How to Use the Group Styles Inventory™ to Conquer Team Challenges

“There’s no ‘I’ in team.” We’ve all heard it. Many of us have probably said it, perhaps even in jest. But this brief adage, cliché as it may sound, packs a lot of truth—and not just for sports teams.

Today’s organizations comprise ever-more-complex layers of teams. In addition to departmental teams, we also have project teams, cross-functional teams, virtual teams, and the list goes on. And teamwork is consistently on the rise: In the last 20+ years, time spent working collaboratively has increased by at least 50 percent.1

Combined with today’s constantly evolving global workplace, the need for teams to efficiently reach innovative solutions is at an all-time high. With 55 percent of executives citing collaboration as the top priority for learning and development programs, this need is clearly being recognized.2

So, what can you do to make sure your teams can keep up? Let’s look at three very different kinds of teams that found success using a common approach.

Struggling Teams: “Riding the sea of culture”

Steve King, founder of the SDK Group and an adjunct faculty member in the Executive Education Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has been helping teams and organizations identify and implement pragmatic solutions for change for more than 30 years. His framework for successful teams has been applied across various types of workgroups, including one team struggling to combine members’ efforts for a common goal.

To help the group begin working better together, Steve focused on the three-part framework he uses when working with teams:

  1. Alignment. Team members must agree on the overall goal of their work and understand what role they will each play in achieving the outcome.
  2. Process. For the team to be successful, they need to have or develop good decision-making processes. If they’re unable to collaborate using an effective decision-making process, it will be difficult (or even impossible) for the team to reach optimum consensus decisions.3
  3. Relationships. Working as a team becomes much more difficult if members don’t have positive working relationships. Lack of trust in each other, for example, can prompt micromanaging in team leaders and lead to loss of confidence on the part of members.

“What I’ve learned over the years is that in order for the framework to work well, you have to address team culture issues,” Steve says. He describes it as “riding on a sea of culture: When the seas are rocky, it’s hard to deal with them; when they’re calm, it’s easy.”

Putting the spotlight on behaviors

To quiet the waves, Steve utilizes a team assessment to put behaviors front and center. He uses the Group Styles Inventory™ (GSI) because it’s “perfect” for the intact teams with whom he often works.4 It also provides a consistent way to measure and talk about behaviors using a circumplex model, which can be applied at different levels throughout the organization.

“I always woo them toward talking about behaviors,” Steve comments. “Telling you to be constructive isn’t good enough—I need you to see it.”

“Telling you to be constructive isn’t good enough—I need you to see it.”
~Steve King

Helping members see their behaviors revealed perceptions of how the team worked together—and not all the perceptions matched. Some team members experienced an aggressive culture, with competition, conflict, and a focus on the good of the individual at the expense of the team. Others perceived the team’s culture as passive, with members avoiding decisions and trying to “play it safe.”

“It opened their eyes,” says Steve. “If they didn’t start addressing those issues, it would be hard to get relationship issues and even process issues right.”

The assessment results also provided data the team could act on to improve their performance. They could see the behaviors that were interfering with their effectiveness and, with Steve’s help, use these insights to change their approach. In addition to bottom-line results, “there was a higher level of engagement and satisfaction associated with being on the team. I always tell people that’s the byproduct you want to get—satisfied people are better at what they do and more productive.”

Leadership Teams: “Keep it simple”

Steve starts with the same Alignment-Process-Relationships framework when working with leadership teams. In fact, he finds this “keep it simple” approach works particularly well with leaders and managers, who are “inundated with a lot of complexity and various ways to do things.” Using a simple, consistent approach across the team allows members to focus on collaboration without the distraction of worrying about whose process is superior or “right.”

With this example, the leadership team had the first step down and were firmly aligned around their shared goal, but “processes and clarity about decision rights were not present.” It was unclear who was “making the call,” leaving some members feeling like they could do whatever they wanted while others felt that they couldn’t do anything at all.

Upon completing the GSI, Steve found himself working with another group with varying experiences of the team culture: “When we did GSI with that group, what became clear is that different people on the team received the dynamics of the team quite differently. Some more Competitive or Oppositional types saw the team as a ‘free-for-all.’ The more Approval or Conventional types sat waiting for decisions to be made on their behalf. There was a dramatic difference in the view of the team itself through that lens. They needed the aggressive people to be more collaborative and the passive people to be more advocating.”

The culture of the leadership team also trickled down through the organization to impact the overall culture. Those who worked under the leadership team were confused as to which leader’s orders to obey. At the next level down, people didn’t know who to follow because of different opinions and marching orders from superiors. Everyone was working toward the same goal but taking different—and sometimes conflicting—routes.

Creating swim lanes

With a clear need to align the leadership team’s processes, Steve began working with them to create what he calls “swim lanes.”

“We needed to create ‘swim lanes’ for decisions so we knew who had the decision in this swim lane versus that swim lane, which required them to behave differently,” Steve explains. “They needed to take over their lane without stepping on anyone else.”

This behavioral shift had a huge impact on the team’s interactions. The more passive members had a “safe” way to express how the culture was affecting them and were able to advocate for themselves. The more aggressive members could see how their behaviors were impacting the team’s culture and gained clarity on their swim lanes. And this time, the trickle-down effect was a positive one, with less confusion and more alignment throughout the organization.

