Cultural Brilliance: The DNA of Organizational Excellence

 In Certification, Corporate Culture, Leadership

An Interview with Claudette Rowley

Claudette Rowley is the CEO of Cultural Brilliance. She is a change management consultant, cultural designer, and executive coach who is passionate about helping leaders and organizations resolve complex organizational problems in ways that honor the intelligence of their cultural systems and the brilliance of their people.

Across a span of 20 years, she has worked with hundreds of leaders from Fortune 500 firms, higher education, small businesses, and nonprofits. Through her work, she developed the ‘Cultural Brilliance System’ which is explained in her newly released book, Cultural Brilliance: The DNA of Organizational Excellence.

On this episode of CultureTalk at Work, I welcomed Claudette Rowley to talk about the book shortly before it was launched. You can check out our complete conversation in the video below or catch the highlights in the transcript that follows. Enjoy!


Claudette, congratulations on the book! I’ve known you during the writing of the book, and I know it’s quite a process.


It has been quite a process. I’m really excited about the book and to be able to share this approach with the world.


I thought it would be fun to talk about the book, which highlights the Cultural Brilliance System that you have created and have been using with organizations.

One thing I’m curious about is you saw a need for a new way to look at culture and a new way to look at culture change in organizations, so it begs the question to me, what wasn’t working about what you saw before?

There’s this great little part in your intro.

“For years, I have seen companies work around their cultural issues rather than confront them. Avoid telling the truth about their own behavior and over time this turns into their culture devolving rather than evolving, and they end up with something that nobody really wanted.”

In your experience, what is it that we’ve been doing wrong?


In a lot of organizations, there’s not enough safety in the culture for people to be able to say, “I’m concerned about this. This isn’t working,” or, “Here’s my idea,” or, “I think we should do this a different way.” Because sometimes people don’t feel comfortable speaking up about a process, or their idea, or even to their leaders, right?

Organizations can’t move the culture forward in positive ways, and once you’re in a pattern or a system like that, of a culture devolving, or maybe becoming very bureaucratic, or hierarchical, or status quo, it’s at a standstill because people aren’t bringing anything fresh into it.

Without the truth, how can you change anything?


Wow, so two things I’m taking from that. One is telling the truth, and the other thing that I’m hearing is if you’re not evolving, then what, right? It may not be that they’re devolving, but it’s stagnant, it’s status quo. Who wants to work in an organization like that?


It becomes very life draining for people, right? Then if there’s any sort of stress that comes into the organization, maybe from customers, and at the external force everything just gets even harder. What I’ve seen is it will typically start devolving even more, become more toxic, because there’s no cultural infrastructure to deal with it in a positive way.

I’m thinking of an organization right now where it said the culture was pretty good. A lot of people liked to work there, but it had become very, very stagnant. And as soon as their sales volume started to increase, and they didn’t have the people infrastructure to handle it, then the culture actually started to worsen and become more toxic, because there’s all this added stress. And people couldn’t have the necessary conversations to figure out how to handle it.


Stress, given the time that we are in right now in business, constant change and so forth, is probably some of what we’re experiencing in terms of cultures falling apart today.


I think so because you have people coming into work potentially more stressed than they might have been. Then there’s all the rapid changes organizations are going through, and we as humans… it’s interesting.

Even though I look a lot to the natural world, and it’s fascinating because as we know the natural world is changing constantly and programmed to do that, and that as people, some of us have a very hard time with it.

And organizations tend not to handle change very well so you can see its layer upon layer of the stress, personal stress, the stress in the organization. A lot of change, but how does change get handled, how does it get talked about, how does it get planned for, how is it responded to?

There are many organizations that do that pretty well. But I would say there are more that really aren’t equipped to handle it well.


So, one of the key ideas you are introducing is how do you create a living organization that can manage change and stress in a new way. Can you share a little bit about, at a high level, the Cultural Brilliance System?


I should just start by giving my definition of a brilliant culture. A brilliant culture is an organizational system that proactively responds to change in ways that decrease stress, inspire learning, and promote organizational health. The idea behind that is that change becomes something that can enhance your organization and your culture.

The word brilliance really, really matters here. It’s a positive word. It’s about light, diamonds, invention, ingenuity, intellect.That’s a big piece of what this system is about. It’s not only to help your culture heal itself, and it does that, but it’s also how to take it to another level.

The system itself is a three-phase system.  The Authenticity Phase is about truth-telling: how does our culture really operate? We can’t change what we don’t understand, so what’s actually going on in your culture, what’s great about it, what’s not great about it?

Then the second phase of the system is the Design Phase, and that’s where we’ve looked at the culture you have now, and the culture you’d like to have, your version of a brilliant culture, and how are we going to get there. The definition of design is simply turning ideas into reality, so how are we functionally going to get there?

Then the third phase of it is what I call Aware Integration, which is simply integrating those changes with awareness. Of course, it’s not simple because there’s a lot to integrating these changes, but the concept is pretty simple.

That’s the system in a nutshell, and the idea is that by the end of it, organizations and the people inside of them have learned a lot, can adapt to change more easily. When I’ve run the system in companies, it becomes iterative where things start to spiral up versus spiraling down, so a successful build on the next success.


You talk about the book being both a field guide and a roadmap; you walk somebody through the system that you’ve built and the work you do with clients and even those three phases in detail.


I wanted the book to be conceptual, so looking at some bigger ideas, which I know it gets into in the first couple of chapters.

