Skip to Content

65 / The Creation of Culture as a Competitive Advantage

Hosted by Sean Flaherty




Chalmers Brothers

Author, Speaker, Leadership Coach

Chalmers Brothers is a certified personal and executive coach, author, professional speaker, and seminar leader.  

His 35-year career spans companies nationwide including TripAdvisorCoca-Cola CompanyNational Science Foundation, and many more. He is the former chairman of Vistage CEO private advisory board and for 23 years has been a highly rated speaker for Vistage CEO advisory boards nationwide.  

His areas of focus include leadership development, personal growth, emotional intelligence, and teamwork. He is the author of two books, Language and the Pursuit of Happiness: A New Foundation for Designing Your Life, Your Relationships and Your Results and Language and the Pursuit of Leadership Excellence: How Extraordinary Leaders Build Relationships, Shape Culture and Drive Breakthrough Results. 

His TED Talk is titled “How language generates your world and mine.”

What job are product leaders really paid to do? When you boil it all down, leaders are paid to deliver results. Quantitative, which many believe are more easily measured. And qualitative, which invites the notion of organizational culture: much more difficult to measure, but more important in today’s world than ever before.

In this episode of the Product Momentum Podcast, Sean chats with Chalmers Brothers, who for the past three decades has served as author, speaker, and certified leadership coach for executives in some of the world’s best-known companies.

“I have had more conversations with leaders in the past 5 years about the conscious – not haphazard or accidental – creation of culture as a competitive advantage than I’ve had in the first 30 years of my career combined,” he says. “Something is going on.”

That something starts with the effective use of language. Language creates and generates, Chalmers adds. It defines culture, creating a context that enables effective conversation. “With language, we make visible that which was previously invisible.”

Tune in to hear more on this topic from Chalmers Brothers, including how:

  • Time management is really commitment management.
  • Effective conversation can help you manage your commitments.
  • Key elements of leadership lie within the context of innovation.

Sean [00:00:19] Hello and welcome to the Product Momentum Podcast. This is a podcast intended to entertain, educate, celebrate, and give a little back to the product leadership community.

Sean [00:00:32] Well, hello and welcome to the Product Momentum Podcast. I’m excited today to have the opportunity to interview Chalmers Brothers. He’s the author of a couple of amazing books. I’ve been reading his stuff for a while: Language and the Pursuit of Happiness and Language and the Pursuit of Leadership Excellence. He runs a consulting company training leaders on how to use language to empower their businesses. He’s given us some great insights and we apply them to the product management, product leadership space in very powerful ways. So I’m excited to share this content with you. Let’s get after it.

Sean [00:01:07] Well hello and welcome to the Product Momentum Podcast. Today I have the honor of interviewing someone who has become a close friend. I’ve been a follower of his work for many, many years and one of my personal heroes in the business space, Chalmers Brothers. Welcome to the show, Chalmers.

Chalmers [00:01:22] Thank you, Sean, truly, thank you for having me.

Sean [00:01:25] It’s an honor. So I invited you on to talk about sort of language and culture in the context of software product development. In our space, we build products, we build software products, and it requires lots of collaboration, coordination, and communication, which is your business. This is what you do. So my first question for you is just to talk about your work and to expose the community to the things that you think about and the thought leadership that you provide to leaders across America.

Chalmers [00:01:51] Now, once again, thank you for having me. It’s a genuine pleasure and I have enjoyed our recent collaboration as well and I look forward to what we’re going to do together. When I think about leadership, one of the questions I ask is, as a leader, what do you get paid to do? And over time, the answers come back with all the things that we would expect. “I get paid to keep the lights turned on, to drive innovation, to coach, to mentor, to motivate, to build teams, to improve processes.” And ultimately, we’re talking about results. We’re talking about quantitative and qualitative results.

Chalmers [00:02:25] And so on the quantitative side, leaders are responsible, of course, for productivity and profitability and achieving certain measurable metrics in the real world. On the qualitative side, now we’re talking about culture. So we have this quantitative dimension that is easily measurable with many metrics and all that’s fantastic. And recently, Sean, the qualitative types of results that leaders are responsible for producing, specifically what we can call culture, have become much more important. I mean, I’ve been doing this work for twenty-five, thirty-five years. I have had more conversations with leaders in the past five years about the conscious, not haphazard, not accidental, the conscious, creation of culture as a competitive advantage than I’ve had in the first 30 years of my career combined. Something is going on.

