It is often said, “Organizational Culture eats Strategy for Breakfast!” In other words, the underlying values and behaviors that contribute to the social and psychological environment of your organization are absolutely critical to success. Every team, unit, or company has a culture, but too often we let it fly on its own under the radar rather than actively cultivating it. A leader who ignores building an effective culture does so at their peril.
Spending much of my career in Air Force fighter squadrons, I was fortunately immersed in a very healthy organizational culture. Our culture was grounded in the Air Force’s core values of; integrity first, service before self, and excellence in all we do. However, it went much further than that. We were mission-focused and held each other accountable with candid, thoughtful feedback to make each day a journey at getting better at our craft. We embraced competition but were also teammates who didn’t seek to get ahead at others’ expense. We looked out for each other and our families. Plus, we valued having fun and wove that into the fabric of our work. Our culture wasn’t perfect by any means, but it consistently produced high-performing, high-morale teams that attracted top quality people.
So, how do you go about building an effective culture in your organization? Here are five thoughts to get you started:
1. Decide on and clearly articulate what you want the culture to be. Too many leaders miss this seemingly obvious first step. Investing the time to write it out helps promote clarity and drive choices in which specific values and behaviors best describe how you want your team to operate.
2. Actively communicate and teach the expected culture throughout your organization. It’s critical to ensure that the team’s expected operating culture is fully understood from the inner circle to the lowest levels and farthest corners of the organization. Persistent face-to-face engagement is essential, but so is written communication in various formats that habitually highlight expectations.
3. Impeccably model the culture you profess. An organization’s personality quickly evolves to take on its leader’s personality. There can be no “Say-Do” gap between what the leader professes is important and how they actually operate day in and day out. And, when the leader falls short of the standard, they must be humble enough to own up to it and use that example as a teaching moment.
4. Relentlessly reinforce your expectations, and ensure your mid-level leaders are doing the same. Find ways to recognize, reward, and celebrate positive behaviors, and ensure you address behaviors inconsistent with your desired culture—even if they don’t violate any specific rule or procedure. Approach it like a coach who artfully balances teaching and discipline to drive performance from their players. Focus on the buy-in of mid-level leaders as a key demographic. It is the active promotion and reinforcement of the desired culture by mid-level leaders that marks a healthy organization.
5. Hire people you assess will fit well with your desired culture. Ensure your hiring process—whether that is through interviews, trial work periods, references, etc.—is designed to not only consider appropriate skills and experience but that it is actively assessing cultural fit. Teaching an employee new skills or processes is typically far easier than trying to shape their underlying value system. So, putting a concerted effort into hiring the right people (and replacing the wrong ones) is well worth the effort.
No checklist will guarantee a healthy organizational culture, but the framework above outlines proven strategies that will set you up for success. Remember, getting your organizational culture right is critical to any team’s success. Culture eats strategy (and process) for breakfast! Good luck, and happy hunting!
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