3 actionable insights to drive a winning culture

By Bence Sztanyik and Jeanette Sjoberg, DDE learning partners , March 2020.

The second part of the adidas Directors’ Development Experience leadership program focuses on MINDSET. The challenge is to find an organization with a winning culture and bring actionable insights back to adidas.

What is a winning culture?

Culture is not just a random set of values, beliefs, or emotions, but a winning culture turns customer promises (firm brands) into internal organization actions”

Ulrich & Brockbank, (2016)

How do you frame a winning culture?

By moving to the outside-in, consumer- centric view of culture, we create a winning culture” 

Ulrich & Brockbank, (2016)

What they mean by this is that the words that are used to describe culture represent categories of behaviors as they are experienced and perceived by observers.  They believe that, in the business setting, consumers tend to be the most relevant observers.  Zappos is a good example where the company’s brands or identities becomes infused through the company

Winning cultures are based on the perception of consumers: “We have always been the first to let you know we are “powered by service,” and Zappos is a service company that just happens to sell all the nifty shoes, clothing, accessories and whatnot found on Zappos.com.”


3 actionable insights AS A RESULT OF THE CHALLENGE

INSIGHT 1: Leaders must set aside time for employees to learn and improve – Rackspace, London, turns out to be an incredible learning environment.

“The company fosters a culture of learning. We have our own internal learning centre with fully accredited trainers from Microsoft Azure, Amazon Web Services and other trainers. It’s very positive. There is a cross-pollination of self-study since so many people are certified and have been through the process – they help you and it makes it easy to share in the learning journey. Everyday, there are 16-20 different vendor meetings that are showcasing new technologies / services and you can drop into the sessions and learn about them. Every kind of topic is covered that is relevant to our customers.”

Jon, a “racker” and Cloud Architect at Rackspace
“We can order our own country flag, display our favourite band, movies, certifications – it’s personal and individual,” Jon

The Rackspace ambition is to enable companies to accelerate the value of the cloud.

“We meet you where you are and get you where you need to go, helping you realize the power of digital transformation without the complexity and expense of managing it on your own.”


To execute the Rackspace customer promise, Rackspace has a commitment to being a learning organization to enable employees to accelerate the value of the cloud for its customers. The result is high employee engagement which leads to increased consumer satisfaction and therefore loyalty and long-term sustainable results.

Within its EMEA Professional Services team, Adam Evans, Professional Services Leader, believes it vital that technical staff get the necessary time to learn – and away from their day jobs.

‘It’s really important to accept’ he says, ‘that cracking the whip for five days a week is not going to get the best for them or for you in the long run, and that you risk a lot of things.’ These perils might include experienced workers falling behind the technology curve, becoming disengaged and seeking out other opportunities.

Source: Driving Continual Technological Improvement and Innovation

Since all of the significant problems of tomorrow are likely to be systemic problems – problems that can’t be addressed by any one specialty or one industry. Learning and improving is more of a team sport. Our recommendation is to enable learning that is focused on starting with the needs of the consumer, fostering collaboration, confidence, creativity and community in diverse, interdisciplinary, inclusive teams as ways to encompass multiple ways of knowing.

INSIGHT 2: Leaders must have a playbook – here is the starting checklist – what we learnt from The Budapest School, Hungary.

In May, 2019, Péter Halácsy, co-founder of The Budapest School, gained approval from the Ministry of Human Capacities, Hungary, for a new education model for Budapest School. The Budapest School is an alternative school which has no classic curriculum, there are no grades and only three subjects are taught there.
The mission? What if we designed a school in the 21st century? Péter Halácsy gives a compelling case for action in his recent TED talk. The school is a network of homeschools striving to set a foundation for equipping, young 21st century leaders.

We were lucky to interview one of the co-founders, Gábor Vészi, who started life out as a software engineer, was the CTO for Prezi and worked at Facebook. It seems an unlikely profile for orchestrating the success of a completely new education model in Budapest.

The leadership checklist for a winning culture according to Gábor Vészi

1. Have a team playbook for forming teams and creating clarity.
Gábor is a big fan of The Advantage, Patrick Lencioni and recommends the team assessments when forming the new school teams and a further healthcheck on a regular basis.

