How Do You Cultivate a People-First Culture?

The decision to cultivate a people-first culture is a strategic decision rather than a project. Because it is not a project, you will never be done. You will always improve and refine the way you implement your people-first culture. If you’re thinking about embarking on this journey, I hope you’ll find this post helpful.

Phase One – Articulate your vision

First, let’s recognize that there is not one correct definition of what it means to be a “people-first” culture. Therefore each organization must define what it means for that organization. If you don’t start there, how will you and your employees know what you’re building toward? Second, let’s recognize that having a people-first culture is not an either/or situation. It’s a matter of degree. A culture can become more and more people-first over time.

Here are some questions that will help you decide what “people-first” means to your organization:

  1. Who are the people you’re thinking about? Employees? Customers? Suppliers? Job applicants? Community members? All of these groups?
  2. For each of the groups you care to include in your thinking, what would their experience with your organization be like? What would be happening and not happening? For instance, what would it be like to be an employee? Or what would it be like to be a customer?
  3. If your culture were becoming more and more of a people-first culture (as you visualize it in your business), how would you know it? What benefits do you expect to see? How will you measure or assess your progress?
  4. Are there some areas in which our organization already takes a people-first approach? What are they? What are the benefits for your organization? What has enabled the people-first approach in those areas? What can you learn from those successes about how to expand this to other areas?

Answering those questions is not easy, and therefore might well take some time. But if you’re thinking about becoming a more people-first culture, the time invested here will pay dividends for years to come. If you do not invest the time required for phase one, you are unlikely to succeed.

Phase Two – Identify areas of focus and action steps

  1. Once you’ve articulated your people-first vision, ask, “What are one or two areas of low-hanging fruit, areas in which we can create some quick progress?” Then create action plans for each identified area.
  2. Benchmark other organizations to discover people-first practices you can bring into your culture.

Phase Three – Institutionalize people-first

  1. Include people-first as the most important element in your management performance evaluations and compensation reviews (otherwise, it’s not… um, first).
  2. Collect and share stories about successes and high points related to your people-first strategy.
  3. Recognize and reward all employees who contribute to making continuous progress on the people-first initiative.
  4. Over time (possibly a lot of time), review all policies, procedures and practices to ensure they exemplify your people-first culture. You don’t have to eat this elephant in one bite. Just continue to make steady progress.
  5. Implement a selection process that helps you identify candidates who are a natural fit for your people-first culture.
  6. Part company with employees who are not a fit for your new culture, most particularly leaders and managers who do not fit.

The amount of time it takes to make substantial progress will vary greatly depending on a company’s size, the state of its current culture, and other factors. The journey will be different for every organization. As I said at the beginning of this post, cultivating a people-first culture is a strategic decision rather than a project. It’s a fundamental stance, based on your value system. If you make this part of your “true north”, I believe you will make your organization healthier and healthier over time.

Thanks for reading. I’d love to hear your thoughts or experience with building a people-first culture.

Larry Sternberg

How Can You Rapidly Fit In To A New Culture?

This is a question everyone must confront at some time, whether you’re a recent grad accepting your first career position or you’re a seasoned professional making a move after 20 years with the same company. What can you do to rapidly engage with the new culture? The following five principles will take you a long way toward success.

  1. Do your homework to ensure a natural fit between you and the culture.
  2. Demonstrate a consistent positive attitude.
  3. Work hard.
  4. Make your boss’ priorities your own.
  5. Cultivate positive relationships.

Do your homework to ensure a natural fit between you and the culture. The single most important thing you can do to fit in involves knowing yourself and learning about the company before you even get a job offer.


During the recruitment and selection process, you must make a determination about the natural fit between your values and style and the company’s values and style. You should look for a situation that requires the least amount of change on your part. You’re in a good fit when your natural style just happens to be what works in the culture. The more you have to change to fit in, the more difficult it will be.


Invest the time to clarify what’s important to you, and what your natural style is. During the interview process ask questions that will help you make a determination about your natural fit with the culture.


