In today’s episode, we feature a special appearance of Cameron Herold on the A Little Bit Culty Podcast with Sarah & Nippy. In today’s episode, Cameron discusses how a great company culture must be more than a business and a little less than a religion, leaning towards a cult. Also, what are the warning signs of a company going too far into a cult, and how to veer it back to a more healthy culture?
In This Conversation We Discuss:
- What generally hooks people, what were the red flags and how did they survive the cultish experiences
- What were some of the things Cameron recognized were not healthy measures of a cultish presence in a company culture
- How do you identify employees who are on board with the culture based on their personality types
- What fundamental traits you should look out for when hiring
- How employees can feel comfortable airing their grievances without being gaslit
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Our guest in this episode, we met and have a bizarre connection. I’ll let him explain because it’s funny. I’ve never met Cameron Herold in person, even though he lives in Vancouver. I will blame the pandemic on that one and his busy travel schedule. He’s always in various exotic places as a speaker. He’s known as the CEO Whisperer. He’s the Founder of the COO Alliance, the author of five business books, including Vivid Vision, and the Founder of the Invest in Your Leaders course.
He has been paid to speak in all seven continents, including Antarctica as the former COO of 1-800-GOT-JUNK?, which was ranked the number two company to work for in all of Canada and twice ranked number one to work for in BC. It even became a case study at the Harvard Business School.
He has coached dozens of real companies globally and is known for creating world-class company cultures. The publisher of Forbes Magazine said, “Cameron Herold is the best speaker I’ve ever heard.”
Cameron has likely said this quote on stages hundreds of times and now regret it, “To build an amazing company, it has to be a little bit more than a business and a little bit less than a religion. It has to be in the zone of a cult.”
He joins us to talk about how and when company culture goes too far and becomes culty, and what makes a company culture a healthy one. Without further ado, Cameron Herold.
Cameron, how are you?
I’m good. How are you? It’s good to see you guys.
It’s good to see you too. It has taken a while for us to lock down this conversation, but I’m so glad that we did because there is a lot to talk about.
This one was a few months in the making.
I learned about Sarah before The Vow even came out. Christopher Bennett and I worked together twenty years ago back at GOT-JUNK. Sarah and I were both on his podcast when he was running the Vancouver Film School.
You might want to tell this part. What is our other connection other than the fabulous Christopher Bennett?
Edgar Boone and I. Edgar was a part of ESP, which became NXIVM.
He opened up Mexico.
I met Edgar in 2007 at a program that the Entrepreneur’s Organization hosted at MIT. I’ve taught there for fifteen years. Edgar and I were in the same class for three years at this MIT EO program. I knew Edgar well. He brought me down to speak in Monterey. I spoke in the Mexico City chapter for EO. When this whole The Vow came on, I was totally engrossed in watching. All of a sudden, I saw this sign pop up with his name on a parking spot. I’m like, “What the F?” I had to go in and check to see if it was him, then all of a sudden, he appeared on the screen, and I froze. It was a little too close to home.
Did you not know Edgar was part of ESP? We called it ESP then. We didn’t call it NXIVM.
I did know he was a part of ESP and I knew what ESP stood for. It’s interesting. My ex-wife, around 2017, did a landmark forum. She walked out at the end of the first day saying, “This is bullshit. I hate all this.” I don’t think she could put introspective on it. She ended up talking about wanting to look at this ESP program that she’d heard about. She’d had heard about it through some of the EO members that we knew from Mexico as well. We were very close.
For the audience that doesn’t know EO, It is Entrepreneur’s Organization.
It’s a network of entrepreneurs all over the world. He would’ve tapped into that pretty strongly as well.
I remember talking to him about it. He came down and was running the New York City Center while I was there for a lot of it. Edgar and I worked together here and there in New York.
He was a field trainer and a great guy. We used to be really close. I’m devastated that we haven’t spoken since.
I sent him a message telling him I was back on the podcast with you guys, but I haven’t heard anything yet.
You probably won’t.
We’ve heard back and forth from each other. This might close the door a little bit, but I’m going to keep the friendship going.
He is a good guy. All of us had to reconcile something. If you don’t reconcile it and you’re not willing to, it’s going to be a longer and more arduous journey.
It’s interesting that that’s our connection. Also, when we were in NXIVM, at least the story we were told was that they called him the Tony Robbins of Mexico, and he was running personal development seminars. When he came and did ESP, the rumor is that he would say to Nancy, “This is either a big piece of crap or it’s the best thing in the world.” By the end of his five days, he’s like, “This is the best thing in the world and I’m going to bring it to Mexico.”
He was the head of sales. We called it the field trainer in Mexico. Everyone that’s in Mexico is there essentially because of him. I had heard that he was making $75,000 a month because of the MLM structure. He recruited so many people who recruited so many people, and he was getting commissions from all those people. It’s hard to walk away from that income and also to admit later, “I made a lot of money off the backs of this pervert.”
I feel like it’s harder to go, “I was wrong.”
Knowing Edgar, I don’t think him walking away from money and that thing would be his internal. It’s more of recognizing you backed the wrong horse. Cameron, since 2007, you’ve been in the purview of Edgar and Sarah because you’re in Vancouver and you never got the pitch.
I’ve also dodged Landmark. Chip Wilson, who started Lululemon and I are friends. A bunch of his very close peers and I are friends. I’ve wanted to get involved because I’ve wanted to do this growth, but now I’m terrified.