Steve concludes, “Whether it’s the GSI or something else, you need a way to assess the culture of the team. When a team is really focused on improving, they should do some kind of validated assessment of the team culture, and GSI is my choice. It’s the right bat in the hand for me.”

Training Teams: “Big ‘aha’ moments”

While the previous two cases focused on intact teams, a behavior-based approach can also boost performance in teams working together for specialized training.  

Rina Sinha is a Senior Associate with Niwaki, who focus on organizational transformation with a people centric lean systems approach around the globe. Their work includes conducting onsite transformation projects as well as leadership development workshops in which teams gain a deep understanding of Lean techniques, combining simulations, exercises, and concepts to accomplish training goals and integrating challenges being faced by the client company into the program.

Rina and her colleagues at Niwaki use the GSI in these events to “bring to life and visualize behaviors so that improvements can be made.” The strategies and approaches they learn impact their effectiveness even if they don’t continue to work with the same team after the workshop is over.

She shared the story of one team who took part in a three-week event with Niwaki. The team displayed very defensive interaction styles, as confirmed by the assessment. They found themselves consistently falling behind in their work and struggled to collaborate effectively.

As part of the workshop, the team completed a GSI each week. Rina observes that, because it can be aligned with Lean values and principles, the GSI “brings them [the Lean principles] to life in the workshops and is an invaluable tool in the workplace.”

Upon completing the GSI, the team is led through a debrief process, developed by Niwaki, to help them reflect on their results. First, the team receives a blank GSI Circumplex, on which they create their own group profile. Then, they follow a five-step process to help them break down their results:

  1. Identify dominant behavioral styles and discuss specific behaviors displayed by the team that relate to those styles.
  2. Review the Team Effectiveness Scores provided in the GSI results.
  3. Reflect on the team’s effectiveness and, using the group profile, discuss what factors prevented the team from being more effective.
  4. Choose two behaviors (one Constructive to increase and one Defensive to decrease) to focus on for the remainder of the workshop.5
  5. Implement accountability strategies to help team members stay mindful of their behaviors and keep each other on track.

It’s a simple process, but one that delivers great results. “We find that almost every single team has a big ‘aha’ moment around why they were getting stuck, why they were behind compared to the other teams, or why they’re frustrated,” explains Rina. “We see almost immediately that they’ve put really good processes in place to hold themselves accountable to the behaviors they committed to.”

One example of an accountability process Niwaki uses is the identification of a “code word” that any team member can use when they see other members exhibiting ineffective behaviors they identified in their review of their GSI results. It’s amazing how the use of a simple rule or code word can help get a team back on track when they see team members “just going along with things” without raising alternative ideas, taking the team off course discussing irrelevant details, or otherwise behaving in ways that hamper the team’s effectiveness.

The debrief also gives team members a safe environment and shared language for discussing their behaviors and processes: “Without fail, in workshops, teams report excellent, open and honest conversations during the debrief, and we have consistent reports of more effective performance after adjusting behavior according to plans developed during debrief,” says Rina. “It creates a really good space because we can use red/blue/green (circumplex colors) versus words that may seem more threatening.”6

And in longer events like this three-week format, the team’s progress can be tracked as they continue through the workshop—and beyond. “Over time, we generally see them consistently becoming more Constructive, and if they stick with their teams [after the workshop], they’ll keep working on the actions and techniques.”

Visualizing the invisible

In this case, the team’s effectiveness began to improve dramatically by the third week, when they decided, without any prompting, to create a team charter and series of processes to hold themselves accountable to behavior changes. They stuck to it, and when they took the GSI again, their profile was significantly more Constructive. When asked if the third week felt different than the first two, they said, “Yes, the team is gelling much better, and we’re actually ahead as opposed to always being behind.”

“It’s very difficult to solve a problem if you can’t see it. Tools like the GSI make visual things that are generally hard to visualize like behavior, culture, and impact.”
~Rina Sinha

At the end of the day, as Rina says, “It’s very difficult to solve a problem if you can’t see it. Tools like the GSI make visual things that are generally hard to visualize like behavior, culture, and impact,” helping team members recognize the gap between their current behaviors and those that would allow them to work better together to achieve higher-quality outcomes. “It provides a way to take a ‘pulse check’ in real time within teams, so they can become more aware of their and their teammates’ experiences of the group and adjust very quickly to be more effective and productive.”

How to optimize team performance

The three cases discussed above cover three very different teams with very different challenges, but all made great gains through a common approach: focusing on behaviors. While team development programs can (and should) be customized for the unique needs of the team, these four steps are a great place to start.

  1. Define the goal. Before beginning work, ensure that everyone on the team agrees on what they hope to accomplish and their desired outcomes.
  2. Assess team behaviors. Use a validated assessment to help team members “see” their behaviors and how they are contributing to (or detracting from) their team’s effectiveness.
  3. Build an action plan. Work with the team to identify how they can shift to more effective interaction styles. Be specific and make sure there are processes in place to keep all team members accountable.
  4. Re-assess regularly. Seeing data that quantify improved results can help teams stay motivated and feel like their hard work is paying off, and re-measuring over time keeps them on track in case they begin to slip back into less-effective behaviors.