Demonstrate a consistent positive attitude. I realize this appears to be a platitude, but it’s not. Positivity matters, and it’s visible on the surface. It’s one of the first things people notice about you, and first impressions matter a lot. Because positivity is contagious, you’ll have a positive impact on the workplace, which means you’ll be adding value right away.


Work hard. This is another apparent platitude. But once again it’s immensely important. Everyone appreciates hard work and it’s very visible. It increases the amount of value you’re adding. If you work hard and you have a positive attitude you’ll immediately earn a positive reputation in your new organization.


Make your boss’ priorities your own. I’m indebted to one of my mentors, Sigi Brauer, for this insight. This is about adding value. Value, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Demonstrate a sense of urgency in moving forward those things that are important to your boss. Again, it’s extremely noticeable, and your boss will sincerely appreciate it.


Cultivate positive relationships. Unless you cultivate positive relationships, you won’t fit in rapidly, and you might not ever fit in at all. The topic of cultivating positive relationships has filled many books, so I’m just going to emphasize a few basics.

  • Build trust. Be open and honest. Deliver on your commitments. Act in accordance with the following principle, articulated by Jim Meehan: “I mean you no harm. I seek your greatest good.”
  • Get to know people, and invite them to know about you. Learn what’s important to them, both personally and professionally. Take the time to inquire about their weekend, their vacation, and their family.
  • Celebrate their successes and milestones, both personal and professional.
  • Find ways to be help them, to make a positive difference in their lives.
  • Ask them for help. This might appear counterintuitive at first, but it’s very effective. Find ways in which they can help you. This demonstrates that you see the value they can add. It’s a form of recognition. It actually causes them to like you more.


To summarize, if you do only these five things you’ll maximize your ability to fit in and achieve success in your new organization:


  1. Do your homework to ensure a natural fit between you and the culture.
  2. Demonstrate a consistent positive attitude.
  3. Work hard.
  4. Make your boss’ priorities your own.
  5. Cultivate positive relationships.


Thanks for reading. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts.


Larry Sternberg

Do You Feel Trapped In Your Job?

There are too many people who don’t like their jobs. Almost every day is a bad day. This increases stress and anxiety, which has a negative impact on physical, mental and emotional health. In many cases, these people bring stress and negativity into their homes, which negatively impacts their family and friends. If you don’t like your job, if you’re frequently experiencing bad days, if you feel trapped in your job, this post is for you.

I firmly believe that organizations and supervisors should be intentional and aggressive about creating a culture where people feel valued, significant and fulfilled, a culture where people truly look forward to going to work. HOWEVER, I also believe that each of us must take responsibility for the outcomes in our lives. Your life decisions have put you in your current situation. You might feel trapped, but you’re not trapped.

I encourage you to answer the following question, “Why do I stay in this job?” Here are a few common answers. “It’s the highest paying job I can find.” Or, “It’s a necessary step to get to my career goal.” Or, “It’s a meaningful mission. I’m really making a difference.” It doesn’t matter what your answer is, but be honest with yourself, why do you stay?

Next ask yourself, “What’s this costing me? What’s it costing my family?”

The final question is, “Is what I’m getting out of this job worth the cost?”

If the answer to the last question is “No,” change something external. Change some aspect of your current job or start looking for another job, a job where you’ll look forward to going to work, a job where you have no problem saying that what you’re getting out of it is worth the cost.

However, changing jobs involves great risk and often great cost. You might not be ready for a life decision like this. You might decide that at this time it’s best for you to stay in a job you don’t like. That’s 100% okay, BUT in that case I encourage you to change you’re thinking. You’re not trapped if you’ve made a conscious decision to stay in the situation.

Embrace the situation and remind yourself that you’ve decided to pay this cost in order to receive the benefits and outcomes you seek. Stress is caused by resistance to what is. I know this isn’t easy, but you can make a commitment to work on it.

Here’s a very practical call to action. When you leave work after a bad day, and your friend or significant other asks you, “How was your day?” – DON’T ANSWER THE QUESTION!!! Answering the question will cause you to create more stress for you and those in your company. Be aware — in that present moment nothing bad is happening to you. Don’t let today’s events poison your evening. Say this instead: “Let’s not relive those events. I’d rather focus on having a great evening with you.” Then, of course, have a great evening.

