Building A Work Culture By Design

David Packard, one of the co-founders of Hewlett Packard and creator of the HP Way said,

“It has always been important to create an environment in which people have a chance to be their best, to realize their potential, and to be recognized for their achievements.”

He and his business partner, Bill Hewlett, understood the vital importance of culture when they built a company with the intent to have a competitive advantage. They understood that if you are committed to attracting and keeping the best people, providing the best possible service to customers, getting a grip on results, and staying profitable – long term – then you better be committed to building an aligned culture.

The passion and promise in our work is to build cultures of trust that attract, inspire, and unleash greatness.

What we have learned about culture includes:

  • While goals give you direction, culture gives you the energy to get there.
  • You already have a culture, even though you may not be aware of it or able to clearly articulate it. Culture answers these questions: What is my experience of being here? What is our way of doing things? What do we value? You are going to have a culture anyway, so why not have a great one.
  • If you are committed to attract and retain the best talent, culture will be the most important investment of your time and resources. This is because your best people have a low tolerance for compliance and insist on engagement. The talent pool is not only shrinking, those within it are educated, connected, and grounded in the idea of personal choice.
  • They want to be appreciated, acknowledged and loved. They want opportunity. They want to work with people who are non-judgmental, willing to give them the benefit of the doubt, willing to listen and mentor, willing to trust and willing to stand for their success. A tall order but that’s the new reality.
  • Culture is not what people say, but how they behave. It is shaped one person at a time, usually starting at the top. People are watching all the time and if it is perceived that there is more reward for delivering organizational results than there is for how those results are achieved, then people will either disengage or disembark.
  • You can either create your culture by default or design. If you are committed to create your culture by design, somebody has to make the decision about the kind of culture you are going build, and everybody needs to understand the process you are using to build it.
  • While it is always easier to build than it is to change one, changing a culture is always possible.

Ten Steps To Building An Aligned Culture

Leaders of a culture or subculture live at any level of an organization. They are what we call “culture makers.” Culture makers are people within a culture who are committed to building a better environment around them, and thus are deciding to be leaders (with or without a title). These could be entrepreneurs, divisional leaders, department heads, non-profit or team leaders, committed employees at any level, or even parents. It is these culture makers that we focus on to build an aligned culture. So here, in abridged form, is our process for building an aligned culture.

  1. Define your culture. Decide on the scope of the culture that you are committed to build – that lays within your sphere of influence. Is it your company, department, division, community association, team, family?
  2. Define your leadership team. Identify your 5-6 key leaders – allies that you will depend on to build your culture. These will be people who have the positional power, capacity, and commitment to make it happen. Be sure you have a Chief Emotional Officer on your team: a person with the positional power as well as the passion (a monomaniac with a mission) to take accountability for the culture.
  3. Get alignment at the top. Identify your core values that you, as a leadership team, are committed to living. Have an “offsite” leadership meeting to ensure that you are all committed to living the values, first with each other and then with your entire culture. If you are a “subculture” – a culture within a larger system, you will want to take the larger organizational cultural value statements and make them real for your culture.
  4. Develop a team “code of conduct” with your leadership team. Once you have decided upon your core values, you will need to develop a process that outlines your promises to each other: how you will hold yourself and each other accountable for living these values. This is about turning values into specific expected behaviors.
  5. Assess Alignment – And Connect to Reality. Decide on a process for assessing your current alignment between your “vision,” your “claim,” and your “reality” as an entire culture. In order to do this you will need to pay attention to the “visible” culture and the “real” culture – your current reality. You may need to take the time to get into the hallways, the coffee conversations, etc. to get to the grapevine and current reality.
  6. “Roll out” your values with your entire culture. Once you are clear about the current alignment, meet with your entire team. With your leadership team at the front of the room, outline your vision for this culture, your core values, your assessment of the current reality and the degree of alignment you see between your vision, your claim, your reality, and your leadership code of conduct. Explain how you expect to be held accountable for living these values as positional leaders – your promised actions as a leadership team.
  7. Have each of your leadership team members define – and build – their own leadership teams.  Meet with each member of your leadership team and help them define their own leadership teams and go through the same process with their respective teams. This will continue throughout the culture until, ideally, every person is eventually assigned to a “leadership team” or at least closely affiliated with a leadership team.
  8. Engage your employees – at every level. Begin and sustain the process – and build trust – through the power of courageous conversations. Create conversations around your values. Turn conversations about values into mutually agreed upon actions and promises. Tell the story. Shine the light. Acknowledge when and where individuals lived one or more of your values. Repeat the message.
  9. Define how you will convey to stakeholders outside the culture how you will live your values. How will you convey your values to your customers? What needs to be written in your marketing materials/website, etc.?
  10. Get your values into every system. Bring values into your hiring processes, your performance management system and HR practices. Only promote leaders who are living the values. Make it tough to not live the values.

