December 8, 2021

From CULTURE to CULTURE: Dr. Donte Vaughn & Randall Powers

Company culture influences the roles and responsibilities of every employee within the organization, from executive leadership down to the frontlines. A strong, healthy company culture drives productivity and raises profitability and disengaged employees will cause companies billions yet many executives rarely associate their culture with their bottom line. 

In their new book, From CULTURE to CULTURE, Dr. Donte Vaughn and Randall Powers introduce their culture performance management methodology and present a behavior-driven system to operationalize company culture and increase employee engagement. Investors, consumers, and even the government are now interested in whether the organizations they do business with have values that align with theirs and demonstrate behaviors that match those values, and the book shows you how leadership must be the one to define company culture and understand how to implement it and ultimately measure and improve it.

Hey Listeners, my name is Drew Appelbaum and I’m excited to be here today with Randall Powers and Dr. Donte Vaughn, authors of From CULTURE to CUTURE: The System to Define, Implement, Measure, and Improve Your Company Culture. Randall, Donte, thank you for joining, welcome to The Author Hour Podcast.

Dr. Donte Vaughn: Thank you for having us.

Randall Powers: Pleasure to be here, thank you.

Drew Appelbaum: Let’s kick this off. Can you both give us a brief rundown of your respective professional backgrounds?

Dr. Donte Vaughn: Sure, I guess I’ll get started and pass it over to Randall. My name is Dr. Donte Vaughn. I’m formally educated in the world of organizational leadership and culture, so anything that has to do with how organizations leverage their people to come together to drive business success and more importantly, impact the organizational culture, I specialize in.

I am currently serving as the Chief Executive Officer and managing partner of a company called CultureWorx, where we develop the tools, the systems, and technology that supports the leaders and how they engage, how they interact, how they made decisions in an organization. Ultimately, how they impact the company culture and I’m joined with my partner, Randall Powers, he can introduce himself.

Randall Powers: Hey, I’m Randall Powers. My background is a little different than Donte’s. I’m primarily an operations guy so started out in operations as an hourly worker then became a line lead, then a supervisor and then just subsequently just continued to grow and develop and got in the world of operational improvement with a pretty large operational improvement firm back in the mid-90s. 

From there, I was president and COO of Wise Metals Group, a large aluminum company and then we started a company called Powers about 13 years ago and that company is focused on operational improvement with partners, clients. I’m mainly in manufacturing and we facilitate a process of implementing the skills and behaviors and processes and systems that enable leaders to optimize both their performance and their people. So, I serve as managing partner for that company and then I also serve as managing partner for CultureWorx, which is the company that Donte is CEO of, and I support Donte in the execution of that business on a daily basis.

Drew Appelbaum: How did you two meet and decide to work together?

Dr. Donte Vaughn: You know, that’s a great question, that goes back a few years. Randall, as you heard, was leading the Powers organization and working with companies all over the country and as part of their growth, they were seeking some additional strategic support in their business and we always say the consulting industry is a small one in that we kind of know each other and if you work for any of the national firms and you’ve had any relative success, you start to hear the names transition in the marketplace and at the time, I was leading a private consulting practice. 

I was primarily focused on a small business community. Through that effort, I was in contact with members of Randall’s organization so they reached out to me and said, “Hey, we’re experiencing a lot of growth, would you like to support us on a couple of projects?” That’s how that engagement started and through our meeting with one another and working on projects, we started to have this deeper conversation around what we’ve encountered as it related to organizational culture and the challenges that businesses were facing when trying to improve workplace culture and some of the tools that they were leveraging and the processes that they were trying to implement.

We realized there was a significant gap in the market, so that’s when it started. That’s when our conversations started to expand to how could we come together and build out a vision that really, that Randall really had, and I’m sure we’ll talk about that.

Defining Company Culture

Drew Appelbaum: Why was now the time to write this book and share the stories and share your knowledge inside of it? Were you guys inspired by something? Did enough people tell you, “You need to write this down and spread it to the masses” or did you find some extra time on your hands because of COVID?

Randall Powers: I think a lot of people had extra time on their hands due to COVID but that certainly wasn’t our motivator by any means. Yeah, Donte and I have been working on this for years now to really develop out this methodology. You heard us mention CultureWorx which is our company that facilitates partners through the process that we’re talking about in the book.

Once we got the methodology developed and that took years to develop this, and this is where Donte really played the primary role. He took the construct and made it scientific, empirically based, more thoughtful in regards to research and development, social learning theory and he really built out the construct, a methodology that we could use, in a tangible way we could engage our partners and facilitate the process of allowing them to define, measure, and implement their culture and really achieve that cultural integrity that everybody’s looking for in the marketplace.