For the record, I’ve experienced both situations. I used to practice law. I made good money but I wasn’t fulfilled. After a long period of introspection, I decided to make a career change, which required a substantial pay cut. I got into a career I loved, and I’ve never had a moment’s regret about that decision.

Subsequent to that, I had a job where I traveled 200 plus days per year on business. I hated the travel, but I loved what I got to do when I arrived at my destination. I had to constantly remind myself that the unpleasantness of the travel was part of the cost for me to do what I loved. I’ve never regretted staying in that job.

If you’re feeling trapped in your job, change something. Change some aspects of your current job or look for another job. If you’re unable to change something external, change something internal. Change your thinking. You’re not trapped if you consciously embrace your situation.

Thanks for reading. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg

Are You At Peace With Your Work/Life Balance?

I listen to numerous highly successful leaders who yearn for a better balance between their work life and their personal life. For some individuals, this lament can continue for years. Does this sound familiar to you?

There is much written about the importance of balance in one’s life. Don’t listen to others who prescribe an ideal balance. Don’t listen to those who might judge your choices. There is no right balance, there is no best balance, there’s only the balance that’s right for you.

You might be at a point in life where you’re making major sacrifices in order to progress in your career. It might be to make a lot of money (there’s nothing wrong with money). It might be to become the best in your profession. It might be to pursue a noble cause. It doesn’t matter why you’re making these sacrifices. The important question is whether you’re at peace with your choices.

The choice of one path necessarily eliminates the pursuit of other possible paths. For example, a friend of mine is a successful, professional musician. He’s decided to pursue a Doctorate in counseling. The program is quite rigorous, requiring him to reduce the time he devotes to his music and to social activities.

If you’re not at peace with your work/life balance you don’t have to feel trapped. Alternatives are available, but each choice comes with a cost. You have to answer the following question: What do you really want in life and what are you willing to give up to get it?

Choices have consequences. If you’re unwilling to pay the price for changing your work/life balance, own it. Make that choice consciously. Find a way to embrace the consequences. Find a way to be at peace with it.

Thanks for reading. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg

Who Should You Make Friends With At Work?

OK, the grammar of the title is terrible, but that’s the way I’d say it in conversation. Sometimes proper grammar feels a little pretentious to me.

Recently an associate forwarded to me the following request from a media outlet asking for comments on making friends at work. Here’s their request:

We are looking for people who can comment for an article about the people you should make friends with at work, and why. Who are the people who are important to your career? Who are the people who can help you be happy at work? Who are the ones who can help you or be someone you can rely on? We are looking for tips on how to identify these people as well as how to know what level of friendship you should have with your co-workers.

The requestor wants to know who and why. I think the “why” is most important, because once you know why you’d like to make friends with someone, the “who” follows. Do you make friends with someone because you want something from them? Would you tell them that? If not, you have a hidden agenda. You’re using them. That’s not my idea of friendship.

I’m not saying it’s wrong in any way to pursue a relationship with someone who can help you with your career or bring you other benefits. There’s nothing wrong with saying, “I can bring you benefits x, y and z. And you can bring me benefits a, b, and c. Let’s start a relationship.” That might be a positive, mutually beneficial relationship, but it’s not a friendship. It’s a business deal.

Think about your current friends. Why did you become friends? Why does your friendship continue? Your answers likely are different than mine. Whatever your reasons are, why would they be different for people at work vs. people in your personal life?

Whether at work or in my personal life, here are some of my reasons:

  • The other person likes, values and appreciates me.
  • I admire the person.
  • I think I can help that person.
  • We have good chemistry.
  • The person has a good sense of humor and can at least tolerate mine.
  • I look forward to spending time with that person. We enjoy each other’s company.
  • I can be myself with that person.
  • We trust each other. We seek each other’s greatest good.
  • We’re loyal to each other. We can count on each other.
  • My situation requires me to work with or spend a lot of time with that person.

