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8 Strategies on How To Build a Culture That Sticks ("Don't Just Talk About It, Be About It")

Articles

Daniel LeMoine is a social entrepreneur, change-maker, and writer. Here he writes at the intersection of faith, work, & building a matterful career.

8 Strategies on How To Build a Culture That Sticks ("Don't Just Talk About It, Be About It")

Dan LeMoine

My buddy Tim used to always say,

"Don’t just talk about it, be about it."

We can talk ad nauseum about culture, doing the most human thing, the reason behind delightful design, and the purpose of business, but at some point we need to bring our ideas on culture and brand and values from the theoretical to the practical. We must create a framework and formula to operate from.

Over the next several days I'll be building out this post—each day adding a new element which will help you in the articulation, implementation, and execution of your values and purpose as a leader and organization. These are tactics and strategies I've either used, are currently using, and/or have seen other leaders use effectively to bring these ideas of purposeful work culture and brand identity to life within their organizations.

ELEMENT #1: BUILD TRACTION THROUGH COLLABORATION

Things like brand platforms and culture codes are great first steps in defining who you are as an organization, what you value, and how those values inform how you feel, sound, and look as an organization. These "shared purpose" documents are powerful starting points in building a meaningful brand experience and casting the vision for your team.

These things, while great, can still keep you too much the clouds and never truly work themselves out in a practical way in your daily operations and culture. The last thing you want is to spend the energy and resources creating something that just sits up on Google Drive and grow weeds. 

One powerful tactic to help mitigate this, and truly create buy-in is to involve people in the process of building this cultural collateral. Invite your playmakers and challenge your leaders to have an active hand in crafting these things.

This creates a shared sense of ownership among your most valued humans. It helps create proud ambassadors of your brand and culture, both internally and in the marketplace.

Because we often discover what we believe in the course of actively articulating it, what better way than to have a cultural "task force" of sorts collaboratively capturing who you are and who you want to become as an organization?

Build buy-in and traction through collaboration.

ELEMENT #2: SET A DEADLINE. SHIP. ITERATE. REPEAT

Once you've begun building buy-in through inviting your key playmakers and stakeholders into the creation process of your cultural collateral you're crafting to help inform who you are and who you're becoming as an org, you need to get that thing out into the world. It's far to easy to just ...whoever is taking the lead on this project needs to set a date and ship it.

Parkinson's Law is the is the truism that: work will expand to fill the time available for its completion. Meaning, give yourself a freaking deadline to actually ship your project, otherwise you'll just keep tweaking and perfecting and never actually get it out into to the world to make an impact. 

In creating our brand platform for Doulos (the document describing and guiding how we look, how we feel, how we sound as a school/ministry to the outside world), I set a series of mini-deadlines to ship each section of our brand platform draft to our team of collaborators to add input on each week for input.

Without a deadline(s), procrastination-parading-as-perfectionism is inevitable.

Set a final date for a launch party/celebration within your company. Not only will this force you to actually ship your strategic plan, brand book, culture code, or policy, but will help the idea spread.

This will help get your project completed AND will also be a crucial step in building a broader buy-in across your entire organization—getting them excited about your new direction, and the cultural identity or standard you want to living into.

Be sure to make it as much of a party as you can. Build buzz. Have food, always have food. And be proud as you actively work to create and direct your company culture in an intentional and relevant way.

ELEMENT #3: MODEL & TRAIN [I.E. EDUCATE]

DON'T LEAVE CULTURE TO CHANCE

Don’t assume people know how to "do culture" well.

Culture happens (good or bad), and without intention in creating the proper environment of shared values and purpose, you open yourself to simply having a mediocre culture (or worse).

Training and on-boarding your new (and used) team members on “this is how we do it here” is crucial.

Now, practically, this shouldn't look like a mandate as much as an invitation—an invitation to live into your ideal culture. An invitation which empowers and challenges your team to steward well the power they each have in crafting and living into this culture. 

