Today, I’m speaking with author Joe Bertotto, a workplace culture expert. Joe has spent the past 30 years helping leaders improve their workplace environment and through that, increase productivity and improve lives. He was one of the first Gallup Certified Strengths Performance Coaches and has worked as a consultant for many organizations to better their culture. Joe recently compiled all of the information he has learned over the decades into his new book Pick Up the Gum Wrapper.

In this book, Joe walks leaders through the three proven steps to building a stronger culture and workplace. Today, Joe and I chat about his thoughts on culture and how companies can significantly and successfully move their culture dial in the right direction.

Nikki Van Noy: Joe, thank you for joining us today.

Joe Bertotto: Thanks Nikki, a pleasure to be here.

Nikki Van Noy: I have to tell you, I love your title, Pick Up the Gum Wrapper. Tell me where you got that title from?

Joe Bertotto: Well, you know, there are kind of three types of employees in an organization. One type are the people who are committed, they’ll do everything they possibly can to produce work and contribute and make the workplace great. And they are people that if they see a gum wrapper on the floor, they’ll all walk over and pick it up because they have such pride in their company. That’s really where the title came from.

There are also employees who would walk by that gum wrapper who are maybe not giving discretionary effort consistently and really don’t see that as their job. Then, unfortunately, there are people who are miserable at work and they’re the ones who actually might throw the gum wrapper on the floor.

Nikki Van Noy: I love that, that’s such a memorable way of keeping that sentiment in mind but I think we are all very aware of those three different types of employees, just in our own lives.

Joe Bertotto: Yeah, it’s pretty evident, right? You can tell those people and people can see those types of co-workers at their offices.

Nikki Van Noy: Let’s back up a little bit here. Let’s give listeners a little run through of your professional life and what you’ve done that’s given you insight into work environments and to these different types of employees.

Joe Bertotto: Yeah, I’ve been doing this work for about 30 years and I really started because culture back 30 years ago wasn’t such a buzz word that it is today. I was doing a lot of training and development and then moved into more leadership development. Probably over the last 15 years, combined all of it to think more about the impact that culture has on an organization and really start thinking about how we create the kind of workplace where people want to come to work every day and not have to go to work every day.

Nikki Van Noy: That’s such an interesting point because you’re absolutely right. I am in my early 40s and I know when I joined the workforce, culture was not even a thing. Like obviously, every company has a culture, but it wasn’t something we talked about or that was considered important as far as I can see. Why do you think that shift has happened and brought us to where we’re at today?

Joe Bertotto: Well, I think there’s a greater recognition that people have more to offer all the time. When people are happy, they’re going to be more productive. That kind of thinking along with a lot of work done by organizations like Gallup that research why this stuff that seems soft and squishy is really vitally important to the success of an organization.

Some of the research that ties culture to performance and productivity stands out for people. Even for some who would think, “This is just kind of nebulous stuff,” there’s hard data to prove that if you have a great culture, you’re going to have highly productive people, which will lead to a highly productive organization.

Nikki Van Noy: Let’s talk about some of that research. What has it shown that listeners might not be aware of or may not bear at the top of mind? In other words, what’s at stake here?

Joe Bertotto: Well, I think what’s at stake are things like customer satisfaction or customer engagement, customer loyalty, and discretionary effort. Because every day, when you go to work, you make a choice. You can make that one more call or answer one more email before you leave.

People who are engaged are consistently giving that discretionary effort to try to make their organizations successful and when people don’t do that, they don’t use their discretionary effort, they kind of think, “Well, that’s enough for today, I can get that tomorrow.” People who do that consistently can impede the performance of the company.

The recognition that if we can create this place where people can bring their whole self, be who they are and really kind of help drive the success of our organization, good things are going to happen.

Nikki Van Noy: Obviously, we’re talking about the very important element of humanity here which you spoke about ‘whole self’. Talk to me about this sort of common experience that you discuss in your book, which is about how so many people start off their jobs with really high hopes and excited and gung-ho but become disillusioned at some point. What’s happening there?

Joe Bertotto: Yeah, culture is a very fragile thing and so many things can be dispiriting to people. Based on some of the research, only about 21% of people strongly agree that they are managed in a way that motivates them.

So, it’s really thinking about how we create this environment that accepts and appreciates people for who they are, that really looks at what are the anchor points for behavior within our organization, so that we all behave in a certain way or at least in a spirit of a certain way because everybody is different, so it will look a little bit different for everybody. And then, how do we make sure as leaders, who are really the culture carriers of the organization, how do we make sure as leaders, we’re putting into place practices that will create this commitment with and for people.

Why the Gap?

Nikki Van Noy: Where do you think that the gap is and delivering this for some leaders? Is it in those practices or where can things go wrong?

