Doing Good, Building Culture

Doing Good, Building Culture

There was a time when the only way you could give back at work was to work at a non-profit. Those days are over. Employees are looking for more and companies are changing their approach. Just ask Ryan McCarty, co-author of Build a Culture of Good. He joins us to share how workplace philanthropy keeps people engaged and improves workplace culture, plus a few tips on how to start your own workplace program.

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Brandon: You co-authored the book called Build a Culture of Good: Unleash Results by Letting Your Employees Bring Their Soul to Work. And the title, I love it. And the content within this book is so important I think nowadays. How did you come to co-write this book? What’s your back story?

Ryan: Long story short, I spent the first 20 years of my professional career in nonprofit work. So I did everything from missions work and urban inner cities across America, worked in Africa, did ministry, eventually became a pastor.

And one Sunday morning, I got up on stage and my whole message was around your why equaling your what, making sure that what you do never outdoes why you do it, right? You really want to have a why going into the day knowing why you do what you do.

And unbeknownst to me, the CEO of the largest wireless retailer in the country was out in the audience and …

Brandon: Lucky you.

Ryan: Well, yeah. No kidding. And I didn’t know who he was. He came to church that morning. He was not a church kind of person. And honestly at that time, I had a Mohawk and big gauges in my ears. I had tattoos. So his wife convinced him to come and said, “It’s not your typical place.” And he showed up. And he was so inspired around that message. He had thousands of employees, a growing company, third generation business owner.

And he thought afterwards, he was like, “Let’s grab some lunch.” Because he was thinking, “Pastors give free advice.” And I want to get this guy’s advice and get it to my people because nobody goes to work every day at a wireless retail store thinking, “I have this great sense of fulfillment and meaning to my work and a sense of purpose and I know my why.” And he knew his employees were coming to work just for a paycheck.

And so over the course of time, he asked me for free advice. And my free advice was that he should hire me. And together, we could bring this message into his business and build what eventually became a Culture of Good, a movement in his company that really was about what I had done for over 20 years and that was teaching people to bring their soul into their life and into their work.

And now, it was in the for-profit sector and that was a really unique proposition 6 years ago to bring the soul of a nonprofit into a for-profit space, and employees being able to be given permission to care and to do good and to really grow the culture from within the business around doing good for each other, for the customer, and for the world.

So eventually, the book – it leads into the book because we thought the impact that it had on his company and his business results was significant. And we thought we’re on to something special. We should share this. And that’s where the book came from.

Brandon: The crossroads of a point where you’re up to on stage one Sunday morning and then he was in the audience. You guys came together. It sounds like you both needed each other at the right moment. And it just sort of came together.

Ryan: Yeah.

Brandon: Do other CEOs like him, are they feeling that same thing where it’s like, “I just – I’m not articulating the why very well, my employees are just working for a paycheck?” Do you think other people are feeling that same way?

Ryan: Absolutely. You’ve got a major spectrum of diversity when it comes to leadership. You have the authoritative type leader, you’ve got the one who is disconnected from culture and really is more about thir quarterly earnings and the profit and loss statements. We like to talk about this type of emotional leadership as third dimensional. It’s really getting off of the profit and loss statements. It’s getting to a place where you’re connecting on an emotional level with your employees.

And I’m finding that, more and more, as I’m going out and consulting and doing work with other businesses and companies, every once in a while like I said, we come across leaders that they recognize that culture is the buzz word. They know that business is a human endeavor. But when it really comes down to it, profit is really their only passion.

And what we like to say is that profit isn’t evil. That it can be a great catalyst for good and that you can be both profitable and purposeful at the same time. You don’t have to choose between the two.

Brandon: Ryan, what did you say to Scott when you first met him that day? How did you convince him to give you a job?