I could probably list more criteria, but you get the gist. When those criteria exist, I want to be that person’s friend whether we work together or not.

The requestor’s final question is what level of friendship should you have with your co-workers? My answer is: Do not place limits on the depth of your friendships with co-workers. The world is full of misguided thinking that passes for wisdom. People are taught not to get close with their co-workers or with their direct reports. Do not heed that advice. To read more on this topic, click here: Are You Getting Too Close To Your Employees?

What would your life be like if you worked every day with a group of good friends?

Thanks for reading. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg

Are You Surrounding Yourself With The Right People?

Too often in my career I’ve seen managers struggle because they don’t surround themselves with the right people. It’s the goal of this post to stimulate your thinking on this topic. Who are the right people?

I’m sure you’ve heard the advice, “You shouldn’t hire people like yourself.” That sounds like wisdom at a cocktail party, but it’s so oversimplified it’s of no use. Don’t listen to it. You should hire people who are like you in certain ways.

We’re talking about the issue of fit. Direct reports who are the best natural fit for you will definitely be like you in certain ways. One of my clients, a hotel general manager, had an intense drive for continuous improvement. He was never satisfied. If his direct reports didn’t share this drive, they were not a good fit for his style.

Difficulties arise when managers mistakenly look for things that shouldn’t matter. Is the person an enthusiastic sports fan? Are they in my generation? Are they a morning person? Were they in a sorority? In most cases, you should be completely unconcerned whether someone is like you in these respects.

Here are some things to consider when thinking about who’s right for you.

  • What kind of person thrives under your unique leadership style?
  • What weaknesses/deficiencies can you just not tolerate?
  • How will this person fit with your team?
  • Is this someone you’re willing to trust?
  • Would you look forward to working with this person every day?
  • What strengths do they bring that compliment your strengths?

The last item, complimentary strengths, is the area in which you should very intentionally seek people who are not like you. This is how you produce synergy.

If you can answer the questions listed above, you can determine whether someone is the right person to report to you, and you can quit worrying about the degree to which they’re like you or not like you.

Thanks for reading. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg

Will talent management practices create morale issues for employees who are not identified as talented?

This very intriguing question was posted by ANOOPA NARAYANAN, PhD scholar at Cochin University of Science and Technology. I think the answer is, “Yes.” Some talent management practices will create morale issues for some employees. My question is: What should we do about it? As usual, I don’t believe I have THE answer, but here are my thoughts.

I’m going to assume that Ms. Narayanan is referring to a situation in which a select group of employees has been identified as “high potential”, and are enrolled in a program designed to develop future leaders for the organization. Undoubtedly, there is a group of employees who wanted to be selected for that program but were not. In the moment, they’re going to be disappointed, and their morale will suffer.

First, I encourage us all to avoid the thinking (and the statements) that these employees are not talented. I use the word “talent” as a synonym for “aptitude” or “giftedness”. To have a talent for something is to have the potential for excellence in that thing. Often, we label someone as “not talented” because they are in the wrong fit for the gifts they’ve been given. Different careers require different aptitudes. So someone might be enrolled in a culinary arts program, but he or she lacks the aptitude to become a chef. Teachers in the program might say that person is not talented, but really they should say that person is not a talented culinarian. Maybe he has plenty of gifts, but they align with a different career.

I know an individual whose father insisted that he become an executive in the family business. But unfortunately leadership was not his talent. This person was a very talented photographer who was not allowed to pursue that as a career. I assure you, his morale was not good. That’s what happens when you put someone in a job that’s not a good fit.

Earlier in my career I had a top sales rep who wanted to become a sales manager. Upon considering him for that role, we concluded that his talent was selling, not managing people. So we declined the promotion.

Let’s assume we were correct about his lack of potential to be a good manager. What would be the consequences of putting him in that role? First, if he’s not a good manager, the morale of his direct reports will suffer. The performance of his team will suffer. He’ll be under constant stress trying to perform with excellence in a role for which he is not a good fit. That kind of stress contributes to serious health problems and burn out.