Chalmers [00:03:15] And so when we talk about this sort of building, it leads us to another wonderfully, at least to me, interesting aspect of the work. To do that building, we don’t need hammers and nails; to do that building we need conversations. So leaders get paid to have effective conversations. The conversational nature of leadership… To me, Sean, this is almost so close we don’t see it. Leaders can be understood as conversational architects doing what we do by virtue of the conversations we require, the conversations we prohibit, the conversations we invent and design and implement in our organizations. And it’s this conversational nature of leadership, and also the conversational nature of organizations, because even the most technical organization can be understood as human beings coordinating action, but not with magic, with promises, making and managing commitments in order to produce quantitative and qualitative results.

Chalmers [00:04:12] And the last point I’ll say to kind of kick off my little portion is that this emphasis on conversation leads us to at least take a look at language and the notion that language creates and generates, it doesn’t just describe. There is a fundamentally creative dimension to language. We create context. We have a horizon of possibilities that’s expanding or shrinking based on the nature of our internal, and this is important, our internal and external conversations. And so a lot of my work has to do with inviting people to take a look at the conversational nature of leadership and the generative capacity of language. And that’s where I start.

Sean [00:04:55] Yeah, it’s brilliant. I think your book is one that every product leader should read. And this industry is moving more towards all of the things that you prescribe or talk about in your leadership work. Here’s a couple of evolutions, let me explain to you because you’re not so familiar with the software development space specifically.

Chalmers [00:05:12] Right.

Sean [00:05:12] But one of the distinctions that we have in the industry is the definition of done and getting teams to actually take the time to engineer their own definitions of done so that they have clarity has become a thing in the industry. It’s been going on for a decade or so, but it’s become an important thing. And now you’re starting to see the definition of this and the definition of that popping up all over the place. And it’s a valuable construct, and this is the construct of distinction, right, being clear with your language. The same with the definition of ready, even the core unit of work for product leaders has this thing called the user story, right.

Sean [00:05:47] So we’ve recognized the importance of language, but we haven’t really formalized it to the degree to which you have.

Chalmers [00:05:53] You know, when you say that, right, there’s a key claim I was introduced to, and you and I have talked about this in our work together, and the claim is that with language, we make visible that which was previously invisible.

Sean [00:06:06] Yeah.

Chalmers [00:06:07] And this is not a trivial claim. Once I acquire the distinction user story, I now get to see user story or lack thereof when I’m doing my work. Once I acquire the distinction of planets, nebula, and satellites, when I look up at the sky, I don’t just see a bunch of stars anymore. Now I see, or I may see, planets, nebula, and satellites. Where were the planets, nebula, and satellites for me before I had these distinctions? They were invisible for me. And so, Sean, in a very powerful way, right, by defining things, we bring forth new worlds. You cannot intervene in a world that you do not see. And so acquiring new distinctions is the starting point for taking new actions in that domain. So now we’re talking about power. Power is capacity for effective action in a given domain. I mean, you’ve introduced me to some powerful new distinctions and I see what I didn’t see before. And again, to me, this is one of those things that we kind of know this, but making it explicit, it’s a powerful thing.

Sean [00:07:12] Yeah, which brings me to this concept of culture. So I’m curious, how do you define culture?

Chalmers [00:07:17] One way that I like to think about it is, what are the values I need to understand, the goals I need to work toward, the behaviors I need to embody, the principles I need to come from. In order to fit in and thrive around here? Right. So it’s this, maybe spoken, maybe unspoken set of values and beliefs and best practices and standards and ways of operating that are consistent with the organization, hopefully producing the results it wants to produce. In my work with leaders and language and conversations, I talk a lot about context and content, right? So for many leaders, the ability to be effective in what may have been historically difficult conversations, I believe, is more dependent on that person’s ability to create powerful context in that conversation than it is on their ability to deliver impeccable content. So it’s not about memorizing a phrase and delivering it impeccably. And to me, another word for organizational culture is organizational context. It’s the background, the environment in which all the content, the human interactions, takes place.

Sean [00:08:30] So talk a little bit about establishing a culture, you know, in the context of a team. So zoom in, not for a whole big organization, but for a team of, let’s say, 10 or less people, because that’s generally how software teams are organized.

Chalmers [00:08:41] Well, imagine yourself, right. I’d like you to put yourself in the position of the team leader and also a brand new team member. But let’s start with as a brand new team member. When you’re a brand new team member and you enter a team, what are some of the immediate expectations you would have on what those first conversations would be as you join the team?

Sean [00:09:01] So like onboarding.

