Today’s guest is Meredeth Haberfeld from Think Human.  I met Meredeth through my writing coach where she was looking for a recommendation on whether she should work with my coach.  My answer to that was a resounding yes and then we went on to other topics.

I’m really glad Meredeth was sent my way.  We had a fascinating conversation about a wide range of subjects and you’re going to enjoy and learn a lot from this episode of The Sustainable Business.  Some of the things you’ll learn are:

  • How employee engagement is not all that it’s cracked up to be.
  • How culture engagement is not something that you just roll out.  You have to live it for it to be real.
  • Learn the definition of culture and why it’s different from what you thought.
  • Why you have to be honest about the beliefs and behaviors in your company.
  • Why senior management is solely responsible for what the culture of the company is going to be.


Narrator:         Welcome to The Sustainable Business Radio Show podcast where you’ll learn not only how to create a sustainable business but you’ll also learn the secrets of creating extraordinary value within your business and your life. In The Sustainable Business, we focus on what it’s going to take for you to take your successful business and make it economically and personally successful.

Your host, Josh Patrick, is going to help us through finding great thought leaders as well as providing insights he’s learned through his 40 years of owning, running, planning and thinking about what it takes to make a successful business sustainable.

Josh:                Hey, how are you today? This is Josh Patrick and you’re at The Sustainable Business. Today, we’re in for a really good treat. My writing coach Ann Sheybani wrote me. She said, “You have to be talking to this person. She’s really interesting. She might want to use me as a coach. But more importantly, you guys have really cool things to talk about” so I called Meredith up.

Our guest today, by the way, is Meredith Haberfeld. We had this really interesting conversation. As it turns out, Meredith had done like a ton of really interesting things. She’s the founder ThinkHuman, a culture and leadership development firm. She has an interesting background. She built a $200-million service business. She’s been doing biochemical research and publishing in the field of neural immunology which is something I’m really interested in, too. She’s taught at Esalen and MIT. These are just really cool things.

What we’re going to talk about today is leadership. So instead of me yammering on, why don’t we bring her in and we’ll start the conversation?

Hey, how are you today?

Meredith:        Hi, Josh. Great to be with you today.

Josh:                I am so happy you’re here. This is really cool. And I really appreciate you being my first guinea pig to do a dual thing where we’re doing Facebook Live and we’re recording a podcast for a later date which will probably appear in our podcast episode about six or seven weeks from now.

At any rate, let’s start talking about leadership. One of the things you like to say is, “Leadership sets culture and culture can’t be successfully delegated.” I think I agree with that. What do you mean by that?

Meredith:        Well, there’s a lot of buzz these days about culture, billions and billions of dollars being spent each year in the U.S. alone. And it’s no surprise why because a lot of researcher has come out in the last decade or two about the connection between culture and performance. So we get the culture piece. And independently, we get the leadership piece. But these two worlds are really living in separate buckets.

The huge culture spend that businesses are spending on things like employee engagement surveys, and beautiful office space, and kombucha, and organic food. I don’t know about you but I like those things. When I go to an office, I’m like, “that feels good. I’m happy.” But employee engagements – numbers are not improving at all, billions and billions of dollars later. In fact, they’re going down slightly. So this then begs the question, “What are the companies that are winning at this– because there are some, what are they doing differently that everybody else is missing?” And that’s what I and ThinkHuman have been studying for the last few years.

Josh:                So what have you been finding? Because I want to compare your findings to what my observation is. I’ve never done research. I’m kind of a [inaudible 00:03:29] research guy, observe what’s around me. And I think that’s probably a generalized principle.

Meredith:        Yes.

Yeah, agreed. And I’m very interested to hear your observations as well.

What we have been finding is that the companies that are winning at this, for them, employee engagement is not the golden ring. In fact, it’s not even really a thing for them. They’re not focused on employee engagement. So this thing that businesses are spending billions of dollars on, it’s not an entity of focus in the companies that actually have it.

They are focused on something. What we had found is they’re obsessively concerned with what’s good for their people. And the reason engagement, as concept, doesn’t seem to be discussed or an issue of any sort in the companies that are really winning at this is that the idea of engagement is something that you can apply or roll out. Like, “Let’s do an engagement program.” When, in fact, these companies that are really winning at this– one of my favorite companies to look at is Wegmans because it’s a grocery store. And so often–

Josh:                I love Wegmans.

Meredith:        Right? Right.

