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How To Change A Culture

I was on a Zoom call last week with a fantastic group of ‘Wellbeing Managers’. Part of their role within their organisation is to head up or be responsible for the wellbeing of the people who make up their respective organisations and we were discussing the challenges that they were facing post-Covid with their staff. (Spoiler alert; there are quite a few, but that’s a whole other blog post.)

At the very end of the call, a woman who is in charge of wellbeing at a Government department asked me this question, which I paraphrase; “What do you do when you are in an organisation with a culture and a history of ‘take a concrete pill and harden the fuck up’? How do you get them to get them to understand wellbeing and take it seriously?

Big question, big mission. She then joked “If you could just sum it up for me in a sentence that would be great!” And I said I could sum it up for her in one word;


This applies to companies such as the one she works in but it also applies to families, sports organisations, local councils, countries or even the world. The way you change a culture is through stories. When you think about it, you create a culture through stories, right? We’ve done that since the dawn of time, including your parents telling you a whole lot of stories that have shaped who you are. You change a culture by changing the stories.

In 1999, mental health was a topic that was rarely discussed. Mental illness was relegated to the psychiatric wards that were full of ‘crazy’ people. You were either ok or you were crazy, those were your options. And if you were ‘crazy’ then you tried really hard to bury it down so that people didn’t notice.

Then, in New Zealand, a series of TV ads began running on the major networks. These ads starred a famous New Zealander, World Cup winning All Black rugby player, John Kirwan. A man’s man. Except, these ads were a bit different, in them John was saying that he had depression and he’d been struggling with it for a while now. *Audible gasp*

This was a revelation. John Kirwan wasn’t a pansy. He wasn’t soft. He was one of the best All Blacks to every strap on the boots! And here he was, admitting that he had a mental illness, to the entire country! It was a powerful story. His subsequent book was full of powerful stories and people listened.

Men started acknowledging that mental illness was ‘a thing’. They ‘didn’t have it themselves’, obviously! But it was at least a thing now. His story changed the way an entire nation looked at mental health.

A few years ago I was privileged to be able to speak to the entirety of the New Zealand Navy (minus the people at sea) over the course of two days. I was good. I told good stories. People listened. They listened so well that following my talks there was something like a 1,500% increase in visits to the base psychologist. Powerful.

But I don’t take most of the credit for that increase, I give that credit to Jack Steer. Jack was the Chief of the New Zealand Navy at the time, the top dog. He was genuinely concerned about the rate of suicide within the Navy as well as the high rates of depression, anxiety and stress. He cared. So, I asked him to back me up…

At the end of my speech he got up and explained to his people that no one would be punished for admitting to being mentally unwell and there were many resources available to help them. In fact, he said that not only would there be no punishment, lost promotions, demotions or anything like it, that if you sought help for your mental health you would actually be MORE likely to get a promotion. You would be showing yourself as the type of person who tackles their problems with honesty and candor and you would be stronger and more prepared because of it.

He delivered his short speech with vulnerability, love and care. People listened. People changed their behaviour because of it. A culture changed because of it.

I also spoke at a private all girls school to about 600 students and staff. I gave my speech, they applauded and I spoke with the Principal afterwards. She told me that she loved my talk and began to explain how she wished the girls knew that when she was their age she had anorexia and depression. I asked the obvious follow-up question; “Why don’t they?” And she proceeded to explain in detail how she was their leader and had to be strong for them etc, etc, blah blah blah. So I spent the next five minutes explaining to her the incredible power of brutal honesty, vulnerability and leading with love. 

During the following assembly she got up and gave a short speech about how things were for her when she was their age. The week after that she sent me an email; “Jimi, girls have been lining up at my door every morning tea and lunch this week, all wanting to talk to me about mental health.”

She changed the culture with ONE story. 

If you want to change a culture with story, the fastest way is top down. Get the most high profile, powerful people in that culture to tell their story first. It gives everyone underneath permission to tell theirs as well. Foster a culture of brutally honest stories, not just about mental illness, but about mental wellness, mental fitness.

This works with someone like the Managing Director of Xero New Zealand, Craig Hudson publicly blogging his mental health story. I helped change a culture by making my story, and Mental Health, more public by getting masses of media around Lilo The Waikato and The World’s Biggest Waterslide. But telling stories works in changing any culture, Princess Diana holding the hands of an AIDS victim changed the narrative of how the world perceived the disease. Massive celebrity concerts and awareness campaigns change the stories told about topics constantly.

Sometimes top down isn’t possible though. Sometimes it’s those at the top that are the problem. That’s OK, it’s a little harder and takes a little more time, but bottom up can work just as well. It’s working right now with protests around the world calling out police brutality. It works with grass-roots movements around the world. It works by one seemingly ‘nobody’ telling their personal story.

And remember, ‘culture’ is relative. The country has a culture, the province has a culture, your organisation has a culture and so does your sporting club, car club and most importantly your family. You change a culture one story at a time, one person at a time. I challenge you to change (or strengthen) your culture by telling your story. Your story is powerful, please speak it and speak it loud and with love. You can do it one-on-one to people in your culture, you can write a blog post, make a video, give a speech or even amplify someone else’s story. Being the ‘first follower‘ is one of the most powerful things you can do, it validates other people’s stories and helps elevate their voices.

Yes. Telling your story can be scary. Many people are afraid of the repercussions they might face or judgement from others. I certainly was afraid of those things the first time I told my story. I had serious concerns; clients wouldn’t want to work with me anymore, my friends would not want to hang out with me, people would ridicule me and a million other worries that may or may not come true.

The simple truth was that none of that happened. In fact, the exact opposite happened. People were amazingly supportive, they amplified my voice and my story, I made more friends, got more clients and no one ridiculed me for being open and honest and speaking my truth. The number one thing that resulted from me telling my own story was people being inspired to tell theirs, it happened thousands of times and still happens to this day.

Stories can change the world. Tell yours.

Much love,

P.S. If you didn’t watch the ‘first follower’ video in the link above, watch it. It’s short and seriously brilliant. Here is the link again.

P.P.S. Here is my unrelated ‘song of the day’; Everything is Borrowed by The Streets (Rou Reynolds cover)

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