What is the #1 thing you would change about your company?
According to some 2023 research from Gallup, the answer is culture.
But isn’t culture important? If so, how is that the case that it’s the #1 thing people want to fix about where they work?
Well, culture is big. It’s tough to identify and understand, let alone manage. Culture is a living, breathing organism always requiring attention, vigilance, and investment from leaders.
And yet, we believe that a habit of all intentional leaders is that we develop culture. We are not victims of culture. Leaders shape culture. We consistently build toward a healthy, productive, and aligned culture.
So, yes culture is hard. But it’s powerful. Healthy cultures can be our means to a competitive advantage in the market. It can be our sustainable mechanism to maintain team member engagement. It’s an organic way to become an effective, efficient, and productive group.
Just look at our recent pop culture obsession with the TV show, Ted Lasso. To give a very honest assessment of Ted, I remember watching the show thinking, “he’s not so much a coach as he is just a really big culture guy.” When you think about it, Ted, American football coach turned European football coach, never actually did a lot of coaching. He easily accepted and actioned ideas from his people around him, never deciding and acting in a vacuum. And he kind of did whatever he wanted during training. But he did one thing well – he developed team culture. From the first episodes, he was intentionally shifting the team’s attitudes, behaviors, and rituals in big and small ways. Ted led, and ultimately succeeded, through culture.
So, if we drive culture as leaders, what do we need to know to do so successfully? To package it all up as easily as I can, I’d say there are 10 important lessons that I’ve learned in my experience of developing and shaping culture. I think leaders need to be aware of these as we do the long, hard work of investing into and driving culture.
This week, following up on our Culture Primer, we dive deeper by exploring 10 important and universal lessons that leaders need to consider about culture.
I’m Josh and welcome to the 3x5 leadership podcast. Thanks for joining us. Now, let’s get into today’s episode!
Welcome to the 3x5 Leadership podcast where we champion intentional leaders who create significant impacts. In this show, we share simple, practical strategies to help you live, lead, and learn more intentionally.
To start, I want to clarify that this episode builds on the Culture Primer that we shared last week. That article introduced culture, looking at what it is, why it’s important, and how leaders can best understand it through a simple 3-level model. That model came from Edgar Schein’s research and states that an organization’s culture has 3 simple levels: artifacts, values, and underlying assumptions and beliefs.
So, if that model for understanding culture is new to you, I encourage you to check out our short primer that we shared last week, which is linked in this episode’s show notes. In my opinion, it really is the simplest, but also most effective way to clearly understand culture. And in that article, we also shared 5 important takeaways to equip leaders on how to use it.
Now, building on that, let’s dive into the 10 lessons I’ve learned in the arena of developing culture.
Lesson 1 is as simple. It’s just that we need to view culture like a garden. For it to grow healthy and in the ways we want, it requires a lot of consistent attention. First, we have to nurture it – giving the plants good soil to take root in, routine water, and consistent exposure to sunlight. We have to look after and care for our garden. But a healthy plant and garden also require pruning. That means removing the unhealthy, harmful, and undesired parts of the plant. Pruning can be painful, absolutely, but it is a necessary part to keeping plants healthy, productive, and growing in the ways that we want them to. Leaders need to both nurture and prune our cultures. We have to do those regularly before we let our plants either over-grow uncontrollably or wither due to inattention. Like a garden, our culture is living and will continue to grow one way or another. We must always be mindful to ensure it is doing so in the ways we need it to.
Lesson 2 is that culture is about clarity and consistency. It is often easy for leaders to say yes to well-intentioned ideas on how the group should behave in order to further develop our culture. But more is not always better. If we are aiming to shape culture, yes, we will likely have to introduce new rituals, habits, and practices to our organization. However, again, more is not necessarily better. What are the things that we must do, that will have the greatest impact, and drive alignment to who we are, what we do, and why we do it? If we get a new member that joins our team, they might offer an idea of something their previous team did that really cultivated good team cohesion. Or you might have a powerful practice from a previous team that you led. All might be well intentioned, but is that the right idea for this team? Will it be authentic to us? Will it be as impactful? Do we have capacity to add a new thing to our team’s collective plate? Leaders must manage the team’s cultural authenticity and capacity. Focus on and invest in a few, impactful things and do them routinely. We don’t have to do all of the things to develop culture. Just bring clarity and consistency to who we are, what we do, and why we do it.
