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How To Build Strategic Culture (with Lorie Corcuera from SPARK Creations)

When it comes to culture and strategy, there are many schools of thought as to which one comes first. So, where do we start, and why, and how does this relate to managing people? In this episode, I’m joined with workplace culture expert, Lorie Corcuera, to discuss the topic of strategic culture.

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Audio Transcription:

Tim Reitsma:

So, I’m sure we’ve all heard or have all read this little quote, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” A very famous quote. I’ve also heard, “Culture is the strategy,” or “Strategy with culture added.” There are so many options and so many schools of thought. So, which one is true? Where do we start, and why, and how does this relate to managing people?

Thanks for tuning in. I’m Tim Reitsma, the resident host of People Managing People. Welcome to the podcast. We’re people managing people, and we want to lead and manage better. We’re owners, founders, entrepreneurs. We’re middle managers. We’re team leaders. We’re managing people, and yes, we do human resources, but we’re not HR, at least not in the traditional sense. We’re on a mission to help people lead and manage their teams and organizations more effectively. So, if you want to lead and manage better if you want to become a better organizational leader and more effective people manager, then join us.

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Well, it’s my pleasure to have Lorie Corcuera from SPARK Creations, a consulting company here in Vancouver, who is all about partnering with companies to create and elevate meaningful workplace cultures.

Lorie has an extensive background in HR, consulting, public speaking, and even was invited to speak at a large conference… maybe you have heard of it… called Workhuman last year, and so I’m super proud of Lorie for taking that on. I’ve had the pleasure of working alongside Lorie for a while now, and I consider her a good friend, a mentor. She’s been, my coach. She’s just a wonderful person. So, I’m really excited to have her along for this conversation on culture, and the topic today is culture is the strategy. So, Lorie, welcome to the podcast.

Lorie Corcuera:

Thank you so much, Tim.

Tim Reitsma:                     

Yeah. So, for those who haven’t heard of you or don’t know you, who are you? Who is Lorie Corcuera? What fires you up? What’s your purpose? What gets you going?

Lorie Corcuera:                

Wow, that’s such a big question. I always try to figure out, where am I going to start with that?

So, first of all, before I get into talking about myself, which is always awkward, I want to first thank you for having me on this podcast. I just feel really honored, but also I love the intention of this podcast and the resources and just how it’s about really helping our community around people and culture. So, again, thank you for that opportunity.

As far as who I am, who Lorie is, so, my life purpose is to live well and love completely. What that means is, it’s about co-creating wow experiences for myself, but also with others, because you never live life on your own, and the reason why I use the word wow is because it fires me up. It makes me think about ways to get uncomfortable, go out of my comfort zone, do things that make you say, “Wow.”

Then the love completely, as well as a full circle of the memory to love myself as well as others, because I can only really, truly care for others when I take care of myself. So, that’s the whole completely.

So, that’s who I am and I’m really excited to have this conversation with you about culture.

Tim Reitsma:                     

Oh, wow. Yeah. I think of your purpose about wow. For those who have met Lorie or know Lorie, Lorie is all about really building personal and meaningful relationships, and that really stems from really getting to know an individual and getting to know people on a more personal basis, less transactional and more personal. Is that you? Is that correct?

Lorie Corcuera:                

Yes. For sure, for sure. I love people. When you do a lot of reflection and you do a lot of personal development work and you look at yourself as a child, I realize from all the memories that have come up, and I remember me being that kid that always just wanted to make sure everyone was having fun and they were included. I was, now looking back, creating cultures of belonging on the playground, and now I’m just doing it with leaders and companies. So, yeah, it’s really exciting that everything is all connected.

Tim Reitsma:                     

I love that little lead-in. Cultures of belonging. So, for our listeners, for this conversation, I’d love to talk about culture and culture being the strategy. So, I think we need to understand and start with a baseline definition of, what is culture? There’s so many definitions out there, so many different thoughts, and everyone has their own spin. But I love your definition, so I’d love you to share that.