But also, a book that people, if they wanted to, could take and actually use and apply the information. Some of it, all of it, whatever works for them. It’s not a workbook per se, but you could look at it and say, “Oh, I see. This is how we could use the authenticity phase in our company,” for example. “We could take these three ideas and implement them.”


If I was to restate them, the Authenticity stage is about getting real, getting honest. The Adaptogen Design phase is about, ‘what do we want our new reality to be about?’ What did we not like that we need to change to meet new demands? Aware Integration is on-going because culture isn’t an event, right?



One thing that’s important in the Adaptogen Design phase is that it’s a very co-created event, so people are coming together, not just the leaders. I don’t work with just leadership teams. I’m working with people from all different aspects of the organization coming together, and they’re actually co-designing these solutions to cultural issues. It’s literally helping them come up with solutions that they can go implement.


You involve everyone in the process?


Absolutely, but I think somebody’s going to go off the rails of course. I will say something, right? “Here are my concerns.”

But by and large, people do a good job with it, and the book outlines a way to do this design, so it doesn’t go off the rails.

There’s something really incredible that happens when you see people that have not been involved in change other than maybe to be told to implement it, which isn’t usually that much fun, but they’re actually involved in the creation of it. They’re involved in the design of it, and they get to have a say and a voice in it, and the light comes back on in their eyes, because a lot of organizations don’t give people that opportunity or they think they don’t know enough to have a voice.


It sounds like having a voice is also part of the lasting transformation.


Yes. And then you have people who are maybe more open to being innovative, open to sharing ideas, open to making a mistake and learning from it. There are lots of outputs that come from this, but change doesn’t happen in any meaningful way if people’s voices aren’t involved, and that’s, as we know, proven by research.


Let’s talk about the first stage; it relates to how you and I met.

I failed to mention when I introduced you that Claudette Rowley is also a Certified Partner with CultureTalk. I’d love if you could talk a little bit about how you have taken the CultureTalk framework, the Archetypal framework, and assessment tools, into your practice.


Yes, absolutely. I’m very proud and happy to be a Certified Partner, and CultureTalk is in the book. It’s in the Authenticity Phase that I use the CultureTalk Assessment with most of my engagements. If an organization has not talked about their culture, they don’t have really any language around it. They don’t really know what’s going on other than the surface level aspects of it.

One of the things that I love about the CultureTalk Survey is that it gets people in the conversation so easily. They’re interested in like, “Oh, we’re Hero culture. Oh, we’re this. We’re that.” It’s a way they can relate to, so it gets people talking about their own culture. It’s so in alignment with the Cultural Brilliance System, because it empowers people and that they get to decide if the results are accurate for them, so right away they have a voice.

I use it at the beginning of my engagements. Even if an organization has worked culture a lot, I’ll often suggest it anyway, “Your whole organization can take it, first of all.” And if it’s a big company, we’ll get as much participation as possible. While we can’t have three thousand people in a room, this is another way to give everybody a voice.

That’s another selling point that I use, “This will give you a snapshot of the entire company, and everybody gets to participate, get the results, and we can do some really interesting things with a large company with a validation process.” It’s almost always part of my Authenticity phase.


With CultureTalk, your clients can get honest about what actually happening here. Plus, the Archetypal framework looks at culture through storylines that have both strengths that an organization might grab onto and own, ‘Yes, that’s part of the culture here.’ But there’s also a shadow side. Maybe what’s not in alignment with how we’re going to move positively into the future, and you can uncover those things.

So right in Phase 1, you look to get them owning, ‘this is the state of our culture today’, and identifying what things need to change in that second phase of your process.


Yes. And I find that the assessment is also helpful to me as a practitioner, because of what I learn.

When we go through the validation and they’re identifying their strengths and the shadows, it paves the way for a deeper dive or a more specific dive on certain things. And as they are talking things through, they notice things like, ‘wow, some of our strengths and our shadows are identical. We’re potentially overusing something that’s really good, but we’re using it to the point where it’s no longer effective.’

And we’re getting into that kind of a conversation is very hard to get into otherwise.


I also think having the language of the story to tap into can help.

I’ll be curious to see as your work continues to evolve and more people adopt Cultural Brilliance, how organizations can become very intentional about what kind of culture do we have and how do we evolve it into a thriving, sustaining, brilliant culture where people are operating at their highest potential as well.


There’s so much potential in almost every organizational culture that is completely untapped, and people don’t see it who work there. Leaders usually don’t see it. There’s a rare person I think who sees it, but it’s not even on the radar screen, like wow, we have more potential here that we could be using.

So, most of them will focus on what’s not working or blaming people for things, or whatever, but they’re not really saying, “How can we transform this into something really brilliant, where we take this potential that’s here and really use it as a resource?”


Where can people get a copy of your book?


You buy a copy from Amazon or from my website where I also offer more resources to support the Cultural Brilliance System.


Okay, so go check out Claudette’s website: She’s got weekly newsletters and a radio show where she’s talking about critical issues that are impacting organizations today.

Claudette, if you had any one piece of advice to offer leaders who are stuck around this issue of culture, what would it be?


Be willing to hear the truth, to listen, listen to what you hear, which is a concept from the book, and really be willing to engage, ask for feedback about your culture from the people who work for you, and make it safe. Say, “This is just information for me as a leader. It’s confidential. It’s not going anywhere. It’s not going to be used against you.”

And really ask some specific questions, because leaders like all other human beings, have blind spots. Even really self-aware leaders will have a couple of blind spots about their culture, so the best thing they can do for their culture is find out what they are so everyone can take action together.

Those are my words of wisdom.

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