Dolly Parton Has An Opinion On How to Improve Your Culture

Dolly Parton demonstrating the “finger guns of cultural change” with impeccable form. (Hollywood.com/IconicPix/WENN)

My friends at CultureIQ invited me to speak on one of their webinars a few weeks ago, and the opportunity prompted me to dig into my personal database for a few nuggets on culture and organizational change. We covered a lot during our hour together, but my favorite part came when we hit on a choice quote from the great management thinker, Dolly Parton. (Yes, that Dolly Parton.)

Dolly’s advice is short but powerful:

“Find out who you are and then do it on purpose.”

First of all, if you’re looking for a one-line recipe for an authentic life, that’s it.

But that single sentence might also be the best advice I’ve ever heard for how to build a strong culture.

“Finding out who you are” in service of culture change is a multi-step process. Anyone who has worked in, around, or with HR will recognize some of the listening techniques employed: measuring your employees’ perceptions of the organization with surveys, comparing that data to benchmarks, and teasing out the relevant “so what’s.” But don’t start there.

If you begin by measuring, you’re skipping a step. A critical one.

To build a strong culture, start by examining what’s already great about your team. More specifically, your best people and how they behave. When we work with our portfolio’s leadership teams, we do this using an exercise our partners at The Table Group call “Rockstars and Misfits.” [1]

We start by asking the team to make a list of the best people in the organization. The high-performers. The culture carriers. The people they would clone if they could. Then we break down why they stand out. How they approach their work. How they treat people, and how they show up.

Then, we ask for the Misfits. These people aren’t necessarily defined by their performance. We’ve put plenty of people on the Misfit list who hit their quota, know their product, and meet their deadlines. But they do have something in common: they hold the team back. They create conflict. They frustrate. They are (to borrow a term coined by one of our portfolio CEOs) “complicators, not simplifiers.”

Unsurprisingly, creating the Misfit list is the most interesting part of this work. Like writing a managerial Scouting Report, this is a trust-building exercise in disguise. The key here is to open things up. We don’t just ask leaders for people from their own teams. In fact, we encourage them to include names from other parts of the organization on their misfit lists. This provides a small opportunity for the team to demonstrate vulnerability and accountability by accepting feedback on their teams (and indirectly, about their leadership) in a safe, structured, mutually supportive setting. It also provides a foil to the list of rockstar qualities we just created. It gives you a cultural dark side to consider: what we can look like when we’re “at our worst.”

As a final step, we synthesize the two lists, Rockstars and Misfits, into the team’s core values: The unique qualities and behaviors that are true of your top people, most of the time. Put differently, (to use Dolly’s words) “who you are” when you’re at your best.

An example list of the “Rockstar and Misfits” qualities we discussed at a recent portfolio leadership offsite — names removed on both sides of the page. The core values we aligned on are in the colored boxes.

Once the team has identified their core values, we immediately start to weave them into how the company makes its people decisions. A quick and easy starter checklist for how to do this well comes from Elad Gil’s fantastic High Growth Handbook:

1. “Have strong hiring filters in place. Explicitly filter for people with common values. You need to be careful that this does not act as a mechanism to inadvertently filter out diverse populations. You can have both a common sense of purpose and a diverse employee base at the same time.

2. Constantly emphasize values day-to-day. Repeat them until you are blue in the face. The second you are really sick of saying the same thing over and over, you will find people have started repeating it back to you.

3. Reward people based on performance as well as culture. People should be rewarded (with promotions, financially, etc.) for both productivity and for living the company’s values.

4. Get rid of bad culture fits quickly. Fire bad culture fits even faster than you fire low performers.” [2]

In other words, figure out what your best people are like, and then recruit, remind, develop, and reward everybody else with those “rockstar” qualities in mind. And do it repeatedly and intentionally. It’s only when you’ve built process and discipline around the four steps above that you can say that you’re “doing it on purpose.”

Working on your culture? Good. Make Dolly proud. Find out who you are. Do it on purpose. And sure, make sure to measure how it’s going. But don’t start before you reflect on what your team is already like “at their best.”

That’s the first step to building a culture worth working in — and a company worth working for.

[1] For more on Rockstars and Misfits (and a start-to-finish summary of the leadership alignment approach we use in our portfolio), pick up The Advantage by Patrick Lencioni. It’s probably my most-gifted book.

[2] High Growth Handbook also has an outstanding example of a more detailed executive-level Scouting Report from Claire Hughes Johnson, COO at Stripe.

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Paul Stansik

Paul Stansik

Partner at ParkerGale Capital. Lives in Chicago. Writes about sales, marketing, growth, strategy, and how to be a better leader. Views are my own.