Culture: First Things First

Tips for Leaders - Pass It On!

If you run in the same types of circles that I do, you can't go an hour without thinking about, hearing about, or being asked about culture. Everyone is talking about what programs they are implementing, how they are redesigning their organizational structure, even adding free beer to the lunch room (I'm not kidding!) But none of these exercises matter when you miss the first and most critical element of a culture.

At the heart of every strong culture there is a set of guiding principles that everyone “gets”—at a soul level. It drives what people will pursue and how they will treat each other and your clients. No matter the cost, the group will not violate its principles because the pain of living outside of its values is more hurtful than any other loss. In the 6th edition of The Leadership Challenge, Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner write that their "studies have shown that shared values foster heightened levels of motivation and intense feelings of personal effectiveness. They promote pride, high levels of company loyalty (lower turnover), and teamwork, and reduce levels of job stress and tension." Sounds like all the things that happen when you have a great culture, right?

This is probably something that is intuitive to you. But the real question is how did those teams get so aligned to begin with? We may get that a strong culture is based on shared ideals, but have no idea where to start to build those ideals. So, how do we get that done?

Here's the hardest, simple answer to that question: it starts with you.

In every strong culture we admire, there was that one person who had the courage to figure out what they stand for and to share it, openly through word and deed, and never waiver. That person develops TRUST and others begin to WANT to be associated with that person because that person's steadfastness is a reflection on THEM. They are wise with their words, attention and time to ensure that they all align with who they espouse to be. They make it safe for others to share their values too, and they LISTEN and CARE about what they hear. Only then can the organization and its members develop a language of its own and develop the culture it wants.

So, we can create all the culture teams and programs that we want, and they may land or not. But you cannot create anything lasting without first addressing the values of the organization by being clear about yours. And it just takes that one person to get started. Will it be you?


Amanda Nelson,
MBA, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, is a Certified Master-in-Training of The Leadership Challenge and currently Director of Human Resources at Lerch Bates, Inc. where she oversees global HR functions, including culture development, succession planning, and performance management. She lives to help others win in life and work through coaching and facilitating leadership development experiences. She can be contacted at amandanelson.sphr@gmail.com or follow her on LinkedIn

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