It’s really just timing. The book got released when we got the methodology firmly bedded down, articulated and we wanted to share that with the market. Every company that we encounter in either organization is desperate to find a way to make their culture real, make it the X factor for attracting and retaining talent, and to have a construct to meaningfully manage their culture and develop their culture just like they do every other aspect of it.

The timing was just when we finished building out the methodology and the book allows us to share that with the world, so that’s really the timing. 

Drew Appelbaum: Sure. When you guys decided you were going to write this book, when pen hits paper, who were you writing this book for? Is this for business leaders, is this for HR folks, a certain size of company, new businesses, old businesses?

Dr. Donte Vaughn: Any leader who is responsible for developing the company values and connecting those values in a tangible way in terms of how they ensure that their leaders are engaging, interacting, and making decisions that not only embody that cultural framework or value framework, but also ensures that they can scale and perpetuate success in the business, this book is for them. 

Now, typically, when we were writing this book, we said, “C-suite executives, individuals who have interest in mobilizing the leaders in an impactful way are who we’re really speaking to.” We thought that that audience can be anywhere from the CEO to the COO, to the director, to the chief HR officer. We even see this as a frontline leadership strategy as well. Individuals who touch or impact how frontline leaders are developed, they would absolutely fit the market for individuals who should read this book for sure.

Randall Powers: Yeah. The way I look at it is, culture starts with those individuals in a company or an organization that are responsible for defining the values in that culture. The book is written for those individuals who establish those values because the cultural performance management methodology that is articulated and spelled out in the book is how to get those values implemented.

That is why the book is addressed to those leaders in the organization, responsible for establishing that cultural, really corner stone and foundation for what they expect that culture to be.

Drew Appelbaum: Now, was there a lot of outside research done for the book or were a lot of the lessons inside, learned through your experiences dealing with business leaders and outside companies?

Dr. Donte Vaughn: Great question. I think it’s a balance of both. When Randall refers to the empirical research-centric application to our methodology, what we looked at was how do we with certainty or with relative confidence ensure that, as part of our methodology, we can drive tangible, measurable behavioral change and fostering that in a way that is systematic and methodical and that required research into adult learning application in theory.

Everything from experiential learning methodologies to social learning theory was applied in how we developed and articulated our methodology within the book, and we also connected that to empirical evidence-based research and that includes our own experiences as practitioners in driving operational improvement and focus on leadership behavior that we experience in the scope of our consulting practices as well.

I think there’s a balance there but all through proven impact and results that we’ve seen in businesses over the past, call it, 20 years.

Randall Powers: Yeah, what’s really interesting about Donte’s answer in regards to it being a blend is that in the book, we lay out the methodology for implementing culture performance management but you have to go back to the origination of the idea. We are market-facing guys every day. This methodology was birthed out of the struggles and the challenges that we saw with our partners in regards to their ability to implement and execute their culture. 

From a— it wasn’t research that founded the idea. The book articulates that methodology that solves a real-world market problem that we see all of our partners face. That’s the beauty of it is that it wasn’t an idea that birthed out of research. It was an idea based out of solving a real problem in the market. Now, once we had the idea, we had to build it based on scientific, empirically based research so that’s the way it’s blended together in my mind.

Drew Appelbaum: Let’s dig into the book itself and if you would set the foundation of the book for us because I think everybody really has a different definition. Can you define company culture for us and then just maybe let us know why it’s so important to a business?

Dr. Donte Vaughn: That’s a great question because, over the past two years or so, there’s been a lot of talk around company culture and what that really means. We see company culture as a combination of the values that exist and are shared between leaders, how those values serve as the framework by which everyone behaves and interacts with one another, and then how those behaviors and interactions drive decision-making with individuals who have been engaged in that interaction or that exchange with one another.

Fundamentally, when we talk about company culture, we talk about it in the context of something that is truly a catalyst to an organization’s limitations and/or successes. Engaging culture in a way that doesn’t just examine, in a reactionary way, the perceptions of employee experience as a measure of how that culture is truly impacting the organization but looking at it through the lens of how there’s a level of cultural consciousness among leaders and how they interact and behave every day and how those interactions and behaviors informs employee experience in a proactive way.

If you can have a fundamental impact on how those leaders understand what those behaviors are and the implications that their actions have on the employee experience, then you can fundamentally impact the outcome which is typically measured by way of not only employee experience, but also in the way an organization performs, their operational metrics, a number of different factors, even the consumer experience.