Related Read: Adoption Of Strategic Alignment Is On The Rise: Here’s Why

Lorie Corcuera:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). Just to echo and add to what you shared, first of all, before I define my perspective around culture is the reason why it is so hard to describe is because it is a feeling, right? We’re all emotional human beings, and it really just depends on where that person is at in terms of their life, their state of mind. So, if you ask them a question about what culture is, if they’re having a good day and it’s sunny outside and they just had a kick-ass performance review or they just completed a project, they’re going to say, “Oh, my culture is amazing.” Right? So, it really depends. So, I get why it’s so tricky, but just from our experience and from the research that we gathered for the BC Workplace Culture Scan Report, one of the top themes that came up was that it is a feeling, and whether people want to deny that or there’s some resistance, that it is about heart, you can’t, because it is. It is about heart. It is about people.

For me, culture begins with ourselves. You already are a culture. You have values. You have a set of beliefs, and you, as a person already, have culture. So, now if you have a culture, Tim and I get together and we create something like a company. Now we have to figure out, how do we blend our individual cultures to create a culture that we want to go as a partnership?

So, it really is a collective of human beings. So, the way we define it is is that is the heart and energy of a shared human experience. I want to highlight that it’s shared human experience because it has to be shared when you bring people together. Also, it’s a human experience.

Tim Reitsma:                     

Oh, that’s great. I think about, from the perspective of leading people, and it’s really that shared experience. It’s not the directional leadership of, “It’s all about my experience, so that’s all that matters.” It’s a shared experience. Why is that so important to have that clearly defined in the definition of culture?

Lorie Corcuera:                

For sure. Well, I think you just said it. It is a shared experience. We’re all interconnected, as human beings. There’s a lot of research and science behind that, that we’re made up of water. We’re all energy. So, we have a responsibility as human beings, whether at work or at home, to own that, because I could be having a bad day. If I’m a leader of that organization and I don’t take care of myself and I go into the workplace, and what comes from a leader’s position is that you’re automatically in this fishbowl, right? It just comes with the role.

So, now I walk into this organization, and if it seems like I’m not having a good day, and of course we want to be a little bit more compassionate because it’s hard to be on and 10 out of 10 energy every day. But at the same time, there is a bit of responsibility that your energy can affect the energy of others. We’ve seen that time and time again. We have meetings where people just come in, and you could feel something is changing in the environment. So, again, back to the feeling and just back to us being human beings. That’s just part of who we are.

Tim Reitsma:                     

Mm-hmm (affirmative). That reminds me of a study that I found, and I’m going to butcher this, but a study I found a long time ago, and it was called The Bad Apple Syndrome, where if you’re around people who are always negative, you will, yourself, become more negative. So, when you describe that energy and shared experience, it reminds me of that, because if that’s what we’re bringing into our workplaces, and if you’re a leader or not, leading people… I think we’re all leaders, but if we’re leading people… and we’re always in that negative space, it will affect our people. So, thanks for that definition. So, definition, heart and energy, a shared human experience, and that really defines the culture.

So, what do you think is so important for an organization to define their culture? Why is it so important? So, you’d mentioned that if you and I started a company together, you bring something, I bring something. Should we actually then define it, or how do we define it, or where is it so important? Why is it so important?

Lorie Corcuera:                

Yeah, well, I always talk about relationships as… is it really important, is everything, right? So, even… Let’s just say, because people relate more to a partnership from a family, right? Whether it’s a husband and a wife, or it doesn’t matter what the gender. It could be two dads or two moms. But let’s just say there’s two human beings that decide that they want to have a family, right? If we don’t take the time to get clear about each other, what matters to them, what lights them up, what their vision is, what happens is that you put this partnership together and there could be some confusion as to where we’re going and what kind of family we want to create and what kind of values, and what trips we want to do, or do we want to have a house or rent or all the different life decisions that come into play with this partnership or a family unit.

Now you bring that into an organization. So, if you bring a collective of human beings together, leaders and teams or whatever, it doesn’t matter what the size is, and you don’t clarify or have clarity as to who you are and what you stand for, and then where we’re going, then there’s a lot of confusion as to which direction we should go, right? Like, how do we make decisions? What kind of people do we want to work with internally, but also with our clients, right? And where we want to go with the company.