Yes, "trainings" may not be the most efficient use of time...but I promise you the evidence is showing, culture and purpose and mission matter deeply to win in business.

You may get some indifference or complaints. Stay the course. Know that there will always be folks who can't be bothered by this type of woo-woo stuff. But rest assured, this stuff matters.

CULTURE IS A COMPETITVE ADVANTAGE

If your sole purpose in your business is to make money (or in your ministry is only to get more people in the seats), then this won't matter. But if we truly want to create places of work where humans flourish — which, if you're still reading, chances are you do — then this is important work.

Approaching this stuff intentionally is not only the right thing to do, it's a strategic thing to do as well. Culture is a massive competitive advantage, and it pays to model and train the same way we train employees in other aspects of their work.

Not only does this helps galvanize long term direction and vision, but also solidarity, organizational trust, continuity and transparency. All which flow to the bottom line by building long-term engagement among your team (lower turnover, ability to attract top talent) and creating raving fans of your customers (as more people want to put their money in endeavors with purpose and care).

MODELLING TRUMPS TRAINING 

While formal training is important, at the end of the day we are social learners. Seeing culture and values and purpose modeled well by leadership will trump any workshop everyday of the week. All the training won't help if we're not modeling our values well. We as leaders have a crucial obligation and responsibility to model the culture well ("BE about it" remember)

This relates and leads to our next element...

ELEMENT #4: FOLLOW THE BRIGHT SPOTS

We won’t always get it right. As any business leader or entrepreneur or artist or impresario will tell you, you will mess up…lots. Those you work for and those who work for you will not be 100% on-point 100% of the time (“60 percent of the time, it works every time” Anchorman, anyone?…I digress). I love how Hubspot describes their own culture code: “This document is part manifesto and part employee handbook. It’s part who we are and part who we aspire to be." They know they won't get it right every time, but it's an identity to live into.

One of the most effective long term tactics in living into the meaningful culture you desire is the consistent celebration of what is working well. Rather than pointing out where your team is failing, complaining about what isn’t working (without every proactively bringing solutions), gossiping about how stuff isn’t meeting your expectation, or how so-n-so isn’t living into the cultural standard you desire to uphold, focus on what is working. What the Heath brothers call “following the bright spots” in their book Switch! How To Change Things When Change is Hard.

According to a good friend who is a master of community development and crafting programs which create space for good things to run wild, this “focusing-on-what’s-already-working-then-celebrating-the-crap-out-of-it” is a powerful tactic in what he calls Asset Based Community Development.

When entering a community with hopes of bringing development and change and goodness—find the people, places, and things that are already working and already fostering community and already helping people flourish to some degree. Then identify creative and sustainable ways to breath life into those things. In other words... “Follow The Bright Spots"

I saw this modeled exceptionally well during my time building our social business accelerator. During our upstart phase I was put in touch with an organization called Social Entrepreneur Corps’ Community Empowerment Solutions. I was blown away at how their model/approach worked.

In short, their Micro-Consignment Model works to identify “local assets” — that is, locals who are vouched for by the community or local leadership — who are reputable, honest, hard-working, and entrepreneurial. CES then trains these entrepreneurs to start social-minded micro-businesses while also training others to run these consignment-based micro-businesses as well…Follow The Bright Spots.

So whether you’re trying to institute a change in culture at the office, at your weekly basketball game, or within your family—follow the bright spots to lead the change.

ELEMENT #5: BE TRANSPARENT

This one is tightly related to modelling & training (element no. 3, above), but is worthy of its own section. Transparency leverages consistency of character.

When you’re transparent as a leader—sharing information, trust, and responsibility generously—it cultivates empathy and trust among your team. This tactic is powerful for two reasons.

First is, when you’re transparent, it’s very difficult to live antithetically to the values you proclaim as important for your culture. At some level, each one of us wants to live consistent with what we say/believe, but we all have our moments of hypocrisy or inconsistency; the places and times when our actions fall short of what we aspire to. However, the more open and transparent we are, the easier it is to identify our inconsistencies, correct course, and live into the values we set for ourselves.

