How Leadership Impacts Organizational Culture

Wooden toy Blocks with the text: culture

Getting leaders to care about culture because it’s is a battle worth fighting. 

Organizational Culture, by definition, is the shared values and beliefs that guide thinking and behavior. If your mind just shifted by that definition, you are not alone. Most professionals think about the office building, ping pong tables, or cool perks that come with the job.  

Peter Drucker famously said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Drucker didn’t mean the strategy wasn’t necessary, but he did know that when a group of people are aligned with their values and beliefs, their habits and behaviors would be a more promising route to sustained success. 

Most employees want to be a part of an elite culture, but organizational leaders lack the knowledge and ability to make it happen. Instead, they pawn off the responsibility of culture to a company committee, HR team, or worse, ignore it altogether.  

If only more leaders grasped the leadership principle from Building the Best:

Culture starts with leaders, and their people prove it.  

Said differently, leaders create the culture which ultimately becomes the result. Embracing the responsibility that you both shape and impact the culture of your organization, team, or family is one of the most critical mindset shifts that happen in any leader’s journey. The reason is simple, when leaders prioritize culture, team members will gladly give the best version of themselves daily. 

If leaders prioritize culture, team members will gladly give the best version of themselves daily.

The Four Elements That Make Up Any Team’s Culture

Whether you are the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, lead a small team, or guide a family, four consistent elements make up any team’s culture. 

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Safety

Before people can perform at their best, they must first feel safe and protected. How does the current environment make your people feel? First, are the working conditions physically safe? Second, do team members feel psychologically safe to share ideas and feeling without fear of judgement or repercussions?

Unity

Inclusivity and people feeling like they are a part of something bigger than themselves help feed productivity and innovation. Does each person on your team feel like they are integral to your ultimate success? At the center of unity is mutual respect amongst team members and a feeling of belonging. 

Positivity

Beliefs drive people’s behaviors, and behaviors drive results. If your team’s beliefs are optimistic, the chances of a good things happening in the future are drastically higher than the alternative. Positivity is driven from the top-down, and it’s contagious. The late Colin Powell said it well in his book, It Worked for Me, “Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier.” The best leaders know that achieving higher success levels is impossible without optimism and belief. 

Energy

Energy keeps your team going and impacts the speed at which people perform. High energy yields high performance. You can always tell the energy of a team by what they’re doing midday. Have they settled into complacency, or are they revving their engines to power throughout the day?

It’s called an elite culture when all four of these elements are achieved simultaneously at high levels. Leaving the development of your team or organizational culture to chance will lead to thinking moving in a direction you may not like because culture is being shaped every day, whether you like it or not. If you do not mold and guide it, your team will end up disengaged, voluntary turnover will increase, and a lackluster attitude will develop. 

What Holds Leaders Back from Focusing on Culture?

Like many things, most leaders and organizations start with great intentions, and culture is no different. But when immediate results aren’t realized, people default to their old way of leading. 

When immediate results aren’t realized, people default to their old way of behaving.

Research from Quantum Workplace shows 65% of employees say their company culture has changed since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. As the workplace has changed, culture has too—for better or for worse. One of the downsides of remote work is the challenge of creating and sustaining the workplace culture. It’s difficult to build momentum and energy without being in the same room. However, just because it’s hard doesn’t mean it can’t be done. The ramification of leaders not focusing on culture, whether remotely or in-person, is steep. Disengaged employees are 3.8 times more likely to cite organizational culture as a reason for leaving than engaged counterparts. 

While each organization is a little different, the commitment to culture separates those who adopt and sustain it from those who do not.  

How to Create an Elite Culture

If you or your organization is committed to creating an elite culture, here are a few strategies to adopt.

1. Start with Core Values

It is a lot easier to create an elite culture when the core values of the team or organization have definition and are mutually agreed upon. Core values are a group’s fundamental beliefs and guiding principles. Here is a step-by-step guide that’s useful from BetterUp. 

