Guardians of Culture: 6 Ways Leaders Can Positively Influence an Organization’s Culture

Whether you are trying to reinvigorate or reinvent your culture, the strength of an organization’s culture has never been more important.

Culture is a key contributor to building a world class organization because it leads to higher quality and standards of excellence, better decisions, increased customer satisfaction, more innovation, and most importantly greater levels of employee engagement and retention.

What is culture exactly? An organization’s culture is built on established principles that shape employee and customer experience as well as lead to organizational wellbeing. It is demonstrated through widely shared mindsets, beliefs, behaviors, attitudes, and values that form the foundation of an organization. Some aspects of an organization’s culture are highly visible and explicitly defined while others are more opaque. Though some parts of an organization’s culture will certainly adapt and evolve in response to internal and external change, an organization needs to clearly establish and secure the foundation of its desired culture and values to ensure that it truly is the essence of how people work and interact every day. The culture becomes a guide for how things are done, how decisions are made, and which actions are taken. The culture in action supports the organization’s mission and strategy and creates competitive advantage.

two coworkers sitting at a table

Typically, we think of executive leadership teams as being responsible for defining and building the desired culture in an organization. Without a doubt, executive leadership must not only build the foundation, but they must model the behaviors and values to cascade the principles of culture throughout the organization. However, as powerful as that work is, leaders in the middle and on the frontline can have the greatest impact on building and bringing the organization’s culture to life. These leaders are in a unique position to communicate to every employee that the culture matters and that the values are relevant within each functional area. They are the ones who can create real cultural alignment and translate it into day-to-day operations. Middle and frontline leaders set the tone and can positively— or negatively—affect culture. Simon Sinek said it best: “Corporate culture matters. How management chooses to treat its people impacts everything for better or for worse.” Unfortunately, many middle and frontline leaders don’t understand the power of culture, that they are stewards of the culture, or how to develop and champion culture day in and day out for the part of the business they lead.
Let’s look at six deliberate and intentional actions a leader can take to ingrain the desired culture and values in their teams and create cultural alignment across the organization.

1. Be An Owner

Make the conscious choice to be a role model and embrace and own your culture building responsibilities. Your actions and words should align with the values and vision of the organization. As you make decisions, take actions, and solve problems, reflect on your leadership style and ask yourself if your behaviors and attitudes are in alignment with the values of the organization.

2. Define Expectations

Help team members understand why culture is important and the keystone behaviors and expectations related to the organization’s defined values and desired culture. Call out the tangible, actionable, repeatable, and observable behaviors so team members can see how culture is operationalized and begin to build an emotional commitment to the culture. If your organization is deploying a culture initiative, do your part to support the steps being taken.

3. Be Aware

Pay attention to your team, your function area, and the general work environment. Look for insights about what is working and what isn’t working in relation to the organization’s culture. The health of the culture in your team and across the organization requires continual monitoring and attention, particularly in turbulent times.

4. Communicate Culture

Open lines of communication so employees can speak up about culture-related successes, issues, or opportunities for improvement. Talk about it often and specifically call out connections to the stated values as you plan, make decisions, and solve problems with your team.

5. Establish Accountability

Accountability to the culture is in your hands. It is important to hold yourself and others accountable for those standards. When there are setbacks related to the desired demonstration of culture and values, coach others on how to align with stated expectations—and be open to feedback when you are the one who needs coaching.

6. Resolve Culture Issues

Actively manage and address critiques about the culture that may arise. Make it safe for people to speak up about concerns they have. If a situation that is incongruent with the organization’s stated values comes up, people will be more willing to take ownership for values and culture if it is acknowledged and resolved. There will inevitably be missteps and misalignment, so do your best to coach and communicate with naysayers or people who won’t support fundamental values.

As you take these steps to be a champion of the organization’s culture and build its values it into how your team operates, you will find that it translates directly into your team member’s interactions with customers, partner teams, and other stakeholders. You will create a workplace and culture that will attract and retain great talent and the organization’s culture will be strengthened from within. When you get culture right, everything else becomes a little bit easier because your organization is built on a solid foundation that can withstand the test of time.

CMOE works with organizations and leaders to build and strengthen culture through Leadership Development and Organization Effectiveness services. Learn more about our solutions by reaching out to a CMOE representative and sharing your culture challenges with us.

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About the Author

Stephanie Mead

Ms. Mead has experience in operations management, leadership development curriculum design, organization development consulting, and international operations. Stephanie has developed complete leadership development curriculums for some of the world’s leading organizations. Her experience also includes creating specialized learning experiences and blended learning programs aimed at maximizing human and organization performance. Stephanie has also co-authored 4 books with other CMOE consultants.