Cultivating a Great Culture is Your Biggest Leadership Asset
[Note: In this article we are discussing "culture". Please note that when I say "culture", I am referring to organizational culture, and not country or ethnic culture.]
I sat back in my chair in the conference room amazed at what I heard Reid saying. He was committing to a customer that he and his organization would design and deliver a complex software feature in an aggressively short time period.
Due to my role in the meeting, it wasn't possible for me to contradict Reid's proposal. I recall thinking at the time that Reid was crazy to make such a promise. Our customer would then count on him to fulfill his commitment, and any failure to deliver would endanger our relationship and potential future business.
Why was I so incredulous about Reid's bold promise? Was it impossible to deliver this new custom feature in the time needed? No. It was difficult and complex, but it was certainly possible for Reid to deliver as promised.
The true reason I was disbelieving was because I had interacted with Reid's organization before. They had many talented professionals, but their organization's culture was toxic. It was sadly full of blame games, silos, protectionism of people's own resources, information hiding, ass-covering, and lack of a solution-oriented, team-first mindset. More than once, I saw Reid craft a brilliant strategy for his product area, only to have the organization fail to execute due to their unhealthy culture.
Why Is Culture So Important?
When I first began my management career, I woefully misunderstood organizational culture, and underestimated its importance and impact on my success as the group's leader.
An organization's culture is a powerful entity and is neither good nor bad. I like to think of it as being similar to The Force in Star Wars. In the Star Wars mythos, The Force is part of the natural environment and exists in and around all living things. It can be used by Jedi (the heroes) to do unbelievable good works, or it can be used by the Sith (the villains) to do unspeakable evil.
Similarly, organizational culture permeates every aspect of your group and is a subtle participant in every interaction between two or more employees. It is either working with you to achieve your goals, or it acts as a headwind to slow you down and push you towards failure.
Bad organizational culture is like the bogeyman. It appears unasked and unwelcome to destroy the execution of your best strategic plans. As a leader, you simply cannot afford to ignore the health of your organization's culture.
The well-known management theorist Peter Drucker famously stated: "Culture eats strategy for breakfast.", It doesn't matter how good your strategy is because you will be unable to execute if your organization's culture is sick.
Four Steps to Harnessing the Power of Culture
So how can you, like a Jedi using The Force in Star Wars, use the power of culture to help you achieve your team's goals?
Creating a winning high performance culture is difficult for even the most adept leaders. Ultimately, if creating a great culture was easy, every team in your company would have one. I'm sure you can agree with me that pockets of great culture are the exception and not the norm.
I am not an expert (by far) in organizational psychology, but my past successes and failures have taught me a few things about how leaders can foster the development of a winning team culture.
1. Understand what culture is
Organizational culture is an informal structure of shared assumptions, values and beliefs, which influence how people behave within a group. Culture is created and shaped by every interaction between two people. Every day, each contact within the team defines and reinforces the culture.
Culture is not "management fluff". In the real world, slogans on posters, corporate values discussed in a yearly review, or inspirational quotes projected on slides all have little impact on a group's culture.
2. Leaders can influence, but not control culture
I have bad news. Since organizational culture is continuously morphing and being reinforced by every interaction within the organization, you as a leader cannot control it.
Accept that it is not possible for you or members of your leadership team to be everywhere simultaneously, monitoring all interactions between team members. Give up the misconception of control  and understand that the most impact you can have on your organization's culture is to influence it. Imposing your ideas or directives onto a culture is not possible.
3. Give people a way to talk about culture
One of the most frustrating things for a leader is that there is no common vocabulary for discussing organizational culture. By creating a mechanism to allow people to verbalize their thoughts and feelings, you can rob culture of some of it's elusive mysteriousness.
By its very nature, culture is not a tangible 'thing' and therefore is not easily manipulated. However, if you define the behaviors of your culture, then you can observe its actions within the organization. And if you can observe and comment on those actions, then you can influence the behavior causing those actions.
In my current organization we decided upon a set of behaviors that defines the greatest aspects of our culture. We call this collection of behaviors our Guiding Stars. When we act inline with our Guiding Stars we know our team is performing at a very high level.
We use our Guiding Stars throughout each day as talking points to reinforce the good behaviors we want to see, and also to challenge each other when we are not living up to our cultural expectations. Our culture is not 'done' but we are continuously improving along the journey.
4. Lead change by example
In my world, there are two Great Sins that a leader can commit. One of them is to put themselves above following the rules and guidelines of the organization.  Being a leader doesn't make you exempt from the rules. It actually makes you more accountable than others.
If you want to see a change develop in your organization's culture, you as a leader need to model that change continuously and personally. Frequently talk about the behavior you are reinforcing through mantras or sound bites (such as "In Finance, we always start meetings on time"). This helps to anchor the behavior and make it memorable for the entire team.
Also, influencing your team's culture is a great opportunity to practice your perseverance. Modeling the behaviors you want to see is a never-ending job. Over time, the positive change you desire will seep into your organization's culture, but you will still need to reinforce the behavior by continuously demonstrating it.
So what happened to Reid's promise?
Predictably, six months later he had to apologize to our customer and admit that they would not receive the important feature as planned.
Reid never realized that it was culture that defeated him. He wrongfully thought he had a few bad leaders in the development project, which caused miscommunication, delays and frustration. He swapped them out and the same problems repeated themselves the next year.
Don't let this happen to you! Take care of your team's cultural health.
Remember, there is no single recipe for creating a high performance culture in your organization. I've presented four steps to get you started, but your actions will be specific to your individual situation and organization. The journey is long, but your culture is worth investing in!
Having a great culture is the ultimate sustainable competitive advantage! It is more important than having the best product, the best tools, the best market position, the best sales channels, or any other advantage. Conversely, having a toxic culture will erode all the benefits you start out with, but developing a team's great culture will overcome any deficit!
Take care, and I'll talk to you next time.
: Do yourself a favor, read this and realize that all control is an illusion anyway. Your future self will thank you.
: The second of the Great Sins is to be trusted with company resources and employees, and to knowingly waste them.