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How to Create a Business Culture That Reflects Your Core Values

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The following is an excerpt from Jeffery Hayzlett’s new book Think Big Act Bigger. Buy it now from Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes

Ever notice in movies or on TV shows that when there are scenes in businesses—whether they're comedies or dramas—the offices are basically characters? The staid grey formal C-suite of the big law firm or multinational conglomerate suggests the soulless seat of the powerful in their suits and ties. The brightly colored, couch- and foosball table-filled open space of the tech startup indicates the free spirit of the Millennials in hipster jeans and flannel.

How an office looks, what the rules are, who sits where, who speaks and why, what goes right and what goes wrong with its systems may sound superficial for thinking big and acting bigger, but that’s far from the truth. Whatever and wherever the office is and where and how its big decisions are made reflects the culture of the organization—its personality and emotional connection to anyone it touches. That is key to its cadence.

Cadence is your company’s river—its culture and systems—and the more it flows in a way that works for your company, the more it flows through anyone it touches, from employees to vendors to customers. You must develop and focus this flow as it supports and guides you through the process of thinking big and acting bigger. It is the energy of your business, and just like energy, you can draw on different and alternative resources to power your business. But you must draw on your own power source. Inspiration is fine, but don’t bother looking through someone else’s eyes in addressing your cadence.

A business must align its teams around its cadence, because that’s how they pick up the flow to think and act bigger. Cadences can be very different, but they must be disciplined, whether extremely formal and expansive, or informal and intimate, or anywhere in between. Just know that whatever your cadence is, it “broadcasts” your culture from the boardroom to the front door and across all your platforms to anyone it reaches.

I never realized how different cadences could be until I walked into the offices of CrossFit to shoot an episode of C-Suite with Jeffrey Hayzlett. When I was with Kodak, everything was very traditional, right up to the big round fine mahogany table in the C-suite that could seat 15 people in big leather chairs. Kodak had a formal history, and its corporate culture reflected that. It was one of the reasons I struggled as a change agent there: Kodak had been stuck in those traditions for decades and struggled to compete against companies that had a different cadence—cultures of change that were nimble enough to respond to the rapid pace of business.

Contrast that with CrossFit, a fitness company with more than 11,000 affiliates nationwide that's part of a wave of workout studios transforming the fitness industry with different, bigger thinking. CrossFit caters to workout junkies. It doesn’t matter if they're Navy SEALs or supermoms, only that they embrace and dedicate themselves to the CrossFit difference. CrossFit supports their lifestyles by building their programs, communities, and affiliates around them.

None of that would be possible, let alone sustainable, if CrossFit’s cadence as a company didn't match what was happening at those affiliates. That's key to their success. The day I interviewed founder and CEO Greg Glassman at the company’s Santa Cruz, California, headquarters, he came in wearing a T-shirt with a Pablo Picasso drawing of a naked woman. That said everything about his personality, reflected his status as a rebel within the fitness industry, and captured the cadence of the company. CrossFit’s flow was like the Picasso on Greg’s shirt: modern and revolutionary for its time. His team told me they have meetings at barbecues or on a jog, and while more formal meetings in the office do happen, they have no printed agendas, briefing books, or binders. Instead, everyone has a laptop or a tablet and is always prepared to keep things moving and find any information needed on the spot.

I was blown away—not only because it was so different from Kodak but also because it reaffirmed, in a way I'd never seen before, the rewards of a company’s cadence to thinking and acting bigger. What looked like disorder to my more formal corporate eye was very well-defined and deliberate, just like CrossFit’s business. It was efficient despite constant movement and like its affiliates: organic, informal, intimate, and a workout that works.

A company doesn't have to be contrarian to have a genuine cadence that reflects the brand, however. Consider Dunkin’ Donuts: It’s a $9 billion company that felt familiar to me in its corporate look and feel. But what sets it apart from other franchisers is its cadence. Dunkin’ Donuts realized early on that it wasn’t in the business of selling franchises; it was in the business of growing its franchisees’ businesses, which generated the majority of the brand’s income. So it developed a cadence that operated like the stores—everyone in at headquarters when it’s “time to make the donuts.”

This proved to be true when I arrived at 6:30 a.m. at Dunkin’ Donuts headquarters in Canton, Massachusetts. The lobby was full and the executives were all there; they come in early just like the bakers and franchisees and long before the morning rush. By 5:30 a.m., they’re looking at numbers from the day before and weather reports from across the country, seeing what impact they might have on their franchisees’ businesses, and discussing what they might do to help. It was refreshing and filled the company with a healthy buzz. It was a cadence that reflected the look and feel of the brand.

Like any company, Dunkin’ Donuts and CrossFit will need to make sure their cadences stay reflective of who they are as they grow, refresh, and extend their brands. Their cadences will help everyone who works for and with them remember who they are, because that’s the only way any company can ensure its greatest point of difference— its people—are aligned, buy in 100 percent, and push themselves to think and act bigger as the company pushes forward.

Of course, a business doesn't have to be as big as Dunkin’ Donuts or CrossFit to be this way. Any size business, from one to 1 million employees or more, that has a genuine cadence not only defines its identity but also commands a deeper loyalty. Ask yourself: Does your business have a cadence that reflects who you are? If the answer is no, why not? When a company fails to have a cadence, borrows a cadence so it looks and feels the way it thinks it should, or gets stuck in past cadences inherited from years or generations past, it becomes less accountable to its employees and customers and thus less meaningful and authentic to them.