We’re going to do a whole separate episode on it and other LGAT, Large-Group Awareness Training. One of the things we wanted to talk about is how these corporations use LGAT or business seminars as part of the company culture. We’re going to get into that, but before we do, Nippy, do you want to start with it first?
One of the things that we were thinking about in having this conversation is having a standard. Are you familiar with Steven Hassan’s BITE Model?
You’ve talked about him on the show. That is in every episode.
He brought it together on the shoulders of some other people. In essence, that’s when groups try to control your Behavior, B. I is Information. When they try to influence and access the information that you have. The Thoughts, T. They try to influence your thoughts and encourage what’s positive and negative thoughts to be shut down, and then the Emotion. The fear and gaslighting yourself. They are grasping your emotions. That’s how they flex their control.
There’s a spectrum of that, just to clarify that. Most people have come to terms with the fact that “What is a cult?” is very nebulous. We use the BITE Model to say that the more of those things that they do, the more destructive it is. The less they do, the less destructive it is. For example, if you can leave and not be shunned and you can come and go as you please, that’s less of a cult. There might be some other aspects that make it culty, but it’s not destructive per se. It’s a spectrum for analysis, just to back that up.
It’s funny, I’m rolling some past companies through my head now and going on the B part like, “Where were we?”
That’s the thing. When does it become bad? We want to get into when it becomes bad if you’re trying to build something like behavior. It goes in corporate settings. As you well know, sports teams. You need to have a sports team bought into the coach’s philosophy. If they’re not and the behavior is contrary to what the inertia of the team is, you have problems. Making those distinctions is important.
Our structure with survivors is, “How did you get in? What hooked you? How did you get out? What were the red flags along the way? How did you wake up and how are you healing?” It is a different context for you because you’re not a survivor. You did come to me with, “I used to say that you need to have your company in the line of a cult.” You don’t do that anymore. Can you give us a little bit of your history? What led you up to the point that you realized that you’re not going to say that anymore? Just to bring our audience up to speed with who you are.
I was groomed as an entrepreneur. I grew up in a family of entrepreneurs. I did a talk that’s on the main TED website about raising entrepreneurial kids. All I ever knew was being entrepreneurial or being an entrepreneur. I had normal jobs and entrepreneurial ventures. When I was twenty, I got involved in a company called College Pro Painters. College Pro went on to become the world’s largest residential house painting company. The CEO and founder of College Pro, whom I’m still in touch with now, is Greig Clark.
I used to say, and I remember hearing it in 1986 when I got involved, “To build an amazing company, it has to be a little bit more than a business and a little bit less than a religion. It has to be in the zone of a cult.” I was like, “That’s cool.” It was like, “That’s amazing. I get it. Cult is culture. That’s so cool.” I was twenty and I didn’t understand what the bad parts of a cult were. I thought that anything that we could borrow from cults, religions, or groups was really cool.
In 1998, I went to an Amway session. I have no desire to ever get involved in Amway. To watch a 5,000-people session being run, I was so blown away. By the end of the session, I was standing talking to the CEO of Amway International. I was like, “What happened to me? I got pulled in again.” Leaving there, I built another company with Autobody.
I left there after about four years and came on as the 14th employee at a company that we built out called 1-800-GOT-JUNK?. We built that out to 3,100 employees in 6 years. We were on Oprah and lots of press. We ranked two years in a row as the number one company to work for in British Columbia. In 2022, we’re number two in all of Canada to work for. We had this amazing strong culture.
Since then, I coached lots of companies that have gone on to build fantastic cultures. I coached Nurse Next Door who went on to be number one in VC. Two companies went on to be number one in Australia. One that is number two on Glassdoor. Another is number twelve on Glassdoor. I’ve been paid to speak in 26 countries about building culture and I’ve used the phrase, “A little bit more than a business, a little bit less than a religion,” until I saw The Vow.
Now, every time it starts coming out of my mouth, it makes me sick. I’m scared of, “Did we go too far?” Sarah, I reached out to you even way before talking about the show. Before you started your podcast, I wanted to hire you to come to work for one of my companies because you’re such a great recruiter. We have this group and I could bring you into the group. You’d be an amazing recruiter as long as we could get close, but we never cross that line. Where I am is toggling.
You’re the perfect person to talk to about this because the people who do run corporations that are unhealthy, culty, toxic, or whatever you want to call it, wouldn’t be able to come on this show and have an honest conversation. When you say that you feel sick saying it and you feel that’s not right,” that’s a good indication.
It’s also an indication of you’re the type of person that’s not going to go down the road abusing the powers that you have as a result.
I don’t think I ever abuse them cognizantly, but I’m curious whether we abuse them without knowing, thinking that what we were doing was building an amazing culture. Now, we’re looking back through a different lens going, “Was that okay when we push core values constantly?” When you mention core values in every meeting, celebrate core values, high-five on core values, and talk about core values in a daily huddle, is that culty, or is that a really good company?
Let’s figure it out right now on this episode.
These are the questions. This is so interesting.
Before you woke up, what were some of the things you said you should have done before you had that recognition that it wasn’t a good thing?