It’s easy for an organization to say they have core values, but I look for proof beyond a few words written on walls or on an “about us” page. A good barometer is when leaders not only live them out consistently, but celebrate those who choose to live them out daily. 

Defining core values isn’t nearly as important as exercising them.

If you have core values, put them to the test. Ask your team the following:

  1. Can you define our core values?
  2. Can you tell me a time recently when I lived them out?

If you haven’t looked at your core values or talked about the previously defined values of your organization or team in a while, don’t do another thing before you do. 

2. Create a Culture Award

Most organizations have awards for top performers and top salespeople. However, just because you might be a great individual contributor doesn’t mean you help improve the culture. To further embed an elite culture into the fabric of your people, create a culture award.  

Take James Franklin, the head football coach at Penn State University, as an example. Hired in 2014, one of the first things Franklin did was establish four core values for his new team. His entire coaching staff and team members were measured against these values. They were plastered on walls, shirts, and in team binders. Franklin knew it was not the words themselves that were important, but rather the living out of those values.  

To help embed the values into the culture, he knew he had to reward, recognize and talk about them in a public setting. Each week during the season, Franklin gathered the entire team and gave out an award to one player in front of the entire team who best lived out the core values. It didn’t take long for the behavior on the team to shift. Players, hungry for their peers’ respect and recognition, wanted to win the culture award. They made choices to live out the core values in and outside their football duties. 

The moral of the story is to create a culture award on your team or organization for the member who best lives out the culture on an ongoing basis to sustain excellence. The best ones are names after a former colleague who embodied the values so it can live on long after you’re gone. 

3. Coach and Give Feedback Often

There is nothing easy about sustaining culture and energy. One of the best ways is to lean into people who are having challenges. Instead of passing judgment on team members who struggle to perform and contribute to the culture, get curious and start coaching. 

Instead of passing judgment on team members who struggle to perform, get curious and start coaching.

Bob Nardelli said, “without a coach, people will never reach their maximum capability,” and I couldn’t agree more. To help others achieve higher levels of excellence, check out Coaching for Excellence

Closing

Each organization and its leaders will go about creating an elite culture in slightly different ways. Regardless if you establish core values and principles or some alternative method. The key is that you must care about your culture and prioritize it daily. It’s absolutely a battle worth fighting.

The only question remaining is what are you doing to mold and shape your culture in a positive direction?

Coaching for Excellence Ready to take your coaching skills to the next level? Register for the next Coaching for Excellence Workshop

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Free Downloadable Coaching Cheatsheet There is nothing easy about coaching. So we put together a list of eight of the best coaching questions to help you. Download it for free here.

About the Author John Eades is the CEO of LearnLoft, a leadership development company helping executives and managers to lead their best. He was named one of LinkedIn’s Top Voices in Management & Workplace. John is also the author of Building the Best: 8 Proven Leadership Principles to Elevate Others to Success. You can follow him on Instagram @johngeades.

3 Proven Leadership Strategies to Set Your Team Up for Success This Year

Analyzing strategy

Most leaders can attest to this truth: Success doesn’t happen overnight or by accident. When you plan, strategize, and maintain the right mindset, it creates sustained performance. Pablo Picasso said, “Our goals can only be reached through the vehicle of a plan. There is no other route to success.” 

Unfortunately, most managers and executive leadership teams ignore this sound advice. Instead, they jump from one year to the next without much thought to strategy or planning. According to research outlined by Harvard Business Review, 85% of executive leadership teams spend less than one hour per month discussing strategy, and 50% spend no time at all. The research also reveals that, on average, 95% of a company’s employees don’t understand its strategy.

The best leaders spent dedicated time on a strategy to create focused execution.  

A strategy, by definition, is a plan of action intended to accomplish a specific goal. While the explanation is simple, few leaders use the downtime at the end of the year to set their team up for success in the new year. Instead, they roll into the new year by raising the revenue bar a little bit and hope the team achieves the new target. The problem is, as the late Rick page used to say, “hope is not a strategy.”