So, it really provides clarity. I mean, there are companies who don’t do this, and that’s maybe fine when you’re a smaller organization, because if it’s just you and me and we add another team member, Tim, then we’re still in the same proximity of an office. I can see you. If I have an idea, we can just start chatting and brainstorming.

You start adding more people and you’re in different locations. It starts to get diluted because the two founders are not going to be in every conversation anymore. They’re not going to be in every interview. So, that’s where it’s so, so important to have some clarity and articulating it in a way that we’re all speaking the same language.

That’s another theme that came out of the report, is that language is so important in workplace culture, to have a language. It doesn’t mean that you have to create a completely new language if you don’t want to… I know at SPARK, we call each other SPARKners. You don’t have to go to that end, but there still needs to be some clear way that we just know who we are and what we stand for.

Tim Reitsma:     

Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah. There’s so many good nuggets in what you just said, and I like what you said about relationships, about getting clear about what matters. I think about, as in previous roles, leading very diverse teams, we’re all so uniquely different. We’re all different, and we need to really invest the time in getting clear what matters most to each of us. I think, as a member of SPARK, and you’re the CEO and co-founder of SPARK, I think that’s something that you have done really well with the team is connecting on a one-on-one to really understand, “Okay, what matters to Tim? What makes Tim tick? Does Tim need more constant communication or less communication, or how do we set goals?”, and whatnot. I think that was very clear from the beginning, and you’ve set that right from the beginning.

But also, you’re very clear on the values and the purpose of the company, right from day one, and living by the values of love, connection, and fun. See, I know the values. Many of our clients don’t know the values that are written on the wall or written in an employee handbook somewhere. So, there’s many elements that make up a culture. What is that foundation, and where should somebody start, whether they’re managing a team or managing an entire organization? Where do they start?

Lorie Corcuera:                

Yeah. We like to start, as you know, with defining values, and whether you know the concept of values… I think by this time, day and age, people know what values are. I actually found out that the reason why this became… like, everyone started creating values and putting it on their walls was because of Good to Great, Jim Collins’ book. So, I think it was in one of his books that I think everybody read. So, that’s why they now wanted to do it, but no one… There was still some disconnection as to why they were doing the values. You can’t just read it in an HBR article or in a book and do it because it’s something to check off on a box, or you create a one-page strategic plan because someone said that you needed to create one.

These are all tools and processes that are amazing, but we need to first have the conversation as to why we’re actually using it. They’re really there once we understand fully why we exist or what we stand for. That’s really where the values and the behaviors come into play, because it really is foundational, not just for an organization, but for an individual.

I think we might’ve talked about this example before, Tim, where let’s just imagine a world where values don’t exist. Okay? So, a company hasn’t really defined why they exist and what behaviors define the uniqueness of their culture. Then you have a person, an individual out there, doing the same thing, just living life and intuitively kind of knows what is meaningful for them, but they haven’t really taken the time to articulate. Both parties haven’t taken the time to articulate it.                

So, this team member might want to work for this organization, or this organization might want this team member to come, but they don’t really know why. So, they might have this natural connection during an interview process. Maybe they are saying the right words. There’s a lot of marketing behind it. It seems like it might be a good connection, and when they finally make the commitment of this partnership, and three months later it’s not a fit or it doesn’t feel aligned. Right? Because it’s not really about just the fit, but it’s more about alignment with their values. We could save so much more time and be more efficient around finding and attracting the right people within our organization and keeping them if we have clarity around our culture on both ends, individual as well as a company.

Tim Reitsma:                     

Now, I’m really curious about a couple of things I’ve heard. I’ve heard organizations talk about culture fit, and I’ve heard organizations who don’t like that, but they talk about values alignment. So, where do you land on culture fit versus values alignment? Is it the same? Is it different? What are your thoughts?

Lorie Corcuera:                

Yeah, I think it’s slightly different. I mean, I guess it’s still words and syntax. I think we’re all trying to say similar things. Where I think it might be defined, for me, if there’s a separation to it, is that the fit is more related to qualifications and skills, and maybe the values alignment is more about the being, the person itself, and where I find there’s a gap within the recruitment process is that there’s only so much we can do to explain who we are on a piece of paper, right? On our resume and our LinkedIn.