One very early thing in my career was when I did something for the company and then was gaslit. I didn’t understand it until The Vow. I felt bad and pissed off at that time, but I didn’t understand it until twenty years later. Nippy, you’ll probably identify with this. It’s 1993 and the Toronto Blue Jays were in game seven of the World Series and the College Pro International President’s Dinner was on the same night as game seven. My dad had four tickets for game seven. I said, “I can’t go to the game because if I go to the game then I’m going to miss the President’s Dinner.”
I gave my ticket to my uncle and I went to the President’s Dinner. That night at the dinner, I was talking to the CEO and I told him what I did. He goes, “You’re an idiot. I totally would’ve gone to the game.” I was only 26 years old. I didn’t know if he was serious or what was going on. I did something that I didn’t want to do for the good of the company because I didn’t want to be shunned, and then it felt like I had done the wrong thing.
I love College Pro. I still talk about College Pro Painters to this day. It’s an amazing company. I learned everything from it. When we were building 1-800-GOT-JUNK?, on purpose, I did stuff to create an amazing culture. I wanted to create a magnet for employees so everyone wore branded clothing. We taught people that when they sit at an event, they were to put their jackets on so the logo on the back of the jacket gets seen the most. We gave everybody nicknames. You guys know Christopher Bennett. His nickname is High Gloss. He’ll kill me for saying that out loud, but I gave him the nickname and his group because he’s high gloss.
We had sayings up on our company walls. We pushed out the press and leveraged the media. We really understood how to get the message out and attract people in. I don’t think any of that was bad, but we certainly ostracized people in a way. If they didn’t come to a company event, we certainly like, “That guy doesn’t wear the blue wig enough. He doesn’t wear the jacket. He didn’t get the nickname.”
I don’t think anything was done on purpose. I certainly look back now and say, “If you’re an introvert, you wouldn’t have loved our culture as much. If you were a good person doing a 9:00 to 5:00 and you wanted to go home to your family, and if you didn’t come out to an event handing out blue wigs to cheer on the Canucks, you would’ve been ostracized.” Those were all things that I look back at now.
There are some ways to think about it. I believe when you watch someone like Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant, they’re very extreme to most people and what it takes to be successful, yet they understand what it means to be successful. They create an atmosphere and culture that most people who live in a mediocre realm or less than successful realm are going to look at and say, “That’s extreme and culty,” because they would never do that.
It sounds like there’s a level of commitment and culture you’re trying to achieve and a sense of excellence, which puts the exploration in a realm of capitalism versus cults. It’s because the essence of an entrepreneur wants to create that entrepreneur to ensure their success. It’s the same way as a coach is. You do the same thing every day at practice. You do it hard and that’s why a coach is there to push you to do it.
I didn’t ever want to build an average company. I wasn’t striving to be average. You keep mentioning sports. The assistant coach for the Vancouver Canucks hockey team was Mike Johnson at that time. He and I were trading ideas with each other on how to take culture into the organization. I was teaching him what we were doing in business for the Canucks. He was teaching me what they were doing with the Canucks to bring it into the business world. They totally crossed over. I was down visiting their offices. I was trying to understand how to build that magnetic force into your company. I know that we didn’t do anything wrong on purpose, but I’m curious about what companies do.
That’s where the conversation has room to be stretched to the thinking. It’s like we have this paradigm. You can maybe make an argument that has come accepted in the capitalistic world. I had a conversation with a friend of mine about how they live in Europe. They live life in a way that’s very different than entrepreneurs. For me, what would make it bad and when does it go bad? Right, Sarah?
It’s interesting you bring up Europe because I’ve worked with companies in 26 countries and they don’t love the North American culture idea.
I don’t love it. I see that it works.
In researching for this episode, I was looking at other companies that have that moniker like the cult of Apple. By the way, we had a former coach who was an Apple consultant with an Apple tattoo on their back.
Two of our GOT-JUNK employees. One of our employees, Jesse Corzan, had a permanent tattoo of the 1-800-GOT-JUNK? logo. Nick Wood, one of our franchisees had the logo permanently tattooed as well. We thought it was a badge of honor. We’re like, “That’s amazing. Look at these guys.”
It’s definitely extreme. There’s an article I read about what specifically about it that makes it culty. This is one of the things across the board with all our episodes when we look at MLMs and now corporations. Is what you’re signing up for what you’re getting? Is there any dishonesty? When you commit to working for something like Apple or any company, is it laid out for you of this is what it’s going to be?
That’s part of the thing. I don’t know if it’s shitty, culty, or whatever you want to call it. When you’re signing up, what would be more ethical and not culty is to say, “This is what’s going to be expected of you. You’re going to have to put your family and everything else other than work as a lower priority than working at Mac,” or whatever it is. One of the things that are problematic is that it doesn’t happen that way. It’s like somebody who’s groomed for sex trafficking. Oftentimes, it happens as they’re signing up for a modeling class. The person who’s running the modeling class and planning on sex trafficking is not telling them that.
I learned a concept called The Reverse Cell. This is what I did when I hired Kimbal Musk, Elon’s brother, back in 1993. I told him how hard it was going to be for him to be a franchisee for College Pro Painters. He almost didn’t believe me. I made the job sound so challenging and so brutal, “If you do it, you’re going to have all these rewards.” He’s like, “I need to do it.” Sure enough, he did it and he was like, “This is really hard.” I did that all the time. I told people how brutal it was going to be but they still wanted in because we did a good job at making sure the magnet was strong.
