to think of ourselves in a fairly self-determined way — that is, we prefer to think we are autonomous and able to make our own choices.

But the reality is that we don’t make nearly as many choices as we think we do. 

What actually happens is that we choose systems, and those systems make choices for us

For example, let’s say you decide to go to a university for a four-year degree. That decision may be truly yours, but once you’ve chosen a school, that school’s system decides most everything else for you. It tells you when you need to wake up in the morning, how much you need to work in order to pay the school, when you will have free time, and so on. 

It’s the same with our workplace operating system (culture). Despite being invisible and ignored by most, it is the very thing that makes the majority of decisions for everyone working there.

It’s “the way we do things,” after all.

And this explains why most organizational changes don’t stick, because most change initiatives are simply the equivalent of “new apps” that come and go — i.e. they get installed for a time and then eventually uninstalled when we move on to the next initiative. Most change projects never apply to the operating system itself.

But when we approach culture as our operating system, we can think of it like another piece of “technology,” and this gives us hope — because technology can be upgraded!

Third, the operating system metaphor helps everyone know how to make a more powerful impact. 

Perhaps the most enlightening part of this metaphor is that it teaches us all how to make a more powerful and lasting impact: we aim to upgrade the operating system.

This is the work of true leaders, at all levels — first, to simply see the operating system that’s dictating everyone’s choices, and then to actively work on making that OS more life-giving and energizing for every human in the organization.

In principle, the framing question is a simple one: does every part of your organization’s operating system give people more energy (focus/attention/motivation) or do some parts suck the life out of people?

Having an OS that gives people energy is the clear target of the organization of the future, because it’s a powerful and tangible way to tap every benefit we want that comes from having a healthy, thriving culture. 

When people have more energy for the work they’re doing, they do it better and they do it faster.

They do things more efficiently and with less waste.

They collaborate better with colleagues, and they have more resilience for challenges.

And, perhaps most importantly, they consistently give more love to customers. 

This is what I call an Energy-Based Operating System (ebOS). Most of today’s organizational operating systems have to extract energy from people to make the system function, leaving people drained and exhausted — and not doing anything close to their best work. An Energy-Based OS, on the other hand, gives people energy. This uplifts everyone into a virtuous cycle, helping each person consistently and sustainably do the best work of their lives. (If you want to learn more about an ebOS, watch my TEDx.)

And at the end of the day, doesn’t this sound exactly like the kind of “culture” you want?


The original version of this article appeared in Culturati Magazine on Aug 9, 2019

Read More →

Every Organizational Problem You Have Comes From One Place


Nearly every big problem that persists in our organizations today comes from limitations that live in the mindset of the leadership. 

Bold claim? Maybe, but if you read on, I think you’ll see it’s true.

Let me explain…

There are a lot of big, hairy problems in our organizations, ranging from turnover to disengagement to lack of agility and so on. (If you want a great list, check out Chapter 2 of my friend Doug’s terrific book, The No-Limits Enterprise, where he outlines a ton of these challenges in a clear, straightforward way.)

A person need only spend about a month as organizational consultant to notice that companies tend to see — and treat — these challenges as isolated phenomena. And it’s easy to understand why this happens; upon first glance, a lack of innovation doesn’t look like it has anything to do with workplace toxicity, for example. (It does, of course, but we don’t see it at first.)

Isolationism is a destructively simplistic way to think about our organizations.

As you’ve likely noticed before, the word organization shares the same root as the word organism — and yet, the common perception of organization is more “mechanical structure” than “living being.”

When we look at living beings, it’s a little easier to appreciate the interwoven systems at play; we recognize the inherent complexity of organic material and all the interactions that allow it to grow, move, learn, and so on. And in complex organic material we also find some kind of “strategic thinking center” that coordinates its movements.

And this is why nearly every problem in an organization can be traced back to the mindset of its leaders.

In the complex organizational living system that is a Company, leaders hold the role of coordinating movement. 

They paint a vision that is (hopefully) deeply compelling and magnetic to offer direction and purpose. They create “riverbanks” that provide guardrails around behavior — what’s in-bounds and what’s out-of-bounds. They sanction the governing principles people will abide by and the strategic pathways people will run on. 

Leadership always creates the “container” for behavior: what’s allowed and what’s not. What’s celebrated and what’s denigrated.

As such, all ongoing behavior inside the container of ones’ leadership can be directly traced back to the leader. (I say “ongoing behavior” because individual people will inevitably make their own choices and undesirable incidents will happen; what matters is whether or not they are allowed to continue.)

We don’t choose our future; we choose our habits, and they create our future. And so, the existing organizational reality — and all its myriad problems — were created by the habits of yesterday’s leaders.

Albert Einstein reportedly said something to the effect of: “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

So, if we actually want to solve the thorny problems of today, there’s really only one way to do it: upgrade the mindset of leaders, so they can encourage better collective habits that will create a different, better future for us all.


This was originally posted on #lovework, right here.

Read More →

2022: Year In Review

Leadership, Legacy, Life

Hello friends!

Another year (and a half, almost!) has passed with no blog posts from me! I miss writing and the time and space it requires. I am setting an intention to get back to it this coming year… but before I go there, let’s start by reviewing my 6 goals from 2022.


Goals For 2021 + Reflection

1) More physical fitness

Holy cats, I fell off the wagon in a major way with this one last year. Looking back, I’m not exactly sure how this deteriorated, but it probably started pretty early on, likely with the craziness that ensued after the next item happened…

2) Buy a beach property in Mexico

This one materialized in the second month of last year! I mentioned a “romantic partner” in last year’s update — their name is Kali, we are still together, and we actually ended up buying an amazingly cute little studio in Tulum together at the end of February.

