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Wisdom in Crowds: Harnessing Employee Groups Helps Build Business, Boost Brands

By Ryan Rieches

Widely recognized as critical to performance, organizational culture can often seem elusive and intangible, resisting systematic evaluation and reverse engineering for many companies and B2B brand builders. But that hasn’t deterred Dave Logan, a business educator and best-selling author who has long sought to delineate the “irreducible” elements of business success. In keynote addresses, classrooms and through his management consultancy, CultureSync, he makes the case that the essential job of leaders is to align strategy, systems, structure and culture.

In Tribal Leadership: Leveraging Natural Groups to Build a Thriving Organization (co-authored with CultureSync colleagues John King and Halee Fischer-Wright), Logan offers a framework for evaluating and improving the culture of organizations. While culture is, fundamentally, about shared values, he says tribes comprise the basic building blocks of practically every human endeavor. Potentially more powerful than any leader in an organizational context, tribes are naturally occurring groups characterized by shared traits. Some tribes demand excellence from everyone and produce game-changing results, while others add little value to an organization—and may hurt it. In the following excerpt from a conversation with BrandingBusiness Founding Partner Ryan Rieches, Logan, a professor at USC’s Marshall School of Business, discusses the verities of tribes and the importance of synching a company’s internal culture with its brand.

Rieches: Let’s speak about your book Tribal Leadership, in which you look at organizational culture through the lens of groups or “tribes” that share common values, themes and language.

Logan: Let me just start by backing up a step. Usually, if a company does a brand or re-brand, it’s about the logo, the message that is conveyed by the font, the tag line, the brand promise. It’s all outward-looking. And today, with businesses being forced into transparency because of social media and other factors, if it’s a company of any size, you’re known for the interactions that people have with you or that people have within the company, because they’re blogging or tweeting about it. So this idea that there is a brand that is outside, and then inside we have a culture—we just have to blow up that thought and really start over. There has to be this absolute alignment between the culture inside and the brand that we’re offering to the outside world. Most companies don’t get that right.

You have to look for what we call tribes, which are naturally occurring groups. They’re between 20 and 150 people, and you can rate them on a one-to-five scale. We don’t advise companies to even begin a branding discussion until you’re at stage four.

Rieches: Maybe you could speak a little bit about the different levels of tribes.

Logan: Because I’m a language person, I look at the words people use.  In what we call stage one, the words people use net out to the phrase “Life sucks.” That life is just unfair, you cannot get a good deal. People will do whatever it takes to survive, maybe to right the imbalance that they perceive. This is where you have tribes within organizations that do things like steal, get in fistfights. In our own studies, stage one accounts for about two percent of tribes in companies.

If you go to stage two, this is a much bigger problem. It accounts for twenty-five percent of tribes. What people say here is not, “Life sucks” but “My life sucks.”

Stage one, you might say, is a generalized complaint about life. Stage two is: “I can see that life is working for some people; it’s just not working for me.” There’s some excuse…a deflection of accountability. So, people don’t own the problem. In the words that they use, there’s not much they can do about the problem.

Imagine if you launch a rebranding campaign in a company that had a whole bunch of tribes that were at stage two. There’s almost no chance that the company will ever live up to even the modest brand promise that it sets.

Stage three is forty-nine percent, almost half: “I’m great, and you’re not.” It’s individually competitive: “Other people are good, but I’m better.” This internal competition is a real problem.

In stage four, where it begins to get fun, the theme is, “We’re great, and that other tribe or that other business isn’t.” This is where you increase performance, alignment and teamwork. People tend to make decisions based on their core values. They tend to move as one, and that is really the sweet spot. Twenty-two percent of tribes.

There is one more level, stage five… two percent of tribes. The theme is, “Life is great.” This is where a tribe loses any sense of a competitor, where you see history-making innovation that really changes things.

Rieches: How do you evolve people to move to four where you have the greatest number stuck in three, because it feels natural? Because that’s how they probably climb the corporate ladder—by proving how great they are individually.

Logan: Begin to form three-person relationships… what we call Triad. Phil Jackson, the former Lakers coach and before that the Bulls’ coach, was somewhat of a fan of tribal leadership. He wrote in Eleven Rings, his latest book, that he had to move the Bulls, and then the Lakers, from stage three to four. One of the things that happened, as they begin to make that migration, is the famous passing game: I’m going to try to pass the ball in a way that if I pass to someone, he will, in turn, be able to pass it to someone else. These three-person relationships are what you begin to see at stage four. You can proactively create those and go a long way.

Rieches: What’s the role of the Triad? How do they work?

Logan: The Triad is the building block of stage four. At a very basic level, instead of a boss trying to solve a problem and meeting with their direct reports, one-on-one, you might meet with two direct reports at the same time. Or if you’re meeting with a direct report and some issue comes up, instead of you trying to solve it together, bring another person into that part of the meeting and make it that person’s problem to, essentially, stabilize the relationship between you and the other person. Amazing things will happen.

Rieches: How does an organization utilize this? Where does it start?

Logan: We’ve seen it start in the middle of organizations, we’ve seen it start with a manager who is reporting to a senior manager who is reporting to a director who is reporting to a vice president—all the way up. Top executives will often stop it without knowing what they’re doing.

Here’s the really interesting thing about tribes. If you just measure them in society, the levels are much higher than you see in organization. There’s more stage four; there’s more stage five. But in companies, we have a problem. Because how we’ve trained managers for years creates, as a by-product of old management, bad cultures.

Go back to what Peter Drucker said: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” So if you want to boil all this down to a set of steps, number one, find the most important tribe in your business. It’s usually a sales tribe, but not necessarily. Find the one that is going to make the biggest impact. Assess where they are. Move them up one level. Then, as you’re doing that, make sure you’ve got the top leadership of the company on board.

Rieches: Well, how about core values within the organization? How does the value system play into this?

Logan: Most organizations don’t hire for values; they hire for skills or competencies or past histories of success with a similar job. Then you have people who don’t necessarily value the same thing. You want to identify the values of the employees, not just the values of the board or management. Find the values of people at a tribal level.

Then those values become the way that you lead everything, including branding. The core values work needs to precede branding. I know a lot of people in marketing who disagree, but that’s my view. Identify the values, and then

everything has to be either consistent with those values or removed—including your branding and your core competitive strategy in the market.

One thing about values that is commonly misunderstood: If you think of the best brands in the world or the best leaders, they are not only aspirational—they are also oppositional. There’s something they stand for. There’s also something that they stand against. Nike’s famous “Just Do It”… That’s obviously aspirational, but it’s also oppositional: against laziness, complacency. You think of Apple… very anti-establishment at its roots.

People can usually identify an aspirational point, but they can’t identify what it opposes. That’s the key for values and, in our opinion, branding as well.