“I have a team playbook – the leadership must have clarity. I am inspired by Lencioni’s playbook and specifically his book, The Advantage,” Gábor Vészi,

2. Ensure there is trust in the team. This is foundational.

Regular reviews of the playbook allow reinforcing what matters, opening up, sharing failures and difficult situations, and thus fosters the growth mindset.

Gábor suggests learning about how to create trust by reading Lencioni’s book, 5 dysfunctions of the team. Nearly 3000 ratings on Amazon!

 There is an observed and quite robust correlation between psychological safety and learning and performance. That does not mean that this is, you know, you can’t have high performance without it. You sometimes have high performance because you’ve just got a great strategy. You know, it’s brilliant, no one else is doing it or a product that is irresistible.

Edmondson, A. (2019)

Recommended reading: Amy Edmondson: The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth.

 Psychological safety is ‘‘a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up,’’ Edmondson, (1999). ‘‘It describes a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves,’’ Duhigg, (2016).

3. Do regular team healthchecks.
Gábor’s favourite is the Spotify 12 point check. They rate and discuss roughly 10 areas (not only related to education but also including emotional and physical state and partnership) regularly. According to Gábor, it always predicts major issues.
We found a useful article by Jimmy Janlén on the topic and further pointers on the usefulness of a leadership healthcheck – because leaders and teams have different purposes and focus.

“Make sure you do a regular team healthcheck. My favourite is the
12 point Spotify Healthcheck,” Gábor Vészi. Source: Jimmy Janlén

Examples of the healthcheck

Team Autonomy
Green: I feel we influence and shape our plans and destiny. We decide together how we want to work.
Red: Someone else is always calling the shots. It’s unclear to me what we are allowed to decide, and what we’re not.

Green: We give positive appraisals, but also provide constructive feedback on each other’s unproductive behaviours.
Red: We rarely praise each other, or give feedback to each other for acting irresponsibly or breaking our Working Agreement.

INSIGHT 3: Compete with yourself – focus on improving
Improving and learning is a good focus rather than proving! We prefer learning objectives rather than performance objectives. At Prezi, Gábor found that when stress was introduced it was a very short-term motivator – eventually it freezes you.

Create an environment where you are competing with yourself. We don’t care if you are ahead or behind someone else. It is about how you are learning and improving yourself. Improving rather than proving!! That’s when learning happens.”

Gábor Vészi

Why doing these things can help to drive a winning culture at adidas for leaders and teams?
To recap on the actionable insights
1. Leaders must set aside time for employees to learn and improve.
2. Leaders must have a playbook
3. Compete with yourself- focus on improving

Effective leaders throughout an organization are the catalysts for action, improvement, and excellence”

Jones & Kober, (2019)

In conclusion, leadership plays a critical role in driving the success of the company. Jones & Kober, (2019) wrote the book, Lead With Your Customer: Transform Culture and Brand into World-Class Excellence, which contextualizes the role of leadership as the driver for the ultimate results.

The Chain Reaction of Excellence Model (below) emphasizes that leadership must create the right conditions for the middle two links, employees and the consumers. In the case of Budapest School, there were even more considerations: the teacher, student, parent and the government. All categories of people are what stands between the leader and the results the leader drives for the company or the institution. It is no surprise that there is a symbiotic relationship between the categories of people and ignoring any side is to the detriment of the longevity of the leader, the company or the institution and, even more importantly, the culture of that company or institution. The leadership is fully accountable – “with great power comes great responsibility,” citing Voltaire and Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben in Spiderman.

The Chain Reaction of Excellence Model, Jones & Kober, (2019).

According to Jones & Kober, (2019), leaders who communicate a compelling vision, involve employees, and effectively manage company resources create the fertile ground within which employee excellence – and the rest of the Chain Reaction of Excellence – can be optimized to achieve long-term, sustainable success.
It goes without saying that leaders play an important role in the success of the company or institution.

How has our mindsets shifted as a result of the challenge?

