Create the “culture” you want

You’re a leader in a large organization with a whole lot of “rules” – both written and unwritten – about how people “should” behave.

More than likely, there are parts of the culture that are healthy (let’s hope so, or your business won’t be around for long!). Unfortunately, there are also the “sticky” parts – the “accepted” behaviors that often get in the way of productivity or moving the business forward.

Culture eats Strategy for Breakfast

Management guru Peter Drucker famously said “Culture eats Strategy for breakfast”. Corporate leaders globally are just beginning to scratch the surface of just how important it is to align organization culture and leadership behaviors in order to successfully implement strategy.

For the purpose of this discussion, I’m going to assume that your strategy is clear and well articulated. Let’s also assume that you are aware that certain cultural attributes or behaviors within your organization could be counterproductive.

If you are a CEO or part of the senior leadership team, it’s your responsibility to be acutely aware of the behaviors that will be required to implement your strategy, and to understand the counterproductive behaviors that are getting in the way.

Putting in place a corporate wide program to address changes of this magnitude is a lot harder than publishing corporate values or credo. It’s about rewarding the desired behaviors while having the discipline and patience to “re-wire” the counterproductive behaviors that the organization has likely acquired over decades.

YOU are the culture leader in your team

So, let’s say you agree that culture needs to evolve in your organization.

You want your team to be more productive, more innovative, more collaborative, more empowered, more _________ (fill in what’s missing for you). But you feel that it’s so hard to move the needle because the existing corporate culture is overpowering and too firmly entrenched.

After all, how can a single leader impact “culture”, right?

I’d challenge you to turn this problem upside down, and ask yourself this question:

How is the culture ever going to change, if it doesn’t start with me?

Even if the broader organization isn’t ready to openly tackle culture, you still have the power to impact the “culture” in your immediate work unit. Whether you are the CEO or on the front line, your behaviors matter. The way you choose to conduct yourself will either perpetuate the “sticky” parts or reinforce the “healthy” parts of your company’s culture. Modeling positive behaviors is the best method to demonstrate your personal commitment, and also has an immediate impact on those around you.

Lift your team out of cultural behavior “traps”

What about those situations where you find that others on your team or other groups inside of your organization are “stuck” (indecision, misalignment, disagreement, etc.) and your best influence doesn’t seem to be moving things forward? Here are three thought-provoking questions you might want to ask your teammates if you are facing this challenge:

a) What is our higher mission or “strategic” goal here?

b) What is the real problem we are trying to solve, and how does it relate to our business strategy?

c) What decisions can we make right now, that are within our control to recommend or implement, that would move us forward AND best support the strategy?

Too often when culture and behavior issues get in the way, the team is losing sight of their higher purpose. To be fair, it’s very easy to lose sight of strategy when the issue at hand is a specific project milestone or an operational issue. When dealing at these levels, secondary goals, like functional or personal priorities, career management, risk-avoidance, turf protection, maintaining power, or other short term issues get in the way of the true longer-term mission (serving the customer, growth, profitability, etc.). Sometimes just creating awareness of the higher goal is all that is needed for everyone involved to move past some of the behaviors that are getting in the way of progress.

Be an inclusive, open role model

The key to success with these questions is to leave them open-ended. Everyone came into the room with a set of pre-conceived notions about the problem, the possible solutions or reasons why they might limit their cooperation. Allow other ideas surface without immediately judging or dismissing them. You’ll be amazed at how often this approach can generate a hybrid or new solution that is truly win/win.

Here is the most important thing to take away from this article. The people in your organization follow you. They are watching every move you make. If they see that you are exhibiting “counterproductive” behaviors, they will automatically adjust to accommodate. They won’t take a risk because they “think” you won’t support it. They may not even speak up, because they fear new ideas may be perceived as a challenge to your authority. And so it goes … one action (or inaction) at a time, milestones get missed, the strategy lags, and results suffer.

Taking control of the culture within your team, whether or not it is supported by a corporate initiative, is the single most effective action you can take to differentiate yourself as a leader. Here are some signs that you are creating a positive culture in your work unit:

Your team will respond with their full energy and commitment, because they know they are making a difference.

Your team will spread the word about how fortunate they are to be working for a leader who respects and supports a collaboarative, productive work environment.

Top talent will start letting you know that they are interested in joining your team.

Previously underappreciated talent will start performing at much higher levels.

Other parts of the organization that previously did not cooperate well, will start proactively seeking ways to support and be associated with the success you are having.

The business world is changing rapidly, and it’s never been more important to be adaptable in the way that we lead our organizations.

So don’t get stuck in the past. As a leader, it’s your responsibility to have the courage to stand for what you believe in, and to demonstrate this to your team by building the right culture to support the strategy.

If you’re looking to tackle this challenge in your organization, reach out to me at brad@merkelgroup.com. Let’s have a discussion about what sets you apart!

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