In our last column, we talked about the harder work of leadership. All aspects of leading a team or organization are tough. Particularly during this difficult time, our full attention might be drawn to the urgent and immediate. We have seen that many leaders in our industry are strong at the tactical side of leading and have a great nose for finding opportunity. That’s one side of the leadership coin.
For many of us, the flip side of that same coin may not come as easily: leading from a genuine strategy, for example, or increasing employee engagement. That’s what is meant by the harder work.
We identified four cornerstones of enterprise-level leadership that, if not intentionally addressed by the senior leaders, will likely not happen on their own: creating culture, managing talented people, relentlessly focusing on vision, and stewarding the reputation of the organization.
Let’s delve a little deeper into each one over the next several issues, starting with culture. As we said last time, the most basic definition of culture is “the way we do things around here.” It is about the formal and informal and spoken and unspoken rules of work at your company.
A senior leader, particularly an owner, cannot discern culture single-handedly. You’re the boss, people behave differently around you. It’s just a fact of life. You’ll need people throughout the organization who will give you honest feedback, without fear of consequence.
Culture tends to calcify. Rules that once made sense, may now get in the way. So cultural change is not an event; rather it requires constant attention. Your organization is unique. While you may admire aspects of another company’s culture, that may not fit with what yours is right now. Think of how many companies thought ping pong tables and free pizza were the key to unlocking the millennial workforce, just because that was what we heard coming out of Silicon Valley.
In his book Great Mondays, Josh Levine identifies the building blocks of workplace culture.
- Purpose: The motivating force that both inspires and guides (also called vision)
- Values: Guardrails that establish behavioral expectations for everyone in the organization
- Behaviors: The culturally aligned actions in the work culture
- Recognition: How the organization supports and incentivizes values-aligned behaviors
- Rituals: The activities that create and strengthen relational connections
- Cues: Built-in reminders that keep everyone connected to the organization’s future
Let me illustrate just one of these building blocks: recognition.
While consulting with hundreds of companies in our industry, we often ask people in our initial interviews, “What does it take to get promoted around here?” and “What does it take to get fired around here?” It’s interesting to note how much emotional energy those two simple questions can generate.
Stories emerge, often ones that reveal hurt and resentment. When problem employees are allowed to continue in their bad behavior, when family members receive preferential treatment, or when compensation seems to be inequitable — all of these are factors combine to make up a company’s culture. People might not always quit over them, the over impact on employee engagement is ultimately negative. Your culture determines who wants to work for you, who wants to stay, and who needs to leave.
This is why creating and maintaining a healthy culture is a primary responsibility of leaders. Creating the environment where your people can thrive, where people want to go the extra mile, where underperformers self-select out — that’s something worth paying attention to.
Ron Magnus, managing director of FMI’s Center for Strategic Leadership, with Ed Rowell, CSL consultant