As Steve says, “Most leaders acknowledge that poorly functioning teams are like an unclean engine: it’s not optimized for performance.” Are your teams running smoothly?

Editor’s Note

Alignment, Process, Relationships.For more information on using the GSI to improve team performance, keep an eye out for Steve King’s upcoming book, “Alignment, Process, Relationships. A Simple Guide to Team Management.” 

Experience the Group Styles Inventory

The GSI, developed by Robert A. Cooke on the basis of J. Clayton Lafferty’s Circumplex, measures the way in which members interact with one another and approach problems when working together as a team. The Inventory is included in Group Dynamics programs designed to facilitate, monitor and reinforce improvements in individual and group problem-solving effectiveness to enhance innovation, collaboration and business decisions. Onsite Group Development Sessions help you build innovative, high-performing teams with hands-on facilitation from our expert consultants and specialists like Steve King and Rina Sinha. Contact them or us to learn more about bringing a session to your organization.

The GSI is also now available with real-time feedback. It can be completed by group members on almost any digital device following a problem-solving activity or any of Human Synergistics’ simulations. Learn more about the GSI.


1 Cross, R., Rebele, R., Grant, A. (Jan-Feb 2016). Collaboration Overload Is a Symptom of a Deeper Organizational Problem. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from

2 LinkedIn (2019). 2018 Workplace Learning Report. The Rise and Responsibility of Talent Development in the New Labor Market. Retrieved from

3 UMass Dartmouth Publication (2019). 7 Steps To Effective Decision-Making. Retrieved from

4 Cooke, R.A. & Lafferty, J. C. (1989). Group Styles Inventory®. Plymouth, MI: Human Synergistics.

5, 6 The terminology is from Robert A. Cooke, Ph.D. and J. Clayton Lafferty, Ph.D., Organizational Culture Inventory® and Organizational Effectiveness Inventory®, Human Synergistics International, Plymouth, MI. Copyright © 1987-2007. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

The Four Culture-Shaping Principles to Shift a Culture

Guidance from Bill Parsons of Senn Delaney

As the first culture-shaping consulting firm, Senn Delaney has quite literally made organizational culture its business. Larry Senn and his colleagues, including partner and executive vice president Bill Parsons, have brought their mission of “creating healthy, high-performance cultures” to more than 500 companies. Bill shared some of the knowledge they’ve gathered over their 38 years of experience at the 2nd Annual Ultimate Culture Conference—including the four principles that must be upheld to really shape culture and improve performance.

#1: Purposeful Leadership from the Top

When deciding to launch a culture initiative, many organizations hand the reins over to human resources. In Bill’s experience, if culture change is viewed primarily as an HR initiative, it’s doomed. This is not necessarily due to any failings on the part of HR departments, however. In order to succeed and not be seen as “just another program” that won’t really make a difference, culture change must have full and ongoing support from the company’s senior leadership team. “What we have found is the CEO and the C-suite need to lead and champion the culture shift,” said Bill. “It has to absolutely happen. It’s a business imperative—it is not an initiative.”

Hear Bill Parsons talk about the importance of purposeful leadership to culture change in this clip from his presentation at the 2nd Annual Ultimate Culture Conference. Subscribe to at our video library to view his full presentation and others from the conference.

Bill applied these best practices with a client experiencing marked growth through an acquisition, recounting an early conversation with the CEO: “What he finally said to me was, ‘What’s the most critical element in this?’ And I looked at him and I said, ‘You. You’ve been the chief investment officer in this holding company. Now you need to be the chief culture officer here.’” The desired outcomes cannot be achieved without willingness from the top levels of the organization to fully commit to the change process.

#2: Personal Change

The onus doesn’t just fall on the senior leadership team. To be successful, everyone has to “live the change.” Relying on an intellectual approach, with the focus on the reasons for wanting to change, will only result in short-term compliance. “Changing what people do is not enough,” Bill said. “It has to be about who they are as people.” Senn Delaney uses inside-out learning to inspire change at a deeper level:


Bill continued, “We’re not telling them how they’re supposed to be; we’re giving them insight into a self-selection that they need to make about a shift that would align with the culture. When they can take these principles and look at them from not only how they are at work but how they are at home—in their personal life, in their family life—that makes all the difference in the world, because they’re going to get congruence with who they are out of this.” This transformative approach personalizes the change process and enhances self-awareness and personal growth.

#3: Broad Engagement

One of the things that makes Senn Delaney’s inside-out learning approach successful is that it is infinitely scalable. The development program “touches” every single person in the organization, from the CEO to the front line—which is critical for widespread acceptance. “Cultures tend to resist what they need the most,” said Bill. “It’s almost like we have an organ in our body that needs to be transplanted and the body is going to tend to reject it; cultures do the same exact thing. So, if you want to be innovative they’re going to try to maintain status quo. You can’t change or shift the culture to drive this change by only dealing with 100 people or 200 people.”


Senn Delaney utilizes a transfer of competency process that trains change agents to turn the initiative over to the people managers. The managers then distill it down to their teams, leading monthly “Culture Conversations” to help them apply the culture to what they do. This broad engagement helps in achieving change across the organization by ensuring that everyone engages in the process and understands their role in the culture.