His morale did suffer, by the way, when he didn’t get the sales manager job. I tried to retain him, but he found a sales manager job with another organization. I still sleep well about that because giving him the job would have had worse consequences for our organization and for him.

We can mitigate some morale issues if we understand each employee’s talent and ask, “What’s the best fit for someone with those gifts?” Once we understand someone’s talent we have a better chance of putting her in a role where she spends the majority of her time doing things she’s good at and enjoys. When we can put someone in a job that’s the right fit, we’ve created a platform where she can add the most value to the organization, and where she can thrive and grow.

We must provide growth opportunities that go beyond traditional hierarchical promotions. In academia, for instance, individuals can continue to earn degrees that bring them increased status and respect, even though they don’t supervise anyone. Many trades and professions provide similar possibilities for people. We’d all be well served to create additional growth possibilities for our employees so that hierarchical promotions are not their only option.
If we’ve properly identified high potential employees, it makes sense to invest in their growth and development. We have to accept that this will cause some morale problems for those who were not selected. Some might leave. That’s a cost of the program.

Thanks for reading. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg

Have You Tried A Positive 360?

I’m not a fan of the typical 360º review process for the following reasons: 1) reviewees often are allowed to choose their reviewers (everyone “games” this), 2) the questions focus on weaknesses, and 3) the follow-up focuses on fixing those weaknesses. The activity generated makes people feel like they’re “doing something”. All in all, however, most 360’s don’t add a great deal of value. It’s like taking bad-tasting medicine that doesn’t actually do you any good.

There is an alternative: the positive 360. Here’s a possible set of questions for reviewers:

  1. When X is really “in the zone” what is she doing?
  2. What are X’s most important contributions to our team/company/organization?
  3. What do you appreciate most about X?
  4. What does X really enjoy doing at work?
  5. What are X’s biggest strengths?
  6. How can we support X better in areas where she’s not so strong?
  7. How can we “job sculpt” X’s responsibilities so she spends most of her time doing what she’s good at and enjoys?
  8. How can we create more “in the zone” experiences for X?

Please note, this set of questions does not ignore areas of weakness. But instead of focusing X’s efforts on changing, we’re focusing everyone’s efforts on supporting her. So for instance, if X is not good at follow-up, we can send X to training on follow-up, but after the training if she’s only just a little bit better, we accept that and focus on how to support her. We avoid giving her assignments and responsibilities that require a lot of follow-up.

If you’re X’s supervisor, you need to struggle to find the answer to questions seven and eight. The more time each of your people spends doing things he or she is good at and enjoys, the more often they experience being “in the zone”, the faster you’ll accelerate your team’s performance and each individual’s growth.

Give the positive 360 a try. I’d love to hear your feedback.

Larry Sternberg

What’s The Best Gesture Of Recognition You’ve Ever Received?

A client recently asked me to discuss recognition programs, and I realized I believe that nurturing a culture of recognition, appreciation, and celebration is more impactful than implementing specific programs. For brevity, I’ll call this kind of culture an appreciative culture.

Think about the answer to the question in the title. Here’s a similar question: What’s the best gesture of recognition you’ve ever given? Were either one of these gestures the result of a program?

In cultivating an appreciative culture, you can start by focusing on the center your circle of influence – your own behavior. Make a personal commitment to express appreciation more frequently. Here are some inexpensive, easy ways to do this:

  • Say, “Thank you,” more often. Say it sincerely. What could be easier? After all these years, this is still number one.
  • Write a handwritten note. This takes about three minutes, on average. I’ve timed it in numerous classes. These are so valued people save them.
  • Walk a person into your supervisor’s office and tell your supervisor what they did that was so great.
  • Write a note and mail it to their home, so their family can read it.
  • Write a note to their parents. This is so unusual it really makes an impression.
  • Invest some one-on-one time with a top performer. Take them out for a cup of coffee.
  • If, and only if, the person likes public recognition, give them a round of applause.
  • Send cards to your direct reports on important days like birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, etc..
  • Go out after work or at lunch to informally celebrate individual or team successes.

