Creating Exceptional Cultures

In this, The Faces of Business, Tom Willis, Co-Founder & Partner, Phoenix Performance Partners, shares his insights on creating exceptional cultures that can enhance employee retention, financial performance, and innovation.

In this, The Faces of Business, Tom Willis, Co-Founder & Partner, Phoenix Performance Partners, shares his insights on creating exceptional cultures that can enhance employee retention, financial performance, and innovation.

At Phoenix Performance Partners, Tom partners with mission-driven CEOs and School Superintendents, enabling organizations to enhance their workforce engagement, financial stability, and ability to drive meaningful change through innovation.

Drawing on his extensive experience, Tom provides a process that has been tried and tested for over 30 years.

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Having served as the CEO of a school system in Detroit, Tom brings unique perspectives on creating exceptional cultures that foster growth and development for individuals and organizations alike. He strongly believes in the power of life-long learning and helping others move beyond their self-limiting beliefs to reach their true potential.

Tom’s book, “The Great Engagement: How CEOs Create Exceptional Cultures,” is a treasured resource for creating a culture of excellence in organizations.

Damon expresses his excitement to talk to Tom about his interesting background and their focus on creating exceptional cultures in companies and school systems.

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Tom talks about his interesting background, which includes an engineering degree, working for big companies like Intel and Price Waterhouse Coopers, getting fired during “the dot-com explosion in the 2000s,” teaching in Africa, becoming a school superintendent, and ultimately starting a business with his current partner to help create exceptional cultures in organizations.

Damon, curious, wants to know about things Tom learned in Africa.

To Tom, his experience in Africa was a defining moment for him as he taught a few students who were eager to learn while others were disinterested. He realized that regardless of where kids are from, they are lovable and have infinite potential, which inspired him to pursue a career in education.

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Damon then asks about Tom’s experience teaching in the US and what he meant by saying that the culture was special.

Tom shares an exciting story about his ‘culture shock’ when he returned to the US after spending time in Africa. He mentioned that he had to stay overnight in New York City, where he noticed the stark cultural difference, with much material wealth but low contentment and joy. It contrasted with his experiences in Africa, where people had less material wealth but were content and joyful.

Damon further asks Tom’s opinion when he says his culture is special.

In response, Tom explains the culture of the school in Africa and the founder’s commitment to helping children and building the culture around the teachings of Jesus. He mentions that the team comprised committed individuals who cared much about their work. Building a solid sense of teamwork and collaboration took about five years. Tom also mentions that with his current business partner, he could have accomplished this in five months by using the correct methods to accelerate the culture they were looking to create.

Damon agrees with Tom’s point that building a positive culture is essential and something leaders must intentionally focus on.

Tom asserts intentionality and consciousness in building a successful culture. He explains that culture is often a byproduct of everyone’s unconscious behaviors, which can be challenging to change. Despite his initial skepticism, Tom has realized the truth in this idea and believes that leaders must be intentional and conscious in their efforts to build a strong culture.

Damon acknowledges Feekes Performance Partners’ stellar reputation in building a culture and expresses his interest in their methodical process of building a culture. Tom adds that building a culture is both an art and a science. Many people think of it as an art, but a scientific approach exists to shaping culture. He suggests that it is a 70% methodology and approach that will get the desired results.

Damon asks Tom about the most common cultural misconception he encounters when talking to CEOs and superintendents.

Tom says that the most common cultural misconception he encounters when talking to CEOs and superintendents is that they want Tom to come in and help their team without realizing that they are the source of their culture. Most CEOs don’t realize how much they impact the culture in unconscious ways, creating some challenges that frustrate them.

Tom suggests inviting people into the growth zone and creating a psychologically safe environment where people can truly speak their minds. He also mentions that they promise results to CEOs and are willing to continue working until they deliver value.

Tom and Damon emphasize creating an impact and not wasting time. Tom says his company’s engagements typically last for about four to five months, and they aim to produce results quickly.

Damon invites Tom’s reflections on the transformation he sees in his clients.

Tom explains that the kind of transformation that they see in a typical client depends on the client’s goals. It could be improving relationships and productivity or swinging back to profitability. He also expresses his excitement when he sees clients have an epiphany moment where they can use their learning to become better fathers, spouses, or persons.

Tom explains that traditional professional development or leadership training cannot train human beings. Instead, people need the experience to fully participate in and expand their capacity. Rather than jam more knowledge into an already full container, one needs to help the person expand their container by growing their capacity, knowledge, wisdom, insights about themselves, and unconscious motivations and fears. By doing so, the person can take on more and handle more.

Tom talks about how people often come to their leadership development retreats with preconceived notions or expertise. However, they try to meet people where they are and let the experience speak for itself. He gives an example of a skeptical client who became their top referral source after seeing the value of their work.

Pumped with the inquisition, Damon wants Tom to disclose: “What really drugged you into the culture?”