That’s key to making it not. Everyone knows in Vancouver is where Lululemon was founded. Everyone in Lululemon takes Landmark. We know that now, but I don’t know if it was out front that if you’re going to work for Lululemon, you have to take this personal development. I want to do a little section deviation caveat about personal development. In my prep for this, I spoke to Janja Lalich and Pat Ryan, two of our experts that we speak to about such things. Both of them said that one of the major problems they saw with the corporate culture that is culty is that there’s this emphasis on these workshops. I know that you coach and teach workshops. I saw you in one of your videos with a whiteboard. I was super triggered because I’m so allergic to that stuff, not to say that it’s all bad.
You have a whiteboard, Sarah.
I even have a whiteboard, but the whole vibe of it is ugh to me. I know you’re a good person and we’ll get to that in a minute. My point is that the problem with that and things like Landmark and other training seminars is that they bring up a lot of personal stuff. It’s not appropriate in a workplace for your leaders, boss, managers, or whatever to know about your childhood wounds.
That’s an area we never went to. We would coach people on their personal development plans, goals, and dreams. We never went anywhere on their past, issues, or psyche. We made everybody watch the movie The Secret a couple of times. We brought people from The Secret to speak like John Assaraf and John Demartini. We thought there was some powerful stuff there around quantum physics and quantum mechanics. We’d never gone anywhere weird with it for sure. We certainly didn’t have collateral on anybody except after a night out of drinking. Mostly, they had collateral on me at that point.
That is a problem in general like blurred boundaries. As a caveat, we want to say to our audience that we’re not saying, “This company is a cult.” We want to give people tools to analyze things that they’re in or have been part of so they can decide for themselves if they want to continue, “Is this a healthy environment? Is this what I want to do or not?” We’re going to do a whole other series on the LGATs, the Large-Group Awareness Trainings. The other main problem with workshops, in general, is that it’s a very broad stroke and very painted by numbers.
From what I understand with Landmark, there are a couple of hundred people in a ballroom. You’re all going through the same process that can be very deep, triggering, bring up trauma, and all sorts of stuff. If someone has had a bunch of trauma, they can’t be up on a stage talking about some personal thing. There’s a problem with the personal development component of what most of these culty companies insist on doing. If we’re going to look at the red flags for people to analyze, that’d be a big one.
What I hear you saying is there needs to be an explicit ask and expectations are clear on the subjects or the people like, “Here’s what we’re going to do. Here’s how we’re going to do it,” as opposed to subversive.
We would have all of our employees wear corporate-branded clothing. We would give them these fleece jackets that had massive letters on the back. We knew we were getting advertising off of it. We weren’t forcing them to wear it. They were probably nudged and pushed to wear it. We saw that as great guerrilla marketing. Is that culty?
The question is what happens if you don’t wear it? Do people get shunned, ostracized, called out, or teased?
That’s where there could be some gray area of, “I want approval from my boss. I want them to see me as someone who’s committed and a hard worker. If I don’t wear this, are they going to think less of me?” It also might be true that you’re not bought in.
In any company, there is an authority ranking structure. The problem is that if somebody comes in and wants to please and is willing to do things to go up the ranks, to a certain extent, it is on them. Also, as a leader, they’re specifically choosing people who are going to be obedient and fall in line. That’s where the abuse of power comes from. It’s when someone is going to hire someone who they know they can manipulate so that they can have their needs met as the leader.
I don’t think a company would ever excel if that’s who they were trying to hire either. You don’t do well.
Also, if you’re communicating as a leader that if you don’t do this, this doesn’t happen, or a certain cancellation, or they don’t get to move up if they don’t behave in a certain way.
From the research I did, it seems a lot of companies have a whole process around the enrollment or the hiring process, to begin with. There are things that you look for in a potential recruit right from the beginning. To tie it into NXIVM for a second, we had the sashes. If there’s a 30-person training, there would be at least 1 or maybe 2 people who would be like, “You want me to wear a sash?” Usually, somebody who was already very successful in their life and already an entrepreneur was like, “F*ck this,” or they had grown up as Jehovah’s Witness or in a setting and they saw the red flags.
Either way, one of those people would say that and we would let them leave. Keith would say, “It’s good that you got them out because they’d be a bad apple.” He’d call the sash as the guardian at the gates. We thought it was because they couldn’t pay tribute to what he had built because the sash is where the ranking system of one’s growth is. If they weren’t willing to call him Vanguard, it meant he was suppressive. My point is that now I see it as he’s weeding out the non-compliance. He was weeding out somebody who wasn’t going to go along with it and be more malleable.
I was taught back at College Pro Painters and I carried this forward with virtually every brand that I’ve tried to build into these magnets. One of the traits you hire for is affiliation. People that want to be a part of a group. Those are people that were a part of their church group, student council, and team. They were scouts, beavers, or girl guides. If you can get people that like to be a part of those groups, which was me. I was all in my whole life. I said this to you at some point, Sarah. If I had met you two, I would have been so deep into this because it was so up my alley.
I would have been chasing down the next green sash or whatever was above. I was the top cub, the top scout, the top of the student council, and the president of my fraternity. It was like, “Bring it on. I wanted to be in all of it,” and I didn’t see any of that. I’ve taught companies to recruit for that because if you hire people that want to be a part of a group, they’ll wear your branded clothing, they’ll come to your retreats and social hours, and they’ll be at the company picnics. I didn’t and don’t see anything wrong with that unless you’re doing it to the detriment of their family. I still think that’s a good trait, isn’t It?
