What kind of culture do you have? Is it a jet? A hot air balloon? Is everyone riding the bus? Or is it a paperweight?

Presented at Culture Summit 2019

The video above is from the 2019 Culture Summit, my favorite culture conference. Be sure to watch it before you read the rest of this post. It’s less than 15 minutes.

My opening is an example of how to engage a large audience to get their attention in the first few minutes, to set up some intrigue and anticipation for the presentation.

Notice that I misspeak a couple of times and create a lot of confusion in the audience. And it still works. Don’t be afraid to take risks. If you make a mistake, take it in stride. If you are having fun with the audience, they will empathize with you when you make a mistake. If you take yourself too seriously, it creates distance.

Why Lift and Thrust?

As you saw in the video, Lift and Thrust is a helpful way to think about what it takes to create an optimal culture. I often review Lift and Thrust with my executive coaching clients. I’ve presented the model to teams as a way to frame a conversation about how they see themselves now and how they can become a high-performing team.

That’s bigger than culture. When I talk to executive coaching clients, I explain that part of their responsibility as a leader is to create lift and thrust, to remove weight and drag. 

As you can see, the model has many applications—culture, leadership, even product design (there’s a reason Apple products are so successful; at their best, they’re both very lifty and very thrusty).*

It also applies to coaches. It’s a useful tool to help your clients understand what they’re creating, and it’s a helpful way for you to think about what you’re doing when you’re coaching.

If a client isn’t making a lot of progress, we can explore with them how to do more of what they do that creates lift and thrust, and less of what they do to create weight and drag.

One of my favorite disturbing questions or provocations is to ask a leader or a team, “What dumb shit do you (your team, the company) do that gets in the way of you being your best selves and doing your best work?”

If you ask this question—and people feel safe enough to talk—they will almost always come up with something that pretty much everyone agrees is stupid, detrimental, burdensome, and baffling. If the leader is in the room, ask them if they can decide to stop doing it right now. Or ask them to put their heads together and come up with something they can all agree is better, and commit to doing that instead going forward. If you can facilitate this much in a team meeting, they will walk away feeling they’ve had a refreshing breakthrough. If you can get there with an individual client, they will almost certainly see immediate results.

What kind of leader or coach are you?

We have to apply this to ourselves, too. What kind of leader or coach are you? 

A jet? Are people inspired and do they have the resources and confidence to act (or have they already made a change and knocked over the first domino in the session)?

A bus? Are you just grinding it out? Are you an accountability partner, helping people take action, but looping through the single loop of learning—doing, but not going any deeper?

Maybe you’re a hot air balloon. People feel inspired and uplifted, but they’re not making any progress. You may be doing deep work together, but it’s not translating into helping them create.

You might be a paperweight. Are you relying too much on instruments and models, instead of creating from their essence and what you know in their bones. Are you hiding behind professional distance? Don’t be a paperweight. No paperweights, please.

Do an honest self-assessment. 

(Confession: I sometimes lean toward the hot air balloon. I love doing deep personal work and I’m not always nudging clients toward the forward movement they need. Occasionally, I’m a little too much like the bus driver. I’m sometimes weighty, but never paperweighty.)

We need to develop an awareness of how we’re showing up, in general (our tendencies and preferences), and real-time when we’re coaching or leading. We need to have the flexibility to know when someone needs a little hot air—some uplight, a higher perspective—and when they need to get on the bus and drive.


* I should probably have put a warning in here somewhere to be prepared for inappropriate humor when you start talking about being
 lifty and thrusty. It’s the silliness threshold. When you introduce the model, it will almost certainly bring up some serious conversation. Humor is a way of dispelling some of the tension. Don’t be offended. Notice how people respond and it will help you get a read on your / or the group you’re working with.