Episode 99 – The Culture Code with Daniel Coyle

Daniel Coyle‘We’re all continually learning. Learning is a kind of scaffolding. To me, that’s the most beautiful metaphor for writing a book and for learning in life, that you’re continually building scaffolding. That scaffolding is expanding your capacity.’

Daniel Coyle is a New York Times bestselling author, and in this interview he reveals not only what he discovered about leadership in his latest book The Culture Code (and what happened when he put it into practice in the school writing squad he was coaching at the time), but also HOW he writes, the starting point and the tools and systems that take him from initial idea to finished book.

There’s also some exciting news about my own book, and I announce the winner of the 10-day Business Book Proposal Challenge. Make a cup of tea and settle down to the last ever two-digit episode of the Extraordinary Business Book Club!


Daniel’s site: http://danielcoyle.com/

Daniel on Twitter: https://twitter.com/DanielCoyle

Alison on Twitter: https://twitter.com/bookstothesky

The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1447064765612358/

William Hill Sports Book of the Year site: https://news.williamhill.com/sport/sports-book-of-the-year/

Alison Jones:                        Hello and welcome to The Extraordinary Business Book Club where today I’m here with Daniel Coyle who is The New York Times best-selling author of The Talent Code, The Little Book Of Talent, The Secret Race, co-authored with Tyler Hamilton, Hard Ball, A Season in Projects, and most recently, and what we’re going to talk about most today, The Culture Code: The Secrets Of Highly Successful Groups.

He was the winner, with Hamilton, of the 2012 William Hill Sports Book of the Year prize. He’s a contributing editor for Outside magazine and, this is amazing, he works as a special advisor to the Cleveland Indians. You’re really properly in the game. He divides his time between Cleveland, Ohio and Homer, Alaska.

Welcome to the show, Daniel.

Daniel Coyle:                       Thanks, Alison. It’s nice to be here with you.

Alison Jones:                        A fascinating biography, love that mix. Are you in Alaska or are you in Ohio at the moment?

Daniel Coyle:                       I’m in beautiful Ohio, though it looks a little like Alaska outside, we have a nice bit of snow.

Alison Jones:                        Oh, lovely. Well, not lovely I suppose if you’re stuck in it but yeah, we haven’t had any snow here in the UK. My son’s desperate for it.

Daniel Coyle:                       Yes.

Alison Jones:                        Anyway, really enjoyed the book. What struck me reading it is how beautifully simple, actually, the secrets of building a successful culture are and how human, which I think is a kind of key point … But just for people who haven’t read it, could you just give us a very short overview of why you wrote the book and what you discovered when you were writing it?

Daniel Coyle:                       Yeah, that’s a great question. It all started on a tennis court, actually, in Moscow. I write a lot about individual potential and talent, sort of how the brain learns, and I was visiting a tennis club that had produced more champions that the entire United States, actually, from this one court. It’s called Spartak. They’re practising their skills and a little girl walked onto the court. It was her first day. She was carrying a tennis racket in a plastic grocery bag, and the head coach, who’s this legendary coach, sees the girl from across the court and goes over to her. The coach is carrying a tennis ball. This girl is obviously sort of petrified to be part of this, it’s her first day joining this amazing place. The coach leaned down to the little girl and said, “I want you to do something for me. I want you to catch this.” The coach threw the tennis ball and the little girl caught it.

The whole interaction took about five seconds and it made a tribal connection. They were able, in that single gesture, the coach was, to create this amazing sense of cohesion and connection. That moment got me really interested in what’s that made of and how do good groups, how do good cultures … We all recognise the power, the game-changing power, of great culture. We know it’s bigger than anything else we do. We sense it the second we walk into a room. We feel that and we know its power.

There was a Harvard study not long ago that paired companies that were identical and one had a strong culture, one didn’t. The difference in that revenue was 756% over 10 years-

Alison Jones:                        Whoa.

Daniel Coyle:                       …so it’s massive, but we don’t know how it works. That moment of throwing a tennis ball sent me on this journey of, “Okay. What happens at Pixar? What happens in Navy Seals? What happens” … ‘Cause it’s not magic. It feels like magic, but it’s not. So that is where the book sort of came from.

