Episode 135 : Building a Culture by Design

David Friedman is an award-winning CEO, entrepreneur, author and renowned public speaker. In 2011, he published his first book, Fundamentally Different, which is based on the insights he learned and taught throughout his leadership career. And in 2018, he published his second book, Culture by Design, the definitive “how to” manual for building a high-performance culture.

His current company, High Performing Culture has helped hundreds of companies throughout North America to implement its culture operating system, CultureWiseä.


  • Can you share with us a little bit about your journey? How it is that you got to where you are today. We like to always ask our guests in their own words, if they can just share with us a little bit about who they are and how it is that they got to where they are today.
  • So your first book that you wrote Fundamentals, you had mentioned that one of your fundamentals is quick response time. Could you share with our listeners what are some of the other things that is the core of your fundamental practices?
  • Do you see any emerging trends in relation to things that leaders in organizations need to focus on more, even more now than before the pandemic probably for the next two or three years?
  • Can you share with us if you have an app, a tool or a website that you absolutely can’t live without in your business?
  • Can you share with us one or two books that have had the biggest impact on you? You mentioned one earlier The Effortless Experience, but maybe any others – it could have been a book that you read a very long time ago or even one that you read recently, but it really has impacted you.
  • What is something that you are really excited about – one thing that’s going on in your life right now that you’re really excited about, it could be something that you’re working on to develop yourself or your people.
  • Can you share with us where listeners can find you online?
  • Do you have a quote or saying that during times of adversity or challenge, you will revert to this quote, it kind of helps to get you refocus, maybe because you got derailed or you just got off track? And so this quote kind of just brings you back to centre to focus on what’s really important.


David’s Journey

David shared that he lives in the Philadelphia area, he spent 27 years as the CEO of an employee benefits consulting company. And he grew that company from a couple of people to a little bit over 100 people and during the years that he was growing that company, they were very, very successful in almost every dimension you can look at, but the foundation of all of their success. Everything that made them successful was the culture that they had created in that company. And as the CEO of that company, he did a lot of things in a very intentional way to make that culture happen. He eventually sold the company to a large multi-billion-dollar company, ended up retiring from that industry. And he wrote his first book, which was called Fundamentally Different which was referred to before. And it was a book about the things he had done in his career that made them so successful, specifically around culture. And what ended up happening is people started reading that book and getting a lot of value from it and they started asking him if he would come to speak to their organizations about the things about which he had written. And so, next thing he knew he was travelling around the country giving talks to CEOs and people started hiring him to help them and next thing he knew he was in a new career. And so, over the last seven or eight years, he has given more than 500 workshops on this material, typically to CEOs and other leaders, worked with hundreds and hundreds of companies helping them do it. And has written three books on the topic. And so, it all comes from the experience that he had leading a company himself, and what he learned and what he now teaches people.

Other Core Fundamental Practices

Me: So your first book that you wrote Fundamentals, I know at the beginning of the conversation, you had mentioned that one of your fundamentals is quick response time, which was music to my ears. Could you share with our listeners what are some of the other things that is the core of your fundamental practices?

David stated that what he teaches people is that in any organization, he doesn’t care of organization it is, the culture in that organization has an enormous influence over everything that happens from customer service to everything else that takes place.

And so, as leaders, we should be intentional about creating the culture that we want to have. One of the important elements and probably the most important element in creating a really great culture or any culture for that matter, is being clear about what are the behaviours that you say, “Boy, if we could get all of our people living to these behaviours, this is the kind of organization I want to have.” And he gives those behaviours a name, it’s just his nomenclature, he calls them fundamentalsbecause he thinks they’re fundamental to success.

So they help organizations define their culture in terms of a set of very specific behaviours. In his particular company, and this is his company, it doesn’t have to be the same for a different company. But in his company, some of their fundamentals, the one you’re asking about a moment ago, is one that we called Be a Fanatic About Response Time.

Some of the others that he teaches in his own company are things like Honour commitmentsPractice Blameless Problem SolvingGet Clear on ExpectationsBe a Generous Listener, these are actions, they’re things that people do, and you get people doing these kinds of things, you create a very different kind of organization. So those are just some samples of the fundamentals he teaches in his own company.