A key insight is the the dominant leadership mindset that focused on ensuring employees are kept on task with a relentless focus on execution. Execution is framed in a way that rewards employees for routinely meeting deadlines. There is little focus on reward for learning and improving that leads to tangible benefits and value for the consumer. Learning objectives should receive equal importance to performance objectives. Learning objective contribute to the growth strategy of companies whereas the leadership style that focuses on pure action and task-orientation embeds a fixed mindset and short-termism. Of course there are a lot of factors involved such as the tenure of the Board members, long term incentive plans and overall compensation that constrain the organizational and leadership success.

The impact your insights will have in your team, and how they might influence its mindset going forward
A winning culture is a team sport and it is our internal actions that will determine our ability to deliver on consumer / customer promises.


Duhigg, C. (2016). What Google learned from its quest to build the perfect teamThe New York Times Magazine26, 2016.

Edmondson, A. (2019). Creating Psychological Safety in the WorkplaceHarvard Business Review.

Edmondson, A. (1999). Psychological safety and learning behavior in work teamsAdministrative science quarterly44(2), 350-383.

Jones, M. D., & Kober, J. J. (2019). Lead with Your Customer: Transform Culture and Brand Into World-class Excellence. American Society for Training and Development.

Ulrich, D., & Brockbank, W. (2016). Creating a winning culture: next step for leading HR professionals. Strategic HR Review.

See previous articles related to the adidas DDE experience here:
How to be the best leader you can? Focus on Language.

How to be the best leader you can? Focus on Language.

winning culture_language
“Language is Leadership,” David Marquet

By Jeanette Sjoberg, February 2020

The language of leaders has the power to change lives. You could say that every leader is obligated to understand their role in transforming lives. Leaders that choose not to have a focus on language may change culture in ways that have unexpected consequences, and, may change lives in ways they did not originally intend to.

David Marquet recently released a very important book on leadership, challenging the incumbent and very present industrial age leadership playbook that continues to infuse itself into organisations, defining the culture and ultimately the results of the company.

The key takeaway from Marquet’s book is that a culture, without a thought-through approach on the language of leadership, is most likely to continue an industrial era leadership playbook that is unacceptable in this modern age. Organizational restructures, leadership , diversity and inclusion programs and other change management or transformation approaches, with the backdrop of management principles from the industrial era, will most likely be a waste of money. Marquet’s book is therefore a good use of your time to understand why. One thing is for sure, when the language plays out an industrial era leadership playbook, you can guarantee you are not going to be in control of the culture you are striving for.

What is an industrial age leadership playbook?

Marquet sets out a very good context for understanding the industrial era leadership playbook and carefully illustrates why leadership is language and the consequences when language is not core to leadership in your organization.

To explain his point of view, Marquet features a true and tragic event which happened on Thursday, October 1, 2015. In Marquet’s example, leadership changes lives and, in this case, people lost their lives.

The event features the American merchant captain, Michael Davidson, tasked with sailing a 800 foot US cargo ship, El Faro,  on its weekly run from Jacksonville, Florida, to San Juan, Puerto Rico. The hurricane was one of the heaviest ever to hit the Bahamas. It overwhelmed and sank the ship, drowning the captain and his 32 crew members after the Captain sailed the ship directly into the eye wall of a Category 3 hurricane on the exposed windward side of the Bahama Islands.  Key questions were around how such an esteemed Captain could lead the ship into such a disaster – it was the worst US maritime disaster in three decades.

The search lasted for seven days and covered more than 180,000 square miles of ocean.ILLUSTRATION BY YUKO SHIMIZU.

In December 2016, the National Transportation Safety Board, (2016) released more than 500 pages of the El Faro audio transcript from the recovered data recorder. Anyone reading the transcript from start to finish knows it ends with the death of all the crew. Clearly, throughout the transcript, there are moments of hesitation and indecision with the majority of the crew not knowing or acknowledging their fate until the last moments before it sank.

El Faro is the perfect case study for Marquet’s book and can be applied to any organization that adopts a similar leadership language. Marquet’s book makes the case for why leadership is language and why it matters. To do this, he outlines the different kinds of work that typically take place in an organisation and then uses the El Faro tragic event to highlight how these types of work play out in context of the various decision points and actions taken during the course of the 25 hours onboard the El Faro.