Chalmers [00:09:02] Yeah, it’d be onboarding. Like it’d be, “this is the big picture, this is ultimately what we’re trying to achieve, this is so and so’s role, this is your role, this is how these roles fit together, these are some standards or best practices or norms that we operate by.” We may have some if-then routines, meaning if X, then Y, right, in terms of behaviors or rules or protocols, right, that we have to operate by. So I would expect, and that’s what I believe happens in healthy teams. Right. The initial conversations are the big picture. What’s the environment, what’s the background, what’s the point? What are we ultimately trying to achieve here and how do we do it? How do we work together effectively? So this is like a race car driver has to take time out from their driving to look at the driving and talk about the driving. So these initial meetings are not doing the things that we need to be doing in that moment, it’s talking about how we’re going to do the things that we’re going to be doing in that moment.

Chalmers [00:10:00] And I do believe this, Sean. I believe there’s no such thing as shared commitment without shared understanding coming first. And shared understanding occurs in language. Shared understanding occurs in our listening, which means interpretation, not sounding, right, which is how we interpret. So as a new person coming on to a team, my expectations would be, and to be honest, my experience has been, in large, this: that I am oriented by conversations for orientation, conversations for context. As a team leader, one of the things I would think I would be responsible for is building that shared understanding, certainly with all the new people with some form of onboarding. And it’s really cultural onboarding, but also some ongoing, some ongoing, I like your term, stewarding, right. Stewarding of the culture, stewarding of the shared understanding, the shared commitment. Right. It’s definitely not a static entity. People change, the environment changes, outside pressures change, requirements change. So it’s a constant set of conversations. But they’re, for me, the way I like to frame them, these are contextual conversations. They’re ongoing and sustaining the desired context in which the content is going to take place.

Sean [00:11:17] Yeah. All right. Let’s shift and talk a little bit about the language of goals. I’d love to hear your thoughts on that.

Chalmers [00:11:25] I don’t know who said this, Sean, it was years ago, but what’s that expression if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there, right? So there’s something very old that this notion of goal setting is important to us. And from a language standpoint, we see why, because goals are declarations. Declarations or statements that open and close possibilities, that orient us, right. Organizational goals are declarations. Our country was declared into being. Organizations are declared into being. So in a profound way, we can look at, when I say language creates and generates, declarations are the foundational generative side of language. We declare an orientation, we declare a direction, and we change the playing field.

Chalmers [00:12:11] And so for me, goals influence, like all declarations, right, when you make a declaration in the present, it’s going to change how you interpret things that haven’t happened yet. And by purposely creating, “we’re going in this direction; these are our best practices; this is what’s important to us,” that serves to orient us. And it’s not trivial because from this day forward, people’s behaviors get interpreted based on that established declaration. And doing that consciously is so different than doing it unconsciously.

Sean [00:12:45] Yeah, that’s neat. I’m going to shift gears and throw you a little curveball. I’ve been reading some of your stuff lately about managing commitments versus managing time. And I think this is an important concept for my audience to hear your thoughts on that. So explain what you mean when you say that.

Chalmers [00:13:00] I’ll be happy to. The way I like to say it is is there is no such thing as time management. You never had it and you never will. Now I understand the term, but Sean, think about this. How many of us, and the folks listening, we are walking around right now with an invisible backpack on our back. And in that backpack are forty-seven different promises in different stages of completion. So this is the modern human. We manage commitments, not time. It’s a slight shift in focus, it’s a shift in emphasis, but it can be a beneficial shift.

Chalmers [00:13:30] And the larger context in which I believe we manage commitments, not time, is that all organizations, all software organizations, all manufacturing organizations, all consulting firms, ultimately are made up of human beings making and managing promises. Organizations can be looked at through a lens that sees interdependent commitments at the bottom of all the informational processes, at the bottom of all the technical processes, at the bottom of all the mechanical processes, are commitment processes. And we can do this well or we can do this poorly, but we can’t not do it. If your company has more than one person in it, you’re already doing a version of commitment management. And so for me, it’s a more proactive approach. Like I tell folks, when you come to work, what you’re going to do, you’re going to come to work, you’re going to manage commitments, and you’re going to go home.

