The C-Suite Meets Seismic Shift: Core Culture That’s Up to the Challenge

A group of people smiling and collaborating to convey positive teamwork and collaboration

By Joe Poling

Every successful organization is born of a signature ethos, reflected by the actions of its load-bearing pillars – its leadership – serving a clearly articulated, cohesive corporate vision. This shared ethos ideally informs every aspect of a functional infrastructure, primed to drive growth at every stage of an engagement’s lifecycle, with core principles fortified by a reliable modus operandi. In sports, this might be referred to as a team’s style of play. In business, these carefully considered factors that make up the company playbook, acquiesce to form what we know as an organization’s culture.

In business, as in sports, success directly depends on having the right players, properly positioned in key roles, effectively executing tried and tested strategies. Of equal importance, every player on the team is unified and working together from the same page in the playbook. To do so requires clear, accountable, play-by-play communication built upon trust, and agreed upon goals. An organization’s culture is only as strong as its infrastructural, operational integrity.

A culture that’s not rooted in honesty, trust, and accountability at all levels is merely a façade, no more equipped to withstand the challenges of the day than a sandcastle in a hurricane. In fair weather, the façade may appear as a stalwart sanctuary of success. At the first subtle signs of a shift in the wind, however, such façades are quick to crumble. As the façade fades, team cohesion and unified efficacy are soon to follow.

With the team mentality weakened, the “we” ethos transmogrified becomes the “me” syndrome, accountability is abandoned, and the blame game begins. Business, clients, the entire organization, core culture, and individual players in every position suffer as a result. Just as every win for a single player is a win for the team as whole, in the context of troubled times verified by the emergence of “me” syndrome – there are no winners – everyone loses.

So, how do you preserve your core culture for promising perseverance in this type of an environment?


A return to the basics of your organizational integrity is integral. Be honest about the challenges your team is facing. The first step in keeping a core culture intact is to revive and firmly fix your focus on trust. Being candid and forthright in assessing problems with your team is essential to survival, providing clarity to reclaim cohesive vision in finding a path forward.

Too often, the C-suite holds its assessment close to the vest, only showing their hand to the whole of the organization in a disconcerting manner after a decision is made. The leaders –

worried that if the truth gets out, their best performers will start looking elsewhere – root their decision-making wrongly in fear and doubt. Losing sight of the core vision, leadership vulnerable to catastrophic thinking is blinded to the greater truth: your solutions can be found in a return to core cultural values. Which is to say, far too frequently the “me” syndrome emerges at the top levels, and will surely trickle down to toxify the entirety of the team, at every level.

That fear may have had some validity in the long-gone past. In today’s fluid, connected world, however, top performers are readily aware of alternative opportunities as they arise. Communicating with your team during challenging times might not be enough to ensure continual loyalty and staying power. Be that as it may, one certainty will always hold true – any stonewalling, mixed signals, or downright dishonesty in communication will provide players in every position with powerful motivation to leave.

Reason dictates that this is an understandable reaction. When an organization loses sight of itself, team loyalty becomes an impossibility; the façade fades, and the players realize this is not the team they thought they signed up for at the start. Without a dependable reliance on the operational integrity upon which the company playbook was based, any team will degenerate into a loss of identity, succumbing to the senseless martyrdom of “me” mentality.

The ability to return to the playbook and rely on strong performance management objectives as part of core culture acts to reassuringly elucidate your people, letting them know where they stand in the organization. Top performers will realize that they’re not likely to be part of a reduction in force, while other team members will have a chance to improve — or to look elsewhere for a better match for their talents.

Own your responsibility.

As a leader, owning your responsibility is imperative. Disruption in the markets can be approached as an opportunity for change. In fact, I’m a big believer in this approach – provided you’re coming from a place of honesty and acting accordingly. In other words, if the economy is the catalyst for right-sizing or making other changes, adaptation is ethically acceptable and expected. If, however, you’re using the economy as cover for errors, or to rationalize changes you wanted to make for other reasons, such scapegoating will ultimately lead to ruin, ethically and otherwise. Your people are smart; that’s why you wanted them on your team in the first place. They will know the truth, one way or another. Informing team insights with up-to-date and accurate information provides a basis for building collaborative solutions to ignite effective progress.

Unfortunately, it’s rare to hear a leader say, “We made some mistakes; our strategy faced some challenges that we didn’t plan for,” or, “We chose risk-mitigation measures that didn’t work; we accept the responsibility but will have to make some changes.” Instead, they act in accordance with their doubt, almost subconsciously inciting a “me” mentality within their own organizations. Pointing the finger at the economy or some third party, not seeing their other

three fingers pointing back at themselves; the only clarity such leadership guarantees is that obfuscation ablates possibilities.

Accepting responsibility, adopting an open attitude dedicated to being a pragmatic part of the solution, is essential to the preservation of your culture. Providing for the viability of a sustainable culture, rooted veritably in a vision of virtue, promises not only survival, but the opportunity to thrive – even, and perhaps especially – in tough times.

In a down market, you have to make changes – reducing staff, cutting expenses. But that’s a life raft that will last only so long. No one’s going to save their way to prosperity. At tumultuous times in troubled waters, you must look to your team with confidence, faithful that you are unified by a shared interest in taking on the objective at hand.

Put the challenge to the team.

The shift from bailing out water to sailing full-steam-ahead requires a transformation, and the catalyst for transformation is innovation. Effective immediately, having a strong organizational culture will pay dividends. I can act with the assurance that my culture allows and encourages me as a leader to throw the challenge back to the team. I am empowered by a dependable infrastructure to openly communicate that I, as a leader of the organization, can’t do this alone. I never could. Wins and losses – the record will rightly mark these down next to my name.

The bigger picture reality that shortsighted scorekeeping records may not clearly reflect is that this is, and has always been, a team sport. At the end of the day, it’s called a business, and not a “leadership” for a reason – or rather ideally, a myriad of reasons, with which every teammate is actively engaged. As such, I am culpably compelled to place innovative calls to action within the purview of my team: How do we earn more business? How do we consistently grow with greater efficiency? How do we increase margins? How do we deliver an ever-increasing ROI to our clients? How do we differentiate ourselves? Stepping up, speaking up, and standing out must be embraced at every level within an outstanding organization.

Fortunately, here at Think, we have cultivated a culture that brings out the best in our team of top talents, inspiring innovation in every engagement. At Think, we don’t quit, and we never shy away from a challenge. As a unified team of collaborative and creative revolutionaries, we see seismic shifts as opportunities to influence the market for the better. In trying times, we do not consult fear or doubt, but instead envision opportunity, and act with a winning team mentality of showing up with solutions.

That’s the culture of endless possibility we’ve created at Think over the last 19 years, one in which we don’t just persevere, we evolve – and everyone wins. That’s a culture worth keeping, and it’s the culture that keeps us moving forward to a better tomorrow every day.


Joe Poling is President of Think Commercial Services. He can be reached at