Create the Culture That You Want

By Aaron Weiss

Creating a healthy organizational culture is one of the most challenging leadership tasks. Cultures are easy to see but hard to articulate. Cultures have to adapt to the times and the needs of its adherents.

Cultures can also become a reputation risk, when internal practices are inconsistent with the external image an organization is trying to portray.

Last week, I facilitated a discussion about organizational culture with the senior leadership team of a mid-sized company.  Before the team addressed what the culture needs to look like moving forward, we spent some time discussing observations about the current climate.

The words “fast-paced,” “inconsistent,” “competitive,” and “blunt” were among the characteristics added to a list.  For a group of high performing executives in a rapidly growing company, it was all in the zone.  But while none of their cultural descriptors were problematic per se, the list lacked balance on aggregate.

Now, I’m a verbal guy, and I love a robust word that folds a dozen concepts together.  Some call it “consultant-ese” but it’s not jargon I admire so much as the potency of certain terms.

As the discussion advanced toward the team’s future culture, the COO used the word “intentional” to characterize a desired mindset. That got me fired up because I love the word intentional!

We commonly understand “intentional” to mean purposeful, intended, and deliberate.  To unpack the concept a step further, intentions imply choice, accountability, awareness, and planning.  These are good words when it comes to teams and culture.

An intentional culture is the result of leaders taking collective ownership for how works gets done. Often, the most sought after cultural traits are the most difficult to maintain: discipline, respect, inclusion.  Weaving these values – and more importantly, the associated behaviors – into the fabric of an organization takes deliberate effort.  In other words, strong cultures rarely emerge accidentally.

Don’t accept that, “It’s always been this way, and won’t change.”

Another reason to address an organizational culture with intention is that in the absence of design, the default setting can actually be destructive.  Think of culture like a radio that’s always on.  You can either tune to a favorite station that sets the mood, or do nothing and let your 4 year old listen to “Let It Go” on repeat.  In fact, when a culture is left to emerge without nurture or support it can be easily consumed by dominant human impulses. That’s when favoritism, self-aggrandizement, and impatience become normal.

An organization’s culture is one of the most practical ways to translate mission into action. Allowing it to become an afterthought is at best a missed opportunity, and at worst, a recipe for disaster.

Here are a few critical steps to ensure your organization’s culture is what you intend for it to be:

Make the Culture Your Second Job. Yes, a culture shared throughout an organization. But it is ultimately preserved by the organization’s leaders. Unlike large corporations, like Disney, which has an actual institute dedicated to cultivating its culture, average sized organizations have to lean on their leaders to do the design and execution work.  That means CFOs and General Counsels alike have to do some heavy lifting.

Use a Stethoscope Before a Scalpel. Before an existing culture can be undone, it must be understood. When people have become accustomed to operating a certain way, care must be taken when establishing new expectations.

Prioritize What Matters Most. The culture should be aligned with other foundation elements of an organization, including mission and strategy. An organization will never be perfect, but some things are more important than others to get right.

Put Your Heart Into It. A culture should reflect the values that the organization holds most near and dear.  It must be authentic to get buy-in.

Articulate With Action.  Cultures shift from fantasy to reality when behavioral norms and expectations are associated with it. It is merely academic until there is consistency among the majority.

Communicate the Why. People should understand what is expected and how the expectations are linked to core drivers of the business, even when it appears irrelevant. Therefore, every how must be accompanied with a why.

Stick With It: Cultures take a long time to form and evolve. Give new behaviors a chance to become familiar. Don’t be afraid to revise norms, rather than abandoning them outright.

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