What I found was that they’re all sort of having those tennis-ball moments. They’re all sending really clear, really simple signals about connection, about sharing risk, and about direction. We tend to think that culture is this soft thing. We tend to think, “Oh, it’s a soft skill,” and all that is a big distraction. The real truth is that sending simple, hard, clear signals builds culture, and that’s because our brains are built to respond to those simple, clear signals about safety, about shared risk, and about direction.

Alison Jones:                        That’s amazing. One of the things that I loved about the book, actually, was that very simple ideas for action section that you put at the end of each chapter. It just helps the reader kind of take the principles that you’ve identified and think how they might apply them in their own situation. Tell me a little bit about that. What were you thinking when you put that together?

Daniel Coyle:                       It was quite self-interested, actually, because I spent five years visiting these places and looking at the science. So that question of, “Okay, that’s really interesting stuff,” but how do we really apply it?

I happen, in my life, to be connected to some teams that I coach at, a professional baseball team that I’m connected with. It really got me interested in, I really want to take these ideas and steal them, and apply them to our own situation.

Some of them end up being incredibly simple. There was one that I learned from Google and it was the simplest email. It had two lines, it had only had two sentences. It was for a leader to send to his people as a signal of safety, as a signal of shared openness. It was to say, “Tell me one thing that you think I should keep doing it. Tell me one thing you think I should stop doing.” That’s it. It doesn’t take many time at all to send, but just like those little signal human connection. There’s this deep grammar of human connection and it’s learnable, it’s not magic.

Alison Jones:                        I love that deep grammar of human connection because, actually, grammar is something that is hard-wired in us. It’s not a fanciful analogy at all, is it? That we are constructed to make sense of the world and to make sense of language in certain ways, so it’s a great metaphor, actually.

Daniel Coyle:                       That’s how our brains are built. We are social animals. We didn’t evolve over millions of years by not paying deep attention to these really, really simple signals.

In a way, that’s kind of the nice thing about this. It’s a language that the key is to become aware of it-

Alison Jones:                        Yeah, and that’s really key, isn’t it? I like that because with grammar, it’s funny, people know much more grammar than they think they know. So if you give them a set of adjectives, any native speaker will be able to put them in the right order, but they won’t know how they did it. I think it’s the same thing with the grammar of human connection and culture, isn’t it? We know when something works, even if we can’t explain quite why.

Daniel Coyle:                       That’s exactly right. You walk into a room and you … Think about your favourite restaurant. Think about your favourite business. Think about your favourite family you like to visit. They have this magical aura about them, simple, clear signals that they’re sending you and you’re picking them up. You’re speaking it, you just have to become aware and become skilled at delivering those signals to have an impact on your group.

Alison Jones:                        Brilliant. I’m assuming that your readers really love this too. This is something that they can pick up on, these little action points, and try out in their own organisations.

Daniel Coyle:                       People are hungry for this. This whole space around leadership and culture’s such a cluttered area with all these kinds of ideas. There’s literally thousands of concepts and models and terms, and this basically is saying, “Hey, get rid of all that. Share your vulnerability. You can’t be strong unless you share your weakness and point out where you’re going all the time.” Flood the zone with these GPS signals that say, “This is where we’re going.” That’s all culture really is.

You can actually see in the natural world, there are these wonderful things … You have, actually, quite a lot in Britain, these murmurations. You ever seen the starlings, the sort of flocks of starlings moving around, this one big group? Their brains are as big as a pea and, yet, they’re able to cooperate in this extraordinary way. Each one being keenly attuned to every other bird in the flock. It’s quite lovely, but it’s not magical. They’re doing the same things that good cultures do, which is they pay keen attention to a very small set of signals.

Alison Jones:                        Yeah, it’s really interesting. I know that, for example … ’cause all the examples that you give in the book about something as simple as saying, “But what’s just what I think, what about you?” Tiny, tiny, little things that allow you to share your vulnerability. Sort of feels obvious when you say it, but unless you’re thinking about it, you’re not going to do it necessarily.