Tom explains that his faith played a role in his career path. He feels blessed to be doing what he is doing. He believes that culture is the ultimate competitive advantage and that creating an exceptional culture is crucial for growth and success. Tom gets excited about changing people’s lives individually as leaders and human beings through the tool of culture.

Similarly, Damon asks Tom about some unexpected gifts he has gotten from working on culture.

Tom finds this question awesome and relates a recent example where a CEO they worked with expanded their organization and served more people outside their geographical area, which was not possible before. He also mentions another client who grew their business to $80-90 million and is likely to hit a billion dollars. However, the guest is more excited about the impact this client will have as an African American CEO and the inspiration he will provide to young kids of color, showing them what is possible beyond the $2 billion mark.

Tom argues that having a culture focused on making an impact rather than just making money is what works and produces results. He gives an example of a CEO in Canada who is passionate about creating a culture where blue-collar workers can contribute to their day-to-day work and the community. When you go to work on the right vision and goals, financial rewards will follow as a metric but not the goal. Focusing solely on making money through fear, intimidation, and compliance is no longer practical and young people have no patience for such a culture.

Tom emphasizes the importance of engagement in creating an effective culture, which involves giving people something to aspire to and empowering them to make it happen. He notes that many people resign because they are not engaged in anything that matters to them. To address such issues, he and his team are writing a book on “The Great Engagement,” which explores why people are resigning and how organizations can create a culture that fosters engagement.

Tom’s upcoming book, which he intends to release this fall, has received an endorsement from Ken Blanchard. He expresses excitement about the endorsement and the upcoming release of the book.

Toward the end of the Livestream, Tom talks about his podcast program called ‘The Interchange,’ where they convene CEOs, superintendents, and presidents once a month. He is looking to open another cohort in a few months. Similarly, he encourages the viewers to log onto his website.

Damon thanks Tom for joining and discussing creating exceptional cultures and helping CEOs and superintendents build great organizational cultures and life skills. He asks listeners to go back to the beginning for the golden nuggets dropped by Tom. Damon also thanks participants for their comments and concludes the session.

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Damon Pistulka, Tom Willis


Damon Pistulka  00:02

All right, everyone, welcome once again to the faces of business. I’m your host, Damon Pustaka. And I am excited today because we are going to be talking with Tom Willis, from Phoenix performance partners about creating exceptional cultures. Tom. Welcome.


Tom Willis  00:21

Hey, David. Thanks for having me excited to talk about this one of my favorite subjects.


Damon Pistulka  00:25

Yes, yes. Well, Tom, it I’m excited to talk to you because as I said, before we go online, your background is very interesting, and lots of different things in here. So let’s jump right in. Let’s talk about your background, and how you got into really starting to think about culture and then going well, maybe I want to help companies and school systems and other people really understand how to build great cultures.


Tom Willis  00:55

Yeah, well, my my background is either interesting or confusing to many, because it’s done lots of different things. I grew up in Michigan here, I went to the University of Michigan, did an engineering degree there worked for some big companies like Intel, New Mexico, and then Chicago to work for Price Waterhouse Coopers, I got fired from there, along with a few 1000 Other people during explosion on 2000. and found myself over in Africa with my best friend. And I spent some time there helping teach and just just really turned my life around in many ways.

And so I came back to to Detroit and started teaching and ultimately, about 10 years later, became a school superintendent, and just absolutely loved it. It was hard work is one of the hardest jobs in the world, no doubt. And about four or five years into that I realized that what we were doing culture wise, was quite special.

And but I didn’t know how to help other schools in particular, were other organizations. And so long story short, friend introduced me to my now business partner. And we’ve been working together for about seven years now to help CEOs, school superintendents, create exceptional cultures, high performing teams, in a way that’s quite different than what’s out there. A lot of the a lot of this work is not terribly effective. And so there’s a high degree of skepticism out there, which is understandable.


Damon Pistulka  02:32

Well, you said a few things. Let’s back up a little bit. You were in Africa, and you ended up teaching in Africa. What were some of the things you learned while you were there?


Tom Willis  02:44

You know, a lot. What stands out though, is I’ll never forget, there was a day I was up at the chalkboard and it was quite literally a chalkboard. And I was teaching a few things. I was teaching some Spanish I think and or it might have been a lesson about the Great Lakes, you know, my hometown here.

And I remember thinking, this very defining moment of like, there was a few kids in France who were just like, eager, eager, right? They end up wanting to learn. I think there was a kid in back who was half asleep. I’m sure there was one or two kids screwing around every time I turned around to John, the chalkboard. And you know, dar Salaam, Tanzania, Africa, I think at the time had two or three high schools for a two or 3 million kids.

Oh my goodness. So it gives you a sense for how few students get to go to high school. And even that they’re not coming from a lot of affluence or wealth. And so, you know, it just struck me that the real lesson for me was kids are kids, you know, people are people doesn’t matter where on earth you are. You know, kids are kids, and they’re all lovable and have an infinite potential. And that’s really what sparked my desire to to go into education world.


