I had a quick Twitter exchange with Mark Oakes (@MarkOOakes) and Ted Coine (@tedcoine) last week that started with a simple question: “Beyond hiring right, how do you ensure change happens after you, as the consultant, have left?”

Instilling change is more like chiropractic than surgery. It’s lots of small shifts and not one haymaker swing of the scalpel. When this question was put to me by the CEO of a company I worked for many years ago, “You hire it,” was my answer. This gives a clear signal to others that, “This is the sort of person I want here and I want you to be like this, too.”

But getting everyone else on board requires more than osmosis. Mark is a CEO and Ted is a consultant focused on change management. I’m a marketer by genetic luck of the draw and have seen more than my fair share of functional (and dysfunctional) management teams. So I’m biased. To change a company’s culture, you do need to hire the right new people, but there’s more to it than that. But I’m also fortunate to have seen what happens when it works right.

Beyond hiring right, rewards systems and rituals are what turns a culture around, I said. Upon further reflection, it’s the rituals that matter most, because they impact rewards as well.

Why does this matter to you? Because if we can create the right rituals that promote the right behaviors, we get to our goals faster and more frequently. Here’s how it’s worked for me – and for a handful of other premier brands who have already crossed that threshhold.

The Definition:

In a business life, what does a ritual really mean?

Rituals are symbolic actions we take to instill behaviors. Your ritual might be the systems you install in a department, the way you promote the use of your product or the things you do to remind yourself who you are.

Rituals are important because behavior is important. Behavior, to be clear, is more important that results. Why? Because the right behaviors create the right results. Results, bereft of their behaviors, are often random. The proverbial blind pig does, in fact, find the occasional acorn. We want our colleagues to find the acorns on purpose using the right behaviors. We believe we will find more acorns in the long run this way. So we promote the right behaviors and root out the bad behaviors before they become organizational cancers.

Rituals set you apart. They promote your sense of belonging to an exclusive group.

A Few Examples:

Let’s think of a few obvious and not so obvious examples of ritual.

You drink Corona? Lime. How about the “beheading” of the Stella Artois? Both are social products and what we do in front of our peers matters. Our behaviors rub off.

Porsche drivers flash their lights at each other while MINI drivers wave. Inclusion and a reinforcement of good decisions.

Look at Red Bull and their Art of Can. The company is creating a yearly event where artists make sculptures out of Red Bull cans. Is this ritual? I’d argue that it is – the beginnings of one, at least. If we can plant the seeds in our stakeholders’ minds that our product taps into the ethos of embracing passion in life, art and sport, then I’d say this is an effort to creat a brand ritual for the good of everyone.

VW really seems to want us to punch each other every time we see one of their cars.

And have you seen the All Blacks perform the Haka? Enough said.

What about internal rituals? At Method, different employees staff the front desk each day – even the big dogs – and they have themed events in the lobby, from Hello Kitty to Saturday Night Live. Why? Method is a very San Francisco company in a very staid, conservative business dominated by massive companies with conservative cultures.

Do you think creativity matters to them?

Teams practice rituals to create a sense of one-ness. This is the power of “WE” – we do things this way because of exclusivity.

A Few Personal Examples:

In my Sony days, we had rituals. We approached our business in a certain way and had what at the time felt like stylized means of producing our work. Whether it was our internal account review meetings, our way of presenting data or the format of our staff reviews – and the focus on facts, not feelings – the behaviors fostered there showed up everywhere else.

In a CES top-to-top meeting together with our “big brothers” from the hardware division, one of the largest retailers in the country told our colleagues from 1 Sony Drive to sit down and watch us, the Recording Media team, present first. After we were done, the EVP of Merchandising from the retailer harangued the hardware VP for ten minutes. “This is what I want to see from you from now on. Learn from them.”

Best compliment we ever got. Bad day at the office for the other guys.

In my Plantronics days, we had rituals. We held a bi-weekly “Marketing Communications Meeting,” where everyone in marketing presented their channel, with the past three months’ historical data and the next six months plans clearly laid out. Each had five minutes. Everyone in sales, engineering and management was invited. Some showed up every week. Everything was posted on our intranet.

Lots of groans. But the discipline mattered and we did it because it sent a signal.

Not only did we eliminate the possibility of anyone wondering with cause what marketing was working on, it gave every member of the marketing team the ammunition to give an a cappella presentation in the hallway to the CEO or whichever board member was in town.

Being always prepared has its benefits.

Key takeaways:

  • You lead, whether you know it – or like it – or not. You lead your peers informally or your department or your company.
  • High performing teams have a sense of unique group identity. They may not flaunt it but it’s there.
  • Rituals shape behavior. Doing the haka might not be what your marketing team needs to do – that’s your call, of course – but it certainly sets the stage for their games. If the video is any judge of human behavior, it seems to scare the hell out of their opponents. And that’s the point. We behave in a manner that is consistent with our voluntary and public statements and actions. The Haka reminds the All Blacks what they stand for at precisely the time they need to hear it.
  • Creating rituals is how we define ourselves and instill culture within our group. It’s how we perpetuate our uniqueness and pass it on to newcomers as they join us. It also instills the behaviors we want to promote in our teams.


Questions for you:

  1. What rituals have you used – personally – to instill the right behaviors in your teams or companies? Not ones you’ve read about, but ones you’ve personally taken part in?
  2. Which ones were the most powerful?
  3. What is the behavior you think you need to promote and reward in your current situation right now? What sort of ritual would help bring this about?