Your brand isn’t your company.

It’s not your logo, product design, or tagline.

It’s not what you do or how you do it.

All of those things are really important, but as we argued in the first post of this series:

  1. Brand is what people think about your company.
  2. What people think about your company is determined by your company’s character.
  3. Your company’s character is revealed in the interactions your customers and prospects have with your people.
  4. To create a great brand, you need a great culture.

So, brand is culture. Which is counterintuitive, maybe, but pretty cool.

It does beg a question, though: How do you create culture?

That’s what this post is about—how to:

  • Make people feel psychologically safe
  • Give them a “why”
  • Build culture around a keystone habit

Make people feel psychologically safe

Last year, Google’s HR group published the results of a two-year internal study designed to answer the question: What makes a Google team effective?

Over the course of the study, company researchers interviewed more than 200 employees, analyzed more than 180 teams, and reviewed more than 250 team attributes.

Summarizing the results of the research, Google HR analyst Julia Rozovsky writes that HR was convinced they’d find the perfect mix of individual traits and skills necessary for a stellar team: “Take one Rhodes Scholar, two extroverts, one engineer who rocks at AngularJS, and a PhD. Voilá.”

And what did they find?

“We were dead wrong.”

What was the number-one factor in creating a successful team? A climate of psychological safety, where team members feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of each other.

Psychological safety? Vulnerability? WTF? Really?


“Psychological safety was far and away the most important of the five dynamics we found,” Rozovsky says, “It’s the underpinning of the other four.” (Which, incidentally, are dependability, structure and clarity, meaning of work, and impact of work.)

If you want to be a great brand, make your employees feel safe.

“Great organizations become great because people inside the organization feel protected,” writes leadership consultant Simon Sinek in his book, Start with Why:

The strong sense of culture creates a sense of belonging and acts like a net. People come to work knowing that their bosses, colleagues and the organization as a whole will look out for them. This results in reciprocal behavior. Individual decisions, efforts and behaviors that support, benefit and protect the long-term interest of the organization as a whole.

When coworkers trust each other, when they feel safe enough to be vulnerable, they share ideas and innovate.

Peter Sheahan, founder and CEO of Karrikins Group, expands on that connection between psychological safety and innovation. Here he is quoted in Brene Brown’s book Daring Greatly:

The secret killer of innovation is shame. You can’t measure it, but it is there. Every time someone holds back on a new idea, fails to give their manager much needed feedback, and is afraid to speak up in front of a client you can be sure shame played a part. That deep fear we all have of being wrong, of being belittled and of feeling less than, is what stops us taking the very risks required to move our companies forward.

… Shame becomes fear. Fear leads to risk aversion. Risk aversion kills innovation.

Psychological safety clears the way for vulnerability. Vulnerability creates trust. Trust fosters innovation. Innovation yields success.

So, make your people feel safe and watch what happens.

Give them a why

“People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it,” Sinek says in Start with Why.

As examples, he cites default inspirational figures like Martin Luther King Jr., the Wright brothers, and, in business, former Continental Airlines CEO Gordon Bethune.

Wait, Bethune? You totally thought we were going to say “Steve Jobs,” didn’t you?

Okay, okay. If you’ve read Start with Why or watched Sinek’s TEDx talk, How great leaders inspire action, you already know how foundational Apple is to his core argument.

If not, here’s his summary of Apple’s why:

Everything we do, we believe in challenging the status quo. We believe in thinking differently.

The way we challenge the status quo is by making our products beautifully designed, simple to use, and user-friendly.

And we happen to make great computers.

Wanna buy one?

But Apple’s the easy example. Airlines are tougher. So back to Bethune and Continental.

Throughout the 1980s, Continental was regarded as the worst airline in the United States. As Bethune would later write in his memoir, “Employees were surly to customers, surly to each other, and ashamed of their company.”

Sinek writes that to change Continental’s performance, “Bethune set out to change the culture by giving everyone something they could believe in,” something that made them believe they could turn the worst airline in the industry into the best—with the same people and the same equipment.

What did that look like? Being the best airline in the country. In other words, winning. But not winning for him, or for shareholders, or even for customers. Employees had to want to win for themselves.

