Evangelizing Corporate Culture: Interview with Culture Consultant Donavon Roberson

Remember taking those career aptitude tests in high school? Back then the position of “Corporate Culture Consultant” didn’t exist. If it did, knowing what I know now, that’s what I would have chosen as my preferred career.

Lucky for corporate America, it’s a valuable role that exists today. That’s why I’m delighted to feature culture consultant Donavon Roberson in this interview.  He was among the first of Zappos Insights’ Culture Evangelists responsible for helping executives learn about Zappos’ respected culture. He was also my personal tour guide when I visited Zappos in 2008.

Donavon eventually left Zappos and went on to pioneer the position at several other companies, holding titles such as Manager of Culture Development and Dream Manager. He’s the founder and Culture Consultant for The Roberson Company that’s focused on “Purpose, Process, People and Performance.”

QSM: Please tell us a bit about your background, including how you ended up as a corporate culture consultant.

Donavon: I was a youth pastor for nearly 13 years and during that time I learned the value of living by vision and values. When I had the opportunity to work for Zappos, I discovered the importance of a company that lives for their vision and values. I have had the privilege being able to take my ministry background and my business experience and meld the two together. It’s all about moving the needle in the lives of others … culture development is about building into the lives of others so that they build into the business.

QSM: Based on your experience, what are some of the best things management can do to get employees to embrace a company’s culture?

Donavon: In my opinion, management should lead the charge when it comes to culture. They should embody the expression of and example of company culture. Management needs to ensure that they are operating in a way that is consistent with the cultural expectations to which they hold others.

It’s OK if they themselves aren’t an embodiment of every value; however, there should be an open appreciation for and expectation of living out the company culture at the very highest levels. With that expectation should come an inspection of the behaviors expressed. It is VITAL that management be held accountable to the culture and hold others to the culture.

The worst thing that management OR leadership can do is to live in a way that is counter to the expressed culture. There is often an aspired culture (the culture that we would like to have) and an actual culture (the culture that truly exists). Often these two cultures are at odds and employees pick up on that quickly. This can be toxic for an organization. What is worse is what I call the accepted culture — the culture that is counter to either of the aforementioned but that which is accepted as a normal way of doing things … especially at the leadership levels.

QSM: You’ve worked with both established and start-up companies. What challenges did you find in helping shape company culture in a start-up compared to working with more established organizations?

Donavon: The challenge in either company is scalability and sustainability. The culture that many start ups have isn’t scalable, meaning it doesn’t grow very well as the company grows. With growth comes aches and pains that can stunt development and progress. When a company is in the infancy stages, it is important to think about how the choices they make today will grow into the future (if growth is part of the long range plan).

Sustainability is the company’s ability to keep culture efforts or initiatives going and consistent as a company grows. Often times an effort makes sense at the beginning and can be easily managed with little to no effort BUT as you grow you must consider the time, effort and energy that cultural efforts will have on the bottom line and determine if it is worth the ROI.

QSM:  Building and maintaining a workplace culture is not a solitary endeavor. What’s the risk of serving in a position designated as a “Chief Culture Evangelist”?

Donavon: This is an interesting question, and I don’t know that I have definitive answer; however, I do have some thoughts that I would like to share. I have found that Wall Street isn’t ready to embrace the idea of a Chief Culture Evangelist or team dedicated to culture development. The greatest issue is ROI. There are some very logical conclusions why these roles would be valuable to any organization — leadership development, employee engagement, customer service, etc. However these conclusions aren’t necessarily reflected on the bottom line: the measurement of Wall Street and Investors.

I have found that many companies in the start up stage have the flexibility to have a dedicated “culture team” but when investors enter the picture that is the first team to take a hit.

QSM: What advice would you give to someone considering a career in corporate culture development?

Donavon: Advice that I would give is to determine standards and acceptable standards of measurements for success at the outset. How do you know when the culture team is successful? What does it look like when the culture team is successful? How is that reflected in the bottom line? And then continually go back and do the research and make the adjustments necessary to remain relevant and impactful.

QSM: Thank you, Donavon!

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