Chalmers [00:14:23] And this managing commitments, I claim every single person has the ability to manage one hundred percent of his or her commitments, no exceptions ever. And by no exceptions ever I mean, even if we have a snowstorm, a hurricane, and an earthquake on the same day… Now, I did not say we could keep one hundred percent of our commitments, but we can manage them. So managing commitments is a conversational competence. And I believe when we’re talking about culture, by the way, we’re talking about conversational, relational, and emotional competencies. Well, managing commitments is a competency and it can be acquired, it can be strengthened through new distinctions. And these distinctions are elements of an effective request and valid responses. How well do you make requests at work and what are the responses to requests at work that are considered to be OK, given that our goal is impeccable coordination of action? And so on the language side, when we talk about making and managing promises, we’re really talking about how to make an effective request, how to use what we call a valid response, and how to manage commitments one hundred percent.

Sean [00:15:34] Yeah, so basically teaching people how to make commitments, keep commitments, ask for commitments…

Chalmers [00:15:40] Yes.

Sean [00:15:41] …And deal with the fallout when there’s something you can’t keep. And I always tell my teams, if you’re keeping all of your commitments, there’s a different problem at hand. You’re playing too small of a game.

Chalmers [00:15:51] Good point. That’s exactly right. And what’s interesting is, my ability to keep my commitment to you may have me enter into other commitments with other people because I’m not a solo act. And now we can see how this network of interdependencies starts to form. I say yes to your request, I then go make a related request over here and over there and over there, and now we can see how the organization can be understood this way.

Sean [00:16:18] All right. How do you define innovation, Chalmers? What does innovation mean to you?

Chalmers [00:16:24] That’s a good question, Sean. One of the first things that comes to mind is new, right, is adapt, is understand either changes in what is being requested or required and shifting the capacity to produce, whether it’s a different product or different service. I believe it starts maybe with a language step, which is a declaration that says, “I don’t know, certain things are beyond my awareness.” Right. So there’s an openness, not a physical openness, but a cognitive or emotional space where new possibilities can at least be explored. Again, new possibilities. So for me, innovation has to do with mobilizing people to collectively come up with something new that somehow meets an existing or possibly yet to be serviced need. Right?

Sean [00:17:15] For sure. It’s an important distinction and there’s often arguments about what constitutes it.

Chalmers [00:17:20] How do you define it? What do you guys say when you when you’re talking about it?

Sean [00:17:24] There’s a dichotomy, like it’s not an innovation unless it’s the iPhone, or, you know, I don’t believe that. I think an innovation is anything that moves the needle on the human relationship. And an organization exists to build human relationships and a team exists to build human relationships. Like, we’ve got to get these relationships built so that we can cause this change to occur in the world. We’re building software products, so we’ve got to coordinate a bunch of people to build those products. So an innovation can be anything that helps us coordinate, collaborate better so that we build the product faster or that we get along better in the context of building that product together. Or for our customers, it could be something that causes them to like the product more so they adopt it more, it becomes more trustworthy, they become more loyal, they ultimately share it more, they become an advocate. So to be more concise, I define an innovation as anything that causes trust, loyalty, or advocacy to occur. You’ll know you have it when you see the behavior…

Chalmers [00:18:19] Nice.

Sean [00:18:20] … If you’re measuring it. So it’s an important distinction in my industry and I think it’s a word that’s often abused.

Chalmers [00:18:26] Because I think about the industry you’re in, right? When I think innovation, software companies, technology companies have been at the forefront of innovation in general, at least in my lifetime. Not that trucking companies don’t evolve and, you know, higher education doesn’t evolve and all that. But I think it’s most obvious, as I’m looking at the World Book encyclopedias behind you and the ones that are on my shelf, what’s happened, right, in terms of knowledge acquisition and dissemination and, you know, it’s impossible to deny the incredible innovation that your industry has spurred.

Sean [00:19:04] Yeah. The other thing about innovation, I think, that’s really important is the micro-innovations matter. They add up. And they matter to the people that come up with them. It’s important to your team to think of the things they’re doing as novel and value-adding and, you know…

Chalmers [00:19:19] You know, it’s interesting, as we think about this, right? The fact that our environment is characterized by relentless, ongoing change in ways that if we think about our great-grandparents, not that they didn’t have change, they did… But by all indications, at least my understanding is the level and scope of changes that we are experiencing is unprecedented.

Sean [00:19:42] It’s profound.

Chalmers [00:19:43] It is profound. So when we say innovation, it’s innovation in an environment that is both causing and is caused by these sorts of changes. You know, maybe evolution, not revolution, right. Transcending and including, transcending and including as we continually innovate. But it’s just astounding how when we think back many, many, many years ago, how different the pace has changed.