I would say absolutely.
I have the trait too so I think it’s good. There are downsides to it so let’s figure that out.
If you look at a great politicians, they see the office as something that they serve. They become great statesmen for whatever it is that they’re doing. The bad ones want the office for themselves and the office is to serve them. For a narcissist and all those people, they have a front of this group that’s all these things and he’s serving it. If you’re truly a good leader, you recognize how you serve it. Companies should be a reflection or take on the personality of a leader done right. You’re probably not imbuing it with any abusiveness because there have to be structures and hierarchies in systems and society that do serve the purpose that they’re set up for. I don’t think what you’re doing is bad.
I don’t think so either. What was bad for me is slightly different for you Cameron because you didn’t get into a cult. I’m really glad I didn’t meet you in 2010 because I absolutely would’ve recruited you or vice versa. I’ve had to do a lot of self-reflection in my healing process, but my desire for community, to belong, and be a part of this thing blinded me. That’s what I had to come to terms with. Because I was so bought into that whole thing, I was like, “That can’t be bad.”
Also, you were used.
We’re looking at the whole dynamic of the corporate culture. I know you haven’t seen it, Cameron, but there’s a movie The Circle with Emma Watson and Tom Hanks, which I saw when I was in NXIVM.
We did but we didn’t finish it though.
We didn’t finish it because I don’t think it’s an excellent movie. She joins this company that’s like Apple and she walks in. It’s super tech, community, and supportive. They support her dad who’s got MS and it’s like, “You are family now.” I can totally relate to her. I would be fully bought in and I’ve had experiences when I walked into EA, Electronic Arts, here in Vancouver doing voiceover and motion capture, and seeing the cafeteria and everyone playing soccer at lunch. It’s a vibe and it’s like, “This is amazing.” Isn’t EA amazing?
Also, the Lululemon headquarters is down in Kitsilano.
We took people for tours to their location and we would’ve people come into the tours of our 1-800-GOT-JUNK? location to show them what amazing it was. That idea was spectacular. I’ve been to the head offices of Google and Microsoft. I’ll tell you, Google is a great culture. Microsoft is like a morgue. If you walk through Microsoft, there’s no energy and enthusiasm. In Google, you don’t want to leave.
That’s why I don’t use any Microsoft products.
Google decided culture was critical and Microsoft never had the discussion. Microsoft is always focused on the product.
It’s definitely bleh. It’s for people who are bleh. Sorry for my friends who use Microsoft, but you are bleh.
Their offices are all single little offices. They’re like little tombs or little crematoriums, morgues, or whatever they are. They’re like these tombs and single-person beige offices in these halls. If you walk into Google, it’s open. There’s energy and it’s cool and fun for people. It’s the same people and it’s all computer engineers. When people say, “It’s the cult of Google,” I think it’s a really great company. I want to know where that line is and where they go too far.
One of the lines is when your work life becomes the absolute priority to the detriment of your other values, and that’s not what you planned on. You get to the point where you can’t succeed in the company unless you make that change.
That’s every lawyer.
Wouldn’t you say that excellence demands a certain amount of your time?
If you are agreeing to that from the beginning, that’s the part that’s problematic. When you’re saying I am committing to this and I know that I’m putting it first above anything else forever.
The caveat to that is let’s say Cameron hires us and he enrolls us into the vision. We then start to recognize, “I really want to do this.” I’m two years in and I recognize, “I need to spend X amount of more hours a week because I want to achieve this thing.”
Do you want to or do you feel like you have to? Are you coerced into it?
Even as we’re going and we’re building what we’re building, Sarah, we start to recognize, “I want to do this. That’s going to require a little bit more time.”
We realize that takes more time and we decide that we’re going to do it. There isn’t somebody above us dangling something and abusing their power to extract something for us for their benefit.
Employees can quit and go to another company. It’s much easier to quit a company and go somewhere else than it is to quit a cult.
If you can’t quit or if you feel like you can’t quit or there’s some major downside.
I’ve always had an issue with “just quit.” It’s like, “I can’t move.” No, you can move.
There’s some force or abuse of power that goes on, and the other person doesn’t know It.
I’ll share something that has divided families with company cultures. It is similar to what happens inside a cult like when you were with NXIVM. It’s all of the acronyms and phrases that mean something inside of the company or the cult. We had all of these things that we did and phrases that we used. If I said that we had a daily huddle near the garage and we were all wearing our blue wigs saying who does what by when. Finishing with our huddle, you’d be like, “What are you talking about?” The spouses and friends felt like outsiders to the insiders of that culture.
Also, if you feel better about yourself because you have that dialogue or that lingo like there’s righteousness.
No. I was excited because everybody else was in these dead-end jobs and I always liked the companies I was building. I’ve always admired companies that had strong company cultures.
Let me devil’s advocate that. I hate to keep bringing it back to sports teams, but it’s a good thing. I’ll give you an example, “Strong right 82 cross-shoot Z motion on A.” That’s a language we all have when we get into a huddle and then clap and then go run a play. We go home, take showers, and go with our families. We don’t even talk about strong right 82 cross-shoot.
That’s why football teams score more than soccer teams because they all run around in the field without having a huddle. You need a huddle to know what you’re doing out there.
We had a huddle. You saw the huddle in The Vow. We’d get together, put our arms around each other, and say, “We are committed to our success every day.”
