Don’t Be Led By Your Culture

Story by Pam Mcgee

Research will tell you that if leaders don’t lead culture, it will lead them. Culture exists whether you want to focus on it or not as a leader. One leader in a major hospital said, “Our culture is fine; it’s the numbers we need to address.” Another leader in a non-profit said, “Our numbers are fine; it’s the culture we need to focus on.” Who’s right? Both; however, Tom Peters would say, “Culture trumps strategy, every time.” On the other hand, another leader in technology said, “If I just fix culture, my problems will dissipate.” It’s like when you hear people say that “winning the lottery” will fix all their problems or losing that 50 pounds will save their marriage.

Culture resembles those statements. Culture does not fix all your problems, but if you have both culture and a solid business model, you are more equipped for success. Leaders need to lead with a culture that executes on their strategy. Culture doesn’t make your problems disappear, but it does determine how you behave when you are traveling through good and hard times.

Culture is the mystery ingredient in the “secret recipe for salsa”. You can have good salsa, but without the right ingredient, it just doesn’t wow you. Just like culture, you can have a good culture that does no harm or nothing speculator, either, but it isn’t going to stand out to customers, potential employers, or investors.

How often do we get into a routine or a rut where we forget the path we travel or the reasons we respond the way we do? For example, one of the leaders I coach in non-profit sees the need to lead differently, reads all the best business books on culture, and says all the right things. However, she is in such a stimulus, respond, stimulus, respond cycle that the words and the culture she imagines can’t come to fruition. For example, she wants a culture of ownership, where employees create solutions in and outside their domains and with and without their leader’s insights and approval. One of her favorite lines is “proceed until apprehended” (“The Florence Prescription”, Joe Tye, 2003). Yet, when a leader proceeds to make a bold move, she often overreacts, responds with wisdom and coaching on what she would do to solve the problem, and often “judges” the employee harshly. Do you see any error in not leading the way you imagine, but instead being led by what you can’t see? The same is accurate for culture. Your culture will shape itself based on the leader’s choices each day, whether planned or unplanned.

Most leaders give lip service at best to culture because they don’t consciously take time to plan the way they want the culture to behave, or they feel they have not a minute to spare for culture or worse yet, culture is not even in their daily thought pattern. How can a leader step out of the “lip service” model of culture development?

What if the leader scheduled 1:1s, held team meetings, put thought time in her calendar for culture, and developed a culture rollout (or product release) plan for the culture. We wouldn’t think of launching a new product without a roadmap, customer demand, or market opportunity. Culture is no different. It takes a thoughtful, planned approach from leadership and teams. It’s a process, not just a feeling. Culture needs to be a strategic focus for every company. It needs its own product road map, action items, and owners.

The number one thing I hear from leaders who embark on owning the culture process is that they don’t have time, it’s too much work, they don’t know what words to pick for a slogan, etc. etc. All of those are real and true and hard work. But three key actions help the leader define culture, live culture, and teach others to live the culture (or transition toward the culture).

First, take time to learn a basic culture roadmap and transition process. Read something, watch a YouTube video, ask a friend who has done it well, get a certification, and much more. The point is that you must know how to manage the culture process before you can do the work of culture. There are many resources, including great resources like “Contagious Culture” by Anese Cavanaugh, “Leading Change” by John P. Kotter, “The Advantage” by Patrick Lencioni, “The Energy Bus” by Jon Gordon and Noah Gordon, and “Five Frogs on a Log” by Mark L. Feldman and Michael F. Spratt (the latter is about culture during an acquisition). You can watch TEDx talks by Simon Sinek and Rosabeth Moss Kanter.

Second, engage your leadership team. Educate them, have dialogue groups, set performance expectations on culture improvements. Do a company climate survey where the leaders’ division is assessed, and they establish a baseline and create action plans for strong and weak areas. You typically engage people by asking for their insights, igniting a desire to change, and helping them grow into different behaviors.

Third, create a marketing plan/campaign to get propaganda on the culture you are creating into the hands of every employee. Employees must see and hear the new culture change message at least six different times (William Bridges, 1998) before they even realize a change is occurring. As part of the marketing plan, capture success stories of who is already living the new culture as well as people who are legacy leaders and respected who are trying to change.  In addition to marketing, you need to role model leadership behavior and support it as a decision-making tool. One education institution has changed their culture and now uses the new culture tenants (heart, humility, and grit) to make decisions that align strategy with budget choices. They are using their culture plans to execute on strategic decisions.

Lastly, keep going. Managing culture thoughtfully requires a deep commitment to the words and the choices you make to define culture. It’s the not the deep commitment you make to the planning offsite and the buzz words; it’s the deep commitment you make to live the culture when it means letting someone go who does not believe in the culture that has been with you for 20 years. It means making unpopular decisions that would have been a part of the old culture but no longer fit in the new culture. For example, it’s saying NO to the next biggest deal because the way you’d have to act to earn that revenue would not be a good example of your culture.

Building culture into the day-to-day operations of the business helps it become real and manageable. For example, instead of “calling a culture meeting”, how about you talk about culture at the monthly company townhall meeting. Instead of sending your leaders to fancy expensive training, how about you all read a book and do a discussion on the culture book for an extra 30 minutes after each weekly project meeting.

You wouldn’t create an entirely different process to manage the product roadmap; you’d use the process that was created to be the roadmap. Same as culture: Use the roadmap you create within the daily business.

And remember, doing something simple is a lot harder than doing something hard.

Read more articles about company culture in the Fall 2017 issue of The Partner Channel Magazine.

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