Ryan: That’s a great question because when I told him to hire me, I didn’t even – I was like, “Wow! That just came out of my mouth.” I wasn’t planning on leaving that type of nonprofit ministry pastoring work. And he had no intention of hiring me. And actually didn’t for several months. We ended lunch that day and we had a napkin with what we call the virtuous circle of success. We drew it on the napkin and it was all about when employees are connected and engaged in their job, they’re happier. That’s going to impact the customer, which impacts the business results, which in turn allows for greater good to be done in the world.

And we have that napkin and that’s what we left with. And three months after that, he was outside with his son trying to be Tony Hawk on a skateboard and he slipped and tragically hit the back of his head on his driveway and had three skull fractures, internal bleeding, was lifeflighted to a hospital and had a traumatic brain injury. Obviously, survived and as part of his recovery, one of the conversations we had over chips and salsa came back to him and that was when I was asking him about his legacy. And I remember saying, “Scott, you have a successful business. You’re making tons of money. And everybody’s eyes are on you, you’ve got it made. But why? What about your why?”

And I think it’s really crucial for leaders, owners to come to a place where they can define their own personal why. Why are they going to work? What legacy do they want to leave? I always talk about how the life you lead is the legacy you leave.

And we have that conversation that day and it sometimes takes a near-death experience for reality to set in. And that conversation of legacy and a traumatic brain injury led to me being hired in his company. So people thought he was nuts. The CFO was like, “What are you hiring this pastor for? He’s going to come in and give all our money away.” And Scott just really went for it and said, “Let’s try something new and innovative and at that time, creative.” We hadn’t read any books or got any consultant to come in or – we didn’t know what we were doing. We just scaled up what I had been doing in ministry into his business.

Brandon: That was probably a jolt for both of you, right? So Scott is making an investment in bringing in some position that he had never really had before and taking a risk in you. And then here you are. You’ve been in the nonprofit world basically your entire life and then you’re switching over to the for-profit world. And it’s interesting because I think a lot of people, especially the millennials coming out of college, they’re like, “I want to do good in the world so I’m going to go with the nonprofit.”

But I see here objectively kind of look at this. I’ve been in the for-profit world my entire career and I think there’s a lot more scale to the for-profit world. And I could see the decision that you’re like, “I have an opportunity. I can reach away more people. I can have a greater impact in this company that has huge scale.” And there are locations all over the nation, right?”

Ryan: Yeah, absolutely. And you nailed it right on the head. I mean that’s exactly what I was thinking. I thought, “Look, I’ve been doing ministry and begging for money, begging for volunteers, begging for resources. Here’s an opportunity with thousands in my head because I had never done for-profit work. Here’s an opportunity with thousands of volunteers to go out into the world to do good. I could really go on a macro level here and really scale up the good that I was doing, the influence that I could make personally in terms of my own leadership.”

And he saw this opportunity for free advice and I saw it as an opportunity to impact the world in a greater way. And it was a wake-up call transitioning from nonprofit to for-profit. Because now all of a sudden you have volunteers, you have money, you have resource, and what was really special is I had the support of the CEO which I think is, beyond anything else, one of the most crucial elements. Because if it doesn’t come from the top in terms of ownership and support of the good that’s going on, it can be met with skepticism and actually build a culture of distrust rather than a culture of good.

And having those elements align for me was just a gift handed to me. And I thought at that point, I was about – I think I was in my late 30s and I thought, “Here’s an opportunity for me to really take everything that I’ve learned and see if it works in a space where I have the resource to do some amazing stuff. And it worked.

Brandon: I’m really curious about what the first probably six months to a year look like because the way you described it was that here are employees who are working for a paycheck. They’re probably not – they don’t know what they’re doing. They don’t really know the impact that they’re making for the greater, what the purpose of the organization is.

How do you – like you come in, this is a newer position. Here, you have to make this like paradigm shift for all the employees to say, “Let’s have – let’s build a soul for the company. Let’s build the greater purpose. Let’s contribute to the communities.” And as a result of all that, we’re going to have customers that love us and we’re going to make a lasting impact in our communities.