I would say that that it’s a significant differentiation in terms of how we define company culture. Randall, anything to add there?

Randall Powers: Yeah, I look at [it] pretty simplistically because I think people think that company culture is this vast esoteric, theoretical construct and it’s really not. Just to ground our partners in the simplicity of a culture. I always use the analogy of— if you went to a foreign country and you got off the plane, train, or automobile or whatever method gets you there, the first thing you would notice about that culture is the language they’ll use, okay?

You would watch the things they do, and you would understand how they communicate, how they interact, shared meaning, and understanding. If you don’t speak the language in that culture, you’re going to have a hard time getting around. When we think about culture, we think— say, for example, you came back to your home country, wherever you came from and people said, “Hey, what was that country like that you visited?”

What you would do is you would share with them the things they do, the things they say, how their actions are different than the actions that might be demonstrated in the culture that you come from. You would articulate their culture in regards to what they do and how they interact and the language they use, okay? We look at culture very much the same way. Culture is how leaders interact, it’s what they do, it’s how they behave, and how they engage one another to get the work done. I look at it from a very simplistic practical standpoint, is the way I look at it.

C.P.R: Breathing New Life Into The Company Culture

Drew Appelbaum: You say in the book, “It’s time to get real, raw, and candid about your company culture, and getting real means diving into honest and fearless self-reflection.” For companies that really never set out to create a new culture, never really took that deep dive within their business to say, “What is our current culture climate?” what questions should leaders be asking themselves, [to] find out where they are at the moment and where they stand?

Dr. Donte Vaughn: You know, when we talk about getting real and raw about company culture, what we’re inciting is this thought that I have to be really reflective on the dynamics that exist within my organization, how individuals treat one another, how they communicate, the steps we’ve taken to drive the results in our business. And it starts with the individual because what Randall touched on is very important. Culture rests, and the responsibility thereof rests, in the hands of the leaders of that organization.

The senior most leaders of that organization set the tone for the culture that exists. They set the framework by which they expect everyone else. A part of social learning theory aligns with the premise, you promote what you permit. Part of that self-reflection begins with an evaluation of, “What values are truly important for our organization to realize and continue to sustain the success that we’ve had?”

“If those values are truly important to us, what are the behaviors that embody those values and do I practice and live out those values in the way in which I engage, I interact, I make decisions because I set the tone for the positive or negative consequences that have come this far”, so part of that time to get real raw and candid really speaks to the fact that most organizations truly have established company values on the basis not of their actions, but on what they believe the market wants to hear that they deem important to how they operate their business. 

Part of that real role is truly forcing them to look themselves in the mirror and say, “Hey, do I really have integrity behind the values that I ascribe for my business? Am I really perpetuating this culture I claim that I have? And let’s be honest about it, does this dynamic truly exist in my organization?” It starts there before you can actually align and consider yourself ready to apply real cultural change in your business. Randall, any thoughts on that?

Randall Powers: Yeah, I mean the nice thing about Donte and I is we have on a daily basis real-world experience working in these large companies in the United States and we get to see how well they actually live out the culture that they espouse that they have. We call it window dressing, right? If you look at most of [or] at least the larger companies in the US, it should strike you as odd that most of them possess the same values. 

When we talk about getting real and most people’s values, as Donte said, are published as a marketing tool. It’s window dressing, is what we call it, right? But we know the truth because we’re actually in the marketplace working with these companies and what we find is that when people come to work for that company, they don’t experience that the values that are hanging on the wall. 

Okay, now what’s happened in the marketplace to really make this tangible today is that there’s a massive labor shortage in the market, so companies are desperate to have their company culture be the X factor for, first of all, attracting talent but second of all, retaining that talent over the long term. There has been a massive wake-up call in America that hey, we can no longer fake people out from a marketing standpoint in regards to our culture. 

Because number one, you get called out on social media for it, okay? Two, you see companies and employees just deciding not to come work for you and everybody needs to attract and retain talent, so companies are just, all of a sudden, getting very serious and real about culture and what they’re realizing is everything that they’ve been talking, they don’t live out. 

They don’t know how to bring their organization together and define those behaviors that make those values apparent and real, and people experience that with the organization so that they can have that culture that can make them the X factor for retaining talent. That is why that real and raw is in there. You’ve got to hold that mirror up now or you’re going to be left behind for sure.

Drew Appelbaum: Now, so you take that look in the mirror, and let’s say you find yourself in a bad culture zone if you will. You talk in the book about cultural CPR, can you talk about what that consists of? 