Daniel Coyle:                       That’s exactly right. The thing to acknowledge there is that we all have a natural and perfectly correct allergy to showing vulnerability, especially in the workplace. You don’t want to expose your weakness. The root word for Latin in vulnerable is ‘wound’. The Latin word vulnerability is based on wound, so we don’t like to wound ourselves, but that action of doing it, as one of the Navy Seals commanders that I speak with in the book. His take is, “‘I screwed that up’ are the four most important words any leader can say.” Which is, right, an extraordinary thing to think about. The best teams in the world are led by people who really don’t just sort of admit to vulnerability, but who lead with it.

Alison Jones:                        That’s really powerful. You think Brene Brown kind of invented this whole thing about vulnerability and, as you say, it’s soft, but, actually, there it is, in the top-performing … even the military, and that’s interesting that they’ve got that sense of it, as well. That’s quite heartening, that.

Another thing that I liked in the book was your epilogue. I like epilogues, I think not enough people have them. I might add one to mine, actually, thinking about it. But you talk about using the principles that you learned while you were researching the book, kind of almost a reflective practitioner thing. You’re coaching a group of school children for a writing competition … Tell a little story ’cause I really love it and it’d be nice for people to hear it before we talk about why you did and what it means.

Daniel Coyle:                       Yeah. I’d coached this team, it was for a writing competition the kids receive. It’s very simple. You get a prompt and you have half an hour to write a story and the stories are judged by writing teachers, so the best story wins.

As a writer, I had always thought, “Well, I’m the expert.” I’d spent a few years coaching this time and I had been delivering them a lot of expert knowledge and having them do practices. After I spent some time I decided to flip it. Instead of being kind of the expert on the stage, I started by showing my vulnerability. I brought in old drafts of things that I had written with all the cross outs and all the edit marks. They looked, of course, like they had been attacked with some kind of a bayonet, you know? Absolutely ruined. Which was shocking for these kids to see. Here’s a published author showing this stuff.

Then, I sort of, instead of having me just tell them what to do or show them expert models, I really tried to get at what they loved about journalism and about writing, then we started working on stories together. I was never the one who … someone would write a story and then we’d go around in a bit of a circle and everyone would give their feedback.

It just simply became much more of a group, of a team. Accountable to each other, with clear … One of the things that I did that I saw a lot of good cultures do is sort of flood the zone with these kind of cheesy, but very powerful sort of catchphrases that really tried to capture the core moves of the writing in a very succinct form.

You always see that with great groups. You think of, normally, well, they wouldn’t really use these sort of cheesy catchphrases, but, in fact … and the oxygen around the group, these sort of phrases that serve to control attention and give us direction. So I tried to use that a lot, as well, with simple ways of sort of having people employ the use of opposites or how they move their camera through the story to sort of capture how the narrator moves through the story.

So it was all kind of big experiment and had quite a successful ending. I won’t spoil it by revealing anything for any of your readers, but-

Alison Jones:                        No spoilers.

Daniel Coyle:                       It was delightful, it was a different way of leading. I’d always sort of led from the front and this was a very different way, you were constantly paying keen attention to some basic things. Is everyone connected? Is everyone switched on? Does everyone feel safe? Is everyone sharing? Is everyone opening up and telling the truth, really, telling each the truth? What we are building here? So just by tuning into those things, it ended up being sort of more complex in some ways, but much, much easier in other ways because I don’t have the burden of being the expert who knows everything. Instead, I’m constantly trying to sort of nudge that and push that and connect that. As I said, it was delightfully successful.

Alison Jones:                        It’s fascinating that culture isn’t just about making sure everybody’s happy. It actually links to so directly to productivity and performance, that’s something that really came out of this. I love, as well, that you showed the writing ’cause I think that is something … a lot of the listeners on this book, they’re reading, they’re absorbing really good business books and I tell them to do that, “Go read. You can’t produce a good book unless you’re reading good stuff.” But it can be disheartening if you’re looking at your own crappy first draught and you’re comparing it with the finished product of someone else. Just to have, even to know, that that beautiful finished product started off as a crappy manuscript with strike-throughs is somehow liberating, isn’t it?

