Follow the Leader: Shaping Organizational Culture

Photo by Jesse R. Regalado

When rain splashes on the pavement water quickly spreads in crevices finding spaces even with the tiniest receptacle - it does not stand still. In much the same way, organizational culture takes shape with the slightest hint of receptivity. Cultivating organizational culture continues to be a hot topic in the study of management. At its best, organizational culture represents the collective ethos, the animating spirit that can lift an enterprise to peak performance, to realize a big and bold vision - whether it's creating products that delight customers, harnessing data to improve health care, teaching literacy or fighting racism. In my management practice, I have found that an organization forms its unique culture, with or without intention - if not managed well, a culture develops subject to biased interpretation and personal agendas; a shaky foundation. Void of clarity and inspiration, employees will inevitably craft a version of a culture based on information that is available to them, at the risk of inaccurate assumptions and half-true narratives. Dysfunction can lead to high staff turnover, overall malaise and uninspired offerings that leave the enterprise far behind its competitors. Leaders have two options: one path carved with intention, marked by inspired vision, energy, innovation by a collective of engaged participants whose sights are set towards an optimistic horizon; and the other path, an inferior default, a by-product of inattention but no less potent. Leaders miss an opportunity when they don't take full advantage of the galvanizing power of their organization's culture.

Culture is experienced and felt even in the absence of a well-articulated manifesto. Employees know when they are genuinely valued, their ideas welcomed and their contributions reflected fairly in pay and career opportunities. When actions and policies run counter to the values posted on the company wall it creates a fissure in employee confidence and loyalty.

So how does an organization create a culture that affirms the aspirations of its individual members while inspires the collective to produce significant value for its customers and stakeholders? Is there a secret sauce? Many have written about the value of culture in organizations and what is clear from the research and anecdotes - there is no secret sauce. Unlike the popular and versatile Sriracha made of pure jalapeño, there is no sauce for organizational culture that can be bottled, bought and applied to taste. The ingredients in an organization's culture cannot be stored and displayed on shelves because organizations are made up of individuals, in particular, leaders with their unique qualities, values, world views, skills, preferences and experiences. Who gets to define your cultural values and strengths? When asked, can your employees readily describe them? Are you on a climbing expedition scaling the western edge of the Sierra Nevada? What cultural values enable you to move in synch, protect you from danger and keep you ahead of the competition? What are your defining qualities - high tolerance for risk, stewardship of the environment, protecting the vulnerable, generosity, innovation, excellence, integrity, triple bottom line, among many others?

Management guru, Peter F. Drucker defined management as having to do with the integration of people in a shared enterprise, deeply embedded in culture. He asserted that the responsibility for setting the tone--the culture--rests with the leader of the organization; someone who places high expectations for performance and results, acts with integrity and expects others to do the same, and shows genuine concern for all stakeholders. These leadership qualities, according to Drucker engenders a highly spirited organization.

Effective leadership is about winning hearts and minds, inspiring employees to apply their talents and skills in a common enterprise. The ability to inspire, envision and motivate are not just nice-to-have soft skills but are essential skills in leadership. Magic happens when leaders create the conditions for employees to contribute meaningfully. This is the path of opportunity for leaders to cultivate a culture that affirms and reinforces the vision, aspirations, values and unique offerings of their enterprise - because taking the path of passivity is not an option.