The unfortunate thing with recruiters is that you don’t know how they’re going to receive that information. We also have bias around what it is that we feel is important, again, right? Just like how it’s so tricky for people to define a culture.

So, I think it’s important both ways, but I think the opportunity is to have some focus on the person itself and find ways to learn more about who they are, either before or during the interview process, so that we don’t miss out on people and not just see them from a LinkedIn profile or a resume.

Tim Reitsma:                     

Yeah. It reminds me of a story of an old friend of mine told me once that he had a top performer on his team in a sales organization. However, this top performer was causing such a rift in the team that everybody else wanted to leave. So, he asked me, “Do I keep the top performer or do I let them go?” I coached him through it. It turned out he hadn’t even brought this up with the performer, and worked with this person to really correct and maybe realign with the organization. It turns out that this person is still there, and everyone is great now.

But I think it speaks to the fact that as leaders, we’re leading people. We need to get clear on not just company values, what do we stand for and what is our purpose, but also from an individual perspective, what do we value as leaders and how are we aligned? If we’re going to be building out our teams, are we finding people just from, “You achieved X, Y, and Z on your resume,” which is great, but is there more to it? I believe we’re on the same page there. There definitely is more to it.

Lorie Corcuera:                

Mm-hmm (affirmative). For sure. For sure. The values piece is where it all starts.

Tim Reitsma:                     

Yeah. So, I’m really curious. When did you realize that the culture in an organization was really that foundation? So, was it something that you wake up with early on in your career as an enlightening moment, or was this just something you learned over time? Just walk us through that a little bit.

Lorie Corcuera:                

Yeah. I’ve been asked this question before, was there an actual moment, that catalyst, that made me realize? It happened organically because I left my corporate job. It was pretty toxic by the end. I experienced burnout, and so I had to, out of necessity, take care of myself. Right?

So, as soon as I started to do that and learn more about who I am, that’s when my journey of learning about my own personal values and purpose came into my life. Up until that moment, I didn’t even really understand the importance of it. I was just like every other HR professional working with an organization. We knew we had to do the values. We hired a consultant and spent lots of money for them to help us figure out our values.

But what was interesting, looking back now, compared to what we do today with our clients, is that we were in a room looking at a list of words. We didn’t really ask ourselves what was important to ourselves, individually as leaders, or even ask the team what’s important to them. We just looked at some words and said, “Oh, this sounds great.” We looked at another website and another company to see, how did they present it? It was so… more on a cerebral, surface level of just what we think we should do or say to represent us, but it didn’t come from the heart. It didn’t come from us individually.

So, then what happened was when we then shared it with everyone… And we did, again, all the things that everyone else would do. We posted it on the wall. We had mugs and T-shirts. We integrated it into all of our HR programs. All the things that you’re taught how to do and what people expect you to do. Then one person on our team made a decision that was completely misaligned with the values, and then it all fell apart. We instantly lost trust, because I realize now, is that we probably didn’t have the trust that we thought we did. So, it just backfired on us.

I mean, that happened, but it wasn’t then that I realized that it was important. It was after I went through my personal journey and started to realize that we are all human beings within an organization, and so we need to take that into account about really understanding the needs of people and then translating that into a culture and putting that all together. It didn’t come until then.                

When we started doing it with SPARK and seeing everyone really light up as we ask them questions about what their personal values are, why is it that they get up every morning, why is it that they’re there, what is it that would create an impact, or how they want to be remembered… It wasn’t until those questions, that were very personal, that we realized, “Wow. There’s something different here that’s not being done and we’ve got to change it.” So, that’s where we are today.

Tim Reitsma:                     

Well, I think you hit on something that is interesting, and in my opinion, I think it’s an approach that organizations need to take on, where when you’re defining the values, with SPARK we bring in, in most cases, everyone in the organization and help them identify who they are from a values perspective. Why is this so important in building a culture? So, we talk about everyone matters. Everyone has their own perspective on life and on a place in the organization. So, this is a big commitment and big investment for organizations. What is the benefit of doing a company values exercise by actually finding the values of all their people?