It is therefore important to understand the kinds of work that are driven from the language of leaders. Marquet defines the kinds of work as “bluework” and “redwork.” Anyone familiar with Kahneman’s book on Thinking Fast and Slow can connect quickly to the idea of System 1 (redwork) – intuitive and automatic and System 2 (bluework) – effortful thinking. A comprehensive explanation (without reading Kahneman’s book, is his Google talk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CjVQJdIrDJ0.

Marquet further explains the two different kinds of work which need two different kinds of language:

Decision-making (thinking) and execution (doing) – taking two opposite approaches to variability, therefore requiring two distinctly different mental processes and two different kinds of language.

Marquet labels the thinking, decision-making, embrace-variability work, “bluework” and doing, execution, reduce-variability work, “red-work.”

Chapter 1 of Marquet’s book is about the power of programmed leadership language and how it is rooted in the Industrial Era leadership playbook. It requires your careful attention and reflection in your own environment. In the El Faro scenario, Marquet highlights how each decision is being made that leads to certain death. He highlights one of the first “decisions” in the recorded transcript. Prior to the start of the journey, there is already an assumption that the “usual default route” will apply. There is no apparent discussion as to whether or not this decision (as a given input) should be challenged given the unfavourable conditions being reported on the hurricane – the leader / captain simply states the direction is to CONTINUE as planned. CONTINUE – is straight out of the industrial era playbook. No discussion required – simply EXECUTE the plan (in your company – that would be execute the strategy as planned, no discussion).

Marquet points out there was no discussion on whether the originally planned route should be taken, given the new information. The only discussion was how to take the planned route. This is redwork – no thinking required and 100% ACTION-ORIENTED. The Captain’s role is to ensure his crew remain “on-task.”  Marquet elaborates – when the Captain starts to determine the decision was a bad one, he sticks with the failing course (the plan) because the decision was already made. This is another industrial era playbook trait. You have probably heard this before in your organization – stick to the plan, stick to the decision once it is made, do not challenge – simply execute.

Why was the particular route chosen you might ask? Under normal conditions, the route was the fastest and the Captain had set out to OBEY THE CLOCK. Can I say – another industrial era playbook moment. It’s more important to achieve the deadline than make activate sense making (otherwise known as bluework) as to whether the current course is the right one.

The one that resonates with me personally is the industrial era playbook that does not invite vulnerability, In fact, this industrial era playbook trait deliberately sets out to remove feelings. During the El Faro trip, the Captain’s language and message is consistent. “Getting it done” at all costs, is the language of INVULNERABILITY, invincibility and the language that discourages any expression of concern. You must simply COMPLY and no emotions or feelings apply.

It sends the message that these decisions must not be questioned, our path is set, do not challenge me or make me explain this again.

What was the captain’s motivation in saying these kinds of things? Inspire confidence? Focus people on task. Get them to COMPLY.

In the redwork zone, you must PROVE yourself and you must CONFORM.

Why should this matter to you?

I have just completed two days of the adidas Director’s Development Experience – a leadership program aimed at developing adidas leaders to shape the company we want, build the culture we want and understand what it takes to create the conditions to develop high performing teams. Over the two days, we covered a lot of ground on diversity and inclusion, different types of biases and balanced leadership, It struck me that the language we used was interesting. I had been observing it for a long time in the various environments I have worked over the years. It goes hand in hand with my obsession to understand how to develop better conditions for business and digital transformation, together with consumer-obsession and human-centred design. Luckily, my curiosity is something that results in a number of partial points of view stuck in my working memory. It’s often luck that smashes different perspectives together and it was thanks to this week’s newsletter, Coaching for Leaders, by Dave Stachowiak. His last newsletter had an interview with David Marquet – unbelievably, the subject of his latest book being, “Language is Leadership.” Fate!

I want you to know that language is the key when we truly want to change lives. You may not know its importance until you ready this book. I do hope it will be a personal awakening and somehow help you to be a better leader – for me, leadership is work-in-progress and I value all feedback. Think about it – Your language is setting out the gameplan and the culture. You have choices in how you execute the gameplan, how you stay ahead in the game, how you change the rules of the game. It determines whether you as a leader will change peoples’ lives and even save lives. It’s a significant responsibility!