#4: Focused Sustainability

Once organizational members buy into the need for change, it’s relatively easy to get them on board for a brief period and build momentum and excitement at the outset. The real challenge comes with sustaining energy and effort over the extended period required to realize meaningful change. “It’s easy to get somebody committed for a year, but I’m telling them five years,” Bill explained. “Once your attention wanes, [the change] is going to die because habits are very powerful.” Maintaining the culture shift requires constant attention and reinforcement to prevent old habits from returning and undoing the hard-earned progress.

To keep the focus on culture, Senn Delaney recommends having a cultural leadership team that aligns all the internal systems, primarily human resources systems, to make sure they reinforce the message and the desired culture. They also ask their clients to commit to annual action plans, as well as keeping everyone informed of the organization’s progress to celebrate successes and learn from what’s not working. Continually guiding, supporting, and reinforcing the culture shift helps to keep the change alive and allows the organization to constantly evolve its culture over time.

Culture’s Moment in Time

Culture is having a moment, and rightfully so, as Bill pointed out: “Culture is the most effective vehicle to energize the large-scale change that’s necessary to position a company to thrive.” The four principles he shared—purposeful leadership, personal change, broad engagement, and focused sustainability—can help organizations ensure that culture stays top-of-mind for more than just a moment.

Special Opportunity: Learn more from Senn Delaney CEO, Mike Marino, who will be facilitating an experiential workshop at the 3rd Annual Ultimate Culture Conference.

The Missing Link in Culture Success

An Interview with Dr. Robert A. Cooke

It’s been nearly three years since Merriam-Webster declared “culture” its 2014 Word of the Year, but it has yet to lose any momentum. Culture has become ubiquitous in the business world, with media giants from Forbes to CNN to Huffington Post regularly publishing articles on the topic. Numerous articles cite culture as a key contributor (if not the key contributor) to retaining top talent, and research shows an undeniable relationship between culture and financial performance.

But with the spotlight firmly placed on workplace culture, leaders and organizations often miss a crucial piece of the puzzle. Where are all the articles, posts, and interviews on climate?

Disentangling Culture and Climate

According to Dr. Robert Cooke, CEO of Human Synergistics and Associate Professor Emeritus of Management at the University of Illinois at Chicago, “The organization as a whole, including all departments, teams, and individuals within it—and really, almost every outcome relevant to them—is impacted by culture and climate.” However, as he says, “One of the problems we have with culture is that everything has become culture.” People often mistakenly talk about culture when what they are actually referring to is climate.

So what’s the difference?

“Cultures initially evolve as members of a group or organization figure out how to solve problems and get things done. As they begin to recognize patterns with respect to what works and ‘how we do things around here,’ norms (or unwritten rules) about how members are ‘expected’ to interact and approach their work emerge. Over time, systems, structures, and technologies are put into place to further facilitate problem-solving and task accomplishment. Climate reflects members’ shared perceptions of these and other evolving properties of the organization, as well as their attitudes toward them.

“Organizational culture is often defined as the underlying assumptions and values that can lead to norms that guide the ways people interact, solve problems, and approach tasks,” says Dr. Cooke. Espoused values may be quite constructive and emphasize, for example, personal growth, teamwork, and quality.  However, the pattern of behaviors that emerges and the systems and structures that are put into place may be driven by other, less salient values, such as expediency and short-term success. This can lead to a disconnect between value statements and what members view as the ideal culture for their organization, on the one hand, and the day-to-day operating culture that they end up with, on the other.

“For people joining an organization, beliefs are based on perceptions and, therefore, are shaped by climate. They may see, for example, that there are a lot of negative consequences and not much in the way of rewards and recognition for failing when trying to make improvements—even when the initiative seemed justified. That can lead to a defensive set of beliefs and norms. The negative perception of rewards systems can lead to avoidance norms and “not getting involved”—even if the leaders ‘talk about’ the value of participation, risk taking, and innovation.”

In What Other Ways Does Climate Shape Culture?

The perceptions and attitudes of members influence their beliefs and the operating culture of the organization in many ways. Some examples of the impact of climatic factors on the norms measured by the Organizational Culture Inventory® include:

  • Job Design—Members may view their jobs as offering little autonomy, get little or no feedback on their work, and feel that the work they’re doing has no meaning or significance (suppressing Constructive norms for Achievement and Humanistic behaviors).
  • Communication—They may perceive that communication is inadequate, with those at the top not communicating what’s going on in the organization (promoting Defensive norms for Dependent and Avoidant behaviors).
  • Influence—Employees may feel that decision making at their level is minimal and that they have little involvement in decisions that affect their department or organization (suppressing Constructive norms for Self-Actualizing behaviors).
  • Recognition—Employees may feel that they’re working hard and making great achievements, but their efforts will not be recognized by their superiors (reducing norms for Achievement behaviors).
  • Employee Involvement—Members have good ideas that could improve their work, but the organization simply isn’t going to change (increasing norms for Conventional behaviors).

Perceptions like these lead to a defensive culture rather than a constructive culture.