You have a similar atmosphere. Does it bleed into the personal life and then some people take their work home?
Yes, for sure. The good people would or the people that wanted to excel in any company take their work home. For our daily huddle, you could go on YouTube and look at 1-800-GOT-JUNK? Daily Huddle. It had been written up in my books. We emulated what was done inside of football teams. We followed what Walmart would do with their daily huddles, which is culty. We had a company cheer. We knew that we were raising the energy of people. We did it at 11:00 in the morning because it was the first period when people’s energy dropped so we wanted to give them a spike before lunch. It was all on purpose.
I know this is true. 11:00 is that witching hour.
2:00 is the next one.
We saw Out For Blood In Silicone Valley. Have you seen that Cameron?
Check it out.
I don’t know if that’s culty or fraud.
Here’s what I want to bring up. When they showed the corporate culture, it’s both. When they showed the culture, they had these retreats and that was Vanguard week. There are people coming up on the stage and rah-rah-ing the audience and getting everyone into it. It sounds a little bit what you described Google as.
We had Brian at 1-800-GOT-JUNK? rode into the Western Bayshore for our annual conference riding on a real live camel. We brought the camel in from Alberta in 2007 because we wanted to talk about the humps and the ups and downs of being a franchisee. Again, we thought that was an amazing fun stunt.
Going back to Theranos for a second. She was lying from the beginning. She owned it. In the documentary, she was saying, “I’m going to fake it until you make it.” That’s a major problem if the person at the top is presenting one thing and doing another. All of those things that you’ve mentioned aren’t problems in and of themselves. It’s like, are you doing it though for another purpose?
If Cameron is starting his business, he has a culture that thinks they’re in line with the vision and Cameron knows that’s not true, there you go.
I’ve codified something. I have a registered trademark called Vivid Vision, which is a 4 or 5-page description of your company three years in the future. We try to share that with all the employees, customers, and suppliers. Everyone is bought into the future into the dream and excited about what we’re building. That’s culty, but it’s also powerful and it aligns people. It’s amazing.
I watched your TED Talk about that and I have to tell you, I’m pretty sure that Keith saw that TED Talk and stole it because he has this thing called Infinity Goals, which is very similar to your Vivid Vision. We were always writing out our 3-year and 5-year in first person like, “I wake up. I do yoga on my balcony overlooking the water. I have my raw food chef preparing breakfast. My children are tutored in Mandarin.”
Cameron, you contributed to our curriculum.
I can tell you where Keith learned it. He would’ve learned it from Edgar because I taught it to Edgar in 2007. Originally, it was called A Painted Picture and Edgar heard about it in 2007, ’08, and ’09 from me. He probably would’ve related it to Keith.
Isn’t this crazy? That interwovenness of NXIVM and Cameron Herold. Now that you’ve been through this experience and you’ve watched The Vow, if people are in a corporation, what would you say are some of the red flags to look for from the beginning with the steps along the way or the behaviors or attitude of the leadership or whatnot?
We’re lucky now because we have platforms like Glassdoor and Indeed where we can read comments of prior employees and we can see what people on the outside are saying, which we don’t have with what you went through. You don’t have that platform, but you can go on Indeed and read what all the former employees have been saying about that jerk of a leader or that horrible company. That would be one place to go for sure.
I never heard of it. That’s great.
I would for sure try to understand what the company vacation policy and our policy is. I’ve always given all my employees five weeks of paid vacation and I make sure they use it. I push them to take the days off. You want to make sure that you have that healthy balance.
That’s a good red flag. That’s quantified. Is there a place where you can air your grievances without being gaslit?
It’s tough because so often if the company gets bigger, they try to go to HR. All of a sudden, you got politics creeping in because now you’re talking to HR and you’re not talking to me. People are worried to talk to their boss because if they do, their boss has now got a black mark against them that might not be good. It’s really tough in the corporate world. I’m not sure that there’s a way around that other than working for good people who care about you as humans. We know the saying, “People don’t quit companies. They quit their boss.”
This is a fine line because one of the things that are problematic is if you can’t express a different opinion without being punished or conformity is the only option, then that’s a huge red flag. Also, if you feel like you can’t speak freely.
That’s true sadly of a lot of larger companies. My fiancé used to work for Ticketmaster and was always talking about the politics inside of the organization where senior leadership would never truly say what they felt because they were always having to try to stick handle around all these other issues. I would die or get slaughtered in the corporate world. At one point, I coached the CEO of Sprint.
We talked about WeWork in the preview, but he went on to become the chairman of WeWork after the whole falling out at WeWork. I would’ve gotten destroyed at Sprint because I could never be a political person. I’m always in this entrepreneurial environment. In a lot of companies, once you get past 200 employees, politics is sadly part of the culture. It sucks having to be guarded around your boss. That sadly happens. There are great companies out there that don’t have that.
I haven’t done enough of a deep dive into WeWork. I know there’s a series about it and people have asked for an episode of it. Nippy had a membership here for a while that ended when COVID started. I love going there. They had kombucha on tap. It was such a dynamic place to work and share space with people. It seems like it came down to some problems with the leadership. I haven’t done the deep dive on that guy. Transparency, honesty, and ethics at the helm are what’s key. In our case, when you have somebody who’s claiming to be the most ethical and honorable man in the world and is quite the opposite of that, anything can be made okay under that false premise.