There are two different languages and they matter, together: Marquet helps to make sense of the difference between doing (REDWORK) and thinking (BLUEWORK).

Our interaction with the world is doing.

Improving our interaction with the world is thinking.

Proving and performing is doing.

Growing and improving is thinking.

What can you do?  As always, Marquet is good at offering practical ways to execute the new leadership playbook and how to leave behind the industrial era playbook (the one that might not drive the culture you want and you may even lose lives)…..

Here are a few suggestions…………..

#1 Recognise when you are doing bluework and your leaders are using redwork language e.g. compelling versus collaborating. “Building consensus” or “get everyone on board” are code words for coercion. See Chapter 4 Into the Bluework: Collaborate and for a really good list of questions (outlining the Industrial era contrasting questions as well). Make a tangible change!

#2 Understand how to move from thinking into action – this is Chapter 5 Leave Bluework behind: Commit.

If we collaborate effectively, the result is commitment. If we coerce, the result is compliance.

In the transition to commit, Marquet suggests a careful framing of commitment. Collaboration as outlined in Chapter 4 transitions to develop hypotheses to test rather than decisions to execute.

Frame commitment or redwork as a process of learning and improving.

The typical approach for the industrial era playbook is the need to PROVE that we know what we are doing and prove our product works. However, if we want to create agile, resilient, adaptive organizations, then it is the IMPROVE playbook that we really want and this is at odds with the PROVE play. Marquet suggests setting your sights on BLUE-RED-BLUE (THINK-ACT-THINK) cycles if you want to be more effective.

One of my personal favourites is to frame commitments as learning goals.

Focusing on a learning goal lowers the barrier to transition out of bluework to redwork. It is ironic, but having a performance goal actually makes it harder to get into production.

The reason it is easier to commit to action when we put ourselves in a learning mode, and the reason we are more resilient in action when facing setbacks, is that it taps the ways our brains are wired…we like to discover, explore and learn new things.

#3 Challenge management beliefs and principles.

According to the HBR article by Hamel, (2006):

A tradition-bound management team, unwilling to surrender yesterday’s certainties, can hold hostage an entire organization’s capacity to embrace the future.

As a management innovator, you must subject every management belief to two questions.

First, is the belief toxic to the ultimate goal you’re trying to achieve?

Second, can you imagine an alternative to the reality the belief reflects?

Take the typical assumption that the CEO is responsible for setting strategy. While this seems a reasonable point of view, it may lull employees into believing that they can do little to influence their company’s strategic direction or to reshape its business model—that they are the implementers, rather than the creators, of strategy. Yet, if the goal is to accelerate the pace of strategic renewal or to fully engage the imagination and passion of every employee, a CEO-centric view of strategy formulation is unhelpful at best and dangerous at worst.

Hamel’s advice really highlights what Marquet is putting forward in his book. In what way do the organization’s beliefs, values and resulting leadership behaviours evidence a balance between red and bluework?

Are you hearing the industrial era leadership playbook play out in spite of what is presented before you?

Leadership is language, language is culture, culture is the organisation -> values for individuals and teams may no longer align to the intended culture.

#4 I urge you to read Marquet’s book. It changed me in a weekend! Leadership is language and each of you has an opportunity to make real change. It doesn’t matter what role you play – your language choices will make a difference in your personal and work life.

Observe the environment you are in. What leadership playbook is being used. Listen carefully. Will the language being used change lives and enable you, your team and your organisation to be successful? Can you recognize when an industrial era leadership playbook is in play? What will your role be in changing it?

Think about how can you “discover” the culture of your organization and even the culture of an individual or team? Just by reading Linkedin posts, scanning job profiles, company analyst transcripts and listening to your own daily work environment will give you many clues.

As David Marquet says

Listen to the language you are hearing in your work environment. What is the language optimised for? Redwork or bluework? What language sounds “natural” to you – whichever it is says a lot about the way the culture is defined – if the language is highly optimized for redwork then Marquet emphasizes that you will be unable to enable bluework plays -> you will be trapped in the industrial age leadership playbook, uable to activate or engage in bluework when you most need to.

