A Practical Way to Build Culture

Barry Goldberg On Leadership

A Practical Way to Build Culture

Few organizational leaders would argue the importance of culture-building. The very idea of culture is that it becomes a self-reinforcing, self-sustaining guide for both behavior and decision-making. And if nothing else, a strong culture is the antidote to the need to have ever more rules and regulations, which will never address all circumstances.

But organizational culture is often fuzzy. It is too easy to create a lofty, aspirational set of principles that read well but lose their power when it comes to practical day-to-day operations.

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That fuzziness is evident in the way most leaders even define culture. Statements like “It’s how we do things around here” may be true and accurate, but they are pretty hard to manage to or enforce. The idea that culture is definable, teachable, reinforceable and clear is core to the work of David Friedman, CEO of High Performing Culture LLC and author of “Culture by Design” who recently came to Little Rock to work with my Vistage peer advisory groups.

In a single morning workshop, Friedman walked our groups through what he calls “the no BS way to get it done.” This practical and actionable approach to culture-building introduced a very different way of defining culture — and sustaining it as well.

I often have seen executives spend long hours wrestling with the articulation of vision, values and culture that end as noble and hopeful ideas that lose their energy when moved into the ranks of the business. When any of those important statements are not integrated into how the organization operates on a daily basis, they morph from lofty ideals into objects of derision and cynicism by employees.

Friedman walked us through two foundational processes that are the key to making culture accessible, actionable, trainable and truly the way things get done. First, he turned the process of articulating culture upside down. Rather than start with an aspirational overarching statement, he suggested starting with behaviors that the owner or CEO believes will drive success in the organization.

While this might look easy, moving from the conceptual to the specific was more of a challenge than might be expected. As a starting place, Friedman shared two of the primary cultural norms from his own business: “Honor commitments” and “Be a fanatic about response time.”

When these are coupled with a short paragraph detailing specifics of the behaviors, it is easy to see how these are cultural norms that can be measured, built into processes, trained for and managed. There is nothing fuzzy or aspirational here. And because these are practical concepts connected to an important business process, these aren’t “bolt on” concepts. That makes including many of these cultural statements to build a high-performance culture possible and practical.

But articulating culture alone is not enough. It is incumbent on a leader to teach and reinforce it — again, as part of how things are done day to day at the organization. Friedman taught the use of a steady, constant and permanent process of discussing the importance, impact and execution of cultural tenets to fully inculcate in all employees at every level. He described a well-executed process of internal marketing to be certain that the behaviors were clearly understood and reinforced at every possible turn. And he was a font of practical ways to both articulate and reinforce those behaviors on an ongoing and permanent basis.

For so many organizations, culture is intangible, conceptual and aspirational. We got a master class in how to make it practical, sustainable and observable.

I. Barry Goldberg of Little Rock is an executive coach with a global practice and is Vistage CEO Peer Advisory Chair. Email him at BarryG@IBGoldberg.com.