Me: Great. So, those are also in the book, right? Could you share with us why you think those things are critical to creating a culture where customer experience, of course, is at its utmost best because clearly, a lot of organizations have many challenges in trying to get their customer experience to be consistent.

How is it that you go into these organizations, I’m sure a lot of their issues is everybody’s not doing what they’re supposed to be doing, how do we get people to be passionate? How do we get them to operate like how we do? I wish I could clone myself and have 100 of me, but the reality is you can’t. So how do we get everybody on the same page?

David shared that the foundation of the system that he teaches is, there eight steps to it, but let’s just boil it down to its essence.

There are two things that are critical for success. And this is true, whether we’re talking about customer experience, or we’re talking about innovation, or we’re talking about anything, even a sports team, a family, you want to get a group of people to be consistent so that you can clone yourself, there are two things that are critical.

The first is what we were just talking about, we have to be crystal clear about the expectations. So frequently, he hears leaders frustrated that people aren’t being the way they want them to be but they haven’t been clear enough about what they expect, they’re just annoyed that people haven’t somehow, miraculously by osmosis figured it out themselves.

So the first step is absolute clarity about what is it that we expect of people. And when we talk about that clarity, one of the ways that companies try to do that and fail, is that the typical way of doing that is they create a list of core values and they look wonderful on the website, except most of the time, they’re so broad, and so nebulous that they don’t really bring enough clarity.

He makes a big deal about the difference between what he calls values and what he calls behaviours.

So a value is an abstract idea, quality, integrity, loyalty, service, teamwork, those are wonderful words, but they mean so many different things to different people, that they’re very difficult to operationalize.

Behaviours are actions, they’re things people do and because they’re action oriented, they’re a lot easier to be coaching people about, it’s very difficult to coach somebody about their values, it’s a lot easier to coach them about their behaviours.

So the first step is this defining with way more clarity, exactly what we expect, in terms of a set of behaviours or as he noted a moment ago, he calls fundamentals.

Now, once we have that, it’s great to have them listed and have more clarity. But here’s the real key step. And this is so simple. He calls it creating rituals.

So a ritual is a routine, a habit, something that we do all the time and the reason that rituals are so important, is that most people and you’ve seen this, most people aren’t very good at sticking with things. We come up with all kinds of wonderful ideas. And then we get busy and life gets in the way and they fall by the wayside, so the company comes up with the big new programme and for three months or even three weeks, everybody’s all excited about the new programme and then they fall by the wayside.

When something becomes a ritual or routine, it’s not difficult to continue, it’s just part of our routine. So he’ll give a simple example in another area and then take us back to this topic of service and business.

You wake up in the morning, you brush your teeth, before a ballgame in the States the do the national anthem, there are just routines about how you operate. Some people before a meal, they say a prayer. When something is a routine like that, it’s not hard to do. So the way we use that simple concept is we take these fundamentals as he calls them and they begin to focus on one fundamental every week through a series of rituals.

So week number one, everybody in the company all week long is thinking about working on focusing on fundamental number one, the week after that everybody in the company is on number two, and the week after that three, and they keep cycling through them.

So giving one simple example of a ritual to illustrate it for the listeners. So one of the rituals that he practices in his company, and all of their clients do this as well, is that every time they have a meeting in their company, whether it’s a project team meeting, a department meeting, a virtual meeting, if they have a meeting in their company this week, every single one of those meetings, the first agenda item of the meeting is the fundamental of the week. And they spend the first few minutes of the meeting talking about this week’s fundamental and what it means.

So his company’s fundamental this week, he mentioned it before actually is called Practice Blameless Problem Solving. So every time they have a meeting anywhere in their company this week, the first agenda item is going to be a three or four-minute discussion about practicing blameless problem solving.

That gets them lots of chances to teach and teach and teach and teach. So if they start by defining really clearly the behaviours that are important in their organization, and then they have a structured systematic way to teach those behaviours over and over and over and over again, sooner or later, those behaviours are going to become internalized in their people and that’s how you get yourself cloned. What most people do is they again, either aren’t clear enough, or they put stuff out there and then they figure, “Okay, I talked about it once or it’s on the wall, or it’s on the website, how come everybody doesn’t do it?” You need repetition, without repetition, we don’t learn anything.

