Culture: What do we stand for?
You can get away with an undefined, poor or damaged culture. You may even, in the short term, be wildly successful. But great organizations, great teams, dynasties…no…that doesn’t happen without a deep and meaningful culture that permeates everything and everyone.
Culture is the sum of all individual behaviour. If you took the time to watch and quantify how each and every person in an organisation or team behaved and how they related to each other you would get a pretty clear picture of their culture.
Based on this, I used to think that building a high performing culture was just about defining a set of behaviours that aligned with your purpose and you would be able to begin to build a strong culture. But that doesn’t go far enough. Not even close.
Sure, behaviour is ultimately the reflection of Culture. The behaviour you see is just a look in the mirror. But what is driving that behaviour, what is the belief system, what set of values cause organisations and teams to behave the way they do? Culture then becomes more about what you stand for and who you are as an organisation.
Whether you are starting to build an organisation from the ground up or you feel like you need to change or strengthen your existing culture here are some thoughts to consider.
Culture is unique. Organizations are different, people are different, they each have distinctive reasons for existing and they pursue their chosen field of endeavor differently. Your organisation’s culture is its DNA, special and specific.
The question is, will your organization’s Culture be so clear, so strong and so aligned with its purpose that it will enjoy lasting success and stand out above all others as exceptional? To do that you need to know exactly who you are as an organization and what you stand for. Most lasting and successful cultures are absolutely clear about 5 things.
1. Values: All team members know what is valued most and what they stand for. This guides everyone’s behaviour.
2. Beliefs: All team members know what they believe in. What they hold to be the truth.
3. Relationships and Language: All team members define how they will relate to each other. Those relationships are built on specific norms of communication, language and behaviour.
4. Symbols: The organization has objects or signs that represent them. These symbols direct and guide behaviour, re-enforcing culture.
5. Rituals: The organization will have well established habits and behaviours that are consistently repeated, strengthening culture.
In strong cultures these things are not only crystal clear, they are embraced by everyone. But, ultimately it comes down to people. Let’s look at those who help build, re-inforce and sustain culture.
1. A Leader
When I look at modern organizations, those that in the past few decades have been uniquely successful on the back of an exceptional culture, I can only conclude that it all starts with a single individual. Jack Welch, GE…., Graham Henry, All Blacks…Steve Jobs, Apple, this list is endless.
Even when I consider those organizations and teams I have worked with over the past 20 years, there is always a single individual that either creates the culture from the very beginning or has been the one instrumental in turning losing or average organizations into exceptional performers.
But, they do not do it alone. Strong cultures may be led from the top, but they are built from the ground up.Their strength depends on each individuals contribution.
It is true that some have more influence over culture than others. We always look towards the Board/Executive Team Leaders. Those who, by virtue of their position, should set the example. They play a critical role in a robust and lasting culture. These are the people who actively promote the culture, coaching improvement and having tough conversations when cultural standards are not being met.
3. Lightning Rods
But there’s another group, sometimes designated, often not, that have a disproportionate influence. They are usually few in number but by their very nature, they are the embodiment of their culture. They are in effect a human symbol of everything the organization stands for. They are a cultural lightning rod. These folks without even a word or an action are able to galvanize a group simply by what they represent.
Now, all this is fine but ultimately a strong culture will come down to a single point of success or failure…individual responsibility.
A strong culture has meaning at every level. It has to ooze from the pores of every individual. Cultural strength is born out of each individual’s contribution, of people knowing what they stand for and along the way accepting they are a bit player in something far bigger than they are. Something that will last even when they are gone.
They know that while they are here, they have a responsibility to play their part as others have done before and will do after, but they must play their part, that is their responsibility, because culture is built by the individuals who touch it. As the All Blacks say, “Leave the jersey in a better place.”
The Great Test
BUT, what happens when it goes wrong. What happens when someone doesn’t act in accordance with expected standards and norms? How will people respond? Because it WILL happen. This is the great test of cultural strength.
Will it be allowed to pass, noticed but not addressed, or will another team member of the group call it?
HANG ON…THIS IS NOT WHAT WE STAND FOR!
The ultimate test… how will the most junior member of the team respond when faced with this challenge. A young employee watching a senior colleague behave in a way that is completely contrary to what he has learned and understands their culture to be.
HANG ON…THIS IS NOT WHAT I THOUGHT WE STOOD FOR!
A Final Point
Finally, as I write this, I am sitting in a coffee shop I have been coming to for over 10 years.
It only has a few employees but they are awesome. You feel welcome, the atmosphere is warm and comfortable, it feels like home. And of course, the coffee is perfect.
There is a leader, there’s a lightning rod and there is a wonderful team who all, to a person, have embraced a strong and lasting culture that has been built over a long period of time. It is unique and it’s special. Not surprisingly there has been little turnover of staff and the place is an extremely successful business.
The point is you don’t have to be a large multinational company or a national sporting team to build a meaningful culture that will underpin your success, to know what you stand for.