The following is a conversation between Gustavo Razzetti, Founder of Fearless Culture and Author of Remote, Not Distant, and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving.

Denver: Very rarely is there a question of universal concern that impacts every organization and every company. But today, there is. What will the workplace of tomorrow look like? And when, if ever, will employees return to the office? No one has examined this question any more thoroughly or skillfully than my next guest. He is Gustavo Razzetti, the founder of Fearless Culture, and author of Remote, Not Distant.

Welcome to The Business of Giving, Gustavo.

Gustavo Razzetti, founder of Fearless Culture and author of Remote, Not Distant

Gustavo: Hi. Very excited to be here. Looking forward to our conversation. Thank you for hosting me.

Denver: I absolutely loved your book. It was really fabulous. So let me start with a big question. Is hybrid/remote here to stay? And generally speaking, is it less effective, more effective, or about the same as going into the office every day?

Gustavo: Good points. I think it’s here to stay, but of course like with every change, we’re going to see the pendulum moving from one extreme to another. And basically, that connects to the second part of the question. Is it more effective or not? It all depends. If you do it right, it’s much more effective. If you don’t take all the considerations and the right steps, then it’s not.

So I think what we’re seeing today is basically a divide in which companies have realized: Hey, hybrid brings a lot of opportunities. It brings flexibility. It allows us to hire people from all over the world. It allows our employees to adjust their skills, their personal skills, to work and not the other way around.

And that, basically, it’s increasing productivity. It’s increasing diversity, a topic that very few people have done. Take for example, Spotify. Now 46%, close to 46% of the executives, Spotify leaders, are women. Before, two years ago, they were only 15. So this is a great way of showing: Hey, it’s helping companies become more diverse, for example, more productive.

Many businesses I mentioned: Spotify, Airbnb, they have grown exponentially once they’ve adopted the hybrid. Then we have a lot of companies that either they are resisting it because they want to go back to normal, or there are companies that don’t have a clue and they have good intentions, but they’re not necessarily succeeding.

Denver: Right. They’re clueless. I think that’s the way that would be… the bottom line of that. Well, hybrid…

Gustavo: You said it, yeah.

Denver: …is a single word, hybrid.

Gustavo: Yeah.

Denver: Single word.

Gustavo: Yeah.

Denver: But it really describes an enormous range of possibilities. Give us a little sense of what that range is when somebody says “hybrid.”

Gustavo: Thank you, thank you, and thank you because I cannot thank you enough for this, because that’s one of the biggest misunderstandings. People think that hybrid, it’s like, how many… It’s a scheduling thing. How many days at the office? How many days working from home? And there are many models that companies have.

And it all depends… That’s why I tried to explain in the book. There’s no one model. It all depends on your reality, the type of work do you do. There are some people that need more physical interactions. There are people that don’t need that. So we cannot, for example, copy what tech companies are doing if you are in the, I don’t know, hospitality business. It changes.

I think the thing about the model is understanding that we need to redefine how we work based on the type of work that people have to accomplish and not on our schedule. So for example, rather than say: Hey, let’s come three days to the office and then work today from home, maybe at some point you need people to be in the office a full week, from nine to whatever and work like crazy until they crack a project. And then they say: Hey, we finished it; mission accomplished.

And maybe for the next two weeks, they don’t need to go to the office. So rather than really determine the schedule, understand what’s the nature of our work, what are the projects that we need to accomplish. And then based on those projects, next week, next month, depending how much… three months from now, decide how your team wants to work and should work.

Because in the end, it’s about the flexibility that hybrid brings to a table;it allows  great work. And to your point, it’s not either from office, either from staff… from other locations, because working remotely doesn’t necessarily mean working from my home. I can be working from a co-located space. I can be working from a coffee store or from someone else’s home as well.

Denver: Yeah. Well, it’s a different mindset because I think a lot of organizations are used to that manual, and they like to have processes that are consistent and across the board. And what you’re saying is that, no, it’s ambiguous, and you have to make real-time decisions with department by department, week by week based on what the job is and what the need is. And that kind of flexibility is really just a change of the way you look at the way you tackle things. It’s really interesting.

You did say that doing hybrid right, the best organizations that do do it are very obsessive about how they design this remote/hybrid experience. Give us an example of what you mean by that.