Individualized recognition is the Gold Standard. Here’s a set of questions you can ask each of your direct reports, one-on-one:

  • What contributions/successes do you want to be recognized for?
  • When you accomplish something worthy of recognition, who do you want to know it?
  • What’s the best gesture of recognition you’ve ever received? Why was it the best?
  • What form of recognition is most meaningful to you?

Remember, if you ask these questions, the most important thing is to act on them.

One final piece of advice about individualizing recognition. If you’re buying a gift, buy something related to that individual’s personal interests and values.

Everything I’ve discussed, and everything you’ve thought about beyond what I’ve discussed, makes the recipient experience their significance as a human being – their significance to you and to the organization. This builds morale, motivation and engagement.

So go ahead and implement formal recognition programs, but don’t stop there. Nurture a culture of recognition, appreciation and celebration. There are no secrets about what to do or how to do it. You just have to do it.

Thanks for reading. I’d love to hear about your strategies and techniques for recognition and appreciation.

Larry Sternberg

Have You Re-discovered The Peter Principle?

Adam Vaccaro posted an excellent article on the Inc. Website entitled, “High Performance Is Not the Same as High Potential.” Click here to read it. This distinction was the topic of a wonderful book written by Laurence Peter and Raymond Hull in 1969 entitled, “The Peter Principle: Why Things Always Go Wrong.” Peter observed that companies that base promotions on performance in the current job create a system in which all managers eventually rise to their level of incompetence. Click here to read a synopsis.

The solution to this dilemma begins with the insight that the job of supervisor, for instance, requires a different set of talents and skills than the job of an individual performer. To give a specific example, the role of sales manager requires different talents and skills than does the role of sales representative. But, as Peter observed, it’s the number one sales rep who gets promoted to sales manager. Often – sadly, very often in the world of sales – the newly promoted individual is not a good manager. The company suffers a double whammy. They’ve taken their best sales rep off the playing field AND they’ve given the team a poor manager. This is not a formula for increasing sales.

Whether it’s sales or any other type of role, we all know people who’ve been “Peter Principled”. This creates a huge amount of stress for the individual, because he’s trying to do something for which he doesn’t have the fundamental aptitude to excel. He’s been promoted into a job for which he’s not a good fit. This situation generates a huge amount of stress, which leads to burn out and numerous other health problems. It’s not good for the company, it’s not good for the customers and it’s not good for the person.

Therefore, as Vaccaro points out, we must look beyond performance in the current role and assess potential for excellence in the new role. Once you start focusing on potential you’re looking through a different lens, and something really interesting happens. You’ll notice that some employees who are not stars in their current role have the potential to be stars as leaders. They’re better coaches than players. Vaccaro gives some research-based behaviors to look for in assessing leadership potential.

However, the issue of cultural fit is crucial. We need to assess leadership potential in a much more specific way. As you know, every organization culture is different. A leadership style that’s a natural fit for one culture might not work well in a different culture. Which is a better business decision? 1) identify individuals who have high potential for leadership excellence AND who must make major changes to their leadership style in order to thrive in your culture, or 2) identify individuals who have high potential for leadership excellence AND whose leadership style is a natural fit for your culture?

There are well-known, scientific methodologies for studying the character traits and natural behaviors of top performing leaders in a specific organization (yours, for instance). By definition, these people thrive as leaders in your culture. Such a study will result in a benchmark you can use to assess the potential of both internal and external candidates. This kind of scientific study is the Gold Standard for succession planning.

This discussion brings to light a more fundamental issue in our society. It seems to me there’s a widely-held point of view that if one is not getting promoted something is wrong. We need to eradicate this perception. This causes people to seek promotions for the wrong reasons, and attain roles that are not a good fit. They’re driven to seek the Peter Principle. We need to ensure that people don’t need a promotion to feel truly valued and significant.

In considering people for promotion, shift from focusing on performance to focusing on potential. Make sure candidates have the potential to excel in the new role. When someone’s in the right fit, they’re spending most of their time doing things they’re good at and enjoy. They’re energized by their job, not oppressed by it. Everybody wins.

Thanks to Beth Bruss for suggesting this topic.

And thanks for reading. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg