Culture for the Left-Brained Leader: Andrew YJ Kim

Business leaders have known for a while that the constantly shifting landscape of our modern world requires them to be nimble. Okay, but how? How do you make a business able to pivot with speed and efficiency? Culture strategy. Okay, but how?

Andrew YJ Kim has a very detailed answer. His new book, Culture for the Left-Brained Leader: Strategy, Tactics, and Implementation for Transformative Results, turns the nebulous theory of culture strategy into a logical step-by-step breakdown.

On Author Hour today, he discusses some of the unexpected problems that can be solved through culture, common challenges facing leaders trying to implement a new culture strategy, and common mistakes leaders make along the way.

Jane Stogdill: Hi, Author Hour listeners. I’m here today with Andrew YJ Kim, author of Culture for the Left-Brained Leader: Strategy, Tactics, and Implementation for Transformative Results. Andrew, thank you so much for being with us today.

Andrew YJ Kim: Thank you for having me, Jane. Thanks for the opportunity to talk about a book that I enjoy very much. It’s a very important topic that I think always warrants a deeper dive.

Jane Stogdill: Well, let’s do it, that’s why we’re here. Okay. First of all, can you set the scene for our listeners? What is culture strategy?

Andrew YJ Kim: Absolutely. Well, it’s a strategic approach for a company because a company always wants to push a strategy forward. However, one thing is, strategy has a lot of collaboration requirements in order to get it to move forward, and that’s why we also have to look at the culture of the organization to actually move it forward. Hence, why I believe that culture and strategy are not necessarily separate topics but actually run together.

Focused on Processes and Systems

Jane Stogdill: Okay, and then what do you mean by the left-brained leader?

Andrew YJ Kim: Well, a left-brain individual is someone who does seem to see things from a logical perspective. I myself am a left-brain individual.

To talk a little bit about my story and about why I came about writing this book is that I started my journey as a leader, as an entrepreneur and naturally, as a left-brain logical individual–well also, has a background in terms of an MBA as well, is very focused on processes and systems, right?

In fact, I think a lot of left-brain managers and leaders can resonate with that. The fact is that they like to keep their world together with systems and processes. However, one thing that I’ve come to learn is that there’s a limitation to that. You plateau at a certain point, and you can’t figure out how to get to the next level.

In fact, we did very well with the systems and processes in the very beginning, until we hit that brick wall. Once you hit that brick wall, you’re in a situation where you can’t really figure out how to actually breakthrough, and one thing you realize is that people are very skilled in maneuvering around systems. Naturally, a left-brain manager or a leader is going to introduce more systems around that.

Then the thing is, that’s not where the issue really was. In fact, it actually took a business coach to help me see a different path, and even as a different path was shown to me, I resisted because things needed to make sense to me. In order to break through, I needed to hit that brick wall, see the limitations of my approach, and reassess how I approach management, leadership, and in essence, culture. It was a very painful journey and a very rewarding journey.

That’s why I wanted to share this journey with others because I believe I’m not the only person who tends to see the world through logic, systems, and processes so that I can help them see a different side of the world in business.

Jane Stogdill: Okay, and that different side is culture?

Andrew YJ Kim: Yes. That’s the thing, culture is such a very nebulous topic for many. In fact, when people talk about culture, the first thing that comes to mind for many people is not business, it’s about the various rituals and customs and different geographical locations.

However, if you really look at an organization, the best definition for culture in my opinion is what a group of people believe to be acceptable and unacceptable behavior. That’s a very profound definition because now there is a tie-in to productivity.

Let’s take a step back for a moment and think about it. If we want to move the needle on what people believe to be acceptable and unacceptable behavior, how do we accomplish that? You see, that’s where people start stumbling a little bit. Especially if we’re trying to do that at scale, never mind the people that you have direct exposure to, but at scale. How do we do that?

Those were the questions I wanted to answer during this book.

Awareness of Culture

Jane Stogdill: I do want to ask you a little bit about that. First, you have a strategic advisory consulting company. How much of what you do has ended up being about culture? It seems like people are starting to get wise to that and starting to seek help.