How did you make that shift to get people to care more?

Ryan: Initially, not very good.

Brandon: At least being honest.

Ryan: Yeah. I mean initially, we thought let’s get this message out and let’s communicate to our customers and our employees that this is the soul of our company. This is the culture. If you do business with us, you also do good with us. If you work for us, you’re there to inspire others to make the world a better place. And so, we had this real quirky idea of sending out fortune cookies to all of the stores.

Brandon: Yeah, I remember that story.

Ryan: Yeah, and we put custom messaging in them. And when I asked Scott I was like, “All right. How many fortune cookies do we send out to these stores?” And he said, “Well, you start …” he grabbed his calculator. We ended up buying half a million fortune cookies and sent them out to stores without a whole lot of communication ironically because it was a communication gimmick. We didn’t really communicate to the stores why they were showing up. We just sent out a quick email.

I had to learn what it meant to scale from reaching a couple hundred people on a Sunday morning to reaching, at that point over 2,500 employees across 35 states. That’s a significant learning curve. And so, those fortune cookies ended up in dumpsters, a lot of them were eaten by the employees, some of them got into the customer bags, some of them were used as returned packing shipping peanuts. It wasn’t a complete fail but it was just one of those landmines where we knew initially we had to spark and communicate things on more of an emotional level, what I would call like an emotional disruption.

And so, we embarked on doing a big good event where my wife and I and our church had been doing backpacks in our local community for at that time about 10 years. It was a tangible real need in local community for us and we wanted to say to our community we love you and we’re here to meet a tangible need because we care.

And my idea was let’s do this on a scale across the country to all of the stores and communities and just really meet a tangible need and see where it goes from there. And so, we did. We send 60,000 backpacks filled with school supplies. And that became a moment for the company that was a defining moment so that to this day they continue to do on annual basis. They’ve given away over the last 5 years, given away over 700,000 backpacks and school supplies.

Brandon: Wow!

Ryan: But that was one event. And afterwards, we got so many messages, Scott and I did, from employees that said, “This changed my life. I saw mothers crying and kids and families that were in definite need in my local community. I had no idea that this was more than just a giveaway.”

And I remember that next week, Scott pulled me into his office and asked how we could pull that off again the following week because he was so pumped about it. And I explained to him that I think a lot of people do to CEOs, you can’t pull something like that off on a weekly basis. But what we did know is that we had to turn that moment into a movement. And that’s really where we started taking an approach that would create a cadence of predictability around the good that was going to happen in the stores and in the corporate headquarters and across the nation that was a promise that the company was making to employees that we were going to care as part of the culture not as a program.

Brandon: I thought that’s a beautiful illustration of like the fortune cookie to backpack thing. So you’re doing something as gimmicky. It has communication. But then everybody loves. There’s a utility factor with fortune cookies. Everybody like fortune cookies, right? But it’s not really doing any good other than maybe the messages you have on there.

Ryan: Yeah.

Brandon: The backpacks are serving a need. There’s an emotion tied to it because these families can’t necessarily afford backpacks – that’s why they’re getting them in the first place, right? So I think that’s just – CEOs and businesses, they oftentimes just write a check and say they’re doing good that way. But they don’t really know what it’s tied to. I thought the backpack story is amazing. I love the picture you had in your book too about the pallets and pallets and pallets of backpacks.

Ryan: That was a mess.

Brandon: Oh, I can imagine. Like logistically, it sounds like a disaster but…

Ryan: It was. Well, I didn’t know what I was doing either. And I’ll tell you what the backpacks created. It created a couple of things. It created an emotional disruption in the company and in the lives of employees and customers. There was no sales gimmick. No coupons in the bags. There wasn’t any like, “Come back to our store,” type stuff or discounts. It really was genuine. It was authentic.