Me: That is so true. I say it in training so many times. When you’re teaching children ABC, you don’t just go to school one day and the teacher says, okay, this is the alphabet, ABCDEFG to Z and then they never say it again. It’s like constantly being reinforced with the kids; they sing to it. They sing ABC songs to them, they read to them about ABC, they talk to them about ABC, they have pictures. So it’s constantly being reinforced and as you mentioned, repetition and adults learn just like children.

David agreed that we do, it’s how humans work. And yet somehow in most organizations, we think that people are just going to magically figure it out without that repetition. He’ll give a very good example of actually where he learned all of this originally, and it relates very directly to customer service.

So, one of the organizations that is world renowned for incredible customer service experiences is the Ritz Carlton Hotel chain. If there ever was an icon for extraordinary customer experiences, it would probably be Ritz Carlton. And many years ago, he had an experience at where he brought his company to a Ritz Carlton for a day of brainstorming about great service and knowing how great they were, he asked them if they could share during their lunch with them some of the things that they do, and they do a very specific thing that really became the foundation for the concept behind what he teaches.

At Ritz Carlton, they have 20 behaviours that they have articulated about delivering great customer experiences. And these behaviours are called their basics. The Ritz Carlton basics, and there are 20 of these.

And every day they have a ritual that’s called the daily lineup and a daily lineup, what happens is in every Ritz Carlton property in the world, in every department and in every shift, the team members get together at the beginning of the shift, and they gather around for a 10 or 12-minute meeting known as the daily lineup. And the first thing they do in their daily lineup is they talk about the basic of the day.

So if today were day number one in every department, every shift people would be getting together and kicking off their shift with a brief meeting and they start the meeting talking about basic number one. Tomorrow, everybody would be on number two and the next day number three, and so on.

And at the end of 20 days, they go back to the beginning and they do it over and over and over again, every day of their entire career. And that’s how they get people to absorb and internalize the things that lead to extraordinary experience. They don’t do it by just hoping they’re going to get really nice people and it will all work out, they teach these things every single day with repetition. Makes sense.

Me: And you’re right. Ritz Carlton, that’s the gold standard that everybody’s aiming to achieve and sometimes people think, is it that they got really amazing people, but they probably have the same level or standard of people in terms of their recruitment. But as you said, their technique and their strategy in terms of what they’re doing, it makes sense because it’s being repeated, it’s being reinforced, people are being held accountable and now it becomes almost a part of your DNA. Because if you’re doing something over and over again, it becomes so a part of you. I remember when I went to high school, I went to a Catholic High School, we were not allowed to walk on the grass, it was completely forbidden. And I recently went on vacation with my daughter to Airbnb in Ocho Rios and she just walked across the grass and I had to walk on the path and go around. And the little light bulb went off in my head, and I said, “Yanique, why don’t you walk on the grass?” And I said, “Because it’s not allowed.” But it’s something that I had to do for 7 years. And so, it actually became a part of me, I think it was like an unconscious behaviour because it was after I thought about what I did, that I was able to dissect and say, “Okay, that’s the reason why I did it.”

David agreed and stated that to take that same thought and now let’s apply that same exact thinking to customer service or any kind of thing that we’re trying to get in our culture. If we want our people to be so unconscious, so automatic about how they deliver fantastic service, well, we have to tell them.

What are the behaviours, that if you were doing these things every day that would create amazing service experiences?

We have to be crystal clear about them.

And then just like the way you learn not to walk on the grass, we have to teach those things over and over and over and over again, with enough repetition so that they become internalized by our people.

And once they become internalized by our people, well, that’s just the way we do things around here. It starts to happen and it’s such a simple idea.

Me: Simple, yet profound, yet many people are not doing it.