Anyway, the thing that’s so amazing about Wegmans– and this really speaks to culture. The thing that’s so amazing about Wegmans is when you say the word Wegmans to anybody who’s ever been there, whether it’s an employee who works there as a kid bagging groceries, an executive who worked in the office, a person who shopped there once, or a person who lives around one and shops there obsessively – everybody who knows Wegmans, loves Wegmans. It’s got like a cultish, obsessive following. And there’s a reason. It’s because culture and engagement aren’t a thing they’re trying to roll out or delegate. It’s the personal responsibility of every person starting from the most senior leaders.

And that’s what we found in common among every company that has a really thriving culture, is that they’re not doing culture programs. Maybe, in the end, they have beautiful office space and organic food because they decided to do that but not because they think that’s going to make the culture good. Those are just nice things they’re doing because they feel good.

The culture really comes from some place very specific. And if you talk to an anthropologist rather than a business person and connect those two conversations, it gets really interesting. If we just back up for a minute. So what is culture? If you look at an organizational context, the things we’re doing to impact culture are things like wellness programs and tequila Friday’s so people can have a best friend at work are all nice things. Like, they’re good and people like those things but they don’t impact engagement results. Well, why?

Well, let’s look at what is culture actually? It’s the beliefs and behaviors that dictate how a group operates. It’s those invisible background forces that shape a shared reality about how we perceive the world and how we perceive human relationships. And it’s what dictates, in some organizations, the things are very siloed and people are guarded. Or it’s what dictates in other organizations that people are very connected and their guard is down.

But fundamentally, culture is beliefs and behaviors. So we have to look at, where does that come from? Certainly, it doesn’t come from organic food and wellness programs.

Josh:                No. No. But I do think that you’ve touched on something. You actually– when we were talking about Wegmans, you hit on one of my very favorite values of all times. In fact, any organization I’m involved with, personal responsibility is a hugely big deal.

Meredith:        Yes.

Josh:                And what that really speaks to is values. Instead of employee engagement or working on culture, my experience is that great companies are values-led.

Meredith:        Yes, agree.

Josh:                And the values-led is, if you’re going to use– Patrick Lencioni wrote a great book called The Advantage. My favorite thing in that book is he takes values and puts them into four buckets. There are core values which are the values that exist. And the personal responsibility is certainly is true at Wegmans. There’s aspirational values which are values you would like to have but aren’t really real right now. I have a good story about that but I won’t bore you with it right now. And then there’s accidental values which are values that accidentally appear in a company. And finally, there’s permission-to-play values which are values you do 90% to 95% of the time but there are times you let it slip. And the companies that I find that are the absolute best are the ones who focus on core values and really find a way to weave core value conversations into almost every conversation they have with any stakeholder in the organization.

Meredith:        Yes, I absolutely agree with you. And where, I think, most engagement programs fail, even by virtue of the expression engagement program, like it’s built right into the language, is that values are transmitted from the senior leadership through behavior. Whatever the senior leadership is embodying are the values. They may not be the aspirational values. They may not be the values that are on the wall but they are, in fact, what is valued.

And so, if the behavior of senior leadership is focused on results at any cost – shaming people if necessary, being demanding in times that don’t call for it, if that’s what’s being embodied, that’s what’s getting reflected throughout the organization. All eyes are on the senior leaders all the time. We’re watching, as employees in a company, and we see, “Oh, that’s what is valued.” It may not be what’s on the wall but that’s what’s valued and that will now dictate how I operate, both with my boss and with others in small or large ways. And that then is what gets reflected outward.

I agree with you 1000% that values are really what it all comes down to. But values get embedded in a unique way. The senior leadership is what I call the emotional center of a business. And as we all know, in science, we’re social creatures and emotions are contagious and values get watched and shared from certain hotbed centers which includes, in a business, the senior leadership.

Josh:                A thought just came up to me, which is I used to own a food service and vending company. I had about 90 employees. That was my first business I was in and then I went into this business. But what I learned in that business, and it’s been true all along, is people never listen to what you say, they watch what you do. And if you’re not consistent with your words and your actions, you’re seen at your company as a liar. And I’m using that word really on purpose because the truth is most employers are seen as liars by their employees.

Meredith:        Yes, I really agree with you. I think it’s almost never malevolent. I think it’s a function of personal blind spots. You know, we have that what we wish for.

ne of our clients, it’s a PR company in New York City. Great company. Really smart people work there. Prestigious, interesting clients and really great work that they’re doing. And the CEO of this company is committed to having a kind, great place to work for her employees so she makes sure that on people’s birthdays, they are uniquely celebrated in ways that matter to them. On surprise occasions, she sees that massage therapists are brought in or surprise pedicures. Whether that interests some other company where the people at another company is not the point. At this company, they love that. They’re like, “Wow, this is great.”