And the second thing is it created alignment around a cause that was very close to the strategic placing of where the stores were in local communities. So we teach a lot of times companies about doing good and so much of the good that’s going on is good but so many times we’re seeing that the good that is happening through these companies is not aligned with their business. It’s not aligned with where they’re located or it’s not aligned with their core competency.

And the closer that we can align the good that we do as a company to what we do as a business, that’s the secret sauce right there. Aligning it to the business’ intent, strategic intent, aligning it with the passion of employees and also the passion of the customers. And when you get that employee-customer cause alignment, that’s – I mean you’ve got something really special. That’s where we see the culture of good really flourishing in business.

Brandon: When you’re at TCC, you had a stat in the book and I want you to share it if you remember it. But what was the contribution level like monetarily for donations and time off for community service, and things for the employees that they can contribute? It was a high number. I was kind of shocked by basically how much money you gave each employee to give back to the community. Do you remember what that was?

Ryan: Yeah. I think it was around $1,100 an employee. You know what’s really interesting is that, as it started to grow, vendors started getting involved. They heard.

Brandon: Wow! Yeah.

Ryan: And what’s unique is vendors want to be connected with that kind of work. So we had a major vendor that specifically said, “Please don’t use our name because we can’t do this for everyone. But we want to be connected to what you’re doing.” And they started donating over a million dollars a year toward the effort.

Brandon: Oh my goodness!

Ryan: It was such a fascinating experience to go from a place in the nonprofit world where I was hoping to get – if I got a $10,000 or $15,000 donation, at once I thought heaven was pouring down on me. I’m like this is an awesome opportunity to go and do good with.

And you go from these small little $100, $200 donations to seeing a check of over a million dollars to – one point, actually he started giving $1.5 million a year toward it.

The return of investment that TCC had was so significant because their spend really became minimal in terms of what they were giving. And that continued to grow. But in terms of what collectively we were doing with the money, I mean it was so fascinating. There was an $11 return for every dollar that TCC spent on doing good. And so, the ROI became significant. The employee turnover decreased by over 20%, saving TCC $5.8 million a year.

Now, we’re talking more than let’s add some fluffy stuff to our company, right? This is driving business results that we didn’t expect. And once we saw those results, the promise had to be made by the company that as the culture of good drove business results, the company would reinvest more and more money and resource every year to do good in the world. And that had to be paramount to this working because it couldn’t just be another CSR or Corporate Social Responsibility Program.

Brandon: Yeah.

Ryan: This was more about culture and DNA and driving it in the – what most people are doing most of the time. And that’s what culture is, right? And that doesn’t mean that they were just going out and giving away backpacks every day. They had to do their work. But they needed to know that as they grew the business success and drove business results that more good could be done in the world and that was the main motivator.

Brandon: A couple of things I want to hone in on, you just kind of alluded to there. So business results, you didn’t really hone in on that too much in the book and I want to just bring that out a little bit. How did you get the business results out of it? Were you able to share all of these things on social media and it’s just through word of mouth it caught on that you’re doing such good in the community? How did that translate in like all this good that you’re doing, how did it translate into ROI for the business side – more profit or more revenue or whatever it may be?

Ryan: Yeah, it drove more customers to the door. I mean – in a small – when you’re localizing your effort, if you’re in local communities, if that aligns with the local, where you do business, it creates buzz. People talk about it. It’s a business differentiator, right? I mean when you think about specifically wireless retail or any of your listeners out there in the industry that they are in, there’s a good potential that someone else is doing what they’re doing.

And gone is the day that we can simply say, “Our customer service is better than someone else’s.” Since everyone is saying that, nobody believes it. That’s not the differentiator anymore. What makes your single greatest differentiator in business is your culture. And your culture is your greatest risk.

And that was significant in terms of building the ROI because employees were using social media. We encouraged them to use #CultureofGood and share it on their personal social media if they wanted to. And that was met with a lot of early adoptors that were sharing the good that they were doing.

