February 2

How Peeling the Onion Creates an Authentic Culture by Richard H. Tyson

Business, Engagement


In order to achieve almost any great purpose, leaders require the hearts, minds, and best efforts of others. We need the alignment of our team members around a shared vision and values. This is most likely to happen when there is mutual trust between leaders and their people, and when connections are deep and genuine. This constitutes what I call an “authentic culture.”


To build an authentic culture, we must take our relationships with each team member beyond the normal, superficial level that typically exists when a person is hired. Virtually all of us hire based on what best-selling author of The Road to Character, David Brooks, calls the “résumé virtues.”


Résumé virtues are the marketing qualities that recruits use to promote their candidacy for a given job. Effectively, they offer only half of a candidate’s personal balance sheet: their assets are on display, but the liabilities remain unseen.


This is not to imply, however, that the recruit is lying. It’s simply outside the norms of obtaining an opportunity to share one’s shortcomings, weaknesses, or past failures. Everyone wants to present themselves in the best light, and sharing one’s warts is clearly not a sound recruitment strategy.


Résumé virtues engender surface-level relationships that too often define virtually all of what leaders know about their people. This generally is insufficient to create the strong, unassailable trust and alignment required to create an authentic culture and achieve organizational success.


We must “peel the onion”—get deeper into both the strengths and weaknesses of each key player on our teams. This, however, is easier said than done. Most people are naturally protective and disinclined to share their significant life experiences, especially those that have been less than successful. Bill George, author of Discover Your True North, calls these experiences our “crucibles,” and asserts that these are the experiences that “test us to our limits” and often define who we really are.


To get others to share their crucibles, leaders must begin the onion-peeling process with themselves. We, too, prefer to share our strengths rather than our weaknesses, and to keep past failures hidden away, but we must be courageous enough to drop our own façade of résumé virtues.


If we willingly admit to being less than all-powerful, all-knowledgeable, and invincible, we begin to set the foundation for an authentic culture. We also make it safer for our people to open up regarding the hidden side of their personal balance sheets.


How should this be done? On occasion, this may work best in a group setting. However, most often the opportunity for this type of authenticity is in a one-to-one setting.


Breaking the ice in this type of conversation may feel awkward, but I have found that it’s best to clearly share that to achieve the high purposes of your organization, you feel the need for greater depth in your key relationships. We certainly want to appreciate and play to our individual strengths, but we also want to shore up one another in our weaknesses.  A discussion of the inadequacies of résumé virtues should follow, allowing you to discuss your own strengths, weaknesses, personality, defining experiences and crucibles, and to invite the other party to “tell you more.”


Recognize this should be a process rather than an event. A truly authentic culture takes time and must be a function of ongoing communication and real caring for one another and for the organization’s vision and values.


Leaders must thoroughly invest themselves in creating such an authentic culture. When they do this consistently as part of their leadership process, they reap the harvest of high, unified team performance and organizational success.


Richard Tyson is the founder, principal owner and president of CEObuilder, which provides forums for consulting and coaching to executives in small businesses.

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Rich Tyson

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