Now, lesson 3 is simple, but not easy. It’s that culture development takes time. And when I say time, I mean that years should really be our unit of measurement. Any good culture development effort that is anchored and will endure, will likely take 2 or more years to do. So, leaders need to stay the course. And if you’re in an organization like the military that changes out many leadership positions every 1 to 2 years, we need to be focused on the success of our team and its culture beyond our tenure.
This lesson also attends to the resistance we will very likely face as we work to shift the culture. Change is scary and hard. So, people will fight back. In your long endeavors to develop culture, you will have to fight through resistance. And the resistance might seem appealing. There might be great arguments to why we should stop or not go this route. But if the change is well anchored to our identity, our purpose, and is making us a more productive organization, it is worth pushing through the resistance. Stay the course. It will take you 2 or more years to see to fruition.
Lesson 4. This is what I call the holy quartet of cultural messaging. Effective communication is a cornerstone of impactful leadership. But when it comes to culture, it’s much more than simply what we say. It’s about messaging, which aligns words, attitudes, and behaviors. When we send signals about our culture, we have to do so not only through our communication, but also through how our organization does business. Our holy quartet of culture messaging is communication, celebration, accountability, and feedback. First, do we do all four consistently, deliberately, and effectively? Do we engage in regular feedback conversation, in authentic celebration opportunities, and do so amidst shared accountability? If so, then second, do all four align to communicate the same message about our culture? Do we celebrate and reward according to the same standards that we give feedback and hold one another accountable? And is all that in line with what we communicate as leaders? To be “on message” about our culture, we must ensure all four types of messaging activities are clear, consistent, and “on brand.” Each of these sends a signal. Are we sure that all our signals are matching?
Ok, 5 is simply about pronouns. But this is not about peoples’ preferred pronouns. Instead, I mean the types of pronouns people use in our workplace. Do we hear a lot of isolating or segregating pronouns like I, me, you, and they? Or, instead, do our people use more inclusive and collective pronouns like us and we? Pay attention to the pronouns people in the organization choose to use. It can reveal a lot about the state of our culture. Are we unified around an idea or identity, or are we competing against some other person or group? The types of pronouns can begin to reveal the level of competition, compliance, or commitment that exists among our people.
Now, speaking of being unified, lesson 6 is about group cohesion. Organizational culture is inextricably linked to the cohesion of our people. But like culture, cohesion is one of those topics leaders know is important, but often struggle to understand. Simply, we can break cohesion into 3 distinct types. There’s task cohesion meaning we bond over a shared mission, task, or job. There’s social cohesion, which points to group members liking one another and enjoying working together. And there’s collective cohesion, where we unite over a shared identity. While culture tends to focus a lot on the collective type of cohesion, leaders must generate all three for a healthy, productive, and sustainable culture.
I’d say we are winning if our people care about our mission, choose to spend time together outside of work, or even choose to represent our organization outside of work hours. Just a simple gesture of wearing our logo on a t-shirt on the weekend or after work can be a major signal to the level of investment that people have in our culture.
Ok, so looking back at these last two lessons, both involve a necessity for ownership among our members. And that’s what lesson 7 points to. This lesson challenges us to honestly assess if we have owners or if we have renters in our organization. Who takes better care of a residence – the homeowner or a renter? The renter has no stake. They merely think “not my house, not my problem.” The homeowner, however, invests in the house. They are careful to maintain the upkeep, make improvements, and treat it with value. We can use the same comparison for our people and our culture. Do our people view themselves as owners or renters?
But this is really a metaphor for commitment over compliance. Do our people act out of a personal commitment to our organization? Or do they simply comply to remain out of trouble, to fly under the radar, …and to just do the bare minimum required? As we develop our culture, leaders must also inspire, equip, and enable people move from merely participating in our culture to owning it and contributing to make it better.