Damon Pistulka  04:01

Awesome. Awesome. Yeah, it was interesting. interviewing somebody a month or so ago that had done a lot of work in Africa and and was talking about the fact that such a moving, moving experience to be there and help people. So that’s, that’s cool. That’s why I was asking. So then you started came back to the US and you started teaching. But in and you said, you didn’t realize it at the time, but your culture was very special. What do you mean by that?


Tom Willis  04:35

Yeah, actually, if I can, David, just a quick aside, because when you said coming back from Africa, remind me of another story. That’s good, good, you know, as flight flow through Amsterdam, and then ng New York and I had to stay overnight in New York for the night. And, you know, talk about culture shock, right. Yeah. It was it was tremendously shocking to come back to the states and one of the first things I saw in downtown New York City I said, stop and smell the roses. And I thought, you know, well, that’s interesting. Like, there’s our I’m, I love capitalism, so nothing against it.

But it was just an interesting sort of shock to the system that there’s a, there’s an example of culture and a grand scale. Yeah, I was coming from a world that just didn’t have a lot of material wealth, and yet, the sense of contentment and joy, and most of the folks that I got to deal with was through the roof, right? And then come back to a city like New York, where the wealth is through the roof, and the joy and contentment is in the basement. So it’s an example of culture at a much larger scale.


Damon Pistulka  05:45

Yeah, no doubt. And that’s the same thing that Doug said, When I interviewed him it was he said, You know, there’s not much material wealth, but there’s always smiles and joy and just this wondrous happiness in the day, and being exactly this infectious, just infectious the way it moved him. That’s awesome. That’s awesome. And I can imagine dropping back into into New York and then and doing that, because it’s such a, like you said, it’s such a shock.


Tom Willis  06:19

Yeah. Well, New York, right. of all, of all cities, the only one that could have top that when I’m in Vegas, or


Damon Pistulka  06:24

Yeah, yeah, it might have might have. So then, as you that you came back, you started teaching, and you said you didn’t realize it, but your culture was special. What what did you mean by that?


Tom Willis  06:38

You know, it was a few things. You know, the, the founder of the schools is an amazing guy, really committed to helping kids and poured a lot of his energy and time into building the culture and building it around, frankly, the life and teachings of Jesus. And so a tremendous amount of faith and values built into it. And so in many ways, I was building on top of that, and we just had really committed people who cared a lot, because, you know, you had to, it’s a tough job.

And we came together as a team. And I always joke with my now business partner, you know, took took about five years to really build the the solid sense of teamwork and collaboration. And with my, with my business partner, now, I could have done in five months. So instead of five years I could have done in five months. And it’s it really is because there are ways to dramatically accelerate the the culture that you’re looking to create, if you’d go about it in the right ways.


Damon Pistulka  07:43

Yeah, yeah, we’ll get into that. And in this moment, I just think it’s, it’s really interesting, as you said, when leaders pour their energy and time into building the culture, you just see it some some leaders naturally do it. Some people learn to do it. But it is one of those things that I think that leaders need to intentionally spend time doing. Would you agree?


Tom Willis  08:15

Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. In fact, you just touched on sort of the core element that either this work works, or it doesn’t. And it’s it boils down to how intentional Are you? And how conscious are you because culture happens as a sort of a byproduct of everybody’s unconscious behaviors, because most of what we do as human beings is really driven by our unconscious.

And I remember the first time I heard that I thought it was a bunch of BS, because you know, here I am an engineer. Yeah, my, my MBA from the University of Notre Dame, like, you know, don’t tell me that I’m an unconscious being, you know, I’m very logical. But as I’ve sort of grown and wisdom, and talked to more folks and read more books, and seen how this work, you know, produces results, I’ve realized that it’s true, you know, that the thing that makes culture so hard to change is that it’s mostly unconscious.


Damon Pistulka  09:15

Wow, that’s cool. Yeah. So one of the things I saw I was doing research on here is, well, two things. First of all, you guys have tons of testimonies and people are looking, looking to understand that get on LinkedIn, check you out and Thomas Willis on LinkedIn at Feekes performance partners and check out some of the the testimonials and recommendations because you guys are stellar in that regards.

The one thing that I saw that is really interesting to me is you talk about a methodical process to build culture. What do you mean about with that, because I think most people, when they, when they relate to culture, they may not think of it like that, that you can follow a process to build a culture like you want, they think it’s just going to happen because of your personality or because of the way that you conduct business. But what do you mean by that?


Tom Willis  10:24

Yeah, it’s, you know, it’s art and science, it’s many people think of it as sort of one or the other. And most, I think, probably think of it as more of art. And there’s a, there’s a good deal of artistic, you know, energy that goes into leadership and culture shaping. There’s a great, great book about those leadership jazz that talks about how it’s, you know, there is that free flowing element of jazz.

