Culture can be a funny thing. Culture just happens, but left to evolve on its own usually does not yield great results. I have to remind myself not to fall into the trap of thinking that cultures like those of Zappos or Google happened by chance. It is not like the founders and leaders of these companies just hired a bunch of cool people and let nature takes it course.
As a leader if you are not intentional about your culture, then you will end up with a culture of chaos. In the book “First Break All the Rules,” authors Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman talk about how a leader must define goals and measure those goals in order to create a culture of performance. That type of culture of performance means as a leader that we should measure the outcomes and not the means. It sounds rather simple when you are a startup company with a blank slate, right? You simply determine the goals, hire the talent, and just like that, you are creating a culture that delivers and attracts the best talent. I am not so sure that is the case, and having never been part of a startup, I can only speculate that creating a culture is easier.
At one juncture in my career, I came into an organization where the previous leader had been there for well over a decade. The first thing I did was sit down one-on-one with each of my employees. I asked them all the same series of questions so that I would have comparable data. I also allowed time during the one-on-one for open dialog; I wanted to get to know the person better and to see where the conversations would go. I discovered something in these meetings that I had not planned. Each employee had painted a picture from their own perspectives of my predecessor. It was clear that this person was very much a command and control leader.
The culture I walked into was very much one of top-down leadership. This type of culture used to work. It is what my grandparents and parents experienced without any real complaint. It was just the way things worked in the professions they choose. However, as the borders of our worlds broadened and information became rapidly accessible, this concept of top-down control changed. Companies began realizing that by tapping into every employee, you can innovate and grow at a much more rapid pace than when you rely on one person or a small group to do all the thinking.
Changing a culture is not easy. As a new leader, you cannot walk into an established organization, hang a few signs, treat everyone to lunch and check off the “culture correction complete” box in your 90-day plan. Creating a culture is a journey, and not a destination. We all love an easy answer, but a great culture requires great effort and time to get just right. And frankly it’s never perfect, but we should always be working on incremental improvement. There is a reason patience is a virtue. It also requires authenticity. If you truly want to influence a culture, you truly have to be aligned with the changes you are trying to make.
I decided I would start at home. The culture I have the most influence over is my family culture. Yes, even our families have a culture of their own. Remember, culture refers to those beliefs and behaviors shared and exhibited by a collective group. When my wife and I started a family, we wanted to be intentional about how our family would conduct themselves; how would we instill into our children the core values we held so dear. Learning from other fathers and husbands, I decided we should create a family declaration. My wife and I worked on what we call the Walden Declaration and began reading it to our children at night when we sat down for dinner. The cool thing is over time they began to be able to read the declaration themselves to us.
There is something powerful about speaking the words out loud. Our declaration states what we believe as a family and serves as a guide post to how we will conduct ourselves. Living what we declare results in the culture of our family. This is the same way it works in our professional lives. Organizations create values and hold each other accountable for walking them out. Really mature organizations tie their performance reviews and merit pay to these values.
However, as leaders our influence on culture cannot stop there. As I said, hanging a few posters up with your company values will not be enough to ensure your culture mirrors those values. Your associates have to buy in; they have to read the values allowed, see them modeled. As a leader you can begin to influence the culture, regardless of how long you have been in your role. It does not require a leadership change or scraping the entire department to intentionally bring about a culture change.
- If your company has a set of values, then personally adopt them. Name yourself the unofficial value champion and start to use these values in your conversations with your staff.
- Gather your direct reports and write a declaration. Declare how your team will operate in alignment with those values.
- Intentionally incorporate the team declaration into your meetings, recognition systems and challenge others to live out these values as they engage with each other and the customer.
- Incorporate a cultural assessment into your hiring practices.
Over time these behaviors will have a positive influence on your company culture. I challenge you to at home as well. What if we all had a family declaration? We proudly display ours for anyone to see who comes into our home. We do not impose our values on others, but we do hold ourselves publicly accountable. For me, just knowing where people stand allows me to better understand them — this is no different for us as leaders of an organization.
I will leave you with our Walden Declaration in hopes it might inspire you to create one for your family or team.
- I declare I am grateful for who God is in my life and for what He’s done.
- I will not take for granted the people, the opportunities, and the favor He has blessed me with.
- I will look at what is right and not what is wrong.
- I will thank Him for what I have and not complain about what I don’t have.
- I will see each day as a gift from God.
- My heart will overflow with praise and gratitude for all of His goodness.
That is our Family Declaration.