Gustavo: It’s about intentionality. I think that maybe like if we zoom out and go back in time, many companies didn’t have such a strong culture as leaders now want to say they have. When they say: Hey, my culture is suffering, I want to say: Hey, really, was your culture that good?

Denver: Sure.

Gustavo: And if you go, once again, because I think that in order to have a constructive conversation, we need to use facts, not preferences, not what we like as human beings. And if you see, for example, Gallup and other sources, they were telling that employees were not happy with their company cultures. They were not engaged.

And the numbers were really below the fifties, … close to 30 something.

Denver: About 33% or so, they were abysmal.

Gustavo: Yeah. So basically, the big majority of all employees were not happy with the company culture. So I would challenge the notion that: Hey, our culture is suffering. How much can it suffer? Because it was already broken. Okay?

So, in that regard, the difference between having a great culture, either before the pandemic, during the pandemic and after, was intentionality. Companies like Unilever… that probably is not the most renowned company when it comes to culture; they used to be very purpose-driven as an organization, their brands and their employees. So they were able to adapt to those circumstances.

Airbnb, I mentioned it earlier, they were very intentional since they created the organization. When they were a startup, they were intentional in defining their values, their purpose, the behaviors, what’s rewarded, what’s not. Then at some point when they became really a big organization, they invited the employees to be part of the process of revisiting their values.

So basically, hey, the values that we founders created back in time when we’re just a tiny startup, now that we’re a huge global corporation, do they mean anything? So they were intentional in understanding: Hey, we need to challenge. This shouldn’t be BS that we write on the wall. This should be things that are connected to who we are, how we behave. It needs to be authentic.

And they involve people in challenging them, but also refreshing how the company should operate. So now they thrive. It’s part of that. For example, to wrap up, Airbnb has a dual decision-making process. So in regular time, people have complete autonomy to make decisions, and managers are more like consultants. They facilitate the process, but they don’t have a saying or influence.

However, in terms of crisis, the senior executives take over, and they manage decision making. So when the pandemic started, that’s  exactly what happened, and that helped the company pivot. But also then, when they… I mean, most of the business… 40, 50% of the business tanked because no one was traveling.But then they were able not only to recover, but also to grow and become even bigger than they were before the pandemic. And that’s part of the result of adopting a hybrid work policy.

Denver: Yeah. That’s a really great explanation. Now that there are some people returning to the office and some of those people haven’t been in the office for two or three years, is there any advice you would have in terms of how the companies should manage that return?

I’m sure there could be some danger signs out there. What are some of the companies doing to try to make that transition back to the office, to the extent that it does exist as smooth as possible?

Gustavo: That’s a great question. I think there are two… I mean, first on a very basic human element, we lost yesterday… I mean, this is super timely. I went to a client, I mean, usually most of my clients are in the US or Europe, and I would say 85% of the work we do is remote still now. And in this case, I went to an office to meet with the senior executive, all the C-suite. And then they toured me around because they have a… it’s a food business, so they have a huge kitchen.

I like to cook, so hey, show me all the nice stuff. And when I was doing the tour, people were telling me like: You know what?  We’re still getting used to this experience, because that’s the word, to actually talk to people, to meet people. Because I was asking people: Hey, who are you? What do you do? And people were like defensive.

So I think that we lost that day-to-day fluidity, so to speak, to interact with other human beings at work. So people are still feeling weird. So that’s from a more basic, how we prepare people from that. Now we need to understand that it’s going to be weird. It’s going to take some time. The same way that when we have to, basically, seclude in our homes and work remotely, it felt awkward. Now, it’s the other way around. Returning, it’s really weird.

On the other hand, we need to understand that not everyone has the same passion about going back to the office. There are younger people that probably don’t have a good office space or anything close to that, so they prefer to go there. They’re more social. They like to learn from observation. But people that have, I don’t know, kids or other family members they have to take care of, probably they are more reluctant.

So I think that’s important to take those in. You used the word flexibility. Make sure that the return to the office is not a one-size-fits-all. And lastly, I think that the office or the return to the office needs to basically justify the return on investment on the commute, right? So the commute costs you time, it costs you money, it costs you stress.

