“Culture eats strategy for breakfast” -Peter Drucker
… and lunch, and dinner. Culture is, in some sense, the soil in which our strategy and plans are planted. If it’s not healthy, it very difficult for anything healthy to grow from it, and neglecting to focus on it can jeopardize all other well-laid plans.
A leader is in a unique position to influence the culture of their team; in fact, some would argue that it’s a leader’s most important job. However, unlike increasing sales or cutting costs, the path to create and influence culture can seem less tangible or clear. There are concrete steps you can take the define, influence and improve the culture of your team.
Understand your culture.
You can’t map a course unless you understand what the starting point is. Make no mistake – your team DOES have a culture. The only question is whether it’s a beneficial one or not, and knowing how to figure this out is a necessary leadership skill. There are several models you can use to understand culture, of which the most effective, and easy to understand and implement, is Tribal Leadership. This model breaks culture into five levels: at the extreme negative side of the spectrum in “alienating”, in which individuals are actively hostile towards the organization, while at the extreme positive end, or “team” level, individuals are united in their optimistic view of the future and the potential for the team to succeed in a way that is beneficial to the organization itself. Statistically, most organizational culture sits somewhere in the middle, and by understanding which level your team’s culture is at, you can set a realistic plan to scaffold your team to the next level of positive cultural development.
Solicit diversity of thought.
Obtaining different views from different people has multiple benefits to the culture of your team: not only does it help mitigate blinds spots the team might have, it also creates a culture of input and collaboration. As a leader, if you can model the behaviour of valuing opinions that differ from your own, you enable creativity, out-of-the-box thinking, and constructive disagreement, which strengthens the collective wisdom of the team. Importantly, the idea is not to implement every idea – as a leader, you are still responsible for evaluating the merit of ideas and choosing or guiding the team as to which ones are likely to be effective in terms of your strategic goals – but rather to ensure that fair voice is given to them, in a way that encourages future input. This may mean changing your mind if an idea is presented that is different – better – that what was originally proposed; alternatively, it may mean declining an idea, but with respectful and rational explanation as to the reasoning behind this. In either scenario, the value of the employee presenting the idea in the first place is still communicated.
As mentioned above, your behaviours will influence the team’s culture. Think about what is most important and model those behaviours consistently. If you want team members to be open to candid feedback, be prepared to solicit and be open to it yourself; if you expect the team to get into the office early in the morning, be there too. So often, the culture flows down from the top – the main thing in your control as a leader is whether you are generating that culture with positive intention, or by default. Certainly, a ‘do as I say, not as I do’ approach in unlikely to generate a positive effect. Be sure you are intentional about what you are demonstrating.
Of course, micromanaging your every step is also not likely to be effective – rather; focus on those two or three key values that you believe are most important.
The last step in influencing culture takes us back to the analogy that culture is the soil in which our actions grow – we need to water the seeds that we want to bloom. Recognition can go a long way to making clear what those desired seeds are, and encouraging them. Imagine a call centre that says it wants excellent customer service – but then financially rewards employees who take the most calls. Which behaviours are you likely to see – ones which treat the customer’s needs as paramount, or ones which endeavour to ‘handle’ the customer as quickly as possible in order to get to the next call? Similarly, saying that you want your team to take risks is meaningless in a context where missteps are punished – an employee simply can’t deliver on both of these requirements, and is more likely to cater to the one that is met with a concrete action (in this case, a punishment for mistakes, encouraging them to take less risks rather than more). Fortunately, the opposite is also true – if good ideas are applauded and intelligent mistakes are treated as learning opportunities, the ground is prepared for a culture of intelligent risk-taking and maximum growth. Furthermore, it is more effective to recognize the behaviours that are most likely to drive a positive result, rather than the specific result itself. This approach not only encourages the behaviour in a more globalized way (e.g. perhaps to a bigger problem that entails a somewhat bigger risk; whereas rewards for results might encourage the employee to take smaller risks in situations where a successful outcome is more assured), but also fosters a growth mindset and promotes resilience within your team.
When broken down in this way, it’s clear that culture is not just a ‘warm and fuzzy’ notion, or a plaque of vague statements on a wall – it’s a commitment to creating the context that will most enable your team to deliver on the ultimate needs of the business. We’ll look at each element in more details, but as a first step, consider whether your cultural foundation seems healthy, or whether it needs to be nurtured.