Andrew YJ Kim: Well, in terms of the awareness of the topic of culture, I think now, people are talking about it more than ever before. In fact, there are many leaders who are attributing the success of their businesses to culture and that it was one of the most important, if not the most important component to their business ownership and success.

Now, in terms of how strategy and culture come together, well, no one really came to me saying, “Hey, I want to help with culture.” They have a vision or strategy that they want to achieve but they’re struggling with it, and if you look carefully within the organization, oftentimes, there was something within the culture that needed to be looked at as well.

That’s the tie into it and that’s actually a very important thesis within the book, how culture and strategy come together. Again, it’s another logical description and discussion regarding that topic and I think that’s a very important realization to make.

Jane Stogdill: When I think about culture, my basic understanding, I think about the company’s mission statement. I think about group meetings where leaders are reasserting the mission statement and making sure people have buy-in. Is that connected to this idea of people understanding what is and isn’t acceptable behavior?

Andrew YJ Kim: Well, there is a component to that. However, that’s oftentimes one step of it. In fact, I talk about six phases when we’re looking at taking a company through the journey of culture, and sometimes a transformation is a component.

However, there are so many more, in fact, it involves discussions about what the culture really means. It also talks about the components and anatomy of self-directed teams. There also needs to be a discussion and understanding of change management, and also how we approach management, leadership, and navigate change.

Besides that, we also need to reevaluate how we assess and approach strategy. What you mentioned is one component to that, and to say the least, it is quite a journey. In fact, that’s what I wanted to do with this book. When people talk about culture, the topic of culture, oftentimes, people think about excitement, activation, leaning in, which are very important components, however, one thing I have seen is that a lot of companies actually fail in their attempts to move the needle on the culture.

I decided to write a book about a more comprehensive approach to it. One that does the topic justice because I think this is a very important topic, and one where we can accomplish a lot of things. Everyone’s goals and objectives as a leader are different.

One type of leader, they want to grow and scale. Another type, they want to free up their time and find a balanced life. Another one wants to leave a legacy. The thing is, it’s very hard to achieve those things without looking at the culture because we’re going to end up propping everything up with our sheer will.

You see, when we approach the organization from the standpoint of culture, we’re doing it together, and when we’re doing it together, then we’re no longer alone in the journey. I think that’s a very important thing and that’s where we can actually achieve our dreams better.

A Culture Strategy

Jane Stogdill: Okay, when someone approaches you, when you’re talking to a client who wants to implement a new culture strategy, what’s the first piece of advice you give them?

Andrew YJ Kim: Well, first of all, very few people actually use that terminology. It’s a term that I like to put together because of the fact that I believe they go hand-in-hand. They actually have a different pain point. Sometimes it’s the fact that they’re stuck, they’re plateaued, and the business is running them rather than the other way around.

Other times, it’s a visionary leader who is having trouble getting people to look forward towards a vision with them. Other times, someone is responsible for leading a culture movement, but they really don’t know how to do it because the existing literature out there is very confusing, it doesn’t really tell them what to do, it gives them some motivational, inspirational advice, but it doesn’t really talk about the strategies, the tactics, and how to actually implement it.

Those are the more common reasons people talk to me. They rarely come because, “Hey, I want to look at culture strategy or look at the culture.” It is actually some other pain point that gets them to start asking questions, “I wonder why I’m stuck?”

Jane Stogdill: I see, so they don’t know what the actual problem is and you help diagnose it.

Andrew YJ Kim: I can empathize with that because I was in that situation as well. When I was stuck, culture was the last thing I was thinking of. In fact, even my coach was having me reassess how I approach things from management and leadership. The word culture wasn’t really thrown at me.

It was after I went on the journey and took a step back and tried to assess, “What did I just go through?” When I pieced things together as a logical person, I have to understand things, that’s just the way my brain works, and I had to understand what I just went through. Along and besides that, I helped some other companies along their journey as well and what happens is you start noticing trends and patterns.