So companies shouldn’t just ask people back, but how are we going to earn that return on investment? Or how are we going to make that valuable? And I think it’s important to justify that. You don’t force the people just to be there. One thing that happens is people are saving time because they’re not commuting, and they’re using part of that time saving in investing in themselves– to read, to learn, to rest, whatever.

But also they’re giving the company more time, so net-net. People are working today remotely more hours than they used to work before. So were we to return to  fully commute, then companies are going to lose that productivity. So it’s a double side kind of stuff they need to take into consideration.

Denver: Yeah, absolutely. You got to give them a why, and I think also sometimes you have to give them an experience. I remember, this is a little bit off the subject, but I remember when Jerry Jones built the new Dallas stadium, AT&T Stadium. He said, with big screen TVs and the Red Zone and all these other things, we’ve got to give fans who come out to the game something beyond what they’d be able to get on their TV sets.

So there’s almost this sense that it’s got to be exceptional, it’s got to be experience, it’s got to be purposeful. But let me pick up on that– the word both of us have been using a lot, and that is the “office.” What is the purpose of the office now?

Gustavo: Yeah. And sorry to get back to Airbnb, but Brian Chesky, the CEO, is super intelligent in that sense. He’s a really a good visionary. And he said If the office didn’t exist, would we have invented it? And if we did, what for? And I think that’s the key question. I’m not saying don’t get back people to the… that’s not the debate. The debate is we need to be more intentional.

So if you want to earn that time that people need to invest… or their money because they have to travel to come into the office, make it worth the experience, right? I like the story you just shared. It’s about that, exactly. We need to recreate a different experience. If people go back to the office to, hey, we’re going to be in that cubicle, or I’m going to be in an open space, intimidated, where people  were interrupting me;  it’s loud.

Yesterday, I was reading  research that shows that people, for example, just going back to: how can we improve the experience, the level of noise that usually happens in the office, today people are not tolerating it, especially introverts who would happen to be the majority of people, right? The real introverts, not the ones who pretend to be an extrovert, but the majority of people are somehow introverts. And there’s a lot of research that shows that people cannot tolerate the noise.

So if you don’t fix that issue, people would say, I’m going to find another job. I don’t know if you saw, but today, once again, people have been talking about, hey, leaders have the power; recession is coming. But once again, we see that job reports, it’s usually higher than expected. So another… and so if people have the power, make sure that you create a good experience because if not, they’re going to go to another stadium.

Denver: Yeah, another stadium. And you’re absolutely right about concentration. I would have to think, at least speaking for myself, that my concentration powers have increased during the pandemic, but I can’t take outside noise. When there’s a TV or a radio in the other room, I have to turn it off or something like that.

I think people have just gotten intolerant of that noise. And when you start to think about the office, I mean it was the interruption factory, people coming in, noise going on, things of that sort.

Let me ask you something about teams, and this has been an observation I’ve had with some talks of leaders. And they have said to me that Zoom has really been great for their vertical teams. And by that, I mean the marketing team is closer than they’ve ever been, and so is finance, and so is program. And they’re getting along really well.

They’re communicating well, but there is absolutely no connection or communication horizontally, with the adjacent teams. No one team is being influenced by another team to the extent that they want. And as this one leader put it, Gustavo, she said, we have a lot of great teams, but we don’t have one team. What are your thoughts on that?

Gustavo: Let me take a deep breath because that’s a complex question. Not tricky, but complex. First, I always want to say: How was it before, right? Because now, it’s through technology; it’s easier to observe what’s working or what’s not. But before, it wasn’t the case.

So I usually say, Okay, is this phenomenon that’s happened to this particular company different to how it was, or now it has just become visible? That’s the first step. Second, it’s important that having those subcultures, it’s good for companies, right? So people relate, and there’s a lot of research that shows this, that people feel closer to the smaller groups that they belong to than to the larger.

So you’re American, you probably share, I know, what’s your favorite sports team, but when it comes to, if you start drilling down, your family and your friends, you feel much more connected to those people than you feel to the broader society. And that’s who we are. So don’t see that people in the marketing team are really close knit.. That’s not bad, that’s good.