Daniel Coyle:                       Oh my God, there’s nothing more… When you finally can de-mystify the writing process for what it is, which is a building process. Failures aren’t really failures, they are little nudges and they’re your map for going forward. So the more attention you pay to why they go wrong, the more you can figure out how to make it right.

Alison Jones:                        Yes. Absolutely. Also, the thing that struck me was the way that the work of writing a book spilled over into your own life, which I think is something that many people I work with find, as well, is that writing a book changes you as you do it. I’m guessing that’s a fairly regular experience for you?

Daniel Coyle:                       It really is. It’s funny … It’s true ’cause I saw a study in the scientists who studied a lot of this science about cohesion and leadership and communication. They all have had it, it was a life-changing experience for them, so that idea that we’re all continually learning. It really, learning is kind of this scaffolding. To me, that’s the most beautiful metaphor for writing a book and for learning in life, that you’re continually building scaffolding. That scaffolding is expanding your capacity.

Alison Jones:                        Yes, and if you ever needed a reason to write a book, there’s a cracking one right there. It’s about self development, as much as business development, isn’t it?

Daniel Coyle:                       That’s exactly right, that’s exactly right. You will emerge from the other side with a different set of abilities and you’ll also get tuned into probably the most important ability of all, which is storytelling. I think storytelling, we think of being sort of like sugar, that it’s the ability to kind of capture attention and tell a story, but, in fact, I think there is a just a study that came out where they looked at tribes and which tribes, I think it was in Papua New Guinea or somewhere, but it was fantastic to see how the storytellers were the ones who actually had the most power and prestige because that was the most powerful thing. I think the same is true in our society today. The ability to understand the mechanics and the structure of a good story. Story is the ultimate drug.

Alison Jones:                        What a great phrase. Yes, it’s so much part of building culture, as well, isn’t it? Lopping right back to where we came in, the stories that an organisation tells about itself and its people, they tell you everything you need to know about the culture.

Daniel Coyle:                       That’s exactly right.

Alison Jones:                        After the epilogue, there’s something that I just, I couldn’t not comment on. This is just beautiful. I’m a complete bibliogeek. After the About the Author bit, there’s a page, similar layout, similar length, about the type and you talk about the font, the typeface that you used, which was just beautiful. I’m guessing that means you’re a bibliogeek too?

Daniel Coyle:                       Well, I think I am. I think I am. I have to say I can’t take complete credit for it, but it’s a habit that my editor has gotten into over time. I’ve embraced it, it sort of harkens back, it’s a little sort of a tip of the hat to books themselves. That you were just immersed in this typeface, here’s a little bit about the story of that typeface in which you were immersed.

Alison Jones:                        I love that. I mean, I love everything about it because of course I love books, but that sense that the physical thing that you hold in your hand has its own story in history, it’s just beautiful. Love that. Thank you, that made me very happy.

Now you’re obviously a professional writer, so let’s … I know, I’m very easily pleased. Tell me what writing looks like for you. What’s your routine?

Daniel Coyle:                       You know what, my routine starts with finding a big mystery, something that is worth exploring deeply. Usually, that mystery is a very obvious one. I’ve spent my last, more than a decade, looking at big mysteries, like where does talent come from? How is it really built? Where does that sort of culture and chemistry come from? How’s that really built? So it’s difficult to sort of see what’s right in front of you and the mysteries that really can impact people if you explore them. So that’s the first step. What’s that mystery that’s worth exploring?

Then I end up sort of doing a circuit of reading on it to see what the current thinking is on it, and see if there are any ideas to help ignite my own thinking on it. Then I try to talk to a lot of smart people about it, continually taking notes and continually going into the fields, but to constantly be grounded as a journalist, to look and see, okay, what does this look like? Let’s keep this in the real world.

The other thing about my process, I guess, that could be interesting is to be kind of obsessively organised and to keep and index of all the notes that you take and of all of the encounters that you have. An index that you can use to locate what exactly, what notes you need to find when. Constantly organising those notes, so that you are … the notes themselves become sort of the spine of the book. If you can keep those organised, the way you title them ends up driving the outline of the book itself. It’s very easy to explore and sort of get lost in the material, so constantly looping back to put it into files, boxes, headings that give you the real sense of the internal mechanics of the topic. That when you start juggling and moving those around, you start to see connections that you might have missed.