Coming from an MBA background myself, I’m familiar with many of the existing business processes and systems out there as well. You start piecing things together because an organization at a larger scale, actually has unique challenges and the fact that people don’t have direct exposure to everyone, so they have to do things with organized efforts.

I’ve tried. I tried, Jane, looking for existing material out there, I couldn’t find it, and that’s why I wanted to write this book to help people because these are realizations that I’ve made. I wish I read this book when I embarked upon the journey and compartmentalizing the various moving pieces to this, I think would have helped me.

I think it will help a lot of other people too, especially if they tend to lean more towards the left brain, logical side of things.

Jane Stogdill: I want to ask you about something you mentioned earlier, the self-directed teams. You write quite a bit about that. What is that and why is that a goal?

Andrew YJ Kim: Well, that’s some huge building block of culture for an organization. In fact, so many of the later and more advanced applications–for instance, I’m trying to get teams together on the same page with strategy, it leverages off of our self-directed team. If we don’t have self-directed teams, then it’s very difficult to achieve that because there are certain collaborations and requirements that we expect our people to be able to move these strategies forward.

In fact, with strategic leaders, they have an amazing vision but the biggest challenge is the fact that they’re having challenges getting other people to see it and move with them on it. A self-directed team is an essential building block, and we talk about the various components to it, what makes it, and what constitutes a self-directed team.

Long story short, I think it will require a more in-depth discussion and perhaps to read the book but there are different types of people that both in terms of their personality types, skills, et cetera, that if we bring together a diverse perspective and are able to get them to move together in the same direction–the thing about diverse people is the fact that there’s an increased amount of tension points that exist between them.

Now, we have to talk about the skills associated with bringing them together. Long story short, that’s what a self-directed team is, and it is discussed further in the book.

Facilitate Change

Jane Stogdill: Human beings are generally resistant to change, what are some of the common challenges leaders face when trying to implement a shift in culture?

Andrew YJ Kim: Well, that is a very true statement. Change in general, people find it to be sometimes a scary topic. Now, some people enjoy change but then, in fact, some leaders enjoy and expect that everyone else will enjoy change as well.

The issue is most people aren’t built that way, and so we have to facilitate change in a way that we achieve buy-in. The book spends a good amount of time talking about the psychology of it and not only that, about the very nuances associated with the resistance regarding viewpoints on culture.

The reason why culture is a tough one to move the needle on is it runs deeper than processes and systems and procedures. Even with that, you are going to encounter resistance from people. However, culture is something even deeper because it’s their lifestyle, it’s their set of beliefs. Now, talking about that at a deeper level would probably be involved multiple discussions, but in essence, we have to understand the landscape of where our people are, who are the various people that are going to buy in early, who tends to wait until others are buying or not and tag along and some who drag their feet and resists a bit more.

There are various strategies and tactics in order to maneuver around that landscape as well and some recommendations for that, but long story short, this does not happen overnight. The smaller your organization is, it can move a bit quicker. There are ways to partner with the key people and also keep the doors open and keep the dialogue going for those who are not bought in quite yet, and maneuver it in a way where it minimizes risk and moves it forward and try to get as much value out of it as possible.

Jane Stogdill: Okay, so when you understand it, you can anticipate it and when you can anticipate it, you can strategize.

Andrew YJ Kim: Yes, and I think that is a very important piece because I remember the first time I had to do something like this, I was told, “Just do it. It’s going to be great.” I went in there, and it wasn’t great. I remember that when I was trying to do something like this at first, one-third of the room seemed excited, one-third of the room seemed like they couldn’t care either way, and one-third of the room looked upset.

Now, I wish I was told that it might look like this. It would have gotten me to approach it a little bit more tactfully. In fact, when I didn’t see everyone bought in right away, I was disappointed. Along the journey, a leader, they need the emotional endurance to go through. I think it would have been helpful to know, “Hey, these obstacles may exist, these are the various things that you could do to move around that.”

I think it would have helped me a lot, and in fact, when I’ve guided others through the same thing, I believe it helped them navigate it in a way that helped them. It doesn’t get rid of the challenges. It’s still going to be a challenging process but anticipating it puts you in a much better situation.