However, we also need cross-collaboration because, yeah, in today’s world, teams cannot just focus on their task. They will need to communicate. So how do we design that staff, and that’s going back to intentionality. We need to start creating spaces in which those people interact and collaborate and work together. So it needs to be some process.

Also, if we talk about hybrid being the best of both worlds, those topics need to be addressed. And if you want to fix cross-collaboration, maybe that’s a good reason to earn people’s commute. Hey, let’s bring all the heads of those departments together and say, Hey guys, how can we create that collaboration and design the process so when we get back to the Zoom, that happens?

Denver: Yeah. Very purposeful, no question about it.

Let’s move on to psychological safety, a sense of belonging and being able to offer your ideas without fear. And boy, that’s always been so important in our traditional workplace. It might even be more important now that we are hybrid/remote.

Do you have to approach a little bit differently the issue of psychological safety when we’re all apart than you would have to if we were together in the office?

Gustavo: I would say, yes. I would say that many companies have improved because technology, for example, it’s easier to level, set the playing field thing when everyone’s a rectangle there. There’s no corner offices. So it kind of democratizes the project. Some people don’t like to speak up in front of others, but the chat feels like a safer way for them to share stuff.

It’s easier to facilitate conversations so you can observe and can say, Hey, John, you haven’t spoken so far. What’s your idea? Jane, what about you? So it’s easy to bring those things that bring psychological safety. The use of cameras, some companies say, hey, no camera, because it’s safer. Some companies say, no, everyone should be on camera. Well, you need to have a criteria and let people choose.

If you’re really collaborating on something, well, maybe camera on. If we’re just chatting, we don’t need a camera. Actually, maybe we don’t need a Zoom call at all. So I think that working remotely provides psychological safety, but on the other hand, we need to be more mindful about not having conversations behind. For example, some people chat with other team members who were in a group call, criticizing or making jokes about, well, that’s something that needs to be moderated.

So I usually say cancel the chat so you’re eliminating distractions, right? It’s like people passing papers to your companions on the side, which we don’t want.  If belonging, for example, you need to spend more time in crafting those experiences because they don’t happen spontaneously. However, those experiences need to be authentic.

So when leaders start to say, Hey, tell me about your dog, tell me about your life, that’s not the point. For example, check-ins are a real powerful tool to help understand what’s going on with people. We do, for example: What was the weather like for you the past week?  And people talk about it using metaphors. It was rainy, sunny, stormy, whatever, depending on how they were feeling. It’s a nice, safe way for people to talk about what’s going on.

Having a one-on-one schedule with all your team members on a regular weekly basis is critical. That doesn’t mean that you should have them known. So you keep the calendar and you let your team members say, “Hey, Denver, this week I’m good. We don’t need to… I don’t have anything to talk”… okay, great. So giving that opportunity for people to… basically, you need to sense tensions before they become bigger. I would say that’s critical.

Denver: Yeah. Well, a lot to be said about emotional intelligence and team emotional intelligence and feeling the situation. And one of the problems I’ve always had when I manage was that often I looked at the one-on-ones as my meeting, and it was only after about 20 years, I realized it was their meeting. And that was a recognition that actually changed the effectiveness of my one-on-ones.

But sort of just building from that, let’s talk a little bit about feedback because look…

Gustavo: Sorry. Do you mind if I ask you a question on that? That’s a great insight. Great that you realized it because many people don’t get into that. Was there something that sparked for you to say, Oh, wow, this is not about me, it’s about them? Was there an event?

“…when leaders are more self-aware, when they’re more intentional, then they can help their teams go through these changes. Many people suffer now because they didn’t have that knowledge, they didn’t have that wisdom to start with.”

Denver: Yeah. You know what it was? I think as much as anything, I, and this is maybe a simple answer to it, but I recounted a couple of those meetings, and I thought about my share of voice. And my share of voice, which I probably thought was maybe 55%, I realized as I sort of took notes, it was 80% to 85%.

And when I realized that although I was maybe asking the questions, I was really asking a lot of questions. Sometimes I wasn’t asking one question, I was stacking questions on top of each other, that I realized I have to get to a share of voice around 30%. So it became… you talked about intentionality, I became very intentional not to talk more than 30%, which is really talking about 15% because I’m always going to be speaking double  what I think it’s going to be… you know what I mean?