So I’m a believer that all creativity is actually connecting and trying to give yourself sort of a dashboard where you can lay out all of the material and see whether connections emerge. What surprises you? And then you’ve got to sit down and actually write the whole thing, so there’s a lot of … like a mini building process, the preparation is everything. The-

Alison Jones:                        Material-

Daniel Coyle:                       The writing itself, ideally, should go sort of simply, but-

Alison Jones:                        Tell me a little bit more about that organisation ’cause I think everybody will be screaming at their iPhone or whatever they’re playing this on, “Yes, but how?” So are you literally just using kind of Word or have you got fancy tools for that? What systems and tools do you use for organising the research notes?

Daniel Coyle:                       It’s a very sophisticated tool called a spiral notebook.

Alison Jones:                        Brilliant.

Daniel Coyle:                       I have a set of spiral notebooks that are 150 pages long. I number each page, each interview, each reference. Each reading gets summarised and put into that notebook. Then I create an index from that. The index I type in a Word document to sort of continually put in, say I talk to this guy, we talked about these 10 topics, I read this article, this is what emerged from it, and I’m continually sort of summarising and capturing, summarising and capturing. It forces you to summarise. It forces you to find these little blocks of salt that are the value of what you read. Then try and seek to connect that.

The other thing I’m always looking for is I’m just looking for great stories. I’m just looking for stories that contain opposites. I’m looking for stories of the most disciplined team of soldiers who in the world who actually do this very strange, groovy vulnerability thing, or I’m looking for this crazy, groovy group of musicians that secretly do this very militaristic thing. I’m looking for opposites that help illuminate the principles by which they succeed.

Alison Jones:                        Fantastic. Don’t say we are not at the bleeding edge of technology on this show. Ring binders, that’s great. It’s so interesting, I think, for people to just under the hood and see how other people do it because there’s no kind of one way of doing this. Lots of different people have different ways of doing it. It’s really helpful to hear that.

So if there’s a first-time author listening to the show, what would be your one best tip for them?

Daniel Coyle:                       I guess it would be to deeply study your favourite books and figure out their structure, figure out how they’re achieving. If they give you goosebumps, look at that passage that gives you goosebumps. If they’re amazing at describing a theory, look at that passage intently and see how they do it. It’s not magic.

Then I would steal form them. I would absolutely, shamelessly steal those techniques and try to apply them in my world. As Picasso said, “Mediocre artists borrow and great artists steal.” I’m a firm believer in that.

Alison Jones:                        Shakespeare was a big fan of that too, wasn’t he?

Daniel Coyle:                       Right, exactly.

Alison Jones:                        Well, they do say if you copy from one person, it’s plagiarism, but if you copy from 100, it’s research, right?

Daniel Coyle:                       That’s exactly right.

Alison Jones:                        Now I always ask my guests to recommend another guest to the show, so who do you think would be a good guest on the Extraordinary Business Book Club? Somebody with something interesting to say about the business of business books.

Daniel Coyle:                       I think, for me, it’s Ed Catmull. Ed was the president and co-found of Pixar who wrote his own wonderful book on creativity called Creativity Inc. He was a first-time author. He’s a guy who understands both what … some deep rules of business, but he understands what it like to be an amateur as a writer. I think he learned a lot through his experience. He’s brilliant to boot, so he’d be my first choice.

Alison Jones:                        He’d be amazing to talk to. Thank you, what a great recommendation. Love it.

Now if people want to find out more about you, Daniel, and more about the Culture Code, where should they go?

Daniel Coyle:                       They should go to danielcoyle.com and there’s a few things on there, hopefully some things that people find entertaining or useful. Yeah, that would be the destination.

Alison Jones:                        Fantastic. I’ll put that link up on the show notes. So you’d go to extraordinarybusinessbooks.com, as usual, and find it there.

Thank you so much for your time today, Daniel.

Daniel Coyle:                       Thank you, Alison. Lovely talking with you

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