After we returned from that trip, this purchase immediately added a pretty big layer of complexity to life, as neither of us had ever bought a property out of the country before and our Spanish is a little, ahem, rusty. Thankfully, we eventually worked through the mess of contract negotiations and other intricacies. It was just starting to be built last spring, so it was finally completed in the fall.

Right now we’re just making it available for family and friends, so if you need a great place to stay in Mexico please hit me up!

3) Go back to Europe for pleasure

Oops. This didn’t happen.

4) Build relationships

Yes, I see this one as a success! I focused on building depth within my family and my business, rather than going broad.

I invested a lot of time, energy, and love into my relationships my kids and with Kali last year. (BTW, someday the world hear more of Kali’s story, and, well… I would need a whole other blog post to even scratch the surface of how world-changing a human this is, my friends. I am truly honored to know them.)

Also, as you’re about to read below, I had quite a relational journey with the company last year… the team experienced some massive, tectonic shifts, and though I truly believe it will all work out for good, it was also very hard.

5) Create great memories with kiddos

In my view, I did… “OK” at this last year. I did try my absolute best to get to as many of their activities as possible — and I was able to attend almost all of them! — AND I will say I want to work on being more fully present with them over this coming year.

6) 10k users in #lovework

We did not make this goal last year. Turns out, 2022 WAS a “growth year” for #lovework… but NOT in terms of users on the platform.

I didn’t know it when I wrote this goal, of course, but 2022 was going to be a growth year for the #lovework TEAM.

Almost the entire team is different now than it was a year ago — and it’s exponentially larger. My confidence in the new team we are building is a huge reason you see another audacious goal for #lovework below.

But before we do that, here are the most notable things that happened in my 2022!


Notable Events From 2022

  • COVID — Successfully avoided it until the very beginning of 2022 and then BAM. Happy New Year.
  • Mexico Trip In February — This trip was life-changing, in so many ways. It provided the beginnings for our Airbnb adventure and also catalyzed Kali working more with #lovework, which has been transformational for our company.
  • Accutane — I had struggled with adult acne my whole (adult) life, and decided to try a 5-month adventure with this craaazy drug. I won’t lie to you; it was terrible. But the results on the other side have been worth it, thankfully!
  • Rocky Horror — Believe it or not, I’d never been… until now! (VIRGIN)
  • Kiddo Musical Performances — The oldest created her own show for DCPA’s Musical Madness and was Mrs. Potts in Beauty & The Beast. The youngest was in Tangled and The Infamous Shoe Gang. The oldest also joined a children’s choir, which was just absurdly adorable. Overall, it was a pretty spectacular year for musical performances.
  • Harry Potter + Quidditch — The oldest got WAY into H.P. this year… I think she’s read all 7 books now… twice. The youngest is on board, too, now (phew)…! We also got to play Quidditch for the oldest’s birthday, which was a blast.
  • Roadie” Activities — I got to tag along to a whole bunch of Kali’s shows. Expert tip: if you’re going to be a roadie, do it for a vocalist (not much gear!).
  • Investor Fundraise — Completed our first small fundraise for #lovework via a “friends and family” Angel round with a great group of investors.
  • Red Rocks w/ Kiddos — Pro: got to take the kiddos to Red Rocks for their first time! Con: the band was KidzBop. (Oh alright… it was quite fun!)
  • Fast Company Innovation Festival — Attended this innovation-focused conference in NYC. The on-site events around Manhattan were pretty cool, but otherwise not worth the hype.
  • HLTH — Attended this huge, health-focused conference in Vegas. Overall, it impressed me. Highly recommend watching this video from it.
  • Elitch Gardens — Believe it or not (again), I’d never been!
  • Thanksgiving — Traveled with the kiddos to meet some of Kali’s family. It was a delightful trip!
  • Holiday Disneyland Trip… This Time With Even More MagicHad an awesome time going back to Disneyland/California Adventure again this year… and this time surprised the girls with a trip to Harry Potter at Universal. The ride inside Hogwarts is one of the Top 3 coolest rides I’ve ever been on… I’ve never experienced anything like it.
  • Mean Girls @ DCPA — Right around the holiday, we took the kiddos to a fun immersive game activity and all wore our pink hats. Someone passing by on the street asked me, “Are you going to Mean Girls?” We weren’t (didn’t even know it was in town), but of course we looked it up, and were somehow able to get tickets for that night. What a fun show! The girls know all the lyrics to all the songs already.


Goals & Intentions For 2023

  1. Physical fitnessI gotta sort this one out. Gonna give myself a bit of grace, though… I just want to have a solid routine in place by the end of 2023 that I can and will stick to.
  2. Build more adult friendships — This is harder than it sounds for more people than just me, right?
  3. Start writing and speaking again — By the end of this year, I want to be on some kind of regular cadence of writing again, and I want to start making myself available for more speaking by then, as well.
  4. Create great memories with kiddos — In addition to being consistently more present, I also want to be intentional about more kiddo time this coming year. I’d like to start doing 1:1 dates with each kiddo, maybe 1x/month…? Seems like this should be easy, but the logistics are REAL tricky! Intending to sort out a plan for this by the end of the year, too.
  5. 10,000 paid users in #lovework — Yup, let’s try this again.

Thank you so much for caring enough to read this whole thing. Even if we don’t talk often, I appreciate you and send you love for your 2023!

Read More →