A constructive culture does matter and, in practice, leads to such outcomes as engagement and performance. Research shows that culture and performance go hand-in-hand. “We’ve looked at relationships between culture and desired outcomes,” says Dr. Cooke. “For members, constructive cultures drive positive outcomes like satisfaction, motivation, and role consistency/role conflict. At the team and unit level, culture leads to cooperation, teamwork, and inter-unit coordination. And at the organization level, we see culture leading to better performance in terms of quality and better outcomes in terms of profitability. We’ve seen constructive cultures leading to positive outcomes and the attainment of specific goals across industries, including healthcare and hospitals, energy and nuclear power, media and publishing, and manufacturing.”

Don’t Underestimate the Importance of Leadership

Both research and anecdotal articles accentuate the interrelationship of culture and leadership. While those at the top levels of organizations must buy into the need for culture change for initiatives to be successful, it’s more than that. Leader behavior sets the example for how others approach their work, and the systems and structures they put into place inevitably and eventually are viewed by members at all levels and, over time, translated into an operating culture. With such a massive impact on the overall culture of an organization, it’s critical that leaders understand not only their effect on culture but on climate as well.

Instead of focusing on only one specific outcome of culture (such as innovation or engagement) or one specific problem (adaptability or integration), Dr. Cooke recommends that leaders consider the big picture and create a constructive culture that will be relevant to multiple problems and outcomes. “If they keep in mind the broader culture they want to create, that will lead them to set up, for example, performance appraisal systems, decentralized structures, and rich and interactive communication structures that will lead to a positive climate, the constructive culture they view as ideal, and the attainment of goals.”

Set the Course for Culture Success

Finally, knowing that leaders both shape and are shaped by the culture of their organizations, what can they personally do on a day-to-day basis to set their teams (and themselves) up for success?

To ensure that they are having the kind of constructive impact so crucial for organizational performance, executives and managers can develop and utilize prescriptive (as opposed to restrictive) leadership:

  • Prescriptive leaders carry out their responsibilities in a way that guides others toward goals and opportunities and focuses on their team members’ empowerment.
  • Restrictive leaders lead in a way that emphasizes what they don’t want, including what others shouldn’t be doing, what they’re doing wrong, and what they must do—whether or not they want to do it.

“Practically everything the leader does impacts the culture, and in many ways, one of the most important things a leader does is to create and communicate the values and norms of the organization,” says Dr. Cooke. “Leaders can affect the cultures of their organizations and shape them by role modeling, sending expectations, and by using prescriptive strategies for communicating, monitoring performance, mentoring, influencing, and doing all the things leaders do.”

Continue the Conversation

Dr. Cooke, along with an inspiring lineup of culture experts that includes Marshall Goldsmith, Edgar Schein, and Peter Fuda, will take a deeper dive into the leadership and culture connection at the 3rd Annual Ultimate Culture Conference. This year’s conference theme is “Leadership and Culture—It’s a Two-Way Street.” Join the Ultimate Culture Conversation on October 3, 2017, at the Fairmont Millennium Park in Chicago to hear more insights and enjoy dynamic networking and culture success stories. More information, as well as a full list of speakers and presentation topics, is available on the Human Synergistics conference page.

Need help shaping your culture for success? Explore our 90-Day Culture and Performance Quick-Start Program, which leverages the most widely used and thoroughly researched culture assessment in the world, the Organizational Culture Inventory® (OCI®).

Interested in learning more about culture, climate, and leadership? Attend our popular Culture Accreditation Workshop and take the first step toward becoming accredited in the OCI. You’ll also explore The Culture Journey Experience, our interactive and engaging approach to clarifying the complexities of culture, leadership, and their connection to performance improvement in an accelerated environment.

Culture and Hyper Growth: Ron Storn on Keeping Lyft’s Values Alive

Establishing and maintaining a strong workplace culture is a major undertaking for any organization. But when your organization grows 300 percent in the space of a year, holding onto the culture and values that led to such success becomes an uphill battle. That’s the challenge that Ron Storn, VP of People at Lyft, took to task when he joined the company—how do you keep values alive while your organization grows at a dizzying rate?

Humble beginnings

With a background as a cutting-edge startup, it might be surprising that the inspiration for Lyft came from a third-world country. Co-founder and CEO Logan Green grew up in the Los Angeles area, where, Ron says, he was “consumed with traffic.” While attending college in Santa Barbara, he became “obsessed” with creating a better living environment by decreasing traffic and removing cars from the road. A trip to Zimbabwe provided the lightbulb moment that would eventually lead to Lyft. “What he found was in the big cities, people would congregate in certain areas every day, and an organic shuttle system developed that maneuvered people through the country. So, Logan’s thinking, affluent areas like LA and Santa Barbara can’t figure this out, but countries like Zimbabwe have a plan. That started the genesis.”

Lyft’s other co-founder and current President, John Zimmer, had a similar experience being surrounded by traffic in New York, and had begun to consider a similar solution. A mutual friend connected the two on Facebook, and in 2007, they launched Zimride, a long-distance carpooling service at university campuses that was the precursor to Lyft. They started gaining traction, but as Ron explained, “the problem with Zimride was it was a long-distance ride, too infrequent, and there were no network effects.” In the summer of 2012, they had a hackathon, and “the Lyft concept was born.”