Lorie Corcuera:                

Yeah. This is probably why I get up every morning, is because if we’re going to say that we want people to feel valued and cared for or loved and validated, acknowledged, because that, at the end of the day, every human being, that’s what they want. They want to love and be loved. Then, how is it that we can create this environment within a company, an organization? It doesn’t matter if it’s profit or nonprofit, just a collective or a community, without asking each individual what matters to them? How could they feel that we see them if we don’t ask them about who they are and what’s important to them?

So, I find it fascinating, and at the same time, it’s okay. I get it now. When we go into organizations and we ask them how many of them have taken a time to ask their team members their personal values, the reason being is just, it’s just not top of mind. We grow up in this world. We have a lot of influencers and parents and information, even more information now. So, we think, “Oh, well, we’ve got information that can help us and guide us.” We don’t think, again, that all the answers lie within us because we’re, again, stuck in our analytical or our left brain or in our analytical mindset, right?

So, that is where the majority of the world is. It’s only now that we’re starting to realize that, wait a minute, we need to connect with ourselves because in order for us to feel fulfilled, it can’t just be in our thinking brain. It has to be in our gut, in our intuition, in our heart.

So, I think there’s just this natural progression now, that the world is started to wake up and realize what it really means to be human, to have human-centered cultures and people first, or that leading self mentality. If any company is willing or open to this idea, just start with having a conversation with your team members and asking them what they value in their life. It doesn’t have to be this full-on values exercise that we would do. It’s just connecting meaningfully right now, one-on-one, with people, and just asking them what matters to them. You will see how meaningful that connection will change, after asking them that question.

Tim Reitsma:                     

Yeah, I love that. What matters to the individual, and also what matters to the team. I think those are important questions to ask. Now a lot of people then say, “Okay, well how does this translate into revenue?” We get that with clients all the time, and I think it’s easy. Do you think people who just feel like they are a number in an organization, or feeling undervalued or not trusted, are they performing their best? Do they feel like that they’re taking ownership in an organization?

Well, there’s lots of studies that show no, absolutely not. So, when we connect with people in our organizations, whether, again, you’re leading a massive team or you’re by yourself and you’re leading yourself, getting clear on what matters to you and being able to articulate that to the people leading you, or leading the organization, I think will have great benefit.

Lorie Corcuera:                

Mm-hmm (affirmative). I’ll just add to that, too, Tim, that when we ask or share with our team members, and say we’re in a company and we share who we are and what we stand for, values, purpose, principles, mission, vision, whatever it is that you want to share with your team members, how do we expect them to feel connected to that if they don’t know that for themselves? Because we talked about that earlier, that culture starts from within. We all have a culture within each of us, right? So, if they haven’t defined that for themselves, there’s a disconnect. It’s just, again, words on the wall or a company saying or feeding us this information and expecting us to feel engaged and connected to it, but the connection has to come from within.

So, we need to first define what it is for ourselves, leaders, every human being. Then hopefully we find a company that also believes in that, and now we’re connecting with their values and their purpose. Now there’s just all this fulfillment and engagement.

You did mention that there’s a lot of research around cost of disengagement or even psychological safety. So, if people don’t feel good about themselves or they don’t feel valued or that they don’t feel safe, they’re never going to be able to show up as themselves and at their highest potential, which we know, if we can do that for individuals, you get the most out of them.

Tim Reitsma:                     

Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah, and we’ve been really focusing on just one aspect of culture, which is, we kind of went down the values path. There’s a lot more that really defines an organization, just aside from values, and I think we can probably record, I don’t know, a half dozen podcasts, just talking about culture and all the different elements.

For example, really getting clear on purpose and the why of an organization. Getting clear on how your leadership team behaves. What are the behaviors that support it? And vision. A lot of organizations have a vision that maybe is not incredibly inspiring. Where are you going? Is it going to get your team and your people out of bed every day, excited and fired up about what you’re doing?

So, I think some future podcast recordings in the future. So, I’m curious, from your perspective, if a listener’s going, “Okay, so, culture is important. We need to get clear.” What is one practical thing I can do with my team today on getting clear on our culture?

