Winning Culture: The Leader’s Role in Creating Culture

Recent events in the news have revealed some unsettling cultural problems pervading the offices of a couple of our elected officials, leaving us with more questions than answers. For example, what kind of culture leads to members of Gov. Christie’s team thinking it is a good idea to disrupt traffic on the George Washington Bridge? And what kind of culture supports IRS officials thinking that it would be OK to selectively audit political opponents of the president or for the NSA to invade people’s privacy through widespread wiretapping? Clearly these are not examples of behavior that would be part of cultural wellness, which suggests the need to look more closely at the role leaders play in developing culture.

So, what is cultural wellness? What does it look like? How is it created and maintained? Though we are never pleased to read reports such as the ones above, we do see them as a prime opportunity to open up a conversation about the leader’s role in creating culture and hopefully find answers to some of these questions.

What is Culture?

The culture we are speaking of is the accumulation of the beliefs, norms and values shared by the members of a company. It is reflected in the behavior and processes through which you create and sustain an infrastructure that produces results; or, put more simply, it is “how things are done around here.” You can recognize a culture of success at work within an organization by taking note of what all successful companies have in common: their employees understand and believe in the company vision and they behave in a way that is consistent with its core values.

If you pay attention, clues to your own organization’s culture are easy to spot. Look around you; how do your employees interact with each other and with outsiders? What do they say and do? What is being written about the company? Taking the time to assess your own culture is the first step in creating a stronger, more productive culture.

From looking at Governor Christie’s administration, we can see there were two cultures at play: the one being presented to the public and how his team actually behaved. This disconnect, now that the light has been shown on it, obviously destroys trust and creates a gulf that needs to be bridged.

How is Strong Culture Created?

To begin building a better culture, you must decide what that culture should be. What are the characteristics (i.e., the values, beliefs, norms and behaviors) of a culture that supports your organization’s ability to succeed and outperform the competition? Once you have a clear picture of what the culture needs to look like, share it with your entire team; it’s imperative that you explicitly communicate not only the broadly stated values (e.g., teamwork, resect for the individual, putting the customer first) but also examples of the behavior and actions that are consistent with these values if you want to gain understanding and commitment. It is difficult to be on the same page if you and your employees are reading different books.

To reinforce your commitment to the new cultural ideals, act the part. It is not enough to simply define what strong culture is; you must intentionally model it. People recognize and understand culture by observing behavior, and employees take cues from their leader.

For Governor Christie, he needs to focus on fixing the problem rather than mitigating the damage already done. That will necessitate reining in his entire team, making sure they understand what “good looks like,” and are in agreement and in line behind him. Then, he needs to show the public that the backroom culture has been eliminated and what they see is all they are getting.

How is Strong Culture Maintained?

While sustaining the desired culture is the objective, it won’t happen automatically. Systems must be put in place that communicate and reinforce behaviors that are consistent with the desired culture; systems such as performance management systems and performance-based compensation and reward programs. These systems keep expectations clear while holding everyone on the team accountable to common standards and each other. Remember that the goal is to align everyone’s behavior with the organizational values to produce an exceptional culture, and systems allow you to ensure consistency across the organization.