The 4 Marks of Leading a Strong Organizational Culture

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SEEK U
  • by Tim Urmston

If you ask any company CEO, President, or Founder what keeps them up at night, inevitably, building and maintaining a strong culture will make its way into the top three.  That’s because a strong culture is the key to keeping great employees, attracting the best talent, and achieving the productivity necessary to grow the business. That said, it is not easy to build a strong culture, nor is it easy to maintain it.  Whether you lead a team of one or five hundred, I’d like to give you a few markers that will help you define, build and keep a strong culture through the triumphs and trials that all of us face in business.

Balance productivity and happiness

So often, I’ll hear leaders talk about the happy hour they installed in their company or the free food or snacks that their team is so grateful for.  Other times I’ll hear leaders talk about the number they hit last month or the “banner year we’re having”. Both of these are good things and both are absolutely necessary for establishing and keeping a strong culture.  Unfortunately, if the mix of drive and care-taking go off-balance, the culture will implode.  Have you ever seen a company that is all about numbers and cares very little for their people?  Or, have you ever seen a culture that is so much about their people that they neglect the collective drive to success?  In my experience, if you focus on one and lose track of the other, it is a slippery slope towards a disenfranchised culture.   As leaders, we have to pay attention to both productivity and happiness. I can’t say that we are perfect at this here at SEEK, but we are way better at balancing these two things than ever before.  No matter what level of leadership you’re in, it is critical that you make sure you are vigilant to keep both at the forefront. If you do, your staff will stay, your productivity will grow and you will attract great talent to your organization.


Do the hard work of self-awareness

It is my strong belief that leaders who lack self-awareness struggle the most to lead in their care.  A leader who is self-aware and knows their blind spots will usually seek out counsel or coaching to help them navigate the murky waters of people development and cultural growth.  You often hear the phrase, “people don’t leave jobs, they leave bosses.” I couldn’t agree more with this statement. I’ll add my own language to this statement and say “people leave bosses who lack self-awareness.”  As a leader, you have blind spots.  Maybe it’s your ego, maybe it’s your tendency to avoid conflict, maybe it’s your passive aggressive management style, or maybe it’s simply your lack of attention to the details.  No matter what it is, we all have these hidden gems that seek to destroy our credibility as leaders, and inevitably hurt our culture.


There are several things you can do to figure out your “opportunity areas” and grow yourself and your culture as a leader.  

  • Make sure you have truth-tellers in your life.  It is important to have a good friend, a mentor or a coach in your circle of influence who is not afraid to speak the truth to you. Someone who cares enough about you to tell you where you are missing the mark.  It is also important that when they do speak the truth that you receive it, process it, and take the appropriate steps to own the feedback. If after processing it, you don’t think it fits you, then let it drop. If you feel it should stick and has merit, it is wise to pursue a course of action that will enable you to thrive beyond the limitation.  If you approach the feedback with humility, you will find that you will grow personally and the team/company culture will grow as well.

  • Use a personality profiling tool to assess yourself and your team.  There are several great assessments out there that can help you grow as a leader and in turn produce health in your organization.  Whether you use the Myers-Briggs assessment, the DISC Profiler, the Enneagram (my personal favorite) or one of many other assessments out there, do the hard work of learning your strengths and weaknesses and be vulnerable when it comes to areas of improvement.  If it makes sense, have your team take it as well to understand how your “type” interacts with the “types” on your team. By taking the time to evaluate the chemistry amongst your team, you will find areas of natural agreement and conflict, gaps where you don’t have a particular skill set on the team, and opportunities for new thinking and types to grow the culture.

 

Surround yourself with people who will complement your weaknesses

Being a leader does not mean you have to be all things to all people.  When you try to lead this way, you end up being mediocre at a lot of things and less than effective in areas where you are wired to shine. I often meet the leader who is trying to be an effective visionary, a solid integrator, and a snap at administrating.  I’m telling you, no matter how gifted you are, you’re going to have a hard time doing all of these (plus many other leadership skills) on your own. Why would you dilute who you are wired to be for the sake of being “ok” at all of it?  In some cases, you might even degrade the culture through your zealous efforts to be all things to all people.  Today’s employee has a natural tendency to spot inauthentic leadership from a mile away (I call it their “crap meter”).  If they spot anything inauthentic they will write you off quickly.  My suggestion is to identify the people in your organization who have strengths that you don’t.  In my case, I elevated two people who had a natural bent toward leadership, good character, and were really great in the areas where I struggle.  I am a visionary, a big picture thinker and the face of the organization out in the client facing world.  I am not an operations person or an “in the weeds strategist.” I now have a COO who handles all of the operations of the company and everyone reports to her.  I also have a true strategist sitting next to me who has already thought through the next six moves on the chess board before those things happen.  This is my Leadership “Team.”  We are more effective, more consistent and more buttoned-up than ever before and our culture scores and our productivity are now reflecting this change.


Measure the culture constantly

If you want to know if you’re making progress, make sure you are keeping your finger on the pulse.  One of the best ways to do this is by conducting a regular pulse survey amongst your staff.  In my experience, this is a great way to see what you’re doing well as an organization and where you are falling short.  At SEEK, we conduct a full-blown culture survey (25 questions) once a year to see how we’ve improved or declined during that time period.  We also run quarterly pulse surveys (5 questions - usually the areas we need to improve) to see if our 90-day efforts are growing our culture.  By measuring these things, we gain important insight into the areas that are working and the areas that are not.  For example, if your physical work environment gets a poor score, what do you need to change about your working space that will improve that?  If your “trust in the leadership” or the “direction of the company” is poor, what do you need to do to establish or reestablish that trust?  These surveys give you the areas that need development, and you can now start creating and implementing strategies to strengthen the trouble spots.

Note that this can be a really difficult exercise for any leader because we tend to take the feedback as a personal assault on our leadership.  I see so many leaders allow their ego to get in the way of constructive feedback and they end up creating the very thing they fear; a culture gone awry.  Keep this in mind, “It’s not personal, it’s progress!” If you will operate in humility, you might find the key to a great culture is only a few smart steps away from where you are today.


Final Thoughts

Above all, remember that as the leader goes, so goes the culture and so goes the organization.  If you refuse to be vulnerable and insist on being the “hub of everything” you will find yourself in a cultural downward spiral that is really difficult to stop and climb out of in the future.  It really comes down to choices and actions.  If you are self-aware and willing to admit that you don’t have all the answers, your team will rally around you and help you find them.  This will build cultures that grow and stand the test of time.