Trends Organizations Need to Focus On

Me: You’re in this industry teaching about culture, you’re teaching about behaviours. Can you share with us maybe one or two things, trends that you see emerging? We’re coming out of a pandemic, not sure if you’ve noticed anything in the States where you are from in your neighbourhood, if you’ve noticed anything that’s different in terms of people’s behaviours, have you found that customers have become more heightened to the quality of experience that they’re expecting especially seeing that safety is now the new buzzword in terms of how safe you make your customers feel? Do you see any emerging trends in relation to things that leaders in organizations need to focus on more, even more now than before the pandemic probably for the next two or three years?

David stated that the first thing he would say that’s very related to the pandemic is obviously, we have gone to people working remotely in a way that didn’t exist before. And even as vaccines become more prevalent and the pandemic gets behind us. Certainly, almost everybody recognizes that we will continue to have a high number of people, never more than ever before that will continue to work remotely.

So some people will be back at the office, but there will be many, many people who will forever work remotely or in some hybrid kind of environment where some are in person and some are working remotely.

And that has enormous impacts, specifically as it relates to culture. That if your culture was mostly a function of people being together everyday, and somehow by example, your were people were figuring out, I guess this is how things happen around here. But there was no overt methodology for teaching, it was just leadership by example. “Well, if I’m not seeing you anymore because we’re not physically together. Well, then you’re going to have some real struggles if there’s no other structured way to convey culture.”

And so, it’s become more important than it ever used to be to be systematic about how we create our culture, because we can’t rely on people being together anymore and he thinks that’s a significant shift.

He would say the second shift that I see and he doesn’t know that this is so much a function of the pandemic, as much as it is just a general societal business trend is certainly there’s a trend toward more self-service, where there are many clients and many buyers who want to be able to access tools and resources on their own.

So the definition of what is great service means has changed, great service used to mean very high touch personal interaction and so in some cases, that’s still true. But there are many other people, especially the younger generation, who their attitude about services, “Just give me the tools to do it myself, I don’t want somebody pestering me, I don’t want this intense personal relationship.”

And again, obviously, this varies with the person and the product. But in many things, especially the younger generation, “Just give me the tools to go online and do it myself and I’m a happy camper, I don’t need anybody to be talking to me. In fact, I don’t even want to talk to somebody, I just want to be able to do it.”

And so, he thinks that the implication of that trend is that businesses need to be able to provide multiple ways for people to get the service that they need. If I’m a customer that wants high touch, then I’m going to be frustrated if I can’t find anybody to talk to. And so, you need to be able to provide that for me. But if I’m a customer who doesn’t want to talk to somebody, you need to provide me with avenues to do self-service. So, he thinks responding to the variety of ways in which people want to receive service, companies need to have a number of different methods.

Me: Those are really, really good points. And you are right, self-service is definitely something that people want. I definitely have seen that as a higher emergence. As a matter of fact, locally, when I tried to reach out to my utility companies, I find I get through to them much quicker through the chatbots that they have on their websites than actually calling them on the telephone, you get through much quicker. You sit there on the phone for 56 minutes, 70 odd minutes, some ridiculous times, just listening to this awful music or recording that they have going on over and over again, but you go online and it’s like there’s more response, the response time is much faster and the person online is in a better position to assist you.

David shared that there’s a great book called The Effortless Experience: Conquering the New Battleground for Customer Loyalty by Matthew Dixon. And that’s a great book.

And one of the points they make in that book is that the challenge is mostly there are these different ways that people want to access service and the problem comes if the way that I want to do it doesn’t work, if I have to switch methods.

So if I want to call somebody and I can’t get through because I’m on hold for 45 minutes, I’m going to be really frustrated.

If I want to be able to go online and do it myself and I try it and it’s too confusing and I have to give up and pick up the phone and call somebody, then I’m going to be frustrated too.

So I need to have different methods to respond to different customers’ desires and each of them has to work well.

If the way that I tried to get my service doesn’t work and I have to switch to method number two, that’s where you really frustrate your customers and they leave.

App, Website or Tool that David Absolutely Can’t Live Without in His Business

When asked an online resource that he cannot live without in his business, David shared that he has found that in his whole career, that being well organized is an absolutely critical element of success, that if you don’t have good systems for keeping on top of everything you need to do, things fall through the cracks and it’s extraordinarily difficult to deliver great service to people.

