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Why You Need ‘Captains Of Culture’

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Defining and living the truth of your company’s culture as a CEO is a vital part of instilling it in others, but it alone won’t get the job done. Here's what we did.

It’s not an understatement to say that a company’s culture can make or break it. According to research from McKinsey, the businesses that placed in the top quartile of company culture delivered a return to their shareholders 60% higher than those in the middle. When comparing it to the bottom quartile, meanwhile, that percentage rose to 200%.

Moreover, for any company looking to grow, the right culture can provide an excellent foundation to build on. A strong organizational culture leads to higher engagement, which leads to better employee performance and higher earnings.

However, in order to maintain an environment built on trust and respect, there need to be stewards of that environment ready to lead the charge of a healthier, happier culture. If you’re reading this and thinking that this responsibility lies with the CEO, you’d be right — up to a point.

There’s no question that a healthy culture starts at the top, but you alone can’t bear the burden of being the only prominent culture carrier. For one, this isn’t feasible on a day-to-day basis — especially in larger companies. For another, employees tend to act differently around the head honcho, which can mean that the ideal company culture is really only in place when the CEO is around.

In addition to the CEO, then, there need to be leaders on the ground working to spread the values of empathy, collaboration, and trust each and every day. In other words, you need team captains.

Why team captains are so crucial to company culture

According to a Gallup poll, team leaders account for 70% of the variance in the quality of a company’s culture. If you want the right work culture, then, you need the right people taking the reins. Assigning team captains to act as guiding hands for your chosen environment can be an excellent way to put the odds in your favor.

Team captains can facilitate open communication between employees and leaders, which is an excellent way to encourage collaboration and a sense of empathy — a quality that a vast majority of employees value and a key element to any good organizational culture. When employees feel like they’re being listened to, they are much more likely to feel like they can perform at the top of their game.

Team captains are not only valuable for their listening skills, however. They can also more easily recognize and reward hard work. Better employee recognition improves retention and positively impacts the culture of an organization.

The fact of the matter is, the best teams are the ones where the people on the ground take the lead, not the people sitting at the top. Back in the heyday of the Chicago Bulls, it was Michael Jordan who ran the team — Phil Jackson just made sure all the parts were moving. When it’s the members of the team in charge of the company culture, it creates buy-in and you get more out of your team.

Having the right team captains in place can make a major difference in the quality of a company’s culture. The question, however, is how do you know which people are right for the job? In my experience, there are a few important things you need to consider when picking out the people best suited to spread the values your company holds most dear.

How to select and manage team captains

While the concept of a culture carrier for each team might sound intimidating to both employer and employee, in practice the idea of assigning team captains is one that’s usually openly welcomed by employees and leaders. The real challenge comes from selecting the right people for the job and ensuring that they’re performing those tasks well. For this, we’ve developed a straightforward process that has served us well in keeping our culture strong and our captains on track.

1. Picking the right people. While you might think job performance and skill level are the most important factors in choosing a team captain, the truth is that what’s most crucial is that they’re supported and chosen by the team. Early in my own company’s history, I was working with a specific team that was noticeably lacking cohesion and direction. I allowed the team to choose their “captain” to ensure buy-in and commitment. I learned a lot about Team Dynamics that year. Allowing the team to have a say in their leadership choice fostered a sense of ownership, boosted morale, and increased the likelihood of overall success. It makes a big difference when a good leader plays the correct role, leading their team to bigger and brighter.

2. Defining duties. Make sure your team captains know what their core duties are. Specifically, make it clear that their overarching goal is to encourage behaviors that match your company culture and vision and to do what they can to get rid of behaviors antithetical to this. The most obvious benefit of defining duties is being able to monitor success and predict future outcomes. When the right people play their roles on the team and have clear expectations and routines to fulfill, the team will succeed. We’ve seen it play out repeatedly on the sales floor here at Abstrakt. The teams who lock into their roles and have a set task list every day hit goals and set records. Moreover, the culture of those teams becomes contagious. As they hit milestones, teams get to celebrate wins and feel a sense of unity on a daily basis.

3. Regular check-ins. While captains are in charge of what happens on the ground on a day-to-day basis, it’s still important to stay in the loop, both to make sure things are going in the right direction and to hear employee concerns and comments. Take these times as opportunities to check on team success and employee retention rates to determine what’s working and what isn’t. Once a week (every week), I meet with my own team members. These one-on-one conversations allow us to cover the top goals for the week and last week’s results and leave space for any concerns to be discussed. As a manager, these meetings are also crucial to observing where to apply training and steer employees. Regular check-ins are the key to keeping everyone connected and focused on the same goals.

This is also the time to give each captain valuable feedback. Team members find feedback more meaningful when it happens more regularly, so the more frequent the check-ins, the more effective they’re likely to be.

Defining and living the truth of your company’s culture as a CEO is a vital part of instilling it in others, but it alone won’t get the job done. By creating a dedicated team of individuals focused on furthering your culture, you can spur on a more positive environment that employees, shareholders, and customers will thank you for.


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