And if I, if I talking more about jazz, I’ll get above my paygrade. But you know, that there’s a lot of impromptu nature. Yeah, right. And that’s true. And you can also go about using science and methodology and an approach to shape a culture and the way that you want to shape it. So it’s not either or it’s both. And in our case, we think it’s probably 70% methodology and approach that will get you the results.


Damon Pistulka  11:23

Very cool. So, as we’re talking about this, what is the most common cultural misconception that you run into when you’re talking to CEOs and superintendents?


Tom Willis  11:44

Well, we used to joke that rubber chicken throwing doesn’t work or trust falls, but Shabazz falls? Yeah, that’s pretty well understood. Now. I would say, there is an implication, in a lot of the conversations we have out of the gate, because we’re blessed. 90 plus percent of our work is referrals. Because it is it is quite successful. And so when we’re getting a call, there’s already an interest, right? And so that’s, that’s helpful. But there’s an implication sometimes in the language, it’s not direct, but it’s almost sort of underneath the surface that they want us to come in and sort of help their team.

And rarely, are they talking about helping them as the leader as the CEO, or as this Yeah. And the reality is, they are the tip of the spear, they are the font, they’re the source of their culture. And so that’s usually one of the surprises is that most CEOs don’t realize how much they’re impacting the culture, and again, and unconscious ways that they don’t even realize they don’t realize that what they’re doing is actually creating some of the challenges that frustrate them.


Damon Pistulka  13:02

Yeah, yeah. That is very cool. You know, that is that is, so many people don’t realize that leaders that at the very tip of the organization, don’t realize how every little thing they do, to a large extent, affects the culture and the business. And that little thing,


Tom Willis  13:27

amen. Then it’s like, when you’ve got the CEO title, it’s like you’re shouting through a bullhorn. Yeah. It’s not just a little thing. It’s taken as a big thing every single time. And that’s, you know, that may not be fair, but it’s the reality. Yes.


Damon Pistulka  13:47

So you bring up a great point, they’re like, Hey, come on in and help my team and you get in there and you and you realize, well, it’s the tip of the spear. It’s not necessarily that deep. I mean, how do you approach that?


Tom Willis  14:02

Well, we, we, it’s always an invitation. You know, we talked about how we’re all in a comfort zone, you know, if you picture like a circle, that’s our comfort zone. And then just outside of it is a thin layer of fear, or sometimes thick, and outside that is the growth zone is where we learn, right? It’s where we quite literally grow and learn and improve. And if you want to grow if you want your organization to grow, well, there is no organization that’s one of the first fallacies you don’t grow an organization.

There’s no such thing as a people that work together, hopefully for a common purpose. Yeah, so if you want to grow the quote, unquote, organization, you have to grow the people. And and so that’s the first step is you got to you got to invite people into that growth and you’re telling them look, there are times when you’re gonna have to sort of feel the fear and do it anyway.

But we’re not going to force you to do anything. So it’s All and invitation. So that’s one thing is we work really hard to create a an environment, sort of the psychological safety where people can truly speak. And we it’s cumulative, we’re building over a period of time to get to some of the some of the, quote unquote, harder conversations. By the time we get there, there’s enough safety in the room that people can speak their mind. And then yeah, you know, we, we promised results to our CEOs, which is unusual.

Yeah, we quite literally promised they’ll get what they can afford. And if they don’t, we’ll keep going for for no additional fee. Until they do and it’s completely subjective. It’s completed their call, whether they’ve gotten the value or not. So that’s good, because it puts our butts on the line for producing results, which we’re not going to skip over the conversations that need to be had, we’re going to, if we need to go right out it with a CEO in some way. We’re going to do that.


Damon Pistulka  16:02

Yeah. Yeah, I saw that, too. You’re guaranteed results. I’m glad you you address that, because it is not very common. I will say that. And I will emphasize that, that it’s I’m probably understating it, that in this line of work, it’s it is highly unlikely that you will find others to guarantee and results.


Tom Willis  16:25

Yeah, because most folks are they they get paid to do the steps of the process, whatever that is. And usually there’s a survey, usually as a four factor behavioral model of some sort. Usually, there’s some coaching in there. And but they get paid, whether it produces results or not. And so we didn’t want to do that we were lucky to be quite lucky occupied, and our calendars are, are full. And so we don’t we don’t want to do work. That doesn’t make an impact. We don’t want to waste your time or ours.


Damon Pistulka  16:59

Yeah. Yeah. And that’s awesome. That’s awesome. Because, like you said, if you you want to you want to create the results, and you’re incentivized to do it faster, just like that the companies want that to happen as fast as they can as well. Exactly. That’s, that’s a great way to align with your customers with get your interests really aligned with them, because they know that you’re you’re not leaving until the job is done.