It’s hard to honour your commitments if you don’t have a good way to track all your commitments.

It’s hard to be a fanatic about response time if things slip through the cracks because you didn’t keep track of at all.

So systems to keep track of everything you need to do are critical to him.

There’s a system that he uses many years ago that was back then and then there’s an updated version. But back then, he was a big Franklin planner user and a software version of the Franklin planner. A number of years ago switched to an Apple environment from a PC environment, Franklin planner never came out with an Apple version but there’s a different company that created a product that is almost identical to what Franklin planner software was.

And it’s called Opus One and it’s basically a planning tool to allow you to keep track of task management, everything you need to accomplish in your life. And how does he keep track of it? How does he prioritize it? How does he make sure nothing is ever forgotten?

And he can’t imagine how he would function without that, everything he needs to do in his life is there, he looks at it every day. And it’s scary to think about what life would be like if he didn’t have a tool like that.

Books That Have Had the Greatest Impact on David

When asked about books that have had an impact, David shared that The Effortless Experience: Conquering the New Battleground for Customer Loyalty by Matthew Dixon was certainly one of them. He would say a book that he just finished rereading or actually more accurately listening to. He read it years ago and he just re-listened to it is Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. He read that when it came out, it came out like 2002 and for some reason it just came across his attention recently and he listened to it on Audible.

And he really thinks it’s a fascinating book and it gives him pause to think a lot about the things that they’re doing. And for those listeners who may not have read or heard The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell, the author looks at social epidemics, how does an idea all of a sudden take off and spread, whether it’s a fashion, whether it’s a product, whether it’s a service, and all of a sudden something goes from nobody knows about this?

And then at a certain point, everywhere you look people are talking about that or reading about it or heard of it. And how does that actually take place? Where’s the tipping point where all of a sudden, it goes viral? And why does that happen? What are the factors that contribute to something going viral? It’s a fascinating book, highly recommend it.

What David is Really Excited About Now!

David stated that the biggest thing he’s excited about is the opportunity to scale what they’re doing. And what he means by that is that the concepts that he teaches as you’ve heard, even just in a cursory way in this podcast, the idea that if we really want to drive the culture in an organization, it really comes down to two very simple things, define really clearly the behaviours that drive success and then create this structured systematic way to teach those over and over and over again.

And if you do that, you’re going to be really successful and he calls that whole concept, he calls it the Power of Fundamentals, that when we have a set of fundamentals that driver our success and then we can have a way to teach it, it has an unbelievable impact.

So the Power of the Fundamentals is just such a powerful idea and such an impactful idea and he’s really excited and enthusiastic about the work that they’re doing in their company to spread that idea so that not just hundreds or 1000s of people but ultimately millions of people can leverage those concepts and apply that to improve their families, their children, their companies, their sports teams, their churches, it applies in every walk of life.

And so, the opportunity to spread those ideas and give people tools that enable them to be more successful is just a very exciting and rewarding challenge.

Where Can We Find David Online

Website – www.culturewise.com

David shared that on the website are lots of simple videos that explain the concepts, really easy to understand material there. There’s also links there to his books and you can also get them on Amazon or Audible. The most recent book, which was published this spring is an updated version of his original book called Culture by Design.

Quote or Saying that During Times of Adversity David Uses

When asked about quote or saying that he tends to revert to, David shared that he’s going to broaden that. And so yes, and it’s a quote that is more related to organisations, but it’s equally important individually. So for organizations as it relates to culture, the quote that he says often and really centres him is he says that, “Good companies have good cultures by chance. But world class companies have world class cultures by design.”

And what he means by that is that when he looks at those companies and those individuals who are most successful, they don’t do anything that’s so incredibly unusual, he sometimes says they do ordinary things with extraordinary consistency. They just are very purposeful about everything they do that reasonably moderately successful people naturally are gifted and they do a lot of things successful just almost by accident. But the most successful people, the most successful companies, it’s by design, they’re incredibly intentional about everything they do. So if he looks at his own work, it’s about not just relying on instincts, but being really systematic and really intentional about practicing day after day after day, the things that lead to success.

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