Chris Ciulla launched his career as a born-and-bred sales person, moving up the ranks in industries ranging from shipping to recruiting. It wasn’t until Ciulla was promoted into a managerial role, that he began thinking about the power of leading teams. “When you’re a producer moving into leading people, you have to walk away from your ego and your personal book of business” Ciulla said of the transition. “You have to make the transition from counting on yourself to motivating a group of people to win. Your success becomes about the people you’re charged with leading.”
As an executive, Ciulla learned the power of a positive company culture, of leadership through support, and of a common set of values. Over time, those learnings transformed into a process Ciulla harnessed to motivate organizational behavior. And ultimately, that process led Ciulla to pen his first book: WeCulture.
We connected with Ciulla to learn more about his approach to culture. Read on for his experiences with mentorship, company values, and his newest adventure with the WeCulture book.
You are now a published author, with a book on managing teams to delivery. How did you get there?
It started, like so many things in life, with a point of failure. I was hired into my first leadership role, where I stayed for eight years. And I really lost my identity there; my core values and my authenticity were lost. I left that job and, though financially successful, didn’t feel professionally successful.
So when I left, I reflected on what I could have done differently. I made a list of my own core values, which I would never stray from again. I read a lot. I took about eight weeks before starting my next job to figure out my core values. I ultimately took those core values and created a process called WeCulture, which I honed and applied with an employer over four years. WeCulture is about leveraging core values to guide and motivate organizational behavior.
WeCulture, has three core values: pedal the bike, be positive, and be honest and ethical. I’ve learned that most companies have core values, but most employees couldn’t tell you theirs. And if employees don’t know your company’s core values, it becomes hard to motivate people and guide their behavior. Ultimately, individual behavior takes over rather than behaviors that are focused on the team goal.
I also developed this process because of generational differences in the workplace — how Baby Boomers are motivated versus how Millennials are motivated. I’m a Baby Boomer. I was encouraged to make money, climb the corporate ladder, and enhance my own success. Millennials are motivated by being part of a team and the greater good, and by understanding their contribution to the greater picture. We need to ground all these workers with a common goal — something they can all believe in and work on together. WeCulture also stemmed from this need.
What do you hope people will get out of your book?
I hope leaders walk away from the book believing that they can connect and motivate employees of all types, by finding common ground to stand on. For people who are colleagues without direct reports that they realize everyone creates the culture and the spark can start with anyone in the organization.
For instance, I grew up as the son of a fireman and a bookkeeper. They said to go to college, get an education, climb the ladder. Doing something I loved wasn’t the priority. It was doing something I was good at, so I could climb the ladder faster. I’ve seen many Baby Boomer executives struggle to connect with the upcoming generation. At first glance, these executives think ‘Millennials don’t seem motivated or money focused. I used to do as I was told and work hard.’
But these executives don’t need to change an entire generation’s motivations. They should adapt their behavior and learn what motivates Millennials to engage as employees. We should focus on engaging them and retaining them. If we do, we win together.
It sounds like you’ve managed some large teams in your career. What sort of challenges did you have to overcome?
My biggest challenge as a leader was when people weren’t on some form of common ground; when they didn’t share the same core values or qualities. Everyone has motivations unique to them. It’s hard to have people succeed if they’re motivated by something other than the goal.
I learned to find a common ground that could become the building block for effective teamwork. And I learned that the common ground is often core values or qualities. These are things like positivity, drive, communication. They’re all things you can’t teach, like computer programming or a foreign language, you can only influence these qualities and use them to connect people.
Once anyone — Baby Boomer or Millennial — becomes part of a team goal rather than an individual goal, most of them prefer it. They want the insightful debate or constructive conversation. And the most consistent way to connect a team is to point out their shared qualities and values.
Have you had mentors through your career? How has mentoring impacted your life?
I’ve had one really strong mentor that influenced me throughout my career. His name is Al; I’ve known him for 16 years, both as my boss and as a peer. I still talk to him all the time.
Al taught me P&L (profit and loss) management, for starters. He gave me my first big management job managing people that managed other people. He taught me to respect the boundaries of leaders on my team, and showed me how to coach them through managing their own respective teams. He also showed me that, when things go sideways, blame has no place in the room. Your pride never comes before the business. From Al, I also learned to be there for my people. My role was to help my people win, and help them get to positive solutions.
Have you held that mentorship role for others?
There are a couple people I’ve managed that are now leading their own teams. I have ongoing relationships with them as a mentor. When we designed WeCulture, for instance, someone moved on to the next opportunity is his career. And he came over one Sunday and we worked through how to manage a P&L just as I had with Al years ago.
Your core values are formed when you’re young — from middle school into high school. That’s why your core values can’t change. They grew during your formative years. But forming relationships with people along the way can truly change your life. Those relationships can change the direction in which you’re heading. They can set you up for success. Al was one of those relationships for me. I hope to provide that for others.
Your Everwise protege has said, “He is a great mentor and have been helping me navigate through my goals.“ How do you approach mentoring?
By listening. You have to understand what the individual’s goals are. All too often, I see leadership imposing their personal motivations or experience onto the person they’re mentoring.
I take a different approach: I try to really listen in my first few sessions. I want to understand what my protege is trying to accomplish and what they hope to get out of being mentored. Listening is the building block to being a good mentor.
Mentoring isn’t just about what you can give to a protege. It’s about how you can help them accomplish what they want to accomplish. And once you know what that goal is, the path to getting there is just as important. That’s where you build the bond.
I also listen first when someone comes to me in the thick of a problem. Even if the problem is a big deal, I start by asking them to clarify where the problem occurred and what they were trying to accomplish. And I reiterate that we’ll work together to solve the problem.
Blame is culture cancer. It’s the quickest path to shutting someone down. If you’re in the thick of a problem, the person who made the mistake is often in the best position to help you. They have valuable information to help solve the problem. If you blame them, you alienate them and they hold back the rest of the information to avoid getting in more trouble.
What has your experience mentoring through Everwise been like?
Everwise has been a great experience. You can keep your skills sharp and see what’s going on outside your bubble and your world. Everwise lets you truly mentor someone, without the pressure of their personal production or their contribution within your environment. Instead, you get a pure look into their goals and how you can help guide them.
And you learn about yourself. You learn about your coaching’s effectiveness when the bias or politics of your own organization is removed. I think about all the times Al was a sounding board for me, even after I’d moved on from working for him. His feedback was so much more pure and transparent. He didn’t have to stop and think about potential blowback to his team for giving advice. That took our professional relationship to the next level.
So many leaders think only people within their organization can mentor employees. I think that’s a misstep. People should look outside their organization to help. Outside context and an outside voice can bring a lot of value to employees.
Are you looking to bring WeCulture into other organizations? What are you thinking going forward?
I’d like to bring WeCulture into other organizations that need it, without changing their core identities.
The book’s premise is around leveraging values to guide behavior to success. While we’re helping organizations do so, the important thing is for most people who built those organizations to remain very proud of who they are. We don’t want that to change.
The book shows you how to implement the WeCulture approach into your organization. It also shows you how to identify what your company truly stands for. So while you change the way you engage with employees, you don’t change your company’s core identity. This book is not about taking on my culture. It’s about leveraging your own core values into a positive company culture.