Succeeding At Succession: The Ultimate Test Of Organizational Success

Successful succession is the ultimate test of organizational success. At its core, succession is about culture and values. What you are ultimately building and sustaining into the next generation, is your culture. Don’t leave succession planning to chance. If you are committed to sustaining your culture into the next generation and beyond, you have to be intentional about it.

Succession planning is not an event; it is a generational process, integrated deeply into your leadership culture. It is not transactional; it is transformational. To do it well, succession can take upwards of twenty years to come to fruition. It takes painstaking learning and patience.

Ten Steps To Successful Succession Planning

  1. Appoint a Succession Planning Champion – A person who is ultimately accountable for the succession success of the organization:
    • A leader with a vision and passion for culture (a “monomaniac with a mission”)
    • Someone who has earned respect and credibility throughout the organization
    • A person with the positional power to make the required decisions
  2. Define your cultural vision and values. Clarify the vision and the kind of culture and leadership you are committed to build and sustain into the next generation. How do you currently hold people accountable for living the values?
  3. Build a vision for future leaders. Based on your vision and core values, assess the kind of leaders you will need to take your organization to the next level in the coming generation – well before beginning a search.
    • What kind of leader do you want?
    • Where are the core areas that need immediate attention?
    • What are the key essential positions?
      Note: As you assess your leadership needs, be sure to remain open to the kind of culture you are committed to create, rather than simply “settling” for what you currently have.
  4. Honestly identify the strengths and gaps of your organization. Take the time to rethink what kind of organizational structure you will need in the future.
  5. Have open and honest conversations at every level with every employee:
    • Every employee needs to have a say in their own aspirations and have organizational support to align their passions, unique talents, and goals with the needs of the organization (Authentic Alignment). Remember: horizontal growth can be just as valuable to an organization as vertical growth. The vital questions are: 1) Is it authentic to the employee and to the organization? and 2) Do your systems support this?
    • Every employee should have an understanding of how they are perceived by the organization – so there are no surprises in the succession process.
    • Every employee needs to know what the organization expects from them, as well as what they can expect in return.
    • Every employee needs to take accountability for their own Authentic Alignment (ensuring that the expectations and needs of the organization are met and are aligned with their authentic self).
  6. Provide a fair and realistic assessment. Using your cultural values and the corresponding behavioral definitions, measure and assess people’s fit for potential successful leadership.
  7. Build your talent pool. Make your intentions clear with your positional leaders. To avoid destructive personality conflicts and “replacement planning” mentality, use an Acceleration Pool System that develops candidates for leadership positions, rather than targeting one or two hand-picked individual for each leadership role. “Pool” members are offered opportunities for learning, visibility, and accelerated individual development. Candidates are supported to find a mentor, and are offered coaching and training. After a careful assessment of the candidate’s strengths and weaknesses, you develop a tailor-made plan for their capability development together.
    • You may find it valuable to categorize the potential leaders as: i) Ready immediately; ii) 1-3 years away; and iii) 3-5 years away.
    • Those doing the assessing will need a clear, justifiable rationale for why these individuals were chosen for the talent pool (based on organizational values), and be prepared to openly share their reasons for choosing them.
    • Obviously, the potential leaders must have a choice about whether they accept being included in the talent pool.
    • You need to be very explicit right from the beginning, that being chosen for the talent pool does not guarantee promotion to a new leadership position in the succession, but only a commitment to an accelerated leadership development track.
  8. Make selections for various senior positions from the talent pool as needed.
  9. Current leaders must develop a plan for letting go. This is about making room for new growth to emerge. Just as potential leaders must plan their development to be ready to meet the challenges of a new leadership position, the current leaders must plan:
    • What they are willing to give up/let go of.
    • How they will let go.
    • How to make room for new leadership to emerge. Often coaching and mentoring can be useful to support leaders with the letting go, a “making room” process.
  10. Monitor your progress.