And what we were seeing is when you share good, it gives you an opportunity to inspire others to do good with you. And so, that inspiration wasn’t about bragging or saying “Look at us.” But we constantly said, “We should never do good to be seen but we should always be seen doing good.” And that was really significant for the company.

And so, we saw more customers coming in the door, some store sales were up over 40%. We saw employee turnover reduction by over 20%, engagement levels went from before I was there they didn’t do a lot of surveys. But we were seeing 93% engagement levels in terms of employees, feeling connected to their work, connected to the values of the company.

Again, I’m not on here to say this is the perfect program and if you put Culture Good in your business here, you’re going to have same results. Those results go up and down. There’s a lot of influencers out there beyond Culture of Good, the industry, the wireless industry, upturns and downturns in business. Like there are compensation changes.

There are a lot of different factors. But overall, you can’t lose as a business owner caring about your people, caring about the world and really doing it in an authentic way. You’re not going to lose doing that. And that’s what we saw. We didn’t expect such a significant ROI around it but once we saw that, we knew this is making a difference in a significant way and we should share this with others.

Brandon: I’m glad you brought up the people side. That was the other part I wanted to hone in on. SO besides the business results, it probably brings people closer together. You probably attract, I’m just making assumptions here, but I assume you track and retain people that want to rally around a greater cause and they are probably great performers too. And they probably, besides just the work that they’re doing, they feel like they are contributing to something that’s greater than themselves.

It seems like it’s a nonnegotiable nowadays especially as younger people, they are so mission-driven. What has been your experience with that?

Ryan: Two things. I would say you’re one hundred percent right. The second thing I would say in terms of engagement and getting the high performers. One area that we made the mistake early on was tying the good they were doing to driving the business. And that was significant because what we ended up with was ambassadors that were in many of the stores that have the bleeding heart and really wanted to be charitable with their work and their livers, and that’s what we were really driving.

But over time, what we saw – we weren’t expecting them – but what we saw was that some of them were using it as a crutch in their everyday work. So they would say, “Well, I showed up to work late today because we were all out as a team last night doing good in the local community, right?”

Brandon: Yeah.

Ryan: And so that was one of the landmines that we stepped on and had to take some steps back and say, “How do we refocus this and how do we make this something that’s measurable where employees know their personal impact on the business. We were still motivated by the good that we would do with the results but recognizing that you also have to be savvy in business as well as having a heart to want to do good in the world?” And so what we would say is you don’t have to go work for a charity to be charitable.

Brandon: Yeah.

Ryan: But it’s not a nonprofit, right? Someone has to pay for all this good.

Brandon: Yeah.

Ryan: That’s going on. And so, that was just one of the landmines that we teach businesses and something we didn’t expect but we’re practitioners and not experts. So we learn along the way and we love sharing that with other companies.

Brandon: So TCC at the time of you writing this book or when you were there, it sounded like you have like 800 employees there spread everywhere, how do you get a program like this or just the overall mentality like, “We’re going to do good in our communities?” How do you scale that? Is that where the ambassadors come into play?

Ryan: Yeah, I think ambassadors are good as long as they have a full understanding of what the full scope of what the type of effort is going to be. I think we learned over time that it really has to be owned by everyone.

Brandon: Yeah.

Ryan: Because sometimes when you have ambassadors, you have champions out in the field, sometimes they take the load of everything and everyone else kind of says, “All right. They are leading that so I can focus on something else.” And culture is what most people are doing most of the time.

And so we really had to refocus that and we ended the ambassador program and really took more of an approach on how do we scale this to every individual employee, every team and then the organization as whole? And that 3-tiered approach really culminated to us discovering that there were five promises that we were making and expecting the employees to make and teams to make. And I’ll go through those really quick.

One is to care about others and the world around us.

The second is to drive the business to greater success so we can do more good.

The third is to connect with people around us.

The fourth is to inspire others to do good with us.

And the fifth is to be authentic with our words and actions.