With growth comes competition…for business and talent

Ron joined the company in 2013 as a member of a relatively small—but rapidly expanding—team. “The growth over the last three years has been pretty insane. When I joined, we had 80 people, we were in six cities, and we had one primary office. And then fast forward to today: we have 1500 team members—and that excludes drivers; drivers are independent contractors—so these are just internal employees.” Lyft now operates in more than 200 US cities, with partnerships internationally, and has added two more primary offices: an engineering office in Seattle and a Nashville customer service office. These offices are in addition to the 15+ hubs in all the major cities within which Lyft operates that focus on optimizing the driver experience.

By the numbers: Growth at Lyft


“During this tremendous growth there’s tons of competition, especially for the ‘war for talent,’ on how you can bring the best individuals into the organization,” said Ron. He shared the three things top talent wants most when seeking out a new opportunity:

  1. Work with the Best: “Top talent really wants to work with the best people they can work with so they can learn from them.”
  2. Role/Impact: “The role that they have has to have impact within the organization.”
  3. Connection to Mission: “People are trying to find an employer that they have a connection with—either their mission, their values, or their product.”

“At Lyft, our product is really people, and we build a platform that connects communities, so we try to find talent that aligns to that. Having a very diverse population of drivers and passengers, we are very focused on building an organization that has diverse backgrounds and diverse experiences in order to bring that diversity into the organization.” With 50 percent of drivers identifying with a minority group and a passenger base that is 60 percent female, Lyft strives to keep diversity in mind to ensure that they build a product that supports their community and the organization’s core values. “We try at Lyft to live by the brand—we treat people better. That is in our external community with drivers and passengers, but also internally in how we support and develop our team members.”

Bringing values to life—in our cars and beyond

As Head of People, Ron’s job is “to take the experience within the car and replicate that internally for all of our employees, which we call team members. And, again, this starts with core values.” But when he started with Lyft, their core values were “really broken”—they focused on the drivers without considering internal team members. “What we had to do was work to reshape the values and come up with values that apply to all stakeholders in the community: drivers, passengers, internal employees, as well as the external candidates who want to join the company.” They defined four core values that permeate how Lyft’s team members think and act and what they want to accomplish.

VIDEO CLIP: Listen in as Ron talks about Lyft’s core values

Lyft Core Values


  1. Be Yourself. “I know a lot of companies talk about the authentic you, but really, who you are at home is who we want you to be internally within the company. We want you to be very comfortable so you can be more productive and happier.”
  2. Create Fearlessly. “We empower everyone to be an owner in the company, so if there’s something that isn’t working, fix it yourself or try to talk to someone who can fix it for you. We’ve grown so quickly, there are a lot of Band-Aid solutions that were put in place, so I want people to really assess and try to improve upon processes, maybe develop new processes to make the company better.”
  3. Uplift Others. “In the platform, drivers and passengers uplift each other. Internally for us, it’s so important to really be collaborative and be team-oriented. We have a rule that we really don’t want to hire any assholes. That doesn’t mean that we don’t want tough conversations, but we want people to do it in a very collaborative way. If we build the best engineering team and the best app, but we don’t have the right supply and demand in each of the cities, we’re going to fail. So, each of those groups has to really work together in a collaborative fashion.”
  4. Make It Happen. “John has an internal saying that says “F-ing participate.” It really means that we want you to be proactive and not reactive. The problem is that, as we scale, you have to be very thoughtful when you’re proactive. When I first joined, we didn’t hit our cumulative millionth ride until four months in. Today we have millions and millions of rides every week. So, if we are very proactive but are not thoughtful about the passengers, it can disrupt that service, and that’s something that we can’t afford to do.”

Lyft relies on its core values to foster an inclusive environment that puts team members front and center of everything they do, allowing their team members to influence the product, lead, and continuously grow. “That’s what we call our EVP—our Employee Value Proposition—and it really separates us when people are looking for a culture that they want to join.”

Culture and hyper-growth

These core values have been a key factor in helping Lyft maintain a culture that attracts top talent. The company didn’t want to become part of the statistic Ron cited: “If you grow by 20 percent or less, your culture remains intact. If you grow between 30 and 40 percent, you’re about to risk losing your culture. And if you grow more than 40 percent in any one year you’ve lost your culture. This last year, we grew almost 300 percent.” To mitigate the culture loss, Lyft determined four key ways to ensure it was living its core values:

  1. Behavior & Impact. Lyft threads their core values through all its programs and regularly pulse-checks to make sure team members are living up to them. The values are included in performance reviews and continuous feedback to measure the impact team members have, and to assess how they are living their values according to their peers and managers.
  2. Inclusion & Engagement Surveys. To make sure the values are aligned with team members and support the diversity of Lyft’s workforce, the company regularly administers inclusion surveys and engagement surveys. If misalignments are discovered, initiatives are undertaken to focus on how they can improve.
  3. Rewards & Recognition. On a monthly basis, Lyft gives out an Employee of the Fortnight reward that is directly tied to the core values. Team members who go above and beyond their job and exemplify one or more of the four core values are recognized.
  4. Office Culture. Lyft strives to offer an environment that emphasizes continuous learning, the value of individuals, empowerment, and a strong support system. That culture allows for the tough conversations that are necessary for an organization to grow and thrive.