Tom Willis  17:24

Yeah. And it doesn’t, it doesn’t need to take that long, frankly, our typical engagement is about four or five months. Wow. So we can produce results, you know, quite quite quickly. And, you know, again, we’re incentivized to make sure we deliver quickly, because otherwise, we got to work and money, six and seven and eight and nine for free.


Damon Pistulka  17:46

Yeah, yeah. So when you talk about the kind of results, I mean, explain the kind of transformation you see as you work with a typical client?


Tom Willis  18:01

Well, great question. It depends on what they’re going for. So we spend a lot of time at the out of the gate with the leader saying, you know, what are we what are we out to accomplish, and in some cases, it can be softer skills, that can be the, you know, my team’s not really firing on all cylinders, there, I got a couple people who are kind of at each other, and it’s getting in the way of productivity. So I’d really love to go about improving relationships and improving our ability to, to get things done together. So it could be something that’s a little bit softer like that, or it could be, you know, we’re losing money.

And we can’t do that anymore. We’ve got to have, we got to swing back to profitability, or even adding to our fund balance if it’s a nonprofit. So it can be a very tangible, hard piece of results like that. So it just depends on what they’re trying to trying to accomplish. The part that really, you know, excites me is when you see a CFO, or a CEO or a CEO, have sort of an epiphany moment where they was that they, they can now use this to be a much better father, or a spouse. That’s stuff that excites the heck out of me.


Damon Pistulka  19:17

Yeah. Yeah. Because the things that well, like you said, and I’m gonna paraphrase and you sure, correct me if I’m wrong, but, you know, to make these changes in an organization with culture, you really are talking about helping the people making the changes they need to make to be, I don’t know better, better communicators, better humans and an understanding that how to work with people around them, correct.


Tom Willis  19:48

Yeah, I mean, that’s, that’s really it at the end of the day, and it’s, it’s it’s a little bit different to from your traditional professional development or leadership training. You know, training we We joke sometimes a training you can train a puppy, which I’ll, which we’re getting in two days, by the way, my kids are pumped, we’re getting your property. Awesome. So I’ll I will fully be living this reality of training and a few days. But you can’t really train human beings in this sort of work, you have to give people an experience that they can participate fully in, and engross themselves in.

And when you do that, then they expand their capacity. To many times, we try to jam more into a container, you know, if you think about a person as like a container, and we’re trying to, we’re trying to jam more knowledge into the same container where the container is already full, and it’s overflowing, and the world’s not slowing down. And so you’re like, you want me to do what like I can’t I I’m already overwhelmed, right?

I’m already people talking about burnout, right. So you can’t jam more in to a full container, what you have to do is you have to help the person expand their container, you have to help them expand their capacity, and their knowledge and their wisdom and their, their insights about themselves and, and their unconscious motivations and fears. And when you when you work in all those things, you’re literally helping the person to grow in their capacity. And that’s when you can take on more, you can handle more, just because you’re growing the vessel.


Damon Pistulka  21:30

That’s really cool. That’s really cool. You know, in reading and understanding about leadership, they always talk about the fact that, you know, the, the leaders, whether they realize it or not are or in life, we ourselves are limited by ourselves.

And that if we continue to work and learn and expand our knowledge, like you said, we can continue to grow and help others around us to do more. So yeah, this is cool. So when you I mean, you walk into some places, and they’re they’re very skeptical about the fact that you’re going to be able to do anything. And then they and then they sit there for a while. And like you said they just go, boom, the lights that kind of light turns on.


Tom Willis  22:22

Yeah. Yes. Quite a bit. And again, it’s it’s understood, it’s, it’s completely understandable, because people walk in and say, oh, yeah, I’ve done this before. I’ve done a retreat before I’ve done leadership development before, or I have a master’s degree in leadership development.

So people will come in sort of with their, you know, their expertise on their wearing it on their sleeves, right. And we just accept it. We just say, you know, great, we just accepted it. We just meet people where they are we try to love on them wherever they are. And our standards, we’re not looking to convince them, the experience will convince them or it won’t. If we do the job, then it’ll work.

And they’ll walk out saying, Wow, this was way different than I thought it would be. This is way different than things I’ve done before my favorite example of this. He’s he’s retired now, but he’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. His plan on a golf these days, is he hired us, right? So he literally hired us. Yeah, we want to say on the first day, we do a pretty intense retreat to kick off. First day, we sit down with his team, it’s the first time you know, we’re really spending time with his team.

And he says to him, all the things he’s excited about, and the future is excited about for about two or three minutes. And then he says, and you guys, I’m not exactly sure what I got us into with with Tom and Brad here. Brad’s my business partner. But I think it’d be pretty good. But if it’s not, we can just get up and leave. Tom and Brad take it over. So So here’s a guy who hired us, right.