But that very same CEO, when she gets stressed or anxious, it could be 3:00 in the morning, that she sees something bad happened with a client, starts banging out all capital letters e-mails to her team and their reports, and whether the people see their emails at 3:00 in the morning or when they wake up in the morning, it sends people into a flurry of like “hunker down, send blame somewhere else, run for cover.” But that then is what goes rippling outwards through the organization.

Now, is that what she wants the culture to be? No. She’s spending all this money to have frozen yogurt afternoons and massages because she actually wants people to feel really good there. It’s just a personal blind spot how her behavior is actually setting the cultural tone.

Josh:                So let me ask you a question, did you point out to her the effects of her personal behavior?

Meredith:        Yes. And it is for her, and any leader, an ongoing work in progress to keep developing oneself.

Josh:                What was her response when you told her that this behavior was incredibly destructive?

Meredith:        I would say that she is not somebody who has yet done the work to transform this.

We have many other clients, I mean, I used her as an example because it’s like such a colorful story but we have many other clients who see it, shift it. I mean, one of my favorite examples is Soul Cycle. Do you know the business Soul Cycle?

Josh:                I know of the business. I’m not really.

Meredith:        Right, it’s now a 10-year-old business. Like Wegmans, it has a cultish following from both its employees and its consumers. And the co-CEOs who built the business, Elizabeth Cutler and Julie Rice, during the time that they built the business, were under immense pressure. I mean, they were bootstrapping the business for many years, borrowing from Peter to pay Paul. It was a high stress time but they made very conscious choices along the way to say, “We are creating an environment where it’s not just us that under stress, everybody here is under stress. This is a high-pressure place to work. And we need to be the ones to demonstrate that you can both be under intense pressure and create a great environment for other people to work in – both our customers and our colleagues.” And they really demonstrate it through their actions.

Now, is that easy? Is it just like snap your fingers and do that? No, it’s not. And this is really the intersection point between culture, leadership, and personal development because you really can’t separate those three things out as much as we would like to. And I think that’s really one of the big reasons why we have so many big culture and engagement programs because that’s a much simpler way to try to attack the problem even though it doesn’t work and we can see by results it doesn’t work. It’s a lot cleaner than saying, “Wow, I have to develop myself as a human being in order to shift this problem.”

Josh:                Well, the truth is, when you do these sort of engagement programs, it’s a band-aid that’s feel good, doesn’t do anything really useful, and allows people to think they’re doing the right things.

Meredith:        Yes.

Josh:                I want to ask you a question about developing values because I have my method doing this, certainly. In fact, values and mission is one of the five steps to sustainability for any privately held business. And frankly, I would say any business. But since we’re talking about privately-held businesses today, we’ll just leave it at that. Is that when you work with someone to develop values, and I assume you have some process you do that with, do you make that a group activity or just a senior leader or leaders in the company?

Meredith:        It depends on the maturity of the business. In a business that has a CEO who has come into the business, right? They were not the founder of the business–

Josh:                Right, right, right.

Meredith:        Then we make it a collective process because they really are coming into an existing culture and there are existing extant values. And so, you have to pull through the stakeholder voices to get something that’s going to have emotional resonance in the group.

In a founder-led business, especially in early stage founder-led business, no. We work with the founders because they really are the heart and soul of what’s going to be broadcasting those values. So it can go from the inside out.

Josh:                So our listeners are mostly going to be in the founder– even though they might have been running their business for 20 or 25 years. It’s a relatively small organization. It’s important for folks listening to understand that values are your responsibility and you need to be telling yourself the truth about your values. If you say you have a core value and it actually is an aspirational value or a permission-to-play value everybody’s is going to know you’re lying.

Meredith:        Yes.

Josh:                Your employees are going to know. Your suppliers are going to know. Your customers are going to know. And they’ll sort of scratch their head and say, “What’s with these guys? Why can’t they tell us the truth?”

Meredith:        Yeah. I would say two things about that. (1) For anybody who hasn’t heard the expression permission-to-play values, I assume that means things like honesty. Things that are like not so unique to any business. That’s just you’ve got to have that or else you’re not going to get very far, right?

Josh:                Right. Yeah, things along the nature. Respect–

Meredith:        Yes.

Josh:                Rights and respect is another one that we want to cross a lot.

Meredith:        Yeah, I just wanted to make sure that we had a kind of a shared vocabulary for that.

Josh:                Yes, we do. About that, yes.

