Defining a culture is easy: as I’ve written about before, it’s what you do and who you promote. Working that culture into something that you want or changing a pre-existing culture, and then maintaining it, is not easy – no matter what people try to tell you. Whether it’s a company, a department, or a project team, you’re going to struggle to build and maintain the culture you want. Getting people aligned with your vision requires change, which, as we all know, people tend to resist. They do so for a variety of reasons – even people who are actually “change-friendly” sometimes can’t help themselves from hindering progress.
There are thousands of resources available to leaders who wish to embark on a change process, ranging from high-priced consulting firms to free e-books, all of which will provide a variety of strategies, frameworks, tactics, benchmarks, and advice on how to do it. I’m not here to say that any of those avenues is better or worse than any other. That’s a fight for another day.
What I am going to do is give you three fundamental steps you absolutely need to take before any of those options even have a prayer of working.
How many times have you heard the phrase “culture change starts with you“? There’s a reason everyone repeats this mantra: because it’s true. If you’re reading this you probably already get that leadership is about modeling behavior, encouraging and supporting your followers, and reinforcing good behaviors – not just telling folks what to do, or inflicting yet another “initiative” on your people. So how can you start building the change yourself?
Here are The Three C’s, words which I’ve had burned into my brain over the years:
Commit. Communicate. Count.
COMMIT. It sounds trite, but it really takes commitment – you have to live the example, actually walk the talk. If you don’t, your people will immediately sniff it out. As everyone in the social sphere loves to say, authenticity is essential. You know baloney when you hear it, and you disregard it; so does everyone else. Pick three to five core values that you want to define your group and live them. They have to be values you really believe in, and will continue to believe in long-term (hence the term “commit”).
My first management gig was leading a team that handled research and field support for teams of hardened political consultants and their managers – veteran campaigners all, Type A people, working multiple campaigns with tight deadlines and no prize for 2nd place. Our livelihoods depended on making and keeping these folks happy. So, for my team, I picked five core values – simple and clear ones – and I committed to them:
I wanted a team that put customer satisfaction before everything else; a team that succeeded and failed together rather than as individuals; a team focused on fixing problems and improving processes rather than assigning blame; a team that would deliver goal-oriented solutions rather than just punch tickets; and I wanted to protect my staff from the contentiousness of the firm’s overall culture at the time.
COMMUNICATE. Unless your team are mind-readers, or exceptional observers of human behavior, you have to communicate your values and vision to them. For me, this started with the recruiting process – I wanted to make sure people understood up front what I wanted my group to be, and to make sure they would be comfortable with those values. I tried hard to regularly communicate not just the values and the derivative expected behaviors, but also how these helped the firm overall and would be beneficial to them as employees and future leaders. (Keyword: tried – I was young, and still learning how to be a manager; allow me to just take a moment to apologize to my former teammates, who I’m sure are rolling their eyes as they remember those early days). During reviews, one-on-ones and regular conversation I tried to reinforce desired behaviors by celebrating moments where they embodied the values.
COUNT. This isn’t “count” in the sense of “measurement” necessarily; it’s more about taking Commitment and Communication and making them Count (this is the “now actually go do it” part of the equation).
“Making it Count” meant marrying action to my values. It meant that I worked a lot of late nights to ensure projects were delivered to my customer’s exacting standards of quality – I couldn’t expect my staff to be obsessively detail-oriented, burn midnight oil and skip Must-See-TV if I wouldn’t do it, too. It meant that I had to give my young team a lot of running room to find themselves as professionals and as a team (thus giving up a fair amount of control, leading to all kinds of stress-related maladies). It meant that I had to restrain the urge to choke people when they made infuriating, avoidable mistakes (their failure was really my failure). It meant that I had help my team develop a lot of new skills, to become true experts at a variety of delicate, complex processes – a lot of coaching, practice and hurried last-minute re-dos. It meant that I had to throw myself on my sword and take some severe beatings from our “customers” if things didn’t go perfectly, because I’d be damned if I’d let anyone inflict punishment one of my teammates.
I had to walk that talk. When I did, things went well. When I didn’t, not surprisingly, things got sticky – I’m sure my staff remembers that time when I stood by, doing nothing, when a very angry manager tore them apart after a less than successful operation (I’ll carry that moment, and a lot of guilt about it, to my grave).
Want to build a culture worth having? Start with the Three Cs. Commit to your values. Communicate the values and why they’re important to you and the organization. Make them count by living and demonstrating your commitment. It ain’t easy – but if it was, any ol’ fool could do it, right?
- Seth Cargiuolo is relentlessly curious, totally over-caffeinated, a bit irreverent, and not at all bashful about telling people what he really thinks, pairing colorful language with wild gesticulations. Seth is Chief Knowledge Officer and Director of Digital Strategy at The Saint Consulting Group. He currently focuses on organizational development, knowledge management, and digital strategy; his background is in research, competitive intelligence and communications.