And it changed everything, and you just got into much more open-ended questions. And one thing that I recognized in that was that I would ask people probabilities about things. And where if you were to ask me, am I going to hit my quarterly goal… you’re my boss, Gustavo.

Yeah, we’re going to hit it by March 31, we’ll hit our quarterly goal. But if you were to ask me what the chances are, the probability that we’re going to hit our quarterly goal, I probably would say 80%. And then you would say to me, Oh, what’s that 20% you’re worried about, Denver? And I’d be off to the races. And not only would you learn a lot more about what I was doing, but I would be talking a lot more, and that would make a big difference.

Gustavo: That’s fantastic. And that’s why I want to dig deeper because I think that what you just shared is brilliant, and it’s gold. And I think that that’s the point, when leaders are more self-aware, when they’re more intentional, then they can help their teams go through these changes. Many people suffer now because they didn’t have that knowledge, they didn’t have that wisdom to start with.

Denver: Yeah. Oh, they always say: Question the status quo, and you’ve got to start with yourself, your own status quo. We all want to change our organizations, Gustavo, but we think, we kind of think we’ve arrived. You know what I mean?

And there’s a problem with the organization, and as a leader or a manager, you have to say, no, you’ve got to start with yourself. How do you need to change to change the organization? And we often don’t ask ourselves that question. 

You have a section in the book, which I love, which was Default to Async or asynchronous work. Tell us a little bit about what we were thinking there.

Gustavo: Sure. I think it’s important, most people know, but just to clarify, async or asynchronous means collaborating, communicating not in real time, but basically when people want to do it and respond to an email or whatever depending on their availability, depending on what they’re working on.

The people that are remote first, so companies that have been working fully remote for years, they are very adamant in this. We need to do async, async. I’m worrying that it’s not moving from one to another, it’s finding the right balance. So for example, for complex issues, for building relationships, for… if there’s toxicity and we need to fix it in person real time, it’s critical.

However, for other little things, even for giving feedback, decision making has become much better when you work asynchronous. For example, you can write a document in which Denver explained, “Hey, this is the problem that we have, team. We don’t know if we’re going to hit our quarterly goals. I’ve been hearing 70, 60% probability, so we need to do something about it. What do you think?”

And then you share that document, and people start sharing their thoughts, their ideas at their own pace. Some, maybe immediately, some people are going to take more time because they have other things going on, or they need time to think before putting it out there. So that process integrates more perspectives.

It allows people to think better, to be more mindful, and then it brings better decisions. So making decisions asynchronous rather than, Hey, let’s get together in a room or in a Zoom call to make a decision. And once again, for each company is different, so in the book I present what are the different circumstances in which it’s better to do it asynchronous and when it’s better to do it in real time. So that’s the kind of approach.

Denver: Yeah. I really enjoyed that part of the book, as much as any, I mean, I enjoyed everything in the book. I got to tell you the truth about that. But when I was reading about async, you know what I thought about?

Gustavo: Nope.

Denver: I was thinking about something that was analogous.

And what it would be, would be the 1990s when we had something called Appointment TV, which was on Thursday, and it was Friends, and it was Frasier, and it was Seinfeld. And everybody on Thursday, between 8:30 and 10:00 had to watch those three shows. And that was when we were living in this synchronous world because the only way you could watch those shows was be in front of your TV.

Gustavo: Right.

Denver: And now we’re in a DVR/ binge world. And it’s almost as if what’s happened with the way we watch television is now coming to the way we do work. We get it done, we watch it all, but we do it on our own schedule, as opposed to having been in front of the TV on those Thursday nights.

And I really thought that that was sort of a… I kind of saw that throughline… maybe nobody else does, but I saw it and I said that, yeah, this is just a reflection of the way we’re actually living our lives now.

Gustavo: Absolutely. And unfortunately, I wasn’t able to interview you before my book because I love that. I would really love… that’s exactly a good metaphor that shows how we have changed as a society, and that’s affecting work.

So you’re not going to force people. No. You need to watch a show live. No, people are going to watch it the way they want. And I think that’s how it… There’s a show in Netflix that’s called Kaleidoscope that’s about a robbery, their planned robbery. And it’s a one season only, so it has like seven, eight episodes, whatever. But it’s designed for people to watch it in the order they want.

