The No. 1 way culture gets shaped is by leaders modeling the behavior they want to engender in the organization. Former MIT professor Edgar Schein once said, “The bottom line for leaders is that if they do not become conscious of the cultures in which they are embedded, those cultures will manage them.”
Given the adage that “culture eats strategy for lunch,” how should you go about shaping the culture of your organization? Very simply, culture is not a program that gets implemented; rather, it is built through everyday actions and messaging. Here are three tips that can help shape a winning culture.
- Model behavior. Participants in Peak Development’s study on Shaping Organizational Culture rated this as most important for senior leaders. To quote one participant, “I don’t always hear what you say, but what you do speaks volumes.” The everyday actions of the CEO and the executive team shape a company’s identity, its values, and the results that can be achieved. Everything you do sends a message: from the way you engage in meetings to the way you greet employees in the halls. Witness the controversy Mark Zuckerberg sparked by wearing his signature hoodie to Wall Street when kicking-off communication on the company’s IPO. Some thought it showed confidence and consistency, others found it immature and disrespectful. The question is not so much whether Zuckerberg did the right thing, but whether he had the impact he intended. Be intentional about the messages you are sending.
- Build culture into all of your communications. You don’t need to—and probably shouldn’t—call it culture. Talk about what you want the company to achieve and about the environment that will get you there. In every interaction, whether one-on-one or with the company as a whole, find a way to speak to the environment you are creating. While content is important, never overlook the impact of how your message is delivered. Use personal, face-to-face methods whenever possible (town halls, lunches with the CEO, video conferences, etc.). And remember that your language, tone, and physical presence all impact the way the organization receives your message.
- Build a senior leadership team that supports the organization’s culture. A company’s behavior ripples out from the individuals leading it, and senior executives must be both aligned on the culture they want to create and highly involved in instilling it throughout the organization. In the book How Google Works, ex-Google CEO Eric Schmidt and SVP Jonathan Rosenberg agree, saying that the best way to shape culture is to ask the core team: “What do we care about? What do we believe? Who do we want to be? How do we want our company to act and make decisions?” Once the desired culture is identified, hold the team accountable for modeling it. If their actions aren’t consistent with the vision you’re communicating, your credibility will suffer.
Finally, remember that culture is formed by invitation, not mandate; by commitment, not coercion. It’s about how people choose to behave, and choice makes a world of difference in the energy generated. People will nurture what they help create so give them opportunities to join in and, like Google, you will build an environment that sustains itself.