How Ethos Defines A Culture

Published: Aug 17, 2022  |  

Leader in software development and 3D animation

We’re gathered in a nondescript hotel conference room for an offsite. As the clock strikes 9am, our facilitator Andy walks into the room and tells us, “Over the next three days, we’re going to set the foundation for your new company and make sure you all are on the same page.” We let out a collective groan. This is not our first team-building or vision-setting exercise. It is, however, the first time the leaders of our two merged companies are meeting to determine how we want to operate as a combined team.

Within the first several minutes, it’s clear a mutiny is brewing. We’re tired of going through the motions of crafting a Mission Statement, compiling a set of Core Values, and wordsmithing a Vision of the Future. Especially knowing as soon as we get back to the office, it will be business as usual. That’s when I said, “This is a waste of time. None of us believe this work will bind us together or provide a rallying cry for our teams. We’ve been competing for fifteen years, and none of us believe this offsite will make a difference.” 


I said what we were all thinking. We’re a group of high achievers, used to running hard and working outside the customarily expected business norms. Like our customers, we’re rebellious, challenging the status quo and making our own rules. These attitudes had gotten us this far, yet we knew we had to find a way to collaborate and come together as a management team.

Andy patiently listened as we debated how to get started. Clearly, his plan for our time together had come entirely off the rails. As a lieutenant in the Marines, he was skilled at developing and implementing plans. Yet, in this instance, his immediate challenge had become how he would lead these rebellious minds towards a successful outcome. He suggested a starting place for us might be coming up with some rules of engagement, a very military concept. In addition, as we had come from different corporate cultures we needed to establish some baseline for working together—even if it was just for a couple of days.

Over the next hour, we came up with twelve operating principles. One of the first things we wrote was Practice Teamwork. One of my favorites was Act Like You Own the Company.

There was only one major problem. None of us believed these ideas would last beyond the workshop. Sure, we would report back to our teams to communicate our work; however, the half-life of these exercises typically lasts a couple of weeks at best. That’s when I said, “Instead of writing these down and putting them into an email to the team, why don’t we reframe them as Observable Behaviors? Let’s discuss each principle and find some things we might see in the office that exemplify each concept.” After that, I saw everyone leaning in and warming up to the idea. Our company was in the business of helping people visualize ideas through our animation software—why couldn’t we visualize operating principles in the same way?

This shift in perspective from a “fixed set of staid concepts” to looking for living, breathing examples of our core values each day became a game-changer. Each week our staff meetings would include time to talk about how managers had observed their teams living into the values.  These conversations became essential to building a shared culture and led to us cultivating a collection of high-performing teams.

Five years later, I stepped onto the mat at Martial Arts Family Fitness, a Hapkido dojo in Santa Barbara. I was struck by five words posted on the wall before us. Courtesy, Integrity, Perseverance, Self-Control, and Indomitable Spirit. I asked Grandmaster Wheaton about them after my first class. He explained them in a way that reminded me of the Observable Behaviors at work. It was through the lens of these words that he looked at all of us. How were we demonstrating courtesy, how did we live into integrity, what did perseverance look like, were we practicing self-control, and when push came to shove, were we indomitable? 

I was surprised by how these words deeply affected me. My existing relationship with values had been within a team, a shared collective work context. They were rules of engagement, defining how we’d operate together. Yet, here I was presented with a personal commitment to these tenets and expected to honor our commitment to them, both on and off the mat. It reminded me of the Boy Scout Oath I’d taken at 13, yet this combined experience, at work and in the evenings at the dojo had a much deeper impact on me, especially at this time in my life.

When breaking one of the tenets, Grandmaster would say, “Don’t apologize. Change your behavior and don’t do it again.” Again, putting the burden of compliance back onto us. I’d never had someone hold me accountable in this way. Normally, I’d say I was sorry, but not make an intentional commitment to do better.  

Over the next several years and through achieving two black belts, I noticed the tenets had seeped into every aspect of my life. More importantly, they had become the basis for how I treated teammates at work, customers of our businesses, and colleagues in the industry.

I’ve come to see this as my Ethos. It’s what I stand for, so when life gets tough, and the challenges become nearly untenable, I know I have core values I can rely on to give me strength. 

Fast forward 25 years later, and the idea of value-driven companies has come full circle. Employees search online before applying for a job to find out examples of an organization’s values. Likewise, customers look to see how the company behaves in the market, what they give back to the community, and what they believe well before they dig into their product offerings. Although I don’t remember these ideas being important 25 years ago, I can’t imagine an organization not putting culture, values, and social responsibility at the front of their conversations.

So, ask yourself, is it easy for your customers to find what you believe in?

“A man who stands for nothing will fall for anything” — Malcolm X

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