Culture is simply “how we do things here,” a set of beliefs and habits that influence how people behave. Culture forms over time and determines what happens when authorities are not present, setting the tone for the organization and the norms for acceptable behavior. Lou Gerstner, after his spectacular turnaround of IBM, wrote,
“…culture isn’t just one aspect of the game—it is the game.”
Every organization has a culture, explicit or implicit. Explicit is better because it means the leaders understand the importance of culture and are paying attention to it.
A healthy culture doesn’t guarantee success, but it provides the foundation for building an excellent, ethical, and enduring organization. We call this a culture of character.
How can leaders build a culture of character? Here are four focus areas:
1. Set Inspiring Colors. The colors of an organization are the purpose, values, and vision. Is your purpose to “maximize shareholder value”? Good luck setting a culture of character. Do your values include integrity (or some synonym)? If not, do you think people will achieve their results ethically? Is your vision to be a “world-class” whatever? That’s uninspiring jargon. (See our Colors chapter in Triple Crown Leadership for examples of how to set inspiring colors.)
2. Careful People Selection. Whether in initial recruiting or in promotions, triple crown organizations seek both competence and character. Most organizations look only at the head stuff (technical skills, education, experience, etc.)–important, of course, but insufficient. Heart qualities of integrity, trustworthiness, civility, and passionate commitment are needed as well.
3. Purposeful Leadership Practices. Leaders of organizations with healthy cultures role model the desired behavior, talking about the culture often and emphasizing the need to operate by the shared values. They are transparent with colleagues, accessible, and good listeners. They use the hard edge of leadership when necessary but most often are at the soft edge–letting others lead and coaching them along the way.
4. Unleashing Stewards. Healthy-culture organizations self-regulate by fostering stewards in the ranks. They may not have formal authority, but they do have an irrevocable license to act by the organizational colors and culture of character. They guard the organization’s values and monitor its ethics. They model the desired behavior of the enterprise, working on the business, not just in it, stepping outside their functional positions to influence how others behave. In so doing, they give the organization its soul.
Depending on the size, locations, and diversity of an organization, it can take years to build the desired culture, especially if a toxic culture is being replaced. Still, the efforts are worthwhile because a healthy culture creates a self-reinforcing cycle with all stakeholders, unleashing talent and boosting productivity, retention, revenue, profitability, and joy at work.
Culture is the legacy of leadership. A culture of character is the legacy of triple crown leadership.
1. Does your team have a noble set of colors (purpose, values, and vision) that actually guide the day-to-day work?
2. Are you choosing people for competence, character, and cultural fit?
3. Do people in your organization, regardless of their title, have a license to act as long as they uphold the colors?
4. Are you a leadership steward?
Bob and Gregg Vanourek are co-authors of the book, Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations, a winner of the International Book Awards.