One of my favorite leadership quotes comes from Peter Drucker and it’s
“Culture eats strategy for breakfast”.
Why do I like this?
Well, it’s because it clearly articulates how important culture is to an organization and the impact that it can have on its performance, results, and its ability to achieve its strategy.
But given that, how many leaders actually think about culture, how many try to shape their company culture and create one that is aligned with the mission, vision, and strategy of the company?
I understand that changing culture can be hard, but if you have the wrong culture, its impact can be devastating. In this blog, we will talk about a three-step process to create a goal delivering company culture.
What is company culture and where does it come from?
In order to be able to shape your company’s culture, you need to understand what culture is, where it comes from, how it is built, and what we can do to influence it.
One of my favorite definitions of culture is that “Culture is what leads people when leadership isn’t present to guide them”.
Culture is the collective character and values of an organization that helps guide its actions and decision-making.
Culture can be intentional or accidental. Culture can be defined top-down with clear definitions of what those company values are, but it doesn’t matter what leadership writes down as its culture. Culture is actually defined by the actions of the leadership. People look to see what leadership does, and it copies that-- it follows their lead.
If the actions of the leadership are not authentic and are not aligned with the stated character of the organization, then the culture becomes accidental as it’s based on what people do-- not what they say.
This was really clear to me at two different organizations I worked with.
In one, where we didn’t have a clearly defined company culture,
Our leader always looked to do the right thing. He was a man of the highest integrity, he said the right things, he did the right things and he was a great role model. Why, because when he wasn’t there it was easy to know what he would do, because he always did the right thing, so it was an easy approach to follow, and that was the culture that prevailed.
The wrong culture kills strategy
In the second company, we had a stated culture of diversity and inclusion.
Yet my boss, the head of our department, constantly treated women like they were admins, always asking the woman in a group to take notes or get the coffee, even criticizing some women with children, who worked long hours, that they should be at home looking after their children.
It was so clear what he thought of women and this had a ripple down effect, and very few women were promoted by his direct reports.
Arguments were always made that the men were better candidates, but in many cases, these arguments were biased and ignored the facts, and over a 5-year period we went from 20% of leadership positions filled by women to 21% and this was in spite of a proactive policy of diversity.
Why was that? It was because the actions of the leadership were counter to the stated culture.
People follow what you do, not just what you say.
Ambiguity kills execution
Not all culture fails are because the stated values of the organization are at odds with the values and actions of the leadership. Sometimes the desired culture fails to materialize because people don’t understand what that culture is or what it looks like.
In one company where I worked, their desired culture was One Company.
The challenge was that there was a clear lack of what that meant. The definition, whilst easy to say, was difficult to understand, it was too vague and ambiguous, such that people didn’t know how to live it and that made it hard for the culture to get any traction.
One of my colleagues said that he loved the company’s culture, but when I asked him to describe the culture, to tell me what it looked like he couldn’t articulate it.
The challenge here is that-
If people can’t describe the culture, how can it be shared and how can it be lived consistently, and if it can’t be lived consistently then you won’t have a consistent culture.
How to create a culture?
Changing the culture is hard, and the best way to tackle things that are hard challenges is to find simple solutions. If we try to use complex solutions to solve difficult problems, then we will most likely fail, and this is why I follow a simple 3 step approach to defining and implementing culture.
The three-step approach is- Say It, Live It, Reinforce It.
In order for a culture to be widely implemented, it needs to be clear, concise, easy to understand, and easy to follow. You have to describe what it means to people so that they can live it consistently.
Now we have to be sure not to make it too high level like the One Company example, where yes, it sounds simple, but there is not enough detail to allow people to be able to act in accordance with it.
One of the most successful cultures I helped to implement was one of We Care.
Now whilst that sounds high level, we added the next level of detail which was
- We care about our employees
- We care about the quality of our work
- We care about our customers
Most people understand what it means to care, but by adding the next level of detail, about who we care about making it easier for people to do that, and to do that in the manner we intended.
It also helps to make a culture stick when people can see how they can benefit from it, and by including “we care about our employees”, people could see how they could benefit from the culture which made them more likely to adopt and implement it.
So as you define the culture, corporate values, and desired character of the organization, the more you can show people involved how they will benefit the more likely they are to live it.
Just writing down a clear culture doesn’t mean it’s going to be successful. As I mentioned before, people don’t just do what you say, they look to see what you do and they copy that.
This means that the leadership has to actively live the culture, they have to demonstrate the culture in everything they do. They have to walk the talk, not just talk the walk, and if they do that then they will become role models for the culture they want the organization to adopt.
This has to be 100%, if there are any ambiguities, any gaps between actions and words, then this will weaken the implementation of the culture.
One of the things I think that some leaders forget is that people are constantly watching them, checking what they are doing and seeing if they are authentically living and following the culture, and if you don’t live it, then why should they?
When we talk about authentic leaders, I actually think it’s more important for leaders to act in accordance with the stated values of the organization, than it is to follow their own values.
Why do I say this? I say this because we often don’t know the values of an individual, but we do know the stated values of the organization and what people are really looking for are leaders who are authentic to these stated shared values.
The more these values are lived by the leaders, the stronger they will become within the organization.
Once the leadership starts to live the culture the next step is to reinforce it.
This involves identifying people living the culture within the organization and recognizing their contributions, highlighting them as role models for the culture.
Whilst culture is defined top-down, it’s actually created bottom-up. Yes, it starts at the top, but it only becomes the prevailing culture once you reach the tipping point with a large percentage of people living it and to do that, we need to get as many people on board as we can.
Recognizing role models within the organization is critical because what gets recognized gets repeated, and not just by those people who are following the culture, but also by those who see them do it and get rewarded for it because we all crave recognition.
Another way of reinforcing culture can be done by defining rituals that encourage it, this could be through monthly awards of people who demonstrate the culture, as this signals that it is important and that there are additional benefits associated with it.
At the organization where we implemented- We Care
We had monthly We Care awards where people were nominated and recognized for examples of caring for our people, our results and our customers.
We also introduced annual awards and created a number of categories, all based on the same themes of We Care.
I know this might sound trivial, but we are demonstrating that we are committed to the culture we are implementing, we are showing what it means, what good looks like, and we are rewarding and recognizing people who live it.
The more you reinforce the culture, the stronger and more consistently it will be loved.
You also need to call out anyone who deviates from the culture or acts in a way that contradicts it. You need to have a zero-tolerance policy otherwise the culture will never be fully embraced.
Culture is critical to the successful implementation of your strategy. Not only does culture eat strategy for breakfast but the right culture will help your strategy eat your goals for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
You need to define your culture clearly and you need to share with your team how it will benefit them, win-win cultures are much more likely to be accepted.
Leadership needs to live the culture, if you don’t walk the talk then why should your staff?
Lastly, changing culture takes time, and this is why it needs to be reinforced. You need to encourage people to live it, and you can do this through defining rituals, identifying role models, and recognizing and rewarding people who live it.
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