Second reason being transparent is a powerful tactic is that it helps to cultivate grace, patience, understanding, and empathy within your team culture. When you are appropriately open about your vulnerabilities, challenges, and weaknesses, it humanizes you to your team and makes you a stronger leader. By “taking up residency” among your team in this way—i.e. being more relatable—it actually turns the conventional/traditional frameworks of power and leadership on their heads, making you a more followable teammate and leader.

ELEMENT #6: Build in visual cues

Whether you’re a solo-preneur or work on a robust team—your physical environment matters. It’s no big trick that using visual cues and crafting your environment can help you achieve your performance goals. But why not build in cues for cultural excellence and identity-based goals as well.

Whether we realize it or not (does a fish even know it’s in water), our environment shapes us, for good or for mediocre. As leaders we need to do what we can to craft our physical environment to inspire and support our cultural and character goals for our team, not distract from them.

College campuses are great examples. You walk onto a beautifully manicured college campus you can’t help but walk a little taller, feel a little more confident. Those places reek of excellence.

Physical workspace is a powerful way to push us towards who we want to be. Use visual cues and inspiring space and delightful aesthtic to win the cultural battle. Don’t underestimate the power of space.

ELEMENT #7: Build in feedback loops & Listen (with Humility)

Feedback Loops

If you’re not engaging with your clients and with your employees/teammates in a way that provides cues as to whether or not we’re living what we say we value, then you’re essentially running blind.

There is only so much we can do to self-regulate and self-evaluation before we need to look outside. We need to gather feedback on whether we’re actually walking the walk. Sometimes this is über-practical like sending out a customer survey or a 360° Feedback Evaluation.

It also be feedback loops like employee absenteeism, simply following up with each and every new client or employee to have a conversation, and/or trusting your gut feeling about the state of your culture.

As we increase in our social and emotional intelligence, it’s easier and easier to identify when something is “off” within a given work culture. It’s then our job as leaders (aka “thermostats") to know what to correct course and set the new tempo.

Listen (with Humility)

The extent to which you humble yourself and listen well is the extent you will profit from the feedback you get. It's as simple as that. First step in being able to lead and craft a culture is listening with open hands to those who occupy and inhabit this culture.

ELEMENT #8: Connect yourself and others to The Why

Why are you doing what you do as a business. It’s not (read: shouldn’t be) to make money. That’s just a rule to the game, not the ultimate goal.

Knowing why it is you do what you do. Reminding yourself and your team of that continually. Discovering and living out what you believe—about the world, the purpose of your work, and the meaning of your life within your organization and outside of it—is paramount.

Be radical about your self-inquiry and diligent in your focus on others.

Working to live a life of/with/on purpose is the only way we can transform an otherwise sterile/neutral sphere of culture like business for good.

Robert Safian, editor of Fast Company magazine believes business is THE driving force for progress in modern culture.

He says, "We’re not in business to make money; we make money so we can stay in business. […] Not all enterprises embrace that sense of mission, but the ones that do have shown that it is, paradoxically, a highly effective way to deliver financial success."

Staying closely connected with your purpose and your why is a massive key to galvanizing the edifying culture you’re creating through your work. 

//

That’s it for this novel-of-a-post. Thanks for hanging in there. This certainly isn’t a comprehensive list but I hope it gives you some tactics and strategies to help you become more of a thermostat than a thermometer when it comes to leading-up and creating a work culture you're proud of.

Serve hard, sell soft, and keep making culture.

Dan 


THIS ARTICLE MAKES UP NO. 27-35/100 OF #THE100DAYPROJECT AND 100 DAYS OF WRITING.

TO FIND OUT MORE ABOUT THIS EXPERIMENT IN CREATIVITY, DISCIPLINE, LEADING UP, AND SLAYING PERFECTIONISM CHECK OUT THIS POST.