Resolving Conflict – The Authentic Way

We’ve all heard that differences are necessary in any relationship, team, or organization. After all, if we were all the same we wouldn’t have conflict. And without conflict you don’t learn, grow, or create anything new. The challenge is how to make conflict productive. How do you use conflict to discover, expand, and create rather than damage, destroy, and diminish? Have you ever:

  • Found yourself criticizing a colleague and avoiding them?
  • Had trouble sleeping because you were obsessing about a frustrating situation with a co-worker?
  • Been upset when you learned that you would be working with a certain person on a project?
  • Said to yourself,  “If it weren’t for you, we could get along!”

In our courses on conflict resolution, we teach people the skill of being authentic and direct. First, let’s look at the indirect or inauthentic ways that people use to deal with conflict. Inauthentic ways of avoiding a resolution indicate that unresolved anger is being brought into your workplace and include: arguing, avoiding contact, excusing the conflict (not wanting to “make a big deal out of it”), sarcasm, insults, bullying, unfocused busyness, yelling, depression, complaining.

Guidelines for resolving conflict authentically

  1. Appreciate conflict. Because one of the main purposes of your life is to learn and grow, you might as well accept that as long as you are alive, conflict will be a part of your existence. When we say “resolve” we are not implying that the conflict is “over.” Resolve means it is worked through – constructively, courageously, and with civility – so that you can be more effective.
    Take accountability. If you are irritated or in conflict, something within you is seeking to grow and you have an opportunity to learn something about yourself. Taking accountability is not the same as blaming yourself. It means that you decide that all blame is a waste of time and that all change begins with you. “If it is to be, let it begin with me.” If something is irritating you, start by looking inward.
  2. Set boundaries around your anger. This is another aspect of accountability. There are certain ways of expressing anger that are never appropriate in the workplace, or elsewhere. This includes rage (uncontrolled anger), demeaning put-downs, degrading people, and  yelling. If you can’t be mature enough to set these kind of parameters around your anger, then you need to seek help. While everyone has a right to their feelings, with this right comes a responsibility to deal with them in a responsible, constructive, and mature manner.
  3. Be willing to understand. It is empowering to have a person truly listen to you without judgment or solutions. Understanding is different than agreement. If you want to influence another person you must be willing to fully appreciate their point of view and the emotional force of their belief. A willingness to understand is your opportunity to embrace all aspects of a conflict, not just the positions, but all the emotions and beliefs of both sides.
  4. Assess goodwill. Early in my marriage counseling career, I became completely exasperated after working for several weeks with a couple. I finally asked them, “Do you want this relationship to work?” It was the first time they agreed on anything. They looked at me and in unison said “No!” I learned a vital lesson that day about mediating. Ask this  question in the first session! The Dakota Nation tribal wisdom says that when you discover you’re riding a dead horse, the best strategy is to dismount. If there is not even one small spark of desire from both parties to work on a relationship, then it is best to get off and get on with your life. You simply can’t have interdependence in a relationship without good-will.
  5. Reach for the expectations beneath the surface of the conflict. Like the oil-light on the dashboard of your car, conflict is an indicator that something is missing. It doesn’t help to put a piece of tape over the gauge any more than it helps to suppress your anger or pretend you aren’t annoyed. If you are the one who is irritated, look inside for what you want and take responsibility to meet that need. If there is good-will in a relationship, you can discover and share these needs with each other. If you want to get to the root of what is irritating another person, take time to explore their interests and expectations, and support them to meet their needs.
  6. Let go. There’s an old saying in my work around embracing change that says, “Build a bridge and get over it.” We all need a support system and a process for letting go of resentments – the unresolved anger, hurts, and betrayals that linger and poison you – that spill over into our relationships and our lives. No one can make you happy or meet all your needs, but what we can get from a support system are insights into the conflict and the courage to let go so we can get on with our lives.
  7. Strive for a higher purpose. Work without a vision is drudgery, and in the midst of drudgery, people will inevitably create meaningless conflict to entertain themselves. The aim of authentic conflict resolution is to transcend and include differences of perspectives, interests, and desires. A shared purpose, vision and values will help you do this. This is true in marriages, teams, community associations, and organizations.
  8. Pay attention to your values. Participating in your relationships at work with authenticity means living in accord with your values. Two critically important values in conflict resolution are honesty and respect. Telling someone in a meeting that their idea was stupid may be honest, but it’s not respectful. On the other hand, saying it was “interesting” when you think it’s stupid, may be respectful but it’s not honest. Conflict resolution – the authentic way – requires that you hold each of these values courageously and firmly as you move toward understanding and negotiation. You’ll never get it perfect, so strive for realness, not perfection. Authenticity is not a destination; it’s a method of travel.