Lorie Corcuera:                

Right. So, I would find your champions, your culture champions, people who are aligned with the belief that culture matters. So, hopefully, it’s all the leadership team and/or others within the organization. I think identifying those people first and then getting them in a room together and having a conversation around culture. Some of the questions that we ask when we’re uncovering this at the beginning before we even decide to work with a client… This is just more of a discovery session. We ask them to define what culture is, right? What is culture? Just like how you asked me, what is culture? Let’s define what is culture, share our perspectives, then let’s define what culture looks and feels like here within our organization. See if there’s some fresh perspectives or alignment around that.

Then the third question would be, okay, so we know what culture is. We know it matters. We know what our current culture is right now, but what is it that would be ideal for us? If we could dream up the best, ideal, healthy culture experience for us, for our people in our organization, what would that look and feel like?

I would recommend that everyone do that either on Post-it notes or on a piece of paper. Self-reflect first before sharing it, because you want to see how many ideas… But also, there might be some people that need some time to process that question. It’s just great to have more diversity of thought doing it this way, but also ensuring everyone has a chance to speak, and then hear from everyone and collectively define, what is your ideal culture vision? Just starting with those three questions would have some clarity around what’s important, and what’s the next step for your company.

Tim Reitsma:                     

I love that, and I think it’s an exercise that anybody at any level of managing people or leadership can take on. You don’t need to sit down and wait for an HR team to initiate this. If you’re sitting there listening, going, “Okay, I manage a team of five people. Do I wait for our CEO to initiate this?” Well, no. I think you could do this even within your own team. Really define, what is our culture? Or, sorry, the first question is, is define culture. The second one is, what is our culture? Then, what is the ideal culture? You can start on that in a team of two, five, 100, whatever size the organization or size of the team. I think that’s a great takeaway and a great conversation for any leader or anybody who’s leading people.

Lorie Corcuera:                

Mm-hmm (affirmative). And I would say, keep-

Tim Reitsma:                     

I think it… No, no. Go ahead.

Lorie Corcuera:                

I was going to say, keep the conversation going. It’s not a one-time conversation.

Tim Reitsma:                     

You’re right. Yeah, absolutely. It’s not just, we’re going to have a conversation on a Tuesday and then never have it again. It’s got to be top of mind. Then there’s the whole accountability piece, and how are we actually living this?

So, I think, to wrap up, this is a packed conversation. We talked about defining culture. We talked about relationships and getting clear about what matters when you’re leading people. We talked about common language, values alignment. We didn’t go into a conversation about trust, and I think that is also a foundational element to culture. So, wait for that podcast to becoming, on why does trust matter? Why does it matter in a team or in an organization or in a leader?

So, yeah. As we wrap up, Lorie, any last thoughts or nuggets of wisdom you’d like to share?

Lorie Corcuera:                

Yeah. I’d just echo, again… Because you know this information. You know the importance of culture from the work that we do, and I would agree with you that it starts with trust, even before having the conversation, because if there’s no trust, then people are not going to be even open to doing the work.

So, I think definitely starts with the foundation of trust. We’ve got lots of exercises around that. That’s probably another podcast, on how to build trust. But I think for me, just to end it off, is it’s a life-long journey. So, culture must be top of mind. It is the strategy. It is the lifeblood. It’s not a project or a program or even a one-person function. I mean, there might be someone who is leading it, but it has to be every single person’s responsibility to keep it alive.

Tim Reitsma:                     

Absolutely. For those who are listening, I would say reach out to Lorie. You can reach her on LinkedIn. It’s Lorie Corcuera. Last name is spelled C-O-R-C-U-E-R-A. She is… you are… an expert, a thought leader, in culture, and has extensive experience, internally, in organizations, as well as consulting with massive organizations, not just here locally in Vancouver, but throughout North America. So, with that, yeah. Thank you, Lorie, for your insight, your thoughts, and we look forward to having you on again in the future.

Lorie Corcuera:                

Sounds good. Thanks, Tim.

Tim Reitsma:                     

All right. Take care, everyone. Have a great day.