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Creative Recruiters - The Interview Series: Unconventional Wisdom: 'Beige' Employees Degrade Your Culture, So Here's How to Identify Them.

23 Jan 18:00 By Jonathan Rivett on behalf of CREATIVE RECRUITERS

Creative Recruiters Orange Coaching Sue McKenzie Employee Culture

In Part 2 of our Unconventional Wisdom Interview Series with Sue McKenzie, Founder & Principal of Orange Coaching, we discuss values. Humans need them to survive, but nobody needs the sad excuse for corporate values that eight out of every ten organisations come up with. The secret?  Forget being “inclusive”.  We also dispel the fashionable idea that being in it for yourself – “I need to do what’s right for me” – is the only way to approach your work life.


Don’t make your values “inclusive”.

One of the reasons I wanted to make McKenzie the inaugural Unconventional Wisdom interviewee was because when I first heard her speak, she was openly contemptuous of standard modern value statements.

What was the point, she asked (to my delight), of making “passionate” or “innovative” or “courageous” one of your values when they’re such nebulous words and so open to interpretation? Even putting that aside, why would you want to use the same words as the vast majority of your competitors?

So when I sat down to speak with her I asked her straight out, couldn’t smart organisations just do away with values altogether?

“No,” says Mckenzie. “People can’t live without values. Organisations – groups of people – all have organising principles.”

It comes down to expressing those values in a meaningful and intelligent way.

“So many away-days and time and money are spent on coming up with catch-all statements that are designed not for purpose – i.e. getting everyone rallying behind a set of behaviours – but instead to include everyone.

What it really takes to make a distinctive, great culture… it’s not about being inclusive. It’s about bringing people together and setting expectations that the whole team is there to raise the standards of the organisations. Ongoing. Every day. Everywhere.

Most [leaders] want to include everybody. Not exclude anybody. Actually, you should aim with your vision and values to have the right people on the bus and exclude the people who are not right. The beige people. The nine-to-fivers. The people who are not going to go that extra mile. The people who are not going to fight for quirk or whatever it is you’re going for in your organisation. Get them off the bus.”

I should make it clear at this point, just in case you have the wrong idea with all this talk of metaphorical buses and figurative colours that when McKenzie talks about exclusion, she’s talking entirely about the content of a person’s character. We’re not in Rosa Parks territory here.


“Beige” is an attitude – a mindset – and it has the potential to degrade a culture quickly.

“Make your values as polarising and emotionally connecting as you possibly can. Because then you’ll know who’s on and who’s off. People have to understand at a gut level what those values mean. Because you can’t spend 12 months talking about the values in a rational, explanatory way. You bore people senseless.

“Transparency, respect, honesty… none of these are bad things to have, obviously… but then going into an organisation that talks about ‘we are quirkily inquisitive’, ‘we defy convention’… you get a sense of the passion and the energy and the boundaries around those kinds of values. Values are really directive when you get them right.”

The problem with the apparently safe option – the everyone-else-is-doing-it version of values – is that it’s not safe at all. In fact it can become very corrosive to a culture, says McKenzie.

“What happens is if you don’t get them right people ignore them because they consider them irrelevant. [Then] people make them up themselves. And we have what we call unwritten ground rules. So what they will do is resort to whatever behaviours they think are appropriate.

“This is what we would call below-the-line thinking. ‘It wasn’t our fault. It’s a competitive environment out there. We didn’t win the business because it was tough.’ That’s not taking personal responsibility, which means therefore the standard in your organisation is no-one takes responsibility for results… because you haven’t set your standard in the organisation.

And they can be really painful ones, as well: gossiping, people creating tribes – it can get very ugly very quickly – with an absence of very strong, unconventional, polarising, interesting, proper values.”


An individual is only as good as their contribution to the greater good.

I notice as we’re discussing McKenzie’s coaching philosophy that the individual plays a fascinating role. There’s a really strong emphasis on good leaders getting the very best out of innately talented employees. A good leader steps away to let an individual have space and, in a way, shape their own destiny. At the same time, though, there’s a sense that an individual who isn't focused on what they are contributing and sharing with their colleagues – who can’t work as part of the collective – has no place in a truly excellent organisation.

I ask about the popular idea that individuals should always think of themselves first and “do what’s right by me”.

“It’s very low-level thinking. It’s what we call Level 2 thinking. Which is ‘I’m more important than the group. I’m the person that can get results. I’ve got no loyalty to the group. I can bugger off at any time.’”

McKenzie calls these self-interested types “beige” employees, people who don’t really add anything to a team or a culture and so, in fact, have a negative effect.

“If you look at the human growth model and what happens as we grow older, becoming others-focused becomes more important. So the contribution that we make, be it to society or to our families or to each other or to our work becomes the thing that makes us happy. In every study there’s nothing that makes us happier – certainly, money doesn’t make us happier – than knowing we belong to a group of people and that we’ve made a significant contribution to that group.”


And what about for leaders?

Mckenzie says it can be difficult for managers who have built careers as brilliant practitioners. As they transition from doers to strategists, they very often find it difficult to step away because they know they’re technically the best at a job.

“That’s Level 2 leadership, which is about relationship management. They’re only effective as much as they have good relationships with people in their team. What you want to get leaders to is results-focused through others. So it can’t be about them.

“The conversations that we have have been around ‘What are you good at?’

“Often they’ll say ‘Oh, I’m really creative.’

“You say ‘OK, what does that look like? What steps do you take to be a good at that? What are your strategies that you do that you teach to someone else?’

“And it’s a revelation to people. Because they don’t know. They do stuff and they get a great outcome, but they’ve never been asked the question. Without knowing what those strategies are they can’t share them with the team.

“Once we’ve done that and shared them with someone else and they’re getting the results, because – guess what – everything’s a strategy and they’re able to replicate that, they go ‘Wow, it’s actually more exciting seeing that person grow and get the results that I’ve got.’

“It becomes meaningful for them.”


Sue McKenzie runs Disruptive Leadership Courses for creative agency individuals and teams. For more information, contact or call 0488 158 849.


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