That was their why.

And what did winning look like? Being on time. “Bethune told employees that each month Continental’s on-time percentage ranked in the top five, every employee would receive a check for $65.”

In a successful month, the program could cost the airline $2.5 million. But it wasn’t about the money, says Sinek. What was most important was what the bonus program did for the company culture. “It got tens of thousands of employees, including managers, all pointed in the same direction for the first time in years.”

It worked. In 1994, the year before Bethune took over, Continental lost $600 million. The next year, the airline made $250 million. Shortly after that, it was rated one of the best places to work in America.

Companies need a why. Why?

As Sinek writes:

“Companies with a strong sense of why are able to inspire their employees. Those employees are more productive and innovative, and the feeling they bring to work attracts other people eager to work there as well. It’s not such a stretch to see why the companies that we love to do business with are also the best employers. When people inside the company know WHY they come to work, people outside the company are vastly more likely to understand WHY the company is special. In these organizations, from the management on down, no one sees themselves as any more or any less than anyone else. They all need each other.”

To execute on his why, Bethune reshaped Continental’s culture—and remade the business—around the habit of being on time.

Make it a habit

For Alcoa in the late 1980s and early 90s, the why was safety.

In The Power of Habit, New York Times journalist Charles Duhigg tells the story of new Alcoa CEO Paul O’Neill’s initial meet-and-greet with Wall Street investors. Expecting business projections, investors got a talk on safety.

O’Neill first let his audience know where the emergency exits were located, then continued:

“If you want to understand how Alcoa is doing, you need to look at our workplace safety figures. If we bring our injury rates down, it won’t be because of cheerleading or the nonsense you sometimes hear from other CEOs. It will be because the individuals at this company have agreed to become part of something important: They’ve devoted themselves to creating a habit of excellence. Safety will be an indicator that we’re making progress in changing our habits across the entire institution. That’s how we should be judged.”

Investors freaked, but O’Neill was onto something:

  • He gave Alcoa a why—safety—that labor and management could agree on.
  • He built a culture of trust.
  • He made the why a habit.

“I decided I was going to start by focusing on one thing,” O’Neill said. “If I could start disrupting the habits around one thing, it would spread throughout the entire company.”

That “one thing” was what Duhigg describes as a keystone habit, a habit that “can influence how people work, eat, play, live, spend, and communicate. Keystone habits start a process that can change everything.”

How do keystone habits encourage change?

  • They create small wins, which have enormous power.
  • They create structures that help other good habits flourish.
  • They create cultures where new values become ingrained.

“Keystone habits transform us by creating cultures that make clear the values that, in the heat of a difficult decision or a moment of uncertainty, we might otherwise forget,” Duhigg writes.

O’Neill’s focus on safety transformed the company, improving morale, communication, plant design, innovation, and the bottom line. Key to making the why work, though, was trust.

O’Neill delivered there, too. He gave his home number to hourly employees, so he’d know if management wasn’t following up on safety issues. “Workers started calling,” he says, “But they didn’t want to talk about accidents. They wanted to talk about all these other great ideas,” —many of which went on to make money for the company.

O’Neill’s focus on safety became a habit that when coupled with greater trust led to companywide innovation and better performance.

The investors who stuck with the company were rewarded. Lavishly. “By the time O’Neill retired in 2000,” Duhigg writes, “The company’s annual net income was five times larger than before he arrived, and its market capitalization had risen by $27 billion.”

Brand is culture. Culture is safety, why, and habit

Brand is culture. To create culture: make people feel safe, find your why, and build around a keystone habit.

Over the long run, in the most successful companies, what’s good for business (innovation) and what’s good for an employee (psychological safety and a why) will harmonize.

The business can bring out the best in the employee and vice versa as brand and culture align. As marketer Idris Mootee, CEO of Idea Couture and the author of The 60-Minute Brand Strategist, writes:

Everyone in the company must live up to the brand promise. This concept is simple, but it is all-encompassing—it’s about every company member being a walking, talking reflection of the brand itself.

In turn, the company must foster the promise of its people. A brand should allow us to become our best selves.