Leaders Are Guardians Of The Culture

Culture is not something that can be dictated by the management team from top down. Culture is the manifestation of the practices that the organization lives day in and day out. Culture doesn’t equal to the mission statement or the proclaimed company values that HR posts on the bulletin board every now and then. It is not something that is being spread through companywide emails or all-hands meetings. It can be guided and molded by the executive team but ultimately it is build by every single employee.

So what is the role of a leader when it comes to culture? By leaders, I mean both, those with positional authority as well as leaders who are individual contributors. Leaders are the guardians of the culture. True leaders live and breathe the culture of the company and are there to promote it, to guide the teams and to lead by example, by exhibiting the desired values.

Keep reminding what the values are by living them

Company culture starts with clarity around its mission and values. The mission of the company is something that comes from the executive team. Well thought out mission considers the needs of all the major stakeholders. It is not only about the customers or the owners, but also the employees and partners. Culture is about how the mission of the company translates to the daily work of the team members.

When it comes to values the situation is a bit more complicated. As I mention in You Can’t Lead Without Values And Principles there are the aspirational values of the company that are being printed on the walls and then the actual core values of the business that are being lived through the day. It is a responsibility of the leader to understand what the difference is and live by the aspirational values. The more the employee sees their leaders exhibiting the desired values the more likely it is that they also adopt them as their own. Over time, the aspirational values become the real core values of the company.

“Leaders are the guardians of the culture. The live and breathe the culture, promote it, guide the teams, and lead by exhibiting the desired values.”

Provide feedback and hold people accountable

Leading by example is only the first step. How you react to people who exhibit behavior that doesn’t align with the core values is the real job of the guardian of the culture. People don’t behave in a certain way because someone tells them to. They need to understand the benefits of such behavior and they need to see what the natural consequences of their actions are if they don’t. It is not about what behavior you preach, but about what behavior you tolerate.

For example, if your core values are honesty and transparency, you sit on a meeting where information is not being shared freely, people are even lying to each other, and you don’t do anything, you failed as a leader. You need to surface the issue and deal with it. Everyone on the team, starting with the boss to the most junior person needs to be held accountable. If people see that there are consequences of them breaking the principles of the culture you are trying to create, they have essentially two options. Either they jump on board and gradually build the habits aligned with the culture, or if the company values you promote are not aligned with their core values they select themselves out.

“It is not about what behavior you preach, but about what behavior you tolerate.”

Catch people when they do something right and provide encouragement

Positive encouragement works. Many of us forget that and tend to be more critical than encouraging. If you see that something is wrong you provide the feedback, you come up with a plan how to fix it, you even share the lessons learned with others so they don’t run into the same issue. How often do you do the same when something goes right?

If you are good at encouraging and praising your people, you will catch them when they do a good job and appreciate in timely manner. Not just by saying, “good job,” but by providing enough context to help the person realize in what way it is a good job and help him repeat it in the future. “John, this was a great job you did with the presentation to customers. I appreciate the clarity of your points, easy to follow and calm way you presented it and the way you handled the difficult questions. You were able to say what needed to be said, and kept internal things confidential without being evasive. I even got feedback from several customers who liked that you very directly point out what you can say and what not so they felt you can be trusted.”

Encourage the right rituals by setting up processes and empower people

Culture is about habits. And habits are formed from discipline. And discipline is best ensured by easy to follow and difficult to avoid rituals. Everyone who is into building habits or getting rid of bad ones will tell you that the environment plays a big role. Let’s say you want to eat healthy. It is not only about having the strength and perseverance it is also about what you can do to make it a bit easier for yourself. Get to your fridge and throw out everything not healthy. Change the route you take from work so you don’t walk around the ice cream parlor. Get an accountability buddy who will hold you accountable for what you eat.

The same applies to building a culture. If you work with your team on the right set of processes and rituals, you can make it much easier for everyone to get the right habits built, and get rid of the bad ones. I live in the world of software development and one of the reasons I’m into agile software development methodologies is that not only they give you the principles of how to work, but also point out the daily, weekly, or monthly rituals that will make it easier for you and your team to get the right agile habits and mindset. You don’t need to be a software developer, just look at some of the oldest jobs like farming, or even better look at any religion. Rituals have their place in our lives because they help us to get through our days with more ease. Building and using habits that are agreeable with the society and that helps us all function together.

“Rituals have their place in our lives because they help us to get through our days with more ease and help us all function well together.”

Share the right stories to reinforce the company values

Lex Sisney in his book Organizational Physics talks about importance of stories in company culture. When I talked about catching up people when they do something right I used the example of John. What very few of us actually do is taking this to the next level and having this conversation not just with John, but sharing it with others on the team thus spreading the best practices, and specifically pointing out the behaviors that align with company values and that make it more clear and easy to mimic for others.

“Stories are extremely powerful devices when influencing behavior of others.”

One of the aspects that shape organization’s culture is the type of formal and informal stories that are being shared. It is not only about what the boss highlights at all-hands meeting, but also about the stories that leaders use in their daily interactions with the teams and the informal stories team members share around the watercooler. You as a leader have a responsibility to share the right stories. Stories that highlight the right behaviors that will make the individual and company successful.

If you follow your feedback to John with building a short story you frequently use when talking to others about how to present the product portfolio to customers it will have a bit of impact. This story will have even bigger impact when it is shared by John’s colleague who saw it and understood that this is exactly of what you expect from the team. Stories are extremely powerful devices when influencing behavior of others. If you want to learn a bit more check out Mentoring By Telling Stories or read some works of Steve Denning.

As a leader you can’t force the culture on your teams. You can’t just print the mission and company values on a piece of paper and post it on a notice board and believe that you build a culture. Culture is being built by the actions of you and the team every single day. Culture is about the values, the rituals, the stories being shared, about the accountability and what behavior you as a leader promote and tolerate.


What do you believe is the role of leadership when it come to a company culture? And what are the corner stones of the culture that needs to be taken care of?

Photo: edusoft / Pixabay.com

Categories: Leadership

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