You wouldn’t be able to know that. If we believe or project our honesty, good values, and idealism onto the leaders, which is something that happens to understand projection and we talked about that in our episode of Mark Vicente. If a leader knows that, it can always be flipped back if you are to express something that is a concern or something negative. It can always be put on the person as just a projection. The thing that I want our audience to know is that we’re always projecting. This is something I learned in NXIVM ironically, but it’s not from that. It’s from Therapy and Basic Psychology 101.
I’d be looking at you right now, Cameron, and you’re sitting back and I’m going, “He’s interested,” or I could be like, “He’s bored.” My projection is I will never know. If you’re projecting, if I’m saying something is not right here or I have a concern about X, Y, and Z, the leadership can always say that’s a projection. That’s one form of gaslighting. What did you say to me earlier, Nippy? This is something we heard all the time in NXIVM. If I said, “I’m upset about something,” Nippy said, “We have tools for that.” In other words, you can work on that. Go work on that because your reaction is the problem, not the thing you’re reacting to.
I was asked if an employee wants to work on little side business projects of their own, should you allow them to do that? My quick answer was yes because they’re going to anyway. If you don’t allow them to do it, then they’re having to lie to you. We have to let our employees run side businesses. We have to let our employees have normal lives. We have to understand that sometimes the reason they show up in the morning and they’re not bought in or they’re not seeming interested is because their spouse is fighting with them, having a problem with their kid, or struggling with depression. There is all this other crap. Leaders tend to force the company values or the company agenda first without thinking about the human. That’s something to watch out for.
If you’re the kind of person like Cameron and me, we like these groups and we like to excel in the groups. That can potentially blind us to perhaps not-so-altruistic intentions of the leader. That’s one of my takeaways here with this.
It’s interesting. Even in the franchising world, one of the areas that many franchisors are misaligned. I was lucky to work with two of the best and our franchisees also made a lot of money. In often cases, the franchisor is only trying to do two things, sell more franchises and get their franchisees to do a lot more in revenue because they make royalties off of that. They’re not focusing on helping the franchisee make a profit, and they’re driving the franchisee’s relationships. Avoid your family, work harder, work weekends, work nights, come to the company picnic, fly the flag, or drive the truck only for the sake of the franchisor. It’s dangerous too.
As a tip to our audience who are trying to figure out where they stand with a particular group or company, have they done a thorough background check? Nippy was doing some classes with Grant Cardone for real estate. Somebody pointed out that he’s also a Scientologist but he’s not upfront about that.
I bought the real estate book then I recognized every other purchase, he was selling his sales pitches. He wasn’t providing. It was, “I purchased my sales pitch and pitch my sales pitch,” where I could have gotten the same intel on YouTube. There are then aggressive follow-up phone calls from people.
I heard that guy calling you asking to sign up for something. Once I’ve been in the sale, I’m like, “Bar for Rama.”
All of his programs are leading you into the next program. Right now, his entire funnel is leading into all of his real estate deals. Everything is leading to participating in his real estate deals. Max out your credit card and invest in real estate. I’ve shared the stage with him three times at major conferences where we’ve both spoken at the conferences. It’s horrifyingly scary.
He also shames you for not doing it. He’s like, “Where are you going to put your money? Here and here?” He tells you why they’re all bad.
He doesn’t deliver a lot of content on the stage. He’s a great business guy, but dangerous.
The book that I bought was $199 or whatever. It wasn’t much. It has great beginner’s content on real estate and the ecosystem and stuff. Anything past that was the same thing that I did. It had the same feel.
He’s also teaching that you don’t have the skills to do real estate, but if you put your money into his real estate deals, then you’ll do well.
That’s the thing. There’s a trick. There’s always a bait and switch. You’re just buying my book. At the end of the book, you’re going to want to do more. It’s the same thing that I’ve seen with Landmark. Again, we’ll do a deeper dive, but you’re taking this three-day weekend workshop and in the end, if you really want to grow, you’re going to do the next one and the next one.
I would love to do that inner work and personal development. I’m terrified that I would get sucked into the next and the next.
Somebody said to us when we left, “It’s one thing to take a workshop like that and use the tools in your life. It’s when the tools become your life is the problem.” That’s what I see with all of these things, especially the large group awareness training or the seminars. We’ve talked a lot about this in our last two seasons. What’s the hook and what does it end up being? If it is a lifelong program, you could never graduate from NXIVM. There was always another sash.
Is that why all these groups are pointing to the 1 or 2 people who are uber-successful in their real life? Christian Science must be good because Tom Cruise is a member.
They did that with me too. It’s like, “Look at Sarah. She used to be living in a basement suite, an aspiring actress, and now she is making six figures. If Sarah can do it, anyone can do It.”
We always did it with our franchisees. I was one of the franchisees that they pointed to at College Pro Painters has been so successful. My sister was super successful. Strangely enough, our number one franchisee was a former College Pro Painters person that I brought into 1-800-GOT-JUNK? who became the biggest franchisee. I was always pointing to them as role models and leaders. Not that you couldn’t get there because now we’ve probably got 50 franchisees that are doing what Paul used to do when I was pointing to them.
You weren’t lying. You can get there.
However, there was a bit of the fake until you make it. I didn’t know. We didn’t have anybody else there except him. I was pretty sure I could get people there, but I didn’t know for sure. If they followed all these systems, and most did I guess, you don’t always know.