Hope is not a strategy.

So, whether you’ve spent a lot of time on strategy and planning yet or not, here are a few leadership moves to boost your team’s performance in the new year. 

1. Define New Goals and Systems

One of the most popular excuses I hear from leaders I coach who fail to meet their team goals each year is, “my employees aren’t good enough.” While talent could be lacking, employees are never the only problem. Edward Deming, the father of change management, said it well, “Employees are not the problem. The problem is the system and leaders are responsible for the system.”  

After working with various organizations to help their leaders improve their performance, I have concluded that team goals/systems fail for one of four reasons:

  • Clarity about the goals/systems
  • Commitment to the goals/systems
  • Agreement to the goals/systems
  • Coaching to achieve the goals/system

Now is the time to avoid these pitfalls, get crystal clear on what your team will achieve in the new year, and define the systems that will help you get there. 

Belief is a required ingredient for results. 

The truth is I don’t care whether you use OKR’s, KPI’s, WIG’s, or some other goal system. What I care about is that you select a method that works for you and your team. Because any method increases belief & belief is a required ingredient for results. 

2. Set the Crossbars, Standards, and Shelters

After studying thousands of organizations over the last ten years, I have noticed that world-class organizations have “Centers of Excellence” at every level. The leaders and team members are bought into the idea of excellence and the behaviors required to surpass ordinary standards year in and year out.  

I teach leaders who want to create “Centers of Excellence” in their sphere of influence to focus on crossbars, standards, and shelters. If you aren’t familiar with or haven’t been to one of our leadership workshops, the idea comes for the sport of High Jumping. The crossbar is the height in which the athlete must clear. The standards are what adjust the height of the crossbar. The shelter provides a safe place to land.  

Your job as a leader is to set inspirational crossbars (goals), define clear standards of behavior that are required to achieve those goals (standards), then create a psychologically safe environment for people to perform at their best (shelters).  

3. Schedule Personal Development Reviews

When individuals get better, the team gets better. The best leaders and teams understand this and work relentlessly to get improve. I share some ideas in a receive interview about why failure is not final; failure is feedback.

Instead of hoping your team members have this same mindset, it’s your job to encourage and coach them to improve in the new year. But, it turns out, most people have a warped sense of their strengths and weaknesses. The reasons for this are long, but it revolves around not being told the truth.  

If you want to set your team us for success in the new year, get the truth on the table. Schedule “Personal Development Reviews” (PDR’s) with each team member to share the truth about their strengths and weaknesses in a loving way. 

While this might seem like a meeting you could wing, it is not. It would help if you took time in advance to write out gains they have made and the opportunities for improvement for each team member. 

Individuals who make small improvements in themselves set their team up for big achievements. 

Professional Note: It’s tempting as a leader to share truths with team members and forget that you also are a work in progress. At the end of PDR’s, ask this question:

“I am working on my own development. What can I do more of or less of to help you become the best version of yourself?”

Closing

At the end of each year, I often reflect on the wise words of the late Colin Powell to prepare myself for success in the new year, “If you are going to achieve excellence in big things, you develop the habit in the little matters. Excellence is not an exception; it’s a prevailing attitude.”  

There has never been a better time to focus on the little things than the present. I hope you will make dedicated time to strategize and plan around some of these ideas to help set your team up for success in the new year. 

Free Downloadable Coaching Cheatsheet There is nothing easy about coaching. So we put together a list of eight of the best coaching questions to help you. Download it for free here.

John’s New Book John is finishing a brand new fable story about leadership and looking for volunteers to read or listen to the first four chapters and provide feedback.  By doing so, you will be entered to win a free signed it’s when it’s released.  If you are open to help, sign up here.

About the Author John Eades is the CEO of LearnLoft. He was named one of LinkedIn’s Top Voices in Management & Workplace. John is also the author of Building the Best: 8 Proven Leadership Principles to Elevate Others to Success. You can follow him on Instagram @johngeades.