And those five what we call promises really are what the culture of good is made of, what it can be managed to, and how it’s measured. So not to get into all of our products and tools but we even measure it based on a radar graph of 0 to 7 where employees will, based on observable behaviors and how they are living those five promises out, self-assess and team assess on a monthly basis and then organizationally-assess on a quarterly basis.

And that’s really – when you can measure culture in that way where it’s still emotional and it’s not just a KPI but it’s still connected to how people feel about their work and about the good that they are doing, that’s really where it gets special. And that’s something that we learned well after writing the book.

Brandon: Interesting. So one of my last questions for you is going to be how do you launch something like this without it feeling forced? And it sounds like, based on what you just said, is that you’re measuring their performance based on these behaviors in some way, right? And that’s how it’s just part of their job and through behaviors of other people in the community, it has just become part of their human nature and desire to just do good in the world.

Ryan: Yeah. We want to make it habitual.

Brandon: Yeah.

Ryan: We really – it starts with leadership. It starts with – we do workshops and all of that where we do a find your cause where we’re really honing in and getting down to the essence of what your business is about, why you’re in business, what you care about, who are your employees, who are your customers, and how can we align your employee-customer to a cause that is uniquely aligned to your business strategy?

And we start there and we start with a commitment from leadership that this is something that they’re going to run the business through what we call an EOS, an Emotional Operating System based on that cause and the passion of their employees and customers. But then we introduced the five promises and over time teach leadership and management how to coach individuals and teams around that and how to measure that over time and how to drive those results through the five promises. And that’s – it’s not complicated but it’s a unique system that we’ve developed based on our own experience and our own trial and error and the landmines that we stepped on and what we learned.

So, first step could be just reaching out to us. And other step, if someone is out there and they’re like, “You know? We could get a whole of culture of good but we got this handled.” I would really challenge the owner and the executive team, that leadership team to identify a cause that aligns with their business that’s really unique to them and that also aligns with their employees’ and customers’ passions.

And once you get that and you commit to it and it’s more than a day of service once a year but you have that predictable cadence of doing good throughout the year and that’s where you start to see the business result.

Brandon: Ryan, I know that you and your co-author of the book, Scott Moorehead, you guys are doing this full time. Can you let listeners know either about your book or your website or anything that you’re doing that you’d want to point people to or reach out to you?

Ryan: Yeah. Two ways, so is our website and you can order the book through Amazon on the website. You can hear more about and read more about services. I’m a keynote speaker. I can go into businesses or if they have a leadership group that gets together on a yearly basis, I can come in and do that.

Obviously, we’re for hire to come in and do workshops and work through some of the process of getting something like this launched. And then also you can just reach out to me on my email. It’s

And thirdly, I said two ways, but thirdly, we’re on all the social media. If you look up Culture of Good, you can go on there. But if someone wants to reach out to me directly, they can certainly do that at

Brandon: Awesome. We’ll put links in the show notes to all your profiles and your websites and your social media profiles as well. So that way, listeners can connect directly with you and find you easy.

Ryan: Thanks, Brandon.

Brandon: Yeah. So Ryan McCarty, you’ve been our guest today. Thank you so much for being a part of the podcast. And keep doing good in the world. I really appreciate what you’re doing.

Ryan: It’s all I can do, man. I appreciate it. I thank you for the opportunity to come on and spread our message and I’m excited to hear from your listeners and to hear the good that they’re doing in the world as well.

Brandon Laws

As Director of Marketing, Brandon Laws leads all marketing efforts for Xenium, providing oversight on all marketing campaigns, digital marketing strategy, events, sponsorships and public relations. Brandon brings a positive energy to every aspect of his role at Xenium—from internal initiatives around culture and wellness to industry thought leadership through the Xenium podcast and other social efforts. Active within the HR community, he currently volunteers on the board of the Portland Human Resource Management Association as the Director of Marketing & PR.

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