Denver: Mm-hmm.

Gustavo: So it’s 15 years before the robbery, 10 years before, five, three, and then the actual event, and then the post, right? And you can watch it in the order you want. So I think that’s how work is operating. And thank you for bringing in  this smart metaphor. I think it perfectly portrays things are changing; the workplace is changing. You cannot force people to stop binging and watch TV the way you want.

“And also lead with questions. That’s a critical new aspect. So we don’t want the leader to provide the solutions because they don’t know. The leader needs to bring experts from different fields and put them together to find that solution.”

Denver: Let me move on to leadership. I mean, are employees looking for something different from their leaders now that we’re in this new world of work?

Gustavo: Definitely. I think that we talked about designing the work,  based on the work and not on skill. So that requires that leaders understand we don’t need a one-size-fits-all model anymore. And they need to give people, not the empowerment, but the authority to decide how the team wants to work, rather than the company establishing the: Hey, this is our model.

No, the company should have a policy, for example, Jim has worked appropriately, meaning, you choose how you want to work, right?

Denver: Yep.

Gustavo: And then the teams decide that. So that requires that not only freedom, but authority. And also, it requires trust, and that’s a critical element. Leaders don’t trust their people. And that has been happening for many, many decades. One of the Home Depot co-founders recently went viral for the wrong reason because he said people don’t want to work hard; they’re lazy, blah, blah, blah, blah.

Denver: I saw that, Ben Marcus. Yeah, I did see that. Yes.

Gustavo: Well, because he hasn’t refreshed what working hard means today. But also, people don’t want to work hard; they want to work smart.

Denver: Yeah.

Gustavo: So they won’t just  work hours and hours and hours churning their energy; they want to produce great quality work. So they want to have the freedom to do that. So in that regards, the leader needs to be more of a facilitator.

Denver: Ooh, that’s…

Gustavo: Facilitator of culture. Remove the unnecessary blockers, speed bumps so we can do better work. So if there’s some process in the company that’s not helping us, if we need more people, we need more budget, help us get that.

And also lead with questions. That’s a critical new aspect. So we don’t want the leader to provide the solutions because they don’t know. The leader needs to bring experts from different fields and put them together to find that solution.

Going back to your client or one of the interviews that was saying, Hey, we are having this issue about collaboration. Well, the leader shouldn’t be the one who finds the solution. The leader is the one who identifies, Hey, this is not happening. Hey guys, how can we, you know, ask the right questions and let your team figure it out for you because that’s why you’re paying their salaries?

Denver: I mean, the leaders you work with, are they having a hard time making that transition? Because I think your concept of facilitative leadership is absolutely perfect. They’re up there. They’re guiding the conversation. They’re making sure that everybody’s included. They’re connecting certain dots; they’re moving it along. Maybe they’re helping make the decision at the end, but that’s a whole different skillset.

I mean, are they being able to make that, and how can we help them make that transition?

Gustavo: Absolutely. I think, yeah. Luckily I have some clients that they’re doing some because we’re helping them some because… but in the end, it’s not how we can help them if they don’t want to be helped, right? So some people, they’re uncoachable, so they need some self-awareness. Like in your case, you had that realization: I need to switch how much my voice was taking over the one-on-ones. The critical shift is to understand that no one wants superhero leaders. We don’t need them anymore. We don’t need that person. That model, that is so…

Denver: Yeah.

Gustavo: …I don’t know, it’s old-fashioned. It’s so ingrained in the narrative, the business narrative, that the leader is going to save the world. Yeah, Steve Jobs didn’t invent everything that happened in Apple. Actually, one thing that people, for example, forget is that he resisted the iPhone. He fought it with… he was almost, “I say, no, we’re never going to become a phone company.” And the iPhone is today’s number one revenue-generating product.

Denver: Mm-hmm.

Gustavo: Because he had the wrong idea of what creating a phone was until his own team convinced him of, Hey, no, we’re going to do it the Apple way. And then he say,” Okay, guys, you got me.”

Denver: Yeah. Yeah.

Gustavo: So I think that’s important. We, as consultants or coaches and facilitators, need to push back the same way Steve Jobs got pushback on him. And employees also need to make their leaders, in a positive way, realize, hey, maybe you are missing something. Trust us, we can do it.

