Matt Auron discusses 5 key principals leaders should use to shape their culture.
Leaders create culture. Understanding this principle adds a dimension to leadership that many don’t expect or even care to focus on in the midst of a rapid scale of a business or hitting a financial metric. But as many parents learn – “they are always watching you”, and complaining that culture is lagging and offloading cultural responsibility to HR or a culture initiative is misguided and an abdication of responsibility. Culture is being created all of the time and many times the big-ticket initiatives (like a mission and values banner…) don’t have the largest impact- the small things count. We have seen that an organization’s culture is many times a direct extension of the founder, and while it sometimes evolves beyond them it always remains in the hands – and hearts – of the leaders. Below are 5 key principles for leaders seeking to lead and own their culture.
1. Care about it- and know what culture actually is
As simple as it sounds, a leader has to care about culture. They have to educate themselves about it so they can stretch beyond employee perks and the “vibe” that are sometimes used to describe it. This means reading books, learning and deconstructing what makes a specific culture unique, and taking the time to regularly think and discuss internally what it is at their company. They have to be able to see it playing out and have the finesse to talk about how it presents itself in the daily activities of the business. They have to keep it in front of mind on their dashboard – along with financial metrics or other metrics of performance. They should be able to draw the line between the culture of the business and the purpose of the business in the world. Then the work becomes keeping it alive and discussing it relentlessly.
2. Talk about what is intrinsic
Why are the colors of the brand important? Why is the office designed the way it is? How should people participate in meetings? What are the key values or principles that govern the work? These are some of the questions that need to be answered to articulate a culture and a leader must be able to know and translate this to the business. Many times this means talking about the core values explicitly in a meeting or visibly rewarding team members who embody them. It means discussing performance management and why people are in leadership succession as well as processes are run they way they are and being able to explicitly link them back to the intrinsic levels of the culture – the values, the key principles, the symbols of the brand, and the deeply held beliefs about the business or the world. We call this the BE level of culture – the bottom and foundation level of a culture that influences actions and behaviors. This also means having the courage and discipline to talk about when things are not working – to course correct or address certain behaviors that are counter productive or not aligned to the espoused culture.
3. Role model what you expect in others
One of the top reasons people get cynical about culture is they see the words on a banner or a wall- but they don’t see the leaders role modeling them. Understanding that every moment is an opportunity to lead in alignment with the company’s values is critical and modeling the way for others is a critical aspect of reinforcing culture. This is the DO level- the behaviors, actions, and processes that create the results an organization seeks in the world. It is critical that key behaviors are role modeled and that culture is not just verbalized- this creates cynicism and destroys trust. This takes a high degree of personal courage and the self-awareness to show up in a culturally aligned way, day in and day out. It also means calling out behaviors in others that are not aligned to the culture and holding team members accountable to role model key cultural behaviors as well.
4. Track and reward
Culture needs to be tracked like everything else in business. Sometimes the metrics are more discreet or difficult to quantify but important nonetheless. This may mean core values rating and ranking on an employee engagement survey or having individuals do an annual “core values report card”. It may include quarterly “pulse checks” where the leaders of various functions ask for feedback on key cultural attributes, which are then fed back into a leadership or executive group for consideration and changes. Publicly honoring key BE levels aspects for reinforcement is critical, such as having awards for core values and bestowing them authentically and publicly to role models on a regular basis.
5. Embed it in everything
Leading a team, a function or an organization provides a daily opportunity to design and redesign critical work processes. Each time, a leader can use an organizations values or intrinsic or BE level principles to inform management and organizational processes. Far from perfect, as long as the culture is considered in a more conscious way there will be a greater degree of cultural alignment than before. Calling the question “does this align with our values?” bring the culture into consciousness.
Think about it, talk about it, act on it
Leaders lead culture, and all moments of the day are an opportunity to have a cultural impact. Much of the time building an organizational culture is not an expensive undertaking – but it takes time. If a leader gets this principle, they must align their team and regularly take the time to discuss what is working and what is not working. Having the courage to self reflect and act in alignment with a core set of beliefs and values is what creates integrity in a person, and an organization. It’s also the pathway for a healthy and thriving culture.
Photo credit: Flickr/Sasha Tivanov