How To Be a Culture Shifting Leader

Career Enrichment, Confidence, Leadership Coaching
01/28/19 - Foram Sheth

Culture – the heart and soul of an organization. Culture is the anchor that keeps the organization from drifting. It’s the unifying thread that holds a company together – the people, processes, and strategies. As the saying goes, at the end of the day, “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” In fact, it permeates every aspect of an organization. Therefore, we must protect and evolve our culture after we nurture it and intentionally develop it into what we want it to be.

Without a strong culture, an organization has no meaning. People don’t know why they do what they do, how they should act, feel or think about their work. The organization is lifeless.

Even worse, the kiss of death is an organization with a toxic culture. Imagine an environment where people gossip, don’t care about what they are doing and you’re treated like a number. No one wants that, and companies won’t survive that. When you don’t pay attention to your culture, it can easily become a toxic environment. You are responsible for shaping your culture and leading the charge.  

As a coaching company, we work with career transitioners and leaders from organizations of all sizes. The top reason we have found for individuals looking to switch jobs is because the company isn’t a right fit culturally. The roles and responsibilities were fine, but the culture wasn’t aligned with what they wanted, so they leave a stable, well-paying job to go someplace else.

When coaching leaders, a common theme is leaders wanting to build a good company culture. This is a broad statement and means different things to each individual. So a good starting point is, how do you shift a culture – whether that’s large scale for the whole organization or the culture within your team? And let me point out that you don’t need a grand title to influence the culture. Everyone influences and contributes to the culture.

Let’s talk about how to cultivate a culture you want.

How to be a culture shifting leader

1. Know where you are today and where you want to go

Ask yourself, what type of culture do you have today? How would you describe how your company operates? This is the unwritten rule book of how you function as an organization. I suggest asking others from different roles and levels how they would describe the culture with questions like:

  • When you think of <company name> what is the first word that comes to mind?
  • What does working here feel like?
  • What do you think this company truly values?
  • Which types of people tend to succeed here?

Listen carefully to the words they say look for common themes. Once you’ve defined your current state culture, then ask yourself, what do I want people to say about working at this organization? Ask the same questions as above but in an aspirational sense. (e.g., What do you want it to feel like to work here?) There must be a shared language and vision for what the culture should be. This is your goal post. Keep it top of mind.

2. Gap Analysis

My consulting brain can’t help itself. Now that you’ve defined where you are and where you want to go, it’s time to see what aspects of the culture already exist and what needs to be created. For the elements of the culture that are already there, write down how you’ll continue to preserve build on them. Be specific and describe the actions that you want to continue to see.

For the missing components, write down a detailed action plan on how you’ll get to the desired state. Again, be specific and describe the exact behaviors. For example, if you want a culture that empowers people, perhaps you want to see people speaking up more for what they want. Be sure to include a timeframe and the specific next steps you’ll take to encourage the behaviors.

3. Celebrate success

You have to reinforce the behaviors you want. Celebrate behaviors that support the culture you want. Positive reinforcement will help people know what good looks like and to continue building on those actions. And this also builds positive energy and confidence. It’s a win-win.  

4. Take action

This is specifically for you. You have to walk the walk, not just talk the talk. Don’t expect people to change their behaviors if you aren’t doing it yourself. Demonstrate how you want others to behave, and lead by example. People are looking for someone to follow, and it only takes one person to lead the pack.

5. Check in frequently

You have already defined the ideal culture and the steps on how you’ll get there. As time goes, check in on how the culture is shifting. Go back to bullet #1 – look at where you now and how far you’ve come from the starting point and how much further you need to go. Do your gap analysis again, and make sure you’re on the right path. Culture is a giant beast and it’s easy to get lost in the movement. Keep a pulse on your progress, keep getting feedback from your peers and re-work your plan to achieve your end goal.

6. Be consistent

Culture happens with consistency. It’s not a one-time town hall meeting or a one-time behavior change. The same behaviors and actions have to be repeated over and over again. It only takes one misstep for everything to wash away; it’s easy to break culture. And it takes years to build it up and forever to maintain it. So be consistent in the desired behaviors and actions and reinforce it throughout the organization.

7. Sync up processes

Culture sits at the center of the organization. Surrounding culture is people, process, products, strategy, etc. For example, let’s say you want to build a coaching culture – a culture that focuses on people development – then you might align your onboarding process to make sure the people you hire are people-focused. You could align your training to teach coaching skills. You may put in place performance competencies that evaluate leaders on how well they’re developing their teams. If you want to be a culture shifting leader, the surrounding processes must support that and be aligned with your future vision.

8. Communicate, then over-communicate

If you want to be a culture shifting leader, then make sure EVERYONE is in on it. Discuss during staff and team meetings the type of culture you want. Communicate where you’re strong, what needs work and how you will get there. Communicate how you’re doing and who exemplifies the right behaviors. When you think you’ve over communicated, you’ve done it just enough.

Culture is the lifeline of an organization. Employees must feel it, live it and embrace it. Employees must describe the culture in similar terms and care for it. Recruits must be aligned and be a good cultural fit. New hires must be trained on it. Experienced employees must lead by example. Culture is a lot of things and it’s no easy feat to shift a culture. But you can do it. Culture is what differentiates you from your competition. It’s culture that makes you a choice employer. It’s culture that retains your best talent. Everyone is responsible for culture. You are responsible for your company’s ideal culture as a culture shifting leader. So define it and make it happen.

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