And, you know, he wore his skepticism on his sleeve. Yeah. To this day is probably our number one referral source. You know, because he just, he saw the value of the work and, and, and he’s, he had a lot of experience. He was he worked for some big companies. So he knew, you know, he knew that consultants were mostly full of hot air is how he would put it. Yeah. So when you see something that actually works, then you become a fan.


Damon Pistulka  24:32

Yeah. Well, that’s awesome. That that is when you can when you can take a skeptic and turn him into a voracious advocate for your, your process and what you do that’s that’s very rewarding.


Tom Willis  24:47

Yeah, it is. It’s those are the moments that make you feel good. And make you want to just keep keep going try to help more organizations.


Damon Pistulka  24:57

Yeah, yeah, that’s for sure. So So, what? What really I mean, you were you were teaching you were you’re doing these things, what got you into culture? What really drugged you into culture and said, Listen, this is what I want to do I want to help people do this.


Tom Willis  25:21

Yeah, good question. I don’t know if I I don’t know if I have a good answer for that. I think the short answer, Damon is my faith, you know, that I’ve always just tried to listen to where I was where I’m supposed to go. And so yeah, I did that. Well, and sometimes I know that my career path makes no sense. But I couldn’t be more blessed to be doing what I’m doing.

You know, as far as culture itself, I think, I think probably a simple answer is we have a podcast called culture eats everything. Yeah, that’s a play on this whole idea of culture eats strategy for breakfast. And if people have heard about, which is absolutely true, but it’s bigger than that, we think that culture eats everything, it is the ultimate competitive advantage.

A leader can figure out how to truly create an exceptional culture, then watch out, you will, you will quite literally dominate and grow like crazy. And if you don’t, the culture will probably eat you alive, and you’ll spend all your time putting out fires. And so for me, you know, the culture is sort of the, the tool to really impact people’s lives individually. And to me, that’s again, that’s the part that I get excited about, is when you can keep changing not just as leaders but changing as human beings.


Damon Pistulka  26:43

Yes, yes. That’s cool. And, and it’s understandable when you look at how much change can happen with individuals. And in an organization when they’re working together. And you’re helping them you know, like you said, experience things differently, to expand their knowledge and, and really understand how to be better human beings and communicators and, and working together better.

So you talk about culture, and then you You briefly mentioned performance, business performance. What are some of the things that people have come back to you and said, Listen, after working with you, we were not planning on this. But our business did this. You know, what kind of things have you seen, they got well as an unexpected gift that we got from working on our culture?


Tom Willis  27:36

Yeah, well, I can tell you a recent example, just from a couple of days ago, the CEO. And, you know, he, he brought us into sort of working out with the team and help sort of take them to the next level. And now he’s at a point where about a year or so later, where he’s actually looking at expansion, and looking at how do we grow this organization and serve more people outside of our sort of geographical area.

And, you know, that’s a whole new possibility that wasn’t on the table a year or two ago. And so when you see that, and you see a commitment to something much bigger, obviously, that’s tremendously exciting. You know, we’ve got a, another client that started as sort of a single shingle leader, and grew the business.

And now he’s up to 80 $90 million, I have no doubt that he’ll ultimately hit a billion dollars as it arose. And so, you know, it’s, it’s, that’s great. But frankly, that doesn’t really fire me up as much. I know, it fires him up, and he loves it. Yeah. But if you think about the impact that he wants to have, it’s not about $2 billion. Yeah. The the impact that he’ll make, as an African Americans CEO, and all the young African American and young kids of color, and to see him and just say, oh, that’s possible. Now, that’s, that’s pretty damn cool. It is.


Damon Pistulka  29:07

It’s super cool. And you talk about that. And I think, I think that you talk about impact. And I think when you see people that are truly successful, and you can have, and these are business people that some are very large business, some are not, but when they really understand not something not so much about the money, but the impact that they’re making on humans and people’s lives and their community and the country, you know, just depending on how big they are.

It’s so, so rewarding to work with those kinds of people that understand and they’re, they’re going yes, yeah, we’ll make the money. But I really want to make sure we’re making the money with the impact. And that is that that is a pleasure to be able to do that kind of work.


Tom Willis  29:55

Yeah, and it’s it because it works. It’s yeah, it’s highly pragmatic. This This is not airy fairy, soft culture BS this is, this is what works. If you are out to make money, you have got the wrong damn goal and you, you will very have a hard time getting there unless you leverage other tools like fear and intimidation and compliance, which is, you know, your prerogative. But as a dying, it’s a dinosaur and the young people today have no patience for that sort of culture.

Yeah. But if you go to work on making an impact, I was just talking to a CEO in Canada, who they do basically like drilling, you know, oil drilling and whatnot. Yep, he’s a guy who is on fire for creating a culture where people come and can contribute, you know, mostly blue collar workers who can come and be, you know, be value adding to can contribute not just in what they do day to day, but with new ideas and, and contributing to the community. And like, he’s all about, like the impact they can have their families and communities.