“I say that, of course we are culture, we’re a consultancy, and we’re also training. But in the end, what we do is facilitate what we call courageous conversations. The conversations that need to happen in order to align teams, in order to get the problems that we are avoiding on the table and fix it and improve it, so we can  get the results that we want. Culture is not something fluffy, like some people are abstract. Sometimes people use those words to avoid the tough conversations. Culture is hard. Culture is not easy.”

Denver: Mm-hmm. You’re the CEO and founder of Fearless Culture, and you also are the creator of Culture Design Canvas. Just give us a word or two about what you do and about the Canvas.

Gustavo: Absolutely. I say that of course we are culture, we’re a consultancy, and we’re also training. But in the end, what we do is facilitate what we call courageous conversations… The conversations that need to happen in order to align teams, in order to get the problems that we are avoiding on the table and fix it and improve it, so we can get the results that we want.

Culture is not something fluffy, like some people are abstract. Sometimes people use those words to avoid the tough conversations. Culture is hard. Culture is not easy. It’s not kumbaya. It’s not about giving people benefits. So the tools that we use basically help codify those conversations so we can move on and progress the team.

“The Stinky Fish is a metaphor that started in Sweden, that it’s about the things that you don’t take care, they’re going to start to rot, they’re going to start to smell and in the end, then contaminate everything. So we want to make sure that we take care of the fish before it starts to smell. And those are the issues that we don’t want to talk about, so things that people are thinking, but no one is saying, anxieties that are keeping people awake.” 

Denver: Constructive conflict, there is nothing like it. And I think if I had to cite the one big problem that organizations have is they avoid it at all costs, but it doesn’t mean it goes away. It’s under the surface and it sabotages. It’s insidious. You’ve got to get it out there, and that’s where the best ideas come from, with that friction that you’ve created.

Finally, Gustavo, you have just a bushelful of exercises that a manager can do with their teams, hey, for that matter, maybe the teams can do with their manager. Give us one or two of your very favorites.

Gustavo: Yeah, one of my favorites, and it’s the second most downloaded we have. If people visit our website, we have tons of free tools that they can use with…

Denver: What is your website?

Gustavo:,, but .design, And the number two tool, the second most downloaded tool is called the Stinky Fish. It’s exactly what you are saying. The Stinky Fish is a metaphor that started in Sweden, that it’s about the things that you don’t take care, they’re going to start to rot, they’re going to start to smell. And in the end, they contaminate everything.

So we want to make sure that we take care of the fish before it starts to smell. And those are the issues that we don’t want to talk about. So things that people are thinking, but no one is saying, anxieties that are keeping people awake. Maybe we are not going to meet our quarterly goals. What those things are? We don’t know.

Sometimes we get paranoid because we lack information, and rather than ask for those questions, we get, Hey, I’m going to get fired; they don’t like my work, that kind of stuff. And those things are things that we cannot get over with. So maybe we did a bad hire because they’re resentful.

That tool allows people to talk from very simple issues to more complex and ingrained conflicts. And it’s really powerful, once again, because it uses metaphors. We like a lot of metaphors to allow people to do that.

Another tool that’s one of my favorites, it’s called the Culture Tension Canvas, and basically helps understand what are the emotions, the mindsets and behaviors that are pulling the organization in different directions, and how can we reconcile them so we can, once again, move forward and not into multiple directions.

Denver: Fantastic. Well, I had salmon for dinner last night, and just thinking about the stinky fish, I will definitely have it for lunch today because I do not want to have a stinky fish in my refrigerator.

The book, again, is Remote, Not Distant. I mean, such a worthwhile read and a great companion to have if you’re wrestling with the issue of hybrid and remote, and I know we all are.

Thanks, Gustavo, for being here today. It was an absolute pleasure to have you on the show.

Gustavo: My pleasure, Denver, and I hope your audience enjoys the insights that you brought and, hopefully, the ones I tried to share.

Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving serves as a Trusted Advisor and Executive Coach to Nonprofit Leaders. His Book, The Business of Giving: New Best Practices for Nonprofit and Philanthropic Leaders in an Uncertain World, is available now on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

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