In our situation, they knew for sure that you probably weren’t going to be able to do it based on diagnostics. Wouldn’t you say, Sarah?
Keith even said that in MLMs, Multi-Level Marketing, and pyramid schemes, the average person can bring in 2.6 people to anything. That’s the number in sales. That seemed to be a salesperson, which is where you could make money. You had to bring in 6 people within 6 months. There’s a timeframe. If you went past that or if you only got 5 in the sixth month, your next six months had already begun. It was very difficult. There was a handful of us that were salespeople, and I happened to be one of those people, unfortunately. It’s not a skill that I’m proud of in this context, but it is a skill. Maybe one day you will convince me to come work for your team.
Your podcast is doing too well now.
We’ll see. I like to multitask.
It is doing great.
You never know. This is in my book too, Cameron, where Keith admitted to me that it was all about creating the illusion of hope. It’s my last conversation with him.
I don’t imagine you saying that, Cameron.
I did listen to your Audiobook. It was fantastic. It was really strong. The Vow scared me to wonder if we’d ever crossed the line. I don’t think we ever did. The danger is that it could cross. Companies could become, either out of greed or out of fear where the CEO is desperate because they have everything on the line, or you could cross the line. You could go too far with culture.
We’ve had a few guests who are in positions of power, and I’ve listened to a couple of people that I know. Because of what’s going on politically, they’ve stood up for certain things. As a result of standing up for certain things, they’ve accumulated an audience that follows them and reads their articles now. I’ve listened to them and consistently, through a lot of them, they are all sensitive to the newfound power that they have. What’s your responsibility when you realize you have an influence over someone that you don’t necessarily want or quite understand?
You’re going to have a learning curve. Let’s say, for instance, you’re in a position where someone likes your seminar and they are willing to compromise maybe themselves, their time, or whatever to get your attention and you see that. What’s your responsibility? Does that make sense? Natalie Bolz Weber was talking about even how she looked at someone can be misinterpreted.
If it can happen, then it happens.
The fact that you’re having the conversations and these people are having these conversations is an indication of you’re not the person that wants to abuse or is interested in abusing that position.
Not at all, but I am definitely the person that still believes that great company culture is from the outside and people might say it’s a cult from the inside. We have to be careful.
That’s a good segue to your cult thing, Sarah. What’s the bad thing?
We were taught in our first five days that people are going to say that we were in a cult and we were armed with the response. When someone is accusing somebody of something, you say what it is. If they’re killing people, they’re murderers. If they’re stealing then they’re thieves. Saying it’s a cult is saying it’s bad without saying what the bad thing is. We were like, “What’s bad about what we’re doing? We were wearing sashes. We’re happy. We take long walks in the neighborhood and the neighbors don’t like that.” It’s a culture.
We play volleyball at night. We don’t sit and watch reality TV.
I’m in a cult. It’s great. It’s a cult of happy successful people and I love my cult. That was my response. Nippy, normally we do word salad in the outro, but I feel like you should share your word salad with Cameron because it’s a good segue.
It’s a prickly little word, which begs the question, what is a cult? Does that imply something is bad? Is it always bad? If you murder someone and you call them a murderer, do you not? When you call something a cult, you call them that because you cannot specify the bad thing. If a group of people gets together with a common vision and we call them a cult, in essence, we hurt culture. Ultimately, we hurt society and man’s creation.
That’s a strong word salad. That’s Thousand Islands.
It’s the kind of thing that Keith would say. I even said this in our first episode with Steven Hassan. I said that about an acting group that I was a part of and we are going to do a full episode on this group at some point. Before I did NXIVM, I was like, “I don’t take that program anymore. It’s a cult.” Afterward, it’s like, “I shouldn’t do that,” and then I start to say things like, “It’s very insular. It pushes the boundaries. Once you’re in it, you feel very righteous.” It’s like this is us versus them. Little did I know, I was nailing the checklist of what constitutes a cult, but I wasn’t using the word cult anymore because I didn’t think it was good. Keith basically gaslit us to not use the word because of the connotations, which is smart if we know the connotations.
It armed us with a good defense.
It was a good defense if it was true that we were a humanitarian group trying to do all the idealistic things we thought we were trying to do, and Keith was who he said he was, then that would be true. The fact is that it wasn’t true and it was a defense strategy. It was a deflection.
It may have been the intention in the first couple of years, but he sure went off the rails afterward.
No. He planned this from the beginning. We have lots of data to prove that now.
One of the things Sarah and I were talking about is, are these things conscious or unconscious. In Keith and Keith’s case, it was totally a conscious thing.
It’s very well planned out. There are leaders of other groups that we’ve explored who I do think had good intentions at the beginning, and then the power got to their heads. Women were being thrown at them. It’s going to have an effect if you’re not a strong grounded person. That’s very different than a sociopath who’s planning out how they’re going to screw people out of their money and have a fresh supply of you know what.
That would be very true inside a company as well because the vast majority of leaders use company culture to build a great company, that’s what they want to do. It is that sliver that they’re cognizant they’re using it and abusing it.
That’s a great note to end on.
I look forward to meeting up.
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- Pat Ryan – A Little Bit Culty Podcast Past Episode
- Mark Vicente – A Little Bit Culty Podcast Past Episode
- Steven Hassan – A Little Bit Culty Podcast Past Episode