And not surprisingly, they’re producing tremendous financial rewards and results, because he’s focused on the right thing. If you, if you go to work on the right vision and the right goals, then the dollar signs will increase. It’s like, it’s like a metric, right? The dollar signs that tell you how well you’re doing. But it’s not the goal. It’s just a KPI. It’s a measure of how well you’re doing against the goals. And so getting really crystal clear about that is super, super important.

Because otherwise, it’s like equivalent to driving down the road trying to speed up by reaching down and trying to twist the dial on the speedometer. Right. Although in our cars don’t have this dials anymore, but you get the Yeah, analogy, it won’t work, right, you gotta go to work on, you know, fine tuning the engine and having the right system in place. And when you do all those things, and invest in your people, then you’ll go faster.


Damon Pistulka  32:07

Yeah. And like you said, the goal is, is maximum maximizing impact. The measure might be dollars in a certain instance, as a KPI of, of how well that worked. But your goal is maximizing your impact.


Tom Willis  32:24

Exactly, exactly.


Damon Pistulka  32:28

Good stuff. Good stuff. Because when you really get behind that, like you said, in your, your instance of the the oil drilling, you know, giving giving people a place where they can come and make make an impact, add value, and they’re in there. And it’s looked at that way by the company to that they’re truly adding value. They couldn’t do it without you. You’re very important to us. And, and, you know, and they’re, they’re treated that way.


Tom Willis  32:56

Yeah. And it’s, it’s because they’re engaged in something that matters to them. Yes, this is not rocket science, okay. Like, in many ways, it’s quite simple. We’re not saying anything terribly new, although we, we are experts at sort of execution and implementation, we’re, we believe, are the folks who actually bring culture improvement and change to life, not just talk about it. But But fundamentally, some of the tools are not terribly complex, you know, give you give you we’re writing this book right now called the great engagement. And it’s, it’s a play on the great resignation.

Word resignation will be crossed out, and the book covers, so it’ll say the great, nice. And the beginning of the book really talks about what’s going on, why are people sort of resigning in, in mass numbers? As because fundamentally, they’re not engaged in anything that matters to them. You know, COVID was a life changing moment for many of us. And we realize we only have one life to live, and so huge discontent.

And people just say, You know what, this isn’t, this isn’t for me anymore. But you know, where they didn’t leave. There’s organizations where they were engaged in something that matters where they actually felt like they were contributing where they felt like they were, they had, they had an aspiration, they were aspiring to something bigger than themselves into just making a paycheck.

And were they, Howard, to make a difference where they felt like they had the power to go and do and make change and improve things. So if you want, if you really want to create, you know, a highly effective culture, then you gotta go to work on getting people engaged in something that matters to them by by giving them something to aspire to, and or helping them uncover what they want to aspire to. And by empowering them to make that happen.


Damon Pistulka  34:52

Awesome. I’m writing somebody notes here. This is awesome. Because you’re you’re you exposing what a lot of people don’t realize in some instances that, you know, that engagement, that engagement and getting engagement and showing people how they fit into something larger than themselves and, and to that, how they’re contributing to that, personally, and and how they make a difference is so important. And how that’s communicated. And yeah,


Tom Willis  35:28

yeah, it’s the it’s the, is that the essence of it? There’s there’s more to it, obviously. Yeah. But fundamentally, that’s one of the things we lay out in the book is that engagement equals aspiration. Plus, empowerment, you know, in really simple terms. That’s That’s how this works.


Damon Pistulka  35:47

Yeah. All right, that down to that’s good. So are you talking about your book? When when’s your book gonna be out?


Tom Willis  35:58

I should be out this fall. We just had an exciting news about a week or so ago. We got a an endorsement from Ken Blanchard. Oh, my Yeah, right. We were, we were just as shocked, I still have a voicemail on my phone that I’ll probably keep forever, because I had to look at it like three or four times. And he talked about how, you know, this book is really Servant Leadership in Action.

And that, you know, if you want to, if you want to make a difference with your people in the lives of the people you work with, and, you know, then read this book, you know, here’s a guy who’s sold 28 million books, right. Yeah, world. I think he’s in his 80s. Yes. You know, certainly doesn’t need to be calling, you know, us, right, folks, he doesn’t really know. But he took the time to call both of us leave a message as well as voicemail says, Is this this the infamous Tom Willis or the famous Tom Wallace?

You know, so, you know, What an unbelievable general, genuine and generous spirits, right? Oh, my goodness, taking the time to do this. It’s a model of servant leadership and action. So yeah, we’re super excited about that. And But to answer your question, yeah, the book should be out this fall right now. It’s when we send it off to professionals down in Texas to proofread it and put the graphics together and all that fun stuff.


Damon Pistulka  37:22

Yeah. Well, that’s awesome. That’s awesome. And wow, that had to be. It just had about how to take your breath away for a moment there when you have someone like that leaving a voicemail for you.