Joe Bertotto: I think one of the biggest things is just the busyness. Everyone is so busy these days and when you’re managing people, for most, that’s not your only job. You’ve got your own goals, you’ve got the team’s goals, you’ve got the daily work. All of that stuff is really urgent and critical.

The creation of the culture is really critical but it’s not urgent, for most people, depending on how the organization is set up. You know, I’m never going to lose my job or get demoted or have any problems if we’re producing at a high level, but I’m going to have those problems if we’re not producing at a high level.

So, my focus, based on the business and the pressure around, I’ve got to make sure we’re getting the results and doing everything we need to do. Developing the culture does take time, it takes effort. It’s not something you do once in a while. You need consistency and intentionality and sometimes, just with the daily stress, those things are hard. There’s not a tremendous amount of urgency to it but it’s super critical.

Without people thinking of the urgency, they can keep putting it off and putting it off until it’s too late. So, when a person joins with great hopes and excitement in their new company and you talk to them six or seven months later, you know, ho-hum, “It’s not as great as I thought it was going to be.” I think that’s part of the reason. It’s the business for leaders and the lack of urgency around creating the culture and the lack of, “If I don’t do this, that’s not as big a deal. I really need to get my results.”

Nikki Van Noy: That makes so much sense to me. Obviously, I am not the expert here but what I have observed and I’m curious if this tracks as accurate to you, is more and more companies are aware of what a good culture looks like. That’s a great step forward. When people who are coming on board hear about these cultures that do resonate, it’s very exciting. But then, it seems to me like, speaking to what you were just discussing, people don’t know exactly how to go about establishing those cultures or maintaining them maybe is the more accurate word in making them a real thing and that’s sort of where the divide comes in. Does that sound accurate to you?

Joe Bertotto: Yeah, it does. I mean, I think it’s a little bit of both. Some people just don’t know how to go about it. What are the key factors to create that culture? Then I think for some leaders, it’s, “Okay, I’ve done that so now that’s finished. I have to check that off the box and move on to other things,” and the reality with culture is, it’s an everyday thing. It’s not, “We’re going to do this once in a while and check it off the box.”

It’s, “How do I conduct myself as a leader and how do I really think about the person in front of me in trying to tailor my leadership and my style and my interaction to that person?” The more I can individualize, the better, right? The issue is that the whole idea of it really is an everyday thing. It’s not a thing that I just check off the box.

Nikki Van Noy: In Pick Up The Gum Wrapper, you’re sharing the three proven steps to building a good culture and a compelling workplace. Let’s talk to listeners a little bit about what those three steps look like in practice.

Three Proven Steps

Joe Bertotto: The first one is, really understanding the strengths that every employee brings to the organization. Everybody has these amazing gifts. So, as a leader, it’s really trying to understand, “What does somebody bring, what are their preferences, what are their natural talents, what are their strengths in terms of things they do really well and enjoy?”

I think one of the most universal laws of human dynamics, and I don’t think there are many universal laws because everybody’s so different, but I think one universal one is everybody wants to be accepted and appreciated for who they are. So, one underpinning of the way I think about developing culture is really how do we understand who this person is and what their preferences are and what is important to them? So that is step one and the tool we use there is the Clifton Strengths Assessment. There are a lot of great assessments on the market. To me, Clifton Strengths Assessment is the best because it is so specific to a person and it distinguishes one person from another.

So once we understand who the person is and who the people on the team are, the next step is to really think about, “Okay, well if we are all different and unique, as we work together how do we create some commonality so we are all the same?” And that commonality comes in the form of behavioral expectations.

Behavioral expectations are anchor points for behavior. They start to look at this is how we behave in this organization. So, the idea is you are free to be who you are, and we appreciate that and even want to celebrate that, and you have to work within the context of our expectations behaviorally. So, everybody in the company is having interactions that are somewhat similar based on whatever an organization’s behavioral expectations are. So, there gets to be this predictability in how we interact, and it is predictability in a good way that builds trust because there is stability that goes with that predictability.

Then the third piece is really thinking about the leadership practices. What are the practices that I as a leader need to put in place that are going to really drive a person’s engagement level? Engagement is all about performance and attitude coming together. I am enthused about my work and I am enthusiastic about my workplace. I am always giving my discretionary effort.

So those three things create culture, and those three things require effort, and those three things can be fragile. Without consistent intentionality about the approach, it is hard to maintain the culture once you start.

Nikki Van Noy: Talk to me a little bit about scalability. So, for people who are working in larger organizations, especially considering the fragility of this, what does that look like or how does it work, do you know what I mean? Are there different or specific things that people have to take into account as they are scaling?

Joe Bertotto: Well certainly if you work in a 15-person company and you work in a 900-person or 9,000-person company, it looks different, right? But I think in every case it’s got to start with the top of the organization. The real key is there is this defined approach and is there accountability all the way through the organization to make sure it is occurring? Accountability doesn’t have to be punitive. You know some of the best teams use learning as a primary method of discipline.