In conclusion, language is a double-edged sword that can imprison or set us free.

Language is without question, a tool in our hands or we in its hands.

As leaders, your own future, your teams’ future, your ability to make a difference and change lives, is with you.

Redwork and bluework, together with the choice of language is the point at which you, as a leader, are at an inflection point.

You may decide leadership is about having the “upper hand” or the right to “command and control,” the right to decide and change your mind, the right to choose when feedback is welcome, the right to simply demand execution and drive pure action-orientation of your people.

This of course leaves no power, voice or agency for your people. Your language is the agency that drives the culture of yourself, your team and your organisation. You, as the leader are the result of the language you choose to use.

Changing the way we communicate, changes the culture.
Changing the culture transforms our results.
Changing our words changes the world.
David Marquet

Three ways language can be changed:

  1. Replace a reactive language of convince, coerce, comply and conform with a proactive language of intent and commitment to action.
  2. Replace a language of “prove and perform” with a language of “improve and learn.”
  3. Replace a language of invulnerability and certainty with a language of vulnerability and curiosity.

Finally, consider your own personal values? How do they play out in the organisation you are in. You will have to dig deep on that. Listen to people and you will hear what their values are when asking them what they like, what they dislike, what’s important to them. Then reflect and check back with the company values – see if you can match what you are hearing back to their values.

Having just read Marquet’s book, I look forward to practicing new playbooks and making others aware of the outdated playbooks. Nobody wants to be part of a playbook that ends lives. We want to change lives in a way that  is sustainable for ourselves and our planet.


Marquet, L. D. (2020). Leadership Is Language: The Hidden Power of What You Say and What You Don’t. Portfolio/Penguin.

Hamel, G. (2006). The why, what, and how of management innovation. Harvard business review, 84(2), 72. Link: https://hbr.org/2006/02/the-why-what-and-how-of-management-innovation

National Transportation Safety Board, (2016). Group Chairman’s Factual Report of Investigation, Voyager Data Recorder – Audio Transcript SS El Faro DCA16MM001. Board. Link: https://dms.ntsb.gov/public/58000-58499/58116/598645.pdf





All views are my own.

This is a reflection from the adidas Director Development Experience (DDE). A leadership program for directors and senior directors. The relevant module for reflection is:

BIG Deal Training & Mindset Workshop – participants explore the importance of diversity, inclusion and gender balance in our culture – and explore their own mindset and how they influence the mindset of their team.

Consumer Experience – Beyond the Metrics

It’s a bit far out so bear with me…..”Consumer Experience – Beyond the…”………”MATRIX”.

I love the movie, “The Matrix”. It’s about a computer hacker that learns from mysterious rebels about the true nature of his reality and his role in the war against its controllers.

Whilst it is a long shot, I see the computer hacker as the “consumer”. We are in an era where we can hack the code and demand what we really want. And this……puts the controllers on the back foot. It will be interesting how brands react and who will ultimately capture the imagination of our consumers. It’s a tough, complex environment. Large corporates are certainly challenged with making sense, understanding complexity and navigating a path that is adaptive, entrepreneurial and innovative.

“I’m not here to fit into your world. I am here to create mine.”

Side note: Can’t find who to credit for this quote!

Following on from the Matrix lessons:”You can only serve others and help them through their journey when you choose to take the red pill. Taking the red pill will enable you to fulfill the task of understanding yourself and reaching your full potential. It is only then that you can reload yourself into the system to save the day”.  (Many thanks to Germán Ocampo for this conclusion….)

I have just signed up for the “Understanding Customer Experience” course  https://hhk3.kau.se/uce/

I am looking forward to “unpacking” consumer experience, moments of truth, interactions and “all you can eat” consulting jargon. I have high expectations for this course. Whilst I am ok to get the theory, I want to have some very practical application. Since the course requires a blog per module, we should get a pretty good idea whether or not it fulfills expectations.

Organisers are:

Service Research Center – CTF
CTF is one of the world´s leading research centers focusing on service management and value creation through service.

Karlstad Business School

Karlstad Business School at Karlstad University started in 2009 and today has close to 2000 students.

#here2create #consumerexperience #creator #creativity  #uce72.