Dr. Donte Vaughn: We use the analogy CPR because it’s this premise around breathing life into the culture because, to your point, most organizations allow that culture to be stagnant, right? To Randall’s point, it’s window dressing. You have to blow the dust off of the old picture frames that say ‘excellence’ that’s sitting in your conference room, right? It’s this premise that first, let me breathe life into the culture in a way that starts to gain momentum and traction around how to then optimize it and leverage it in a more strategic way. 

When we talk about C.P.R, the C stands for creating cultural consciousness. That’s that awareness. Look, before I can really work on whatever caused the breakdown in my culture, first I have to create some consciousness around the existence of it, around what currently exists, what it represents, right? That’s starting the CPR process; I got to get your heart, I got to get a pulse back. Let me get a pulse back around my culture. 

The P is around the practice of it, so now that I’ve got the pulse going, right? I am breathing life into it, I have to sustain it, right? I have to continue to maintain my compressions around it. I have to continue to check back in and understand how much impact that this current culture is having on my business. The normal way to do that is to be intentional in the practices that I applied to it. 

Everything from beginning to clarify my behavioral expectations as it relates to the values that are important to me, understanding how my leader’s engagement and interacting are driving the results in the business, which represents the R in CPR. You know, similar [to] if I am conducting CPR, right? I am breathing life into you, I am conducting compressions and now periodically, I pause to check if you have sustained a pulse or a heartbeat.

That is how I know if I’ve revived you, right? Similarly, I want to look at okay, I have gained some consciousness around the values and more importantly, the leadership behaviors that align with those values. I’ve connected how those leaders are engaging and interacting every day and I am starting to bring some awareness to how those interactions are impacting my business. 

Now, I need to look at the results of that and when I can see improvement then I know we need to do more of that. When I see a retraction from where I want to be, then I know I need to do less of that. That’s just the starting point and starting to build some momentum around reviving a company culture but now you need the real long-term sustainable system to do that and that’s where Cultural Performance Management comes in. 

It’s not enough to do CPR and then treat it like an initiative and then six months later, there is no more focus on company culture or the value system that’s important in driving leadership behavior and engagement and optimizing business performance. How do I maintain continuous improvement around that? That’s why you need the longer term strategy of CPM. 

Support The Company Culture Through Operations

Drew Appelbaum: Now, let’s say people are listening to this, they look themselves in the mirror, they ask their questions, they want to make change but they still think they need help. Can you talk to us a little bit about what CultureWorx is and does? 

Dr. Donte Vaughn: Sure, so CultureWorx is exactly that. We become the partner in providing the short interval or long-term support that organizations need both by way of providing more strategic support and guidance in the implementation of their culture performance management system and for others, it’s developing the technological tools to foster sustainability and the reinforcement of their values and how those behaviors inform how leaders engage and interact. 

CultureWorx developed software solutions that provides tools or resources to leaders, especially leaders at the frontline of the business, so that they can, through micro-burst learning and other mechanisms, receive guidance and insight around how to practice the behaviors that align with the value systems that are important to the business. It’s a taking a look, in a more proactive way, at how leaders foster their advancement and development around those behaviors. 

How to look at both the tactical and technical execution as a leader and the impact that their engagement has on the organizations. And the idea is if they get a proactive tool that they can leverage in the midst of what we call cultural connection execution, then they can have a real measurable impact on the business. And then you could look at some of the other lagging indicators by way of your operational performance metrics, your employee engagement results.

Now, you can start getting at impacting real employee experience, real operational improvement by way of leadership behavior advancements. That’s why you would reach out to CultureWorx, they help you strategically in the implementation of that culture performance management system and/or the implementation and application of our technology tools and resources that we develop. 

Randall Powers: Another way to think about CultureWorx is— and I’ll just share with you the reality of where Donte and I are right now. We are at a company that has one of the largest restaurant chains in the United States. We got referred here by another client and the company we’re at right now, their desire is to make their culture relevant to today’s market, okay? They were going to go down a path of marketing the values and posting them in the restaurants and that is about as far as they got, to be honest with you. 

They gave us a call and they were like, “Hey, we understand you have a methodology that you can facilitate us through to help us make this real not just window dressing” and they recognized that. CultureWorx is the company that facilitates the implementation of culture by way of culture performance management, so that’s the methodology. 

The technology piece allows you to scale it, so we’re going to have to scale this culture across thousands of employees in a lot of locations and the question becomes, how do you get everybody on the same page in regards to what the values are, the behaviors that demonstrate those values, when and where and how those connections should occur and how do you train and develop people real-time in the demonstration of that with measurement and feedback and continuous improvement? That’s what the technology platform does.