Meredith:        Yeah. The next thing I would say is that, about lying, about our values. One of the big problems being a leader, whether you’re a founder or a CEO that has come into a business is, you become a bit like the emperor with no clothes. You walk around like, “Oh, I’m doing great.” Or “I can see whatever failings I can see in myself” but that’s all I can see. And it’s really rare that we have a feedback loop where we can actually experience what it feels like to be in the culture that we’ve created.

And oftentimes, I’m sure you’ve seen this as well, Josh, a leader will ask for feedback and, especially if there’s not a high degree of psychological safety in the company, people are like, “No, you’re great. It’s great. It’s all great.” Maybe people will do like a soft alluding to something, thinking like, “Well, at least, I got it out there.” But it was so subtle that the leader just misses it.

So, if you want to break through what you’re calling this lie, there can be a lot of self-beratement to it or self-shame. Like, you can’t hear the truth if you’re making yourself wrong. It has to be like, “It’s all fine. We’re all imperfect.” And let me see if I can get some honest feedback and make it safe enough for people to give me the feedback.”

Usually, how you make it safe enough is even if you have an amazing culture, let people give that feedback anonymously. I’m a big believer in that. Even in the most transparent, safe cultures because there are certain things you’re only going to pull out when people can give the feedback anonymously. And then when you get the feedback, have gratitude about it. Even if what you hear is painful and hard to hear and your defenses fly up immediately, you’ve got to thank people for willing to go out on a limb and be honest because people are taking a big risk by giving that feedback, right?

Josh:                Absolutely.

My experience is employees– and I don’t care how good your organization is, are not going to tell the boss the truth very often. And the reason is nobody comes to your company without life experiences they’ve had before they came. And that includes the way they grew up. And, frankly, we’re punished more often for honesty than we are for telling people what they want to hear. We’re punished when we make mistakes which is another activity around, if you want to have a strong culture, you better have a way for handling mistakes that’s positive and not a “got you” sort of thing.

Meredith:        Absolutely.

Josh:                We’ve hit on almost all my hotspots today in the world of culture.

Meredith:        Very good. Well, we share a lot in common.

Josh:                Yeah.

Meredith:        I think that where you started this conversation with personal responsibility is really the locus or epicenter of all of it which is that culture lives and dies with our own behavior.

Josh:                No question.

Meredith:        And when we stand there, we can make a lot of really powerful shifts. And when we’re looking at it as something external to ourselves, we become powerless and end up spending a lot of wasted money.

Josh:                We do.

Meredith, unfortunately, we are out of time. This went by really quickly, 22 minutes together.

I’m going to bet people are going to want to learn more about you, your company, what you guys do, how would they get that sort of information?

Meredith:        They can check out our website, or look me up

Josh:                Cool.

And I’m assuming that you’ll be happy to have an e-mail conversation with people?

Meredith:        Would love to. Would even love to have someone from my team have a phone conversation with people if they’re looking at the leadership development or culture in their organization. We love learning what people are doing to help educate our research and sharing what we know.

Josh:                And I’m assuming you have a form some place on your website to allow people to contact you?

Meredith:        Absolutely. And we look forward to talking to you guys.

Josh:                Okay, cool. That’d be great.

So if you want to talk about leadership, I think Meredith’s the person you really should be talking to. She knows her stuff. There’s no question about that. And I would say that not just because we happen to agree on many things. I would just say that, in our conversation, she’s pretty much proven that she knows her stuff on this, so it’s a good thing to do.

I also have an offer for you. I have a free one-hour audio CD course. It’s called Success to Sustainability: The Five Things You Need to Pay Attention to to Create a Personally and Economically Sustainable Business. Really easy to get it, all you have to do is take out your smartphone. And if you’re driving, don’t take out your smartphone but wait until you stop driving. This is not hard to remember, so you can remember this. Text the word SUSTAINABLE to 44222. That’s the word SUSTAINABLE to 44222. And we’ll have the CD on its way to you. And if you happen to not have access to a CD player anymore, which a lot of people do I guess, just send me an e-mail and we’ll send you audio file.

So this is Josh Patrick. You’ve been at The Sustainable Business. Thanks so much for hanging around today. I hope to see you back here really soon.

Narrator:         You’ve been listening to The Sustainable Business podcast where we ask the question, “What would it take for your business to still be around 100 years from now?” If you like what you’ve heard and want more information, please contact Josh Patrick at 802‑846‑1264 ext 2, or visit us on our website at, or you can send Josh an e-mail at

Thanks for listening. We hope to see you at The Sustainable Business in the near future.

Topics: sustainable business podcast, values, Sustainable Business, culture

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