Organizational Culture: How To Turn Value Statements In Values

We’ve all seen the nice laminated value statements that hang on office walls. Many of these beautiful calligraphed statements are developed by a well-meaning executive team at an offsite retreat – usually somewhere in the mountains where they can be close to divine inspiration. They bring back the inspired document as if it were the “Ten Commandments,” and “roll them out,” with a well formulated communication strategy. Once they have been communicated and posted on the walls, then everyone goes back to work and the statements are forgotten.

Does this process sound familiar in your organization? No wonder cynicism is abundant about this process. We write the statements. We put them on the wall. Raise expectations. And nothing else happens. What we have is a nice set of value statements. What we don’t have yet is a set of real values.

There is an alternative. In my next few blogs, I will give you a process for turning value statements into real values.

  1. Build a cohesive executive team. A high trust, aligned, cohesive organizational culture starts with a high trust, aligned, cohesive executive team. In his book, The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else In Business, Patrick Lencioni observes, “It’s like a family. If the parents’ relationship is dysfunctional, the family will be too.” We start working with culture by taking the executives away for two days to build trust, clarify their vision and strategy, and define the culture required to realize the vision and strategy.
  2. Develop an executive team code of conduct. Once the executive has pristine clarity about the kind of culture required they develop a code of conduct for what they expect of each other and how they will, as an executive group, hold each other accountable for living the values. They then develop a plan for how they will stand united as an executive team and make a promise to the organization how it can count on them to live the values and be held accountable for living the values.
  3. Turn values into behaviors. As the executive team models the way, the expectation is that every positional leader will have the same conversation with every one of their direct reports. To move the organizational value statements off the wall and into the hearts and actions of every employee, every employee must be engaged in a conversation with their manager:
    • What exactly do these values mean to me and to you in your specific role?
    • What behaviors will demonstrate our values?
    • What do we expect from each other?
  4. Turn conversations into accountability agreements. To ensure trust in your organizational culture, an accountability agreement must lay within each conversation. It provides clarity about what is expected, what is promised, and what support requirements are necessary. The key here is clarity. Ambiguity breeds mediocrity.
    • What is the expectation – and the promise – of every leader to live the espoused values?
    • What can you count on from me?
    • What can I count on from you?
    • What are our support requirements of each other?
  5. Get people engaged. Research tells us that it isn’t clarity of organizational values that engages people. It’s clarity of personal values. You have to get to people’s hearts before you can ask them for a hand. Accountability without passion is drudgery. Accountability without connection is compliance.
    • Find out what matters to people: what do people value at work and away from work?
    • Get people living their values in their jobs. Maybe it means shuffling some roles around, discovering and developing their talents or working with people’s strengths. Fit people; don’t fix people.
  6. Continuous Reinforcement. To keep your values alive and keep people engaged in your culture, you have to have continuous reinforcement.
  7. Tell the story. Before every staff or leadership meeting, take a five minute “culture moment,” where someone on the team tells a story of how someone else lived the values.
    • Focus on success. Shine a light on success. Link success to the values. Give public acknowledgment to people when they live the values.
    • Embrace the negative. Welcome people to tell you when you aren’t living the values. No one is going to get this perfect. The issue isn’t perfection or even the illusion of perfection. The issue is – can we have the conversation when there is a perceived lack of alignment with the values? Don’t be afraid of the bad news. One of the indicators of trust is that people feel safe to bring the bad news to you. Then you can work toward the solution together!
    • Reinforce the message. If you aren’t sick of talking about the culture and the expectations of each other in the culture, then you haven’t talked about it enough. You have to keep giving the message.
    • Again and again and again.
    • Keep the values visible. Visibility drives accountability.
    • Work these conversations into every one of your systems.
      • Hiring will now be based not only on operational competence but also on how they will live the values.
      • Assessing leadership competence. You’ll know what kind of leaders you need to build the kind of culture you have defined.
      • Promotions will now not happen unless the potential leader demonstrates the values.
      • Performance reviews will now have an element of values and expected attitudinal behaviors embedded in them.