Culture definitely starts with your founders, your CEO, and your leadership, but I think it’s owned by everyone in the organization.
-Ron Storn

Supporting and evolving your culture

Lyft had two major obstacles to maintaining its values-based culture: rapid growth and a distributed workforce. For organizations facing the challenges of hyper-growth, Ron has four main touchpoints to focus on and scale to support and evolve culture:

  1. Onboarding & Orientation: In the early days of Lyft, each new team member received a gift-wrapped MacBook Air and had an individual onboarding session. With so many new team members joining each week, they switched to a weekly group onboarding session where John gives the founding story and Ron gives a story about values. “What we want to do is really reaffirm why you join Lyft and make it be a place that you want to thrive in and are connected to. It really made a difference on how we scaled and how we connect people through these values.”
  2. Company Meetings & Communication: Lyft holds company meetings every two weeks to share information and “roast” new hires. They’ve had to scale the roast to themes rather than individual employees, but “it talks about how we integrate people into the environment.” Lyft also utilizes video and communication tools, wikis, an internal Facebook group, and informal chat conversations to allow for real-time collaboration as well as relationship building across their distributed team.
  3. Community Service: Team members take part in a “community day” where each office gets together in the morning to do community service. They have an online platform that connects individuals to organizations to which they want to donate their time. “In the afternoon, we come together and really talk about and have experiences of what you learned during the morning session, and then we’ll usually have food and drinks in order to make it a fun day.”
  4. Employee Resource Groups: To grow and maintain inclusion and diversity, Lyft developed employee resource groups for individuals to identify with each other. They also have a culture board made up of individuals with different tenures so team members from across the organization “can help shape and drive what culture looks like.”

To bring his presentation full circle, Ron emphasized that people want to form a connection with the organization they join, from the people they work with and the impact they have to the mission, vision, and values. He closed with key culture takeaways for all organizations, whether or not they’re facing hyper-growth: “Your last 100 hires are what your true culture is, so make sure that they embrace, understand, and learn the culture so they can hire the next 100 folks. Culture definitely starts with your founders, your CEO, and your leadership, but I think it’s owned by everyone in the organization. It’s a living, breathing type of situation where you always have to curate, you always have to evolve, and that’s going to make a very healthy environment.”

What are your core values and how do you help bring them to life? 

We invite your thoughts and comments via LinkedIn and Twitter.

Visit our video library and join the Ultimate Culture Community to view Ron’s full video presentation and receive access to all conference videos and updates on new posts.

Article direction: Tim Kuppler.

Disrupting to Stay the Same: Culture Insights from Zappos

Zappos holds the distinction of being one of the largest online retailers of clothing, shoes, and accessories. But for entrepreneurs and corporate leaders, it is much more than just a profitable business. Zappos ascribes its success to its values-based culture, and its culture stories and unique best practices are well-known. The company has become a clear poster child for culture, leading to the creation of Zappos Insights, “a team within the Zappos Family of Companies created simply to help share the Zappos Culture with the world.”

As Culture Evangelist at Zappos Insights, Jon Wolske is tasked with “taking the culture show on the road.” He brought his one-man show to the 2nd Annual Ultimate Culture Conference, going beyond the standard Zappos culture fare to take a deep dive into what makes the company a thought leader in culture.

Zappos’ in-house “rockstar”

“Rockstar” Jon took the stage with enthusiasm and started by sharing his belief about what defines culture. “For me it’s the attitudes, the feelings, the values, and behaviors that characterize and inform a group and its members,” he said. “That’s even still kind of like grabbing smoke. What is it really? My belief is that culture is who you are. One of the things at Zappos we believe is that your culture and your brand are two sides of the same coin. So, it’s who you are. It should guide and inform how you do what you do, and should always point you to why. Why do you do what you do?”

Your culture and your brand are two sides of the same coin.
-Jon Wolske

Zappos’ values stood out to Jon from the day he joined the company, but he didn’t start out in his current position, which he calls “the best job in the world.” Jon began his Zappos journey with a job in their call center. “I took a job in the call center because I needed a job that offered health insurance. I didn’t know anything about the company. I really didn’t know anything about the culture. I wanted to get real for my family. I found a company that was so much more than a call center job, so much more than a customer service job. They had this thing, this culture, that was driving it all.”

His enthusiasm led him to a new role as Zappos’ first tour guide. He helped build their tour process to support the infamous “wow” experience that drives Zappos. Tours at Zappos are now legendary, and they host more than 1,200 visitors every month. It might seem surprising that so many people come out to visit a functioning office, but as Jon said, “it’s not about seeing what we do—it’s about feeling. What does it feel like when you come on the campus? That’s the best way to describe it. You walk into the lobby and there’s a feeling.” This feeling comes, in part, from Zappos’ dedication to their core values, which present clear expectations to team members and business partners.

Video Clip: Hear Jon on the Zappos “WOW” experience:


Disrupting to stay the same

“Sometimes, even when you do have good things going, you have to shake things up to keep those good things,” said Jon. Zappos’ rapid growth, combined with its merger with Amazon, increased the team to more than 1,500 employees and necessitated a move to a new campus. “We were focusing on growing as a business, and we were hiring for culture, and our business decisions were made with the culture in mind, but still, as we grew, those people who had great ideas were no longer able to make them happen. Without realizing it, as we grew, bureaucracy had crept in and started to kill new ideas.”

