How Do Culture & Cake Relate?

Culture & Cake (Chocolate Covered Strawberry Cake Courtesy of Betty Crocker)This is a topic that took me a long time to consider actually writing about. Fortunately, recent events have built up the drive within myself to discuss the dreaded “culture” topic. Some of those recent events include coming across articles written by recognized leaders such as: Todd Nielson, Shawn Murphy, Ted Coine, Dave Ulrich, Lee Cockerell, and John C. Maxwell. I love following them on Twitter, reading their articles and books, and watching keynotes on YouTube, if they have them. They all have a lot of different topics, but I just want to focus on business or organizational culture for this post. This may even turn into a muli-part post. So, stay tuned.

Great leaders all agree on three main focuses toward followers or employees: Vision, Inspiration & Engagement. I’m going to use an analogy of baking a cake (Our culture), and these focuses are each layer of the cake. Because, culture isn’t just defined (noun) as the behaviors that make up the social environment of an organization, but culture is also defined (verb) to cultivate, nurture or grow. We can’t ignore the culture of our work-group, department, company or industry for a second, because it is how we are able to find top-talent in a dense market, retain the top-talent within our organization, and remain innovative against competition.

While working in one of my previous roles, I experienced a culture that encouraged innovation, independence, ambition, persistence and life-long personal development. The departments there were very large, and had lots of opportunities for growth. Whereas working in a different department, but within the same company, there were signs of deep bureaucracy, which inhibit growth and development opportunities, including chances to showcase your innovation. Since departments are grossly smaller; little examples of ambition could be quickly taken as over-ambition or aggressiveness, confidence is thought of as arrogance, and if you’re independent (or a self-starter) then you’re not a team-player. These statements are not just from personal experience, but from connecting with other employees who have shown loyalty to the company for more than 5 or even 10 years, and, the kicker, they aren’t even all from the same departments. This shows the organizational culture differences down to the micro-organizations, the departments and work-groups.

So, how about we get back to our cake.


Being the foundation of leadership, the leader’s vision should be effectively communicated to the team. How you execute (flavor) that vision is completely up to you, but keep in mind that every team member is different, and individual feedback is the best flavor (for me, it’s strawberry) in most cases.

I experienced a great example of this when I watched an episode of Restaurant Stakeout, hosted by Willie Degel (Owner of Uncle Jack’s Steakhouse in New York City). After visually confirming various business, and leadership, flaws by watching hidden cameras, Willie addresses the entire team about the areas of needed improvement. Afterward, he meets with each individual and provides constructive criticism and development opportunities, and advancement opportunities for the strong individuals.

In the particular episode I was watching, Willie apologized to one of the employees during their individual meeting. He said, “I wanted to first apologize for coming off a little strong and maybe harsh in the team meeting. I’m sure you can see my passion for the subject-matter at hand. I really wanted show how serious of an issue this is.” (A little background: The business was losing significant money because of a low-priced all-you-can-eat special where customers were taking food home and sharing, and the employees were not reinforcing the rules of the business.)

This example really shows how all three layers of the cake are needed to establish our culture, but first focus on how Willie executed the new vision. This style will help establish the culture of team accountability, because everyone on the team was in the first meeting. So, everyone on the team knows exactly where they should be, and where they shouldn’t be.


My past experiences have given me a great perspective on what inspiration looks like, and how it is expressed. Think of inspiration as the filling to your cake. Sugar and cream are your base ingredients, just like passion and tenacity are the base to inspiring others.

John F. Kennedy made his speech about the space program, and our efforts to put a man on the moon in 1962. His passion and enthusiasm for the subject-matter encourages those involved to accomplish the mission first and within the decade. Another incredibly inspirational speech is Martin Luther King Jr’s, “I have a dream.” This same passion, drive and enthusiasm is exemplified in another TV show I watched recently, Treehouse Master’s. Where they follow master tree house builder, Pete Nelson, as he and his crew designs and constructs some very incredible tree houses. You can just feel his passion through the TV screen. “To the trees!”


How you engage your team members will provide the framework to how you want your team members to engage you. Your engagement is what will truly compliment your vision (Like this chocolate layer of cake compliments the strawberry base). Employees who are engaged in the workplace are more likely to ‘own’ their work and align to the vision of the organization, according to research by the Gallup Organization. recently posted an article, by Trish McFarlane, about what Millenials look for in a company’s environment, and one of them was: How are employees recognized? Although bonuses and other perks are great, Millenials just want to get recognized for doing good work. An article in Forbes, by Ty Kiisel, cites research by MTV titled, “No Collar Workers“. The analysis points that because of the immediacy of social media, “…80% of millennials said they want regular feedback from their managers, and 75% yearn for mentors.” With numbers like that, effective engagement is critical.

An article posted last year, by Todd Nielson, “Are You Making Your Employees Stupid?” points out a statistic by Merrill Lynch that “50% of employee skills become outdated in 3-5 years.” So, why aren’t you developing, and diversifying your team?

In the show, Restaurant Stakeout, Willie returns to the business just a few short months later. Allowing enough time for the restaurant to implement the suggested changes, and ensure that everything is still aligned with the initial vision. Willie also verifies whether the weak team members took his development advice.

Now, let’s ice our cake.

It really is as sweet as it sounds. This chocolate frosting will add the perfect final touch to our chocolate covered strawberry cake. By identifying, recognizing and rewarding the performers who are working toward the vision, and heeding any developmental advice, you are able to better influence this new constructive culture. This outer layer is so important. It protects your cake (vision, inspiration & engagement) from getting dried out and stale. Sometimes there’s a shell that falls into the mix when we crack the egg, and the solution still stands: Get rid of it as soon as possible. You don’t want to mix that into your cake. It will spoil all your hard work.

An organizational, or micro-organizational, culture takes nurturing. Constantly tending to the three focuses; your vision for the project or mission, inspiring your team, and engaging team members with frequent feedback to ensure the success of achieving your vision. After all, isn’t that why we call it culture? Because of its convenient double meaning? The norms and practices of our environment, and the constant work it takes to maintain that desired environment.

I hope this post was helpful in identifying three focuses to correct and align to a productive culture. Please share and follow me @AlexGaskins on Twitter. Hopefully you didn’t get too bad of a desert craving.

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