Sean [00:20:10] Yeah, and I think if you look at an established product versus a new product like in startup space, there’s two different competing sets of concerns that you have to meet. That of protecting the hut, protecting the existing stream of revenue and customer base that you already have and the people that you’re caring for. So that’s the incremental change, but then also looking out for the things that are coming around the corner, because you don’t want to end up like Blockbuster, right?

Chalmers [00:20:33] And as you say that, where my mind immediately went is to the world of polarities. Now we’re talking about continuity and transformation. Preserve the core and, not or, and stimulate change.

Sean [00:20:46] Yeah.

Chalmers [00:20:46] And so as we talk about language, right, as we talk about innovation and moving forward, I believe, and I’m not the first one to say this. This has been around for a long time. But the capacity for leaders at all levels to both maintain the continuity of what has worked well, right. Harvest the fruits of what we’ve done well, use it to move forward in a stable, proven kind of way, and at the same time stimulate change. Now we’re talking about many leadership challenges not being problems to be solved, they are polarities to be leveraged. And the one you talked about is, I think, one of the largest ones, most common, and a version of it, I believe, exists in my small one-person company, in my wife’s medical practice, in your firm, right… Continuity and transformation, neither one is ultimately going to win. It’s not about choosing one over the other. We have to have both.

Sean [00:21:42] Yeah, yes and, right.

Chalmers [00:21:42] It’s always yes and.

Sean [00:21:44] Well, that’s neat. So if you think about product leaders, maybe on a smaller team than the companies you’re typically working with, what do you recommend in terms of thought leadership? Like what books would you recommend, other than your own, of course? I’ll put the links to your books on the podcast page.

Chalmers [00:21:58] I have just completed, it’s a new book by Barry Johnson, who’s the father of Polarity Thinking, and the book is called And, A-N-D, and it is, Sean, a wonderful introduction to the world of polarities. And his depth of knowledge, his breadth of experience, the examples he provides, the way that polarities have always been with us, are still with us, will be with us… It is one of the more eye-opening books I’ve found in years, and I can recommend it completely without reservation. It’s a wonderful, thought-provoking, eye-opening book that I think we need on our planet. I think we need more people on our planet who can think both, and.

Sean [00:22:44] I love that answer. Anything else you want to share with the audience? Anything you’ve got coming up lately?

Chalmers [00:22:50] I do an awful lot of workshops, as you know, in the Vistage community, right, CEO peer groups around the country. I’m doing some longer programs that I call Soar, S-O-A-R, which stands for success through observer action results. My books are used as the textbooks in these programs, and a lot of the things that we’ve talked about are the basis. And I’m sharing what I got taught. I got introduced to a body of work called Ontological Coaching from a company in Louisiana called Education for Living in 1987 and then most especially the Newfield Network in 1995. And I can say my life is different. My life is different since that program and I have dedicated my professional life to long programs, short programs, virtual programs, in-person programs to help people understand this way of looking at language, this way of looking at themselves, this way of looking at relationships. I recently posted some virtual programs to my website. My mission in life, Sean, I want to help shift the consciousness of a million people, and I believe this body of work can be my pebble in the water to help people see things differently and move through their lives differently.

Sean [00:24:02] I love that. I’d be surprised, if you were actually to count the number of people you’ve influenced, I think you’re probably already there. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen a speaker give away as much content as you do, either. So for the audience, check out, what’s your website, Chalmers?

Chalmers [00:24:20], and there’s lots of stuff there available. And of course, I can be reached at any time if I could be a resource for you as a long-distance sounding board or resource for your company, I’d love to have a conversation. It all starts with a conversation. As one of my teachers says, we know where conversations start, but we do not know where they may take us. So I look forward to hearing from any of you or having a conversation.

Sean [00:24:43] Chalmers also has a great TED Talk. I’ll post a link to that in the footer. So thanks for joining us today, Chalmers.

Chalmers [00:24:52] Sure, thanks for the invitation.

Sean [00:24:52] Yeah, I look forward to continuing to work with you. Thanks.

Chalmers [00:24:55] I do as well, my friend, thanks.

Paul [00:24:59] Well, that’s it for today, in line with our goals of transparency and listening, we really want to hear from you. Sean and I are committed to reading every piece of feedback that we get, so please leave a comment or a rating wherever you’re listening to this podcast. Not only does it help us continue to improve, but it also helps the show climb up the rankings so that we can help other listeners move, touch, and inspire the world, just like you’re doing. Thanks, everyone. We’ll see you next episode.

Like what you see? Let’s talk now.

Reach Out