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E49: Season 5 Episode 4 – Building Culture to Achieve Organizational Success

  • By dbllawyersv2
  • November 22, 2022
  • Season 5

Tom Dunlap chats with Marissa Levin, co-founder of Successful Culture International, 20-year entrepreneur and speaker, on how to facilitate an engaged, inclusive virtual culture. We also discuss the important qualities leaders must implement in order to retain and grow employee trust in these isolating times.

Marissa’s Service

Marissa recounts her impressive journey to co-founding Successful Culture International, a company that helps assists in work culture to promotes growth, trust, and satisfaction. She has written numerous books, including “Built to Scale” and “‘My Company ROCKS!’ Eight Secrets to a Growth-Driven Culture” and is also a columnist for SmartCEO Magazine and Inc. Magazine.

She helps leaders reach their full potential, which then allows their people and the business to reach the fullest potential. She has also served at EO, in the DC and Baltimore groups, as well as aided new programs, such as one that promotes female entrepreneurs. She shares with us her wealth of knowledge on work culture and how to best adapt it to these times.

Challenges of COVID

In working with leaders for over 20 years and in quarantine, Marissa shares her observations. She relays how leaders have struggled with this transition because most organizations before COVID did not have a fully remote workforce. Those that did, had so voluntarily. In March, entire companies were forced online with not every employee having the best teleworking set up: parents of young children, those without a quiet place to work, those with limited space or solid WIFI connection.
Marissa iterates how there is no right or wrong way to do this. Every company has different needs. She also believes that CEOs need to be fully transparent with their employees, and to lead from a place of empathy.


Marissa has come up with an acronym to help guide leaders in this time. She explains that leaders need GRACE: grit, resilience, adaptability, connection, and empathy. They must communicate and connect from a place of compassion and empathy. However, she specifies that there are two types of empathy: cognitive and emotional.

Cognitive Empathy vs. Emotional Empathy

Marissa speaks on how leaders need to exercise cognitive empathy with compassion, and not necessarily emotional empathy. By this, she means that they must take in the perspective of their employees without being fully emotionally engaged to a point where they cannot make clear decisions. She explains that leaders must listen to the concerns of their employees, and offer ways to support.

She emphasizes how cognitive empathy absorbs and understands employees’ perspectives but does not involve fully immersing to the point where a leader is too emotional to help. Cognitive empathy offers a little distance, so that the leader can still be level-headed enough to offer the correct support. Listen to the episode to hear more on the difference between the two.
Implementing Wide-spread Cognitive Empathy

Marissa outlines how a leader can exercise company-wide cognitive empathy and not just with individual circumstances. She suggests that in addition to business check ins, leaders could have human check ins. A company can send out and internal newsletter or video messaging, as well as host virtual book clubs or workshops for soft skills. She encourages leaders to get creative with how they reach out to employees and to not always rely on the virtual happy hour. Listen to the episode to hear more of Marissa’s creative solutions.

Mistakes Leaders Make

Marissa warns against the most crucial mistakes leaders are making in this time. She expresses how leaders who are not bringing their true selves to virtual meetings will make employees feel very distant, as well as disengaged. This is a time to revisit the company’s mission statement; once a company or a team loses sight of that, people may feel like they are losing their purpose. Listen to the episode to hear more about how and why CEOs can keep employees connected to one another, connected to the mission, connected to the leadership.

Culture Assessments

Marissa iterates the importance of doing a cultural assessment for the company. Oftentimes there is dissonance between what the leadership thinks the culture is and what the culture actually is. This is why a cultural assessment is imperative for better understanding and adapting.

She touches on how large companies that are dispersed across the country should tackle cultural assessment. She discusses how to tweak training to fit the regional and culture differences. She also stresses how the training facilitators need to be excellent, not junior facilitators, or you will lose credibility. In addition, the content needs to be high-quality. Listen to the episode to hear more on how Marissa approached a dispersed company and the ways in which you must adjust the cultural assessment.

Virtually Engaged

In doing virtual events ad meetings, it can be harder now than ever to keep people engaged and listening. Marissa advises leaders to take advantage of the breakout rooms, the chat, and smaller group settings. You also want to make sure that the facilitator is a master, and that the content is fast paced, provocative, interactive and high-quality.

Three Takeaways

Marissa offers what she believes are three takeaways from her interview. In her experience, the best leaders are the ones that are accessible, available and transparent. She once again accentuates the importance of leading with cognitive empathy and accessibility, as well as opening up to your team about how you are still figuring out how to lead in a pandemic but want people’s input. She believes leaders should reiterate how this is a dynamic, fluid environment, and that protocol may change. Leader should give themselves room and flexibility to adapt.

A Leader’s Grit and Resilience

Another area leaders must keep in mind is self-care. Marissa believes that in order for leaders to be resilient for their team and company, they must also remember to take care of themselves. Whether that is exercising, meditating, eating well, or prioritizing sleep, leaders cannot properly lead if they are running on fumes. As Marissa reminds us, you can’t pour from an empty cup—and this applies to leaders as well.

Overall, Marissa believes leaders should intentionally operate with GRACE, and cut themselves a little slack, as there is no standardization for this situation.


Tom Dunlap: LinkedIn 

Blackletter: Website 

Dunlap Bennett & Ludwig: Website 

Marissa Levin: LinkedIn

Marissa Levin: Email

Successful Culture International: Website

Built to Scale Book

My Company Rocks Book

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