Adopting a “Volunteer” Mindset to Create a Purposeful, Positive, Productive Culture

“I don’t know everyone’s name. I’m embarrassed because I think I should know their names.”

When I interviewed the president of a big insurance firm, I didn’t realize that I’d strike a nerve so soon after our conversation began. This was years ago, but my recollection is powerful.

I’d been gathering insights on how his company’s culture operated to prepare for a keynote presentation. The company was very successful. It had grown by leaps and bounds, with offices and customers in seven states since its beginning 30 years before. I interviewed team members at the company’s headquarters and in far-flung offices throughout the region—most of whom had been with the company for 10 years or more.

The Impact of Leaders

People felt their work culture was fragmented. Different business units had very different cultures. Headquarters had a different culture than offices in other states. People felt that the company needed to “get back to basics”—treating each other with trust and respect daily, then treating customers with that same trust and respect, in every interaction. Headquarters staff were united on one particular perception: the president was distant. He didn’t greet people or interact with team members like he used to. He seemed preoccupied or like he didn’t care.

In my interview, the president asked what I had discovered so far. I shared people’s perceptions about the need for the culture to be refined, with similar values and behaviors across all offices. And I shared the perceptions of the headquarters staff: he was distant, preoccupied—like maybe he didn’t care anymore.

He was quiet for a few minutes. He looked out the window and gathered his thoughts. That’s when he told me, “I don’t know everyone’s name.”

He wasn’t preoccupied—he was disconnected. With the growth of the company, he simply didn’t know “his people” anymore. Rather than fake it, he chose to insulate himself. “I come in each morning and don’t make eye contact. I walk to the elevator and come up to the executive floor. I go right to my office.”

“I wish I knew my people today like I knew them 20 years ago.”

As I said in my recent article in this space, Dr. Peter Fuda, a respected authority on business and leadership transformation, says that “people act on their own conclusions.” The president’s team members didn’t understand why he didn’t engage—they just knew that he didn’t say hello, didn’t smile, didn’t look people in the eye, etc. They came to their own conclusion: he didn’t care about his people anymore.

They acted on this conclusion as well. They said that the way the president interacted with others became the norm in their headquarters. People didn’t say hello or smile or look people in the eye. People insulated themselves, and it reduced trust and respect in their workplace.

Their culture suffered for it.

Culture drives everything that happens in your organizations, for better or worse. If your work culture is left to chance, it is unlikely that your culture will, by default, be purposeful, positive, and productive.

The reality, though, is that when your work culture does demonstrate those three ‘Ps,’ employees, leaders, supplies, and customers are treated with trust, respect, and dignity in every interaction.

At Human Synergistics’ 3rd Annual Ultimate Culture Conference, a variety of speakers shared their insights and experiences on why culture matters, how to measure the quality of an organization’s work culture, and how to close culture gaps once they’re revealed.

Culture Change in a Mature, Entrenched Organization

One of the presentations featured a legacy organization: The Episcopal Diocese of Chicago. Bishop Jeffrey Lee and Reverend Gay Jennings described an entrenched organization that was losing relevance and parishioners (their customers)—similar to many organizations (not just houses of worship) today.


The diocese gathered information about their current culture and their desired, or ideal, culture using Human Synergistics’ Organizational Culture Inventory® (OCI®).1, 2 This assessment gathers leaders’ and team members’ beliefs, throughout the organization, about what’s expected (that is, behavioral norms) as well as about the behaviors and norms that would serve the organization, its employees, and its customers more effectively.

They also began educating leaders throughout the diocese and across the country to help leaders understand the need for proactive culture management.

Rev. Jennings described one leadership development event that was held in Memphis. Being so close to FedEx’s main operation, they invited a FedEx manager in to talk to attendees about FedEx’s unique culture and how their leaders invest time and energy in the quality of the work culture daily.

One of the clergy members in the class listened for a bit, then pointedly said, “All that is well and good—but we work with volunteers.” The FedEx manager said:

“So do we.”

Every Employee is a Volunteer

That response was an epiphany for everyone in attendance. Every employee you have—no matter their role, no matter what you pay them—is a volunteer.

Your employees choose to come to work. They may not choose to be fully engaged at work—for a variety of reasons. Great leaders reduce the distractions and eliminate the experiences that communicate to employees that they’re not valued, that they don’t matter.

Great leaders create a healthy work culture where team members are valued for their efforts, their ideas, and their contributions. Great leaders create and maintain an environment where Constructive styles are the norm—where organization members interact and cooperate with others to achieve challenging results, to serve their customers and community, and to contribute to their own well-being along the way.3

Bishop Lee and Reverend Jennings said during their presentation “we can’t pay people to sit in church. We have to inspire their attendance, engagement, and contribution.”

The insurance company president wasn’t proactively inspiring employee engagement and contribution.

It doesn’t matter if you’re engaged in a brand-new startup, a long-standing (and maybe entrenched) mature organization, or anything in between. The only way to attract and retain talented, engaged, team leaders and team members is to create an environment that values them, creates mutual affiliation, and offers the opportunity to solve challenging problems.

That is culture leadership. You’re going to be there anyway, right? You may as well craft a purposeful, positive, productive work culture.

I invite your thoughts and comments on LinkedIn and Twitter.


1 Episcopal News Service. (Sep 15, 2016). Historic joint meeting hears of effort to change church’s culture. Retrieved from:

2 Cooke, R. A. & Lafferty, J. C. (1987). Organizational Culture Inventory®. Plymouth, MI: Human Synergistics.

3 Cooke, Robert A. and Szumal, Janet L. (2000). Using the Organizational Culture Inventory to understand the operating cultures of organizations. In Ashkanasy, Neal M., Widerom, Celest P.M., and Peterson, M.F. (eds.), Handbook of Organizational Culture and Climate. Thousand Oaks CA: Sage Publications. (See pp. 154-155 on praise and Constructive cultures.)