A few points to consider:

  1. Don’t be afraid of this process being perceived as superficial, especially in the beginning. Like learning any new skill or developing a new muscle, expect it to feel unfamiliar and even phony at the beginning. Be honest about this, and keep at it.
  2. Exercise patience with yourself and with others. Remember: there’s a difference between being willing to live the values vs. not doing it perfectly. If a positional leader is not willing to live the espoused values, they should not be in that position and possibly should not even be employed in the organization. But assuming good will, then be both patient and forthright about approaching those who are perceived as not living the values.
  3. You don’t have to start this process at the very top with your senior executives. If you run a division, get the executives of that division together and start the process. If you manage a team, start with your team. If you run a not-for-profit board, treat your board as the executive and start building an aligned culture. You can even begin with your family, where the parents are the executive. The principles of this process can work with any group of people who are working together toward a shared vision.

How To Build An Aligned Leadership Culture

We’ve been asked to facilitate a lot of leadership culture alignment initiatives with organizations lately. Here’s a three step process that senior leaders have found to be helpful:

  1. Identify the critical leadership practices required to support and achieve your organization’s strategic goals and objectives. In doing so, your high potential development process will be grounded in helping future leaders be authentic by aligning their career development goals and capability requirements with your organization’s business goals and objectives.
  2. Define what “high potential leaders” means using objective, behavioral terms. This allows the organization to clearly define “high potential” in an objective and observable way that provides a benchmark from which individuals can be assessed and create a meaningful and relevant development plan.
  3. Create and provide a framework your organization can use to communicate this information throughout the organization. This provides a common language and opportunity for your organization to create a “community” in which high potentials, their managers and mentors can support the development, engagement, commitment and retention of key employees in the organization.

Granting Grace – A Key To Building A Good Culture

What if we could sit down and ask for what we need and want from each other? What if we could talk openly with each other, in the spirit of goodwill and respect, about what would make us happy and loyal in our workplace? What if we could then negotiate what we can do and what we can’t do to meet these needs? What would happen to our workplaces, our communities, and our families if we all practiced being a little more honest and direct with each other in a respectful way?

We can all learn to be more direct with each other, and it takes continual practice, but there’s something more. Farm Credit Canada, one of my clients and an organization that practices good culture, has taught me a very important concept around building strong culture. One of the key principles in their cultural practices and one which they work at relentlessly, is the concept of granting grace in their interactions with each other. They hold each other accountable for creating a safe environment where people can speak up without fear of repercussion.

I spent three days with one of their teams this week, and “grace” was a central part of our conversations. They work hard at talking straight in a responsible manner. They are committed to the success of others and hold each other accountable to not engage in “conspiracies” against people. They strive for patience with themselves and others but also respectfully acknowledge when they operate outside the expectations of grace. They don’t get it perfect, but they get it right.

This kind of commitment lends itself to learning to be open and direct with each other. I love the idea of “granting grace.” What does “granting grace” mean to you? How do you operate with “grace” in your workplace? What effect does “grace” have on engagement, commitment, and productivity?