It really is just thinking about how we make sure that we are all following this model and using these three steps in an effective way. Certainly, somebody to champion that inside the organization, to be kind of a watchdog if you will, to just make sure that there is attention being paid to the culture is really important and in a large organization it becomes even more important.

Nikki Van Noy: I love that idea of learning because I feel like with that you are encouraging people to step back and really look at what can be done differently and it is almost like there is, for lack of a better word, almost the availability of this sort of victory even in mistakes when you can identify them and share them and look at them from that angle of, “Okay, this is something I found out the hard way we can do differently,” and there’s some victory in that.

Joe Bertotto: It is a great point and the word you use is really a special word. I mean there is a victory in that. So, what we are doing instead of criticizing people, we are trying to rally around people and think, “How do we do this together? How do we share our learning?” And so that just builds a greater support network where people can help each other succeed and it builds people’s confidence. And when you have confidence, many things that you thought were insurmountable become very possible.

Nikki Van Noy: Absolutely, I mean it is a great way to promote growth both as a team and individually I would imagine. So in your 30 years, I am sure you have seen so many different companies and scenarios, are there any you can share that really stand out to you in terms of companies that have maybe really successfully transformed their culture or established something that is really memorable to you?


Joe Bertotto: Yeah, there is one organization in particular where the organization was really kind of hell-bent on having this great organization. So, from the CEO to all the members of the senior team, there was a commitment to doing the right things to create the organization that they wanted and because of the commitment of the CEO and the senior team, it was one of the most amazing places to work.

It was funny, I was walking down the street and there were two people in front of me and one person said to the other, “I know people who work at this company and they never have a bad word to say about it.” Now they didn’t know I was behind them, but it was just an amazing testimonial to what that company created where no one complained, because when you think about it, every day when people go home from work, at some point, the conversation becomes about work.

Whether it’s at the dinner table, whether it is on the weekend, out with friends, at some point that is happening and really the question is, “What do you want people to say about your organization?” Do you want them to say that, “Boy, no one ever says anything bad about that place, there must be something special.”

Nikki Van Noy: I remember having these sorts of existential crises around work when I was younger. As part of the tail end of Gen X like you were saying, this just wasn’t really a conversation and I remember saying to people, “We spend so much of our life at work.” Like especially when I was coming up, I was spending way more time around the people I worked with than my family or my friends or my significant others. What you are saying just really resonated with me because it is such a big part of our lives. It is such a talking point.

I think that if that conversation can be turned into something that is really happy and that makes people feel good about their lives that just can’t be discounted. It is huge.

Joe Bertotto: Well, it is because here is the reality, I mean all of us bring this whole self to work. I mean you hear these phrases of, “Leave your personal life at the door,” but you know, the reality is that is not how the great majority of people are wired. They are not compartmentalizing that way. If they are unhappy at work, they are going to take that home and if things are going on in their personal life, you know that comes to work with people.

So, the reality is if we can create the environment where when people share things about what struggles they are having, life in general, that we are there to be a listening ear and talk through things with them and offer support and then on the other side, if we can create this great environment where everybody is appreciated for who they are–where people are doing their best work and we’re always helping people be the best version of themselves.

You know, when people go home from work in that scenario, they are excited to be there, and it lifts them up when they go home. If people come in upset and we turn that around and make them feel better that might help them again when they go home, and it certainly helps them during the workday. So, you know part of the idea of writing the book was really thinking about how we help people live their best lives and increase performance and improve lives. It all goes hand in hand.

Nikki Van Noy: Since you have a better vantage point on this than the average person does and also since you are so aware of the research and the data, where do you think that we are headed toward, generally speaking, in terms of workplace culture and where do you think we’re at on that journey from not really paying much heed to it to becoming aware of it and trying to be more intentional about the workplace cultures that we are establishing?

Joe Bertotto: I think now because culture has gotten into the lexicon of business, I think for sure people are more aware. I think we’ve got a way to go in companies to create cultures that really live up to that awareness.

Nikki Van Noy: Joe, is there anything we haven’t gotten to yet that you want to share with listeners?

Joe Bertotto: You know the only thing I would say is to really make a great culture, you need consistency, intentionality, and things have to be aligned. Processes, policies have to align with that great culture. If you have those three things, then think about those three steps of accepting and appreciating people for who they are and celebrating people and playing to their strengths. If you think about creating behavioral expectations that put together a common way of interacting, and then if leaders are doing a good job at using these defined practices that we talked about, it is definite that you will create the kind of organization that you want it to be and that people want to come to work every day.

Nikki Van Noy: All right Joe, so the book is Pick Up the Gum Wrapper and where else can readers find you or get in touch with you?

Joe Bertotto: People can reach me at [email protected].