Jane Stogdill: Yeah, to minimize mistakes, which brings me to my next question. What are the most common mistakes people make during this process?

Andrew YJ Kim: Well, I think one of the most common ones is they try to move ahead a bit too quickly. In fact, one of the most common reasons people talk to me is the fact that they have a strategy that they want to move forward. One of the biggest mistakes is the fact that they push it forward when it’s not ready yet. Thereby, having a better appreciation of the fact that moving a strategy forward oftentimes needs culture to be at a certain maturation point, which really helps get the buy-in and move the strategy forward in momentum and direction that they want.

The other thing that I’ve seen, a common mistake, is that there are many layers to this onion. Now, every organization is a little bit different. One of the common mistakes is the fact that, “Oh, see these are various processes and I’m already familiar with that.” Especially large organizations, they already have a lot of processes in place, but one of the things that they oftentimes forget is the heart component of it. Looking at the people side of things.

Smaller organizations often don’t have the things in place yet, so understanding the various strategies and tactics and how to put them together helps them a lot. But then oftentimes, the larger ones, they have so much in place it’s mechanical, it’s too robust, and sometimes the people and the heart component has been forgotten along the way.

Learning to Pivot 

Jane Stogdill: Yeah, that’s important. You mentioned earlier that more companies are thinking about culture strategy now than they have been before. Why is that? Why are we just getting wise to this now?

Andrew YJ Kim: I think that’s a fantastic question. I think in today’s landscape, the market is moving around and pivoting quicker than it ever has. In fact, last year we all had to endure a pandemic, and people weren’t used to having to pivot to that degree, and even without that, the rate technology and innovation is coming about, the fact that what worked just like even a few years ago may not be relevant anymore.

Now, a lot of the “traditional businesses” use business practices that almost came from the industrial age, and that worked very well for the greater part of history, simply because of the fact that there wasn’t that much change happening in the landscape and in the market. However, in today’s landscape, if we want to be able to pivot, that means that we need people’s minds to be able to receive these changes, identify them, craft solutions around them, coordinate around them and execute them. That’s actually where no longer this stay in your lane, top-down approach is not as effective anymore.

Those companies sometimes are the ones that are struggling to adapt to this current landscape, whether it’s resonance with the market in terms of their products and services, or sometimes it’s their employees as well. Because of this change in the landscape, there is a greater awareness because they’ve seen some of the other companies that haven’t made it through.

Besides that, you also see it from especially the progressive technology companies at the rate that it’s almost common knowledge within that space that we have to hit the culture in order to maintain that innovative atmosphere, so that we can adapt to the market place.

It is very fascinating that even larger companies during the COVID pandemic have actually used it as a chance to regroup and reassess their organizational structure and culture. There’s greater awareness coming up for all of those reasons, and I think it’s a fantastic approach because the truth and reality is that organizations have such a large reach. I believe that looking at reassessing our culture and also looking at our strategy in that manner, really does help the world become a more sustainable place.

Because, number one, it provides a home for our employees to grow and develop themselves and be proud of their organization. Besides that, they are continuously adapting to the existing pain points and challenges for our customers. I think it’s a fantastic thing that will help the sustainability of the world as a whole.

Jane Stogdill: Cohesion, it’s a win-win-win.

Andrew YJ Kim: Yes.

Jane Stogdill: Andrew, it’s been a pleasure speaking with you. Again, listeners, the book is Culture for the Left-Brained Leader: Strategy, Tactics, and Implementation for Transformative Results. Andrew, in addition to reading the book, where can people go to learn more about you and your work?

Andrew YJ Kim: They can find us at culturenstrategy.com and I enjoyed talking about this as well too, so they can email me at [email protected]. For the book, they can go to www.cultureleftbrainedleader.com.

Jane Stogdill: Great and just to clarify, your business Culture N Strategy, it’s the letter N in the middle there, right?

Andrew YJ Kim: Yes, just the letter N.

Jane Stogdill: Great, thank you so much.

Andrew YJ Kim: Thank you, Jane.