Tom Willis  37:36

It absolutely did. It actually did damage. And it’s, it’s an example of living the work. And remember, I talked earlier about our comfort zone. And there’s sort of this, this layer of fear around that. Well, we started kicking ideas around well, how might we get somebody famous to write us an endorsement? And so we kicked some ideas around him, and I say, You know what, let’s try this.

Let’s, let’s just write a heartfelt letter to a bunch of people and say, Look, everybody needs a boost, we’d love for you to be a boost for us. Because for for 30 years, we’ve been doing this work. And it’s been a great, but we’ve been playing pretty small. And we’d love to help more organizations and get the word out. Yeah, one less work. And so we sent out probably I don’t know if 30. And my business partner will tell you to this day that he thought it was a complete waste of time and money.

But he trusted me enough that he was like, well, let’s let’s give it a try. And the reality is I’m not sure that I fully trusted it. Because there was a tremendous amount of fear of like, you know, yeah, this is gonna be a waste of time and energy and lots of time, you know, weekends writing, thank handwritten, thank you notes and whatnot. And so for it to work is like a good example for all of us that whenever you see something that scares you, or that you’re not comfortable with, that’s probably the exact time to lean into it and to not pull back.


Damon Pistulka  39:02

Yeah, yeah. lean into it. Oh, that’s awesome. Because I think you’re right, I think I think you’re sitting there and you’re going wow, what if what if, what if, and, and honestly, everyone on this earth is a person just like us?


Tom Willis  39:20

Yes. Yes. And Ken Blanchard just taught us that in spades, right. Yeah.


Damon Pistulka  39:27

Yeah. If I tell you that that is that had to be a ruse. Really incredible. So so what else you got going on? What anything else new coming up that you want to share? Or you lots of fun happening? What’s going on in the podcast?


Tom Willis  39:45

Yeah, life life’s class. Good. I got a puppy coming in two days. You know, we’re busy. Work. I shouldn’t say busy. I’m trying to eliminate that word busy from my life Damon because we use it so damn much, right? It’s like this badge of honor. I have like, you know, Courage like how busy I am. And I just looked up the word by the way there’s it’s a, it’s a Dutch English word goes back to like the 1500s. And it roughly approximates anxiety. Fascinating, right? If you think about that, like, what we’re really saying is, I’m busy means I’m anxious.

And I’m filling my life with all sorts of anxiety. Isn’t that great? So, one of my CEOs actually gave me coaching the other day, and she said, You know what I tried to say to him, I tried to say, My life is full, beautifully fall, but the things I want to be full of. And so that’s my life right now, Dana, it’s beautifully full, we’ve got a what’s new, oh, we’ve got a great cohort of CEOs, and superintendents and presidents that we convene once a month.

Nice. It’s called the interchange. So that’s, that’s a lot of fun. If people want to interested in learning about that they can go to go to our website and check it out. We’re always we’re actually looking to open another cohort in a few months. So nice. Yeah, it’s not a it’s not a fun thing that fills my life.


Damon Pistulka  41:11

Good. Good. So what is your website address where people can go there?


Tom Willis  41:17

Yeah, Phoenix So Phoenix, like the city?


Damon Pistulka  41:24

Very good. Very good. And if someone wants to talk to you, Tom, what’s the best way to get a hold of you?


Tom Willis  41:30

I go to website and check it out, you know, can also shoot me an email, it’s just Tom at Phoenix Okay. Usually pretty quick with responses, happy to happy to help anybody. Even if somebody’s you know, leaders out there CEOs out there, and they’re just curious to learn more about this, we, we always provide free help out of the gate, because that’s how we build trust and relationships. We’re never trying to sell anything.

So if you’ve, we don’t we work with organizations that are you know, in that typically, like 100 employees to 1000 employees is probably sweet spot. We’ve worked with this small as well. One was for four employees. But that was pretty unusual. Yeah, merges, you know, 6000 employees. But that’s kind of our sweet spot is, you know, enough employees where you can really invest in and build the culture.


Damon Pistulka  42:24

Yeah. Awesome. Awesome. Well, thanks for being here today, Tom, I appreciate you stopping by and talking about in talking about creating exceptional cultures and how you’re helping CEOs and superintendents build great cultures in their organizations ppreciate that if people been listening here, what you want to do is roll back to the beginning of this.

And really, there’s a lot of golden nuggets you dropped in there about, you know, just things to be thinking about the culture and the benefits of doing this and what you really are helping people do. I also want to thank Benedek for stopping by and dropping a comment in there and Ekrem for the comments you dropped there too. Thanks so much. Appreciate you being here. Thanks, everyone, for joining us. We will be back again a little bit later. But thanks, Tom for being here. Thanks,


Tom Willis  43:12

David. Have a great week.


Damon Pistulka  43:13

You bet hang out just for a moment. We’ll talk

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