CultureWorx is a business that uses the methodology to help companies realize that the culture they’re looking for and the technology is the support structure that allows these companies to scale it. Just imagine if you have a company that has 10,000 employees, how do you get everybody with the same expectation in regards to the same behaviors day in and day out? That’s a big lift and without the technology platform, you’re only left to alternative methods to try and get that done, which is a massive lift and very time-consuming and costly. Technology is just a facilitator of the culture performance management methodology. 

Drew Appelbaum: Now, you have a lot of resources in the book itself and you do a lot of deep dives into particular company cultures but you also have a website. Are there any resources available on your website as well? 

Dr. Donte Vaughn: Yeah, we have a few resources, which includes our blog and reading material that reinforces the principles around culture performance management. We address industry challenges and sort of this problem that we identified so we encourage listeners and readers alike to visit our website. It’s www.getcultureworx.com, check out the resource link, you’ll see everything there that will provide information and insight. 

Then we encourage you as always, you can reach out to us directly over our LinkedIn or social media access points or you can call our office and we make ourselves available to speak with anyone if you want to expand upon where your organization sits, and your journey to implement the culture that you desire. 

Drew Appelbaum: Now, when a reader or a listener, when they say, “Okay, I’ve read the book, I’m into this, I want to start right away” what are the immediate first steps someone should take to implement the learnings from the book? 

Dr. Donte Vaughn: That’s a great question. I mean, first I encourage them to take a deep breath because the journey that they’re about to embark upon is one that is both exciting but rigorous and one that is going to require them to really understand the role that they serve not only as an ambitious leader, but as a change catalyst, as a change agent. So that is the first thing I would tell them to do. 

I think second to that, it all starts with an evaluation of their values and ensuring that they have all of the key stakeholders, the influencers, the people in their business at a senior-most leadership level who play a role in embodying and perpetuating and championing this desired culture. You’ve got to get them all together. If they all don’t have the book or haven’t read it yet, they need to read it. 

They need to get on the same page with this individual who wants to take on this endeavor and of course, they can always reach out to us and we can help reinforce and guide them further around this journey of design and implementation and sustainment of their culture performance management system. 

Randall Powers: What I would add there is that when you first start the journey of real, true cultural development and implementation in your company, like I mentioned earlier in my example, you know the foundation of any culture is the language that people use, okay? That’s different for every culture, you have foreign languages, right? But within that culture, there are concepts and terms that exist within the language in that culture that people mutually understand, that define and understand. 

That’s how they’re able to effectively communicate and engage one another, their shared meaning. When people don’t have the same definition of concepts and terms, it is hard to communicate. It is hard to engage and interact. It’s hard to get things done because people don’t understand, they misinterpret. They apply their own definition to words when they speak and yet the listener’s definition of those words might be something different so you have failed communication. 

When people read the From CULTURE to CULTURE book, the first thing, like Donte said, they need to do is clearly define their values in a way that points towards the behaviors that make that value real and the definition of those words have to be agreed upon by all the leaders in the business so that they have a common language with common concepts and terms that everybody understands and agrees upon definitionally. That is the cornerstone of every culture. That’s the first step of our seven-step process is making sure definitions and language and common understanding and that’s really the foundation. That’s where you start. 

Drew Appelbaum: Well, Donte, Randall, this has been a pleasure and I’m excited for people to check out the book. Everyone, the book is called From Culture to Culture, and you could find it on Amazon, and I want to say a sincere congratulations on even putting this book out, which is here to just help business leaders and their employees be successful and lead the way in company culture. It’s no small feat, so congratulations again on being published. 

Dr. Donte Vaughn: All right, thank you for having us. 

Randall Powers: Yeah, thank you. It’s been fun, enjoyed it. 

Drew Appelbaum: One more question, besides checking out the book and your website, is there anywhere else where readers or listeners can connect with you? 

Dr. Donte Vaughn: They can connect with us on LinkedIn, just do a general search of CultureWorx— X as in xylophone, like the X factor in their business. If they look up CultureWorx on LinkedIn, they’ll be able to find us there and again, access articles and different pieces and then we have a future podcast where they’ll be able to engage with us in more of a live format and other platforms by which we intend to continue to share the impact that culture performance management is having on organizations, so look out for more. 

Drew Appelbaum: Very cool. Thank you so much for giving us some time and coming on the show today. Best of luck with your new book, gentlemen. 

Dr. Donte Vaughn: All right, thank you. 

Randall Powers: Thank you, be well.