While autonomy and empowerment are not explicitly listed in Zappos’ core values, they were always a very important part of Zappos. With the company’s growth, however, came “layers of managers and managers and managers. Guess what happens? You start managing the ideas out. Or, somebody grabs a hold of a great idea and they twist it to their own thought process, and it’s completely different than the intention from the person who thought they had a great idea. [That person] doesn’t see it come to fruition, and they stop having great ideas.” While decisions were still being made with culture in mind, problems began to surface. “We found that, oh no, the innovation’s gone. How do we stop that?”

Zappos realized that “you can’t formalize the past”—the autonomy and empowerment that was once present in the culture grew organically because it needed to be there. But they didn’t say, as many others do, “let’s get back to our roots.” They decided to take a hard look at their structure.

The problem with growth

Jon shared an interesting insight from the book The Triumph of the City1: “As a city grows, productivity per individual increases. As organizations grow, productivity per individual decreases. We are experiencing that trend, right? What if we could organize more like a city? There are all sorts of crazy things that you could do. But how do you restructure a company?”

As a result of its growth, Zappos had slipped into the typical organizational structure based on a “command and control” model. Decisions were made at the top, leaving the people doing the work without a say in how things were done. “For years and years and years we have been working top-down, and people are just starting to realize, wait a minute, what if working top-down isn’t working?” Jon said. “And so, on the bigger picture of organizational structure, somebody is going to figure out what’s next and then all those old-school businesses are going to be left in the dust. So how else can we work as an organization?”

Self-organization and holacracy

Self-organization is not new. Companies like Gore and Morning Star Farms have excelled with self-organization. Tony Hsieh, Zappos’ CEO, ran into the gentlemen that created a system called holacracy. They decided to “use a system that existed to get us into self-organization and self-management with the end goal being self-organization and self-management.”

“So, for us holacracy was the tool that we chose. Holacracy says instead of working top-down in departments, you work in circles.” Jon explained how, in this structure, “You answer to your circle. It is self-managed in that if this table here was one circle and they have different roles, you’re going to get together and manage, which means you’re going to talk about any opportunities or concerns or questions about your work, but there’s not that one person managing it. Shouldn’t the people who do the work own the decisions?”


Exciting circles at Zappos

The holacracy structure not only gives employees the autonomy to make their own decisions; it also allows for the freedom to try new things—and, in the case of Zappos, help the organization regain its innovativeness. “If somebody says, ‘I think we need to have a circle that does X, Y, and Z,’ you can come up with all sorts of great ways to say that’s not a good idea, right? Ultimately what happens is there’s a process to say, okay, is it actually not safe to try? Will it cause us harm or move us backwards? And guess what happens guys: Most things won’t cause you harm or move you backwards to try. So, we heard earlier you can’t be afraid to fail. Why should we try? Because you might fail, and you’ll learn from that.”

Switching to a circle structure (including interesting circles like sexy infrastructure, flywheel operations, wowing customers, brand aura and storytelling, and Zappos 2.0) has led to some “amazing wins” for Zappos. “It’s getting back to what we need it to be, and the opportunities are arising to do things completely different than we ever imagined.”

Opportunities are arising to do things completely different than we ever imagined.
-Jon Wolske

“We can now see that how are we working together as an organization is actually working better. Because while I may hold a tiny role in your circle, I know you and I know your folks, and I know more of the company that I would know if I was simply working one job and doing what we used to do.”

“Don’t be afraid to try”

Jon shared one of Zappos’ amazing wins, where the lead link for their Brand Aura circle partnered with their charity team. They worked with the Best Friends Animal Society to sponsor an “adopt an animal at Christmas” campaign, and Zappos picked up the fee for each adoption. It was a huge success that generated more than six million click-throughs to the Zappos website, won a charitable PR and marketing award, and resulted in 6,000 adoptions.

But Jon is quick to mention that it’s not perfect. There are problems that do arise, and he gave an interesting example: “We took away the attendance policy in the contact center. Do you know what happens when you take away an attendance policy in a contact center? People stop showing up. We learned a lot of great lessons.” In this case, they re-grouped and decided, “okay this is not right, we should have something formal.” The key is “don’t be afraid to try.”

A closing point about purpose

The Zappos team was challenged at a recent all-hands meeting “to think about Zappos—not shoes, not retail—based on our values, our brand, what should we be doing. Nothing is out of the question if you’re passionate about it and we can actually get the resources to start doing it.”

The challenge continues on a daily basis to make sure everyone lives the values and mission of the organization—to deliver the “wow” experience. “It’s got to be about purpose before it’s about anything else for us. Are you creating great experiences in all directions? So, we know that moving forward, Zappos is going to be about so much more than just selling shoes on a website, and the sky is absolutely the limit.”

How does your organization foster a “wow!” experience in the workplace? And have you considered an alternative organizational structure? We invite your thoughts and comments via social media.

Visit our video library and join the Ultimate Culture Community to view Jon’s full presentation and receive access to all conference videos and updates on new posts.


Article direction: Tim Kuppler.


1 Glaeser, E. (2012.) The Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier. London: Penguin Books.