Now, lessons 8 and 9 cover topics that are what I consider to be opposite sides of the same coin. That is safety and candor.
Lesson 8 is about safety and ensuring that we infuse it into the DNA of our organization. What do we mean by safety? Safety is an honest ability for people to be seen, heard, and able to bring their whole selves to work every day regardless of their position or the level they serve at. It is being open to and making space for people to speak up, share their insights and ideas, and do so without fear of consequences or of being marginalized. As leaders, we must invite others to speak up and share their ideas. We should create space for people to contribute. And we need to nurture an atmosphere where people feel comfortable to bring their ideas, concerns, and challenges forward.
And though this is lesson 8, I really believe it should be our starting point for developing culture. When we are searching for where or how to start intentionally building culture, always start with cultivating safety within our team first.
So, in looking at lesson 9, the flip side of that coin is candor. In his book, The Culture Code, which I highly recommend, Daniel Coyle makes a pretty interesting observation about team cultures and candor. He states that one misconception about highly successful cultures is that they are happy, lighthearted places. He argues that is mostly not the case; that they are energized and engaged, but at their core their members are oriented less around achieving happiness than they are around solving hard problems together. He continues, claiming that this involves many moments of high-candor feedback and uncomfortable truth-telling when they confront the gap between where the group is and where it ought to be.
Do we have a high candor culture? Is feedback truthful, shared in love, and most importantly, normalized as a standard practice in how we do business to make the group better? Or do we err toward silence to maintain the status quo of niceness? Leaders generate a candor-filled culture first through their example and then by establishing regular practices of feedback. Great organizations do routine things routinely. That applies not only to management practices, but also to habits like feedback. As we develop culture, pay attention to the role and the impact of candor in how we work together day-to-day.
Finally, I think it is appropriate to end with lesson 10 addressing leader communication. Culture, unfortunately, is not like The Field of Dreams. Just because you build it, does not mean they will come. Leaders have to communicate perspective, change, and priorities. We need to remain on brand and on message as we communicate our culture to everyone. What kind of culture are we aiming to develop? Why? And how?
The thing, though, is that one email, one speech, one announcement never changed anyone’s mind. We have to continuously talk about our culture – the what, the why, and the how. We have to talk about it at every opportunity we can, over every platform we can, to every audience we can. We have to share about our culture, and then share about it some more. We have to keep communicating our culture to our people until we are sick and tired of talking about it.
And when we are sick and tired of talking about it, then we are probably halfway there.
Never stop talking about our culture. Never stop reinforcing who we are, what we do, and why we do it.
So, there are 10 lessons that I’ve learned in developing culture. Many of these lessons were learned through hard trial and error. Others through surprising success. But all came from the tough, long work of developing an intentional and authentic organizational culture. And I know these lessons can apply to your organization’s context as well.
If you found this exploration valuable, we captured the 10 lessons into a simple 1-page document you can download to keep or share with your team. And you can find the link in the show notes if interested.
But as we end today, I’d like to offer a few final questions.
What is our company’s culture right now? How would we define it and model it?
But then, what can our culture become? What must it become?
10 lessons might be a lot, sure. What’s one or two that jumped out to you during the episode? Maybe start with those, finding effective, creative, and sustainable ways to integrate them into our organization’s identity and practices.
And finally, if you found this episode valuable, I encourage you to give us a like and a review. If you’re interested in learning more about 3x5 Leadership, head to our website at 3 x 5 leadership.com where you can also sign up to get our weekly insights delivered directly to your email inbox. And if you’re a fan of 3x5 and our mission to champion intentional leaders, I invite you to consider becoming a patreon to help continue our mission. You can find our patreon link in the show notes as well.
Next week, we will continue our journey through culture by looking at how and why we need to ensure our cultures are aligned and assessed. These are two important considerations for leaders to keep the culture focused, relevant, effective, and sustainable. So be on the lookout for that article next Monday.
Thanks for joining us for this episode today. And thanks for your leadership and continued support. Again, I’m Josh and until next time, take care and lead well.