What Organizational Culture is Built On

Having recently laid out a blueprint for The Importance of Organizational Culture, and having a practical definition of organizational culture we can work from as we lead our teams, let’s nail down what we really need as a strong foundation for that culture to be built on…

If we, as leaders in our organizations, want to establish a foundation that creates the kind of culture our team can rally around over the long haul, through good and bad, to achieve great results, we’ll certainly have our work cut out for us! That said, taking action on this is 100% our responsibility and it’s really not all that hard to do…

In any company, there are certain things that are viewed as the bare minimum expectations, there are guidelines that everyone is held accountable to follow, and there are some behaviors that absolutely will not be tolerated. Over time, these things become what we see as the organizational culture; what our team members experience on a day to day basis and what we’re known for throughout the communities we operate in!

So what is our organizational culture really built on? Our VALUES!

This can be pretty stinking tough to digest, especially if we’re not happy with where our culture is or if we don’t believe it matches what we truly value. But that doesn’t mean it’s not true! The good news is it’s within our control - if, indeed, we really are willing to do the hard work required to genuinely lead…

In looking for some supporting documentation for my perspective on this, I found a fairly recent article on Indeed called Culture Vs. Values: What’s the Difference? that made a powerful statement right out of the gate, “Successful businesses often have set core values and healthy corporate cultures they use to promote their business efforts and define themselves as companies.” I suppose it’s possible to achieve some level of success without having set core values or a healthy culture, but I sure can’t name a company of any size that’s maintained much success over time with both!

If you’re anything like me, even the title of that article got you thinking… I’ve had several conversations over the last couple of months with regards to how values and culture tie together, and whether or not those are just two names for the same thing. They’re not, but don’t take my word for it! Here’s what they folks at Indeed went on to share:

“Culture, while heavily influenced by leadership, often occurs at the employee level. Each person within a company contributes to its culture. When company leaders effectively promote the organization's values, and everyone within the company shares the same commitment to fulfilling its goals, everyone can work together to create an intentional culture that embodies the company's values.”

As I referenced above, the culture we build ends up being what people see from our organization but it truly stems from who we are as leaders for our organization - the values we hold dear and set as expectations for each member of our team to be in line with. While this should be fairly simple, we do need to invest the energy into making sure we have a clear understanding of exactly what we value most and we can effectively define those values to everyone on our teams!

Be Crystal Clear About What We Value!

What are you just not willing to compromise? Where have you drawn a line in the sand that you absolutely will not cross, or allow anyone in your organization to cross without being held accountable immediately? Lying? Cheating? Stealing? Harassment of any kind? I’m sure each of those things rate fairly high on most lists… But how do they tie back to a value that you hold dear, and how can you be sure you’ve communicated the importance of that value well enough to every single member of your team for it to become deeply embedded into your organizational culture?

I recently helped the new owners of a local company put together an employee handbook. From what we could tell, this was the first time in the organization’s history that anything of the sort had even been considered. For what it’s worth, I’ve been known to suggestion to each of the hundreds of new employees I’ve done orientation for over the years that about 80% of any handbook covers the crap the government requires a company to have in place while only about 20% is something that anyone who ever reads it will get any value from. Now that I think about it, that falls right in line with the Pareto Principle and it probably comes close to how our tax dollars are used too - but  I’ll stay off that soap box here even though it could serve as a great case study on values and culture…

The first thing we addressed in their new handbook was a list of the values they had been talking about with every member of their new team since they took ownership of the business; compassion, integrity, humility, family, and dependability. As I discussed this list with the owners, we bounced around the idea of including something that touched on profitability because without that, any business will struggle to provide for team members long term. Ultimately, we didn’t add it. The owners decided that if they were effective in communicating the behaviors they believed to be necessary for each of the values already listed, the profitability would be there.

I’ll spare you the details of how we finally got the rest of the handbook put together, but I can assure none of us enjoyed the process. That said, I experienced something when I rolled the handbooks out to their team members that I would have never expected - especially tied to close to 40 pages of policies… To a person, the entire team was excited about having the handbook in place! As strange as that sounds, I’m completely convinced that this was a result of the focus the owners had placed on defining those values and explaining how they supported any decision they made, in group discussions as well as in one on one conversations with team members for months leading up to when we put the handbook in place.

When we invest the energy into clearly defining exactly what we value as an organization and how we expect those values to be lived out on a daily basis, then we actually exemplify what we’ve said, the team we’re responsible for leading understands what’s expected of them. With ambiguity eliminated, those values build our culture!

So how do we figure out which values we want our culture to be built on? And how can we define them so our team develops that crystal-clear understanding?

A Culture Built on Values

I don’t believe there’s a cookie-cutter approach to identifying and defining the values any organization’s culture is built around, that really needs to be a very intentional process and those values should be as unique as the products and services a company provides to the community it serves. That said, the example I just shared should serve as something to follow - especially in how the team members took those values to heart so much that they even appreciated a handbook!

When we’re nailing down each individual value we want to build our culture around, be that for entire company or just the segment of the company we’re responsible for leading, it’s just as much about how we want to serve our team members as it is about how we’re known externally - if not more!

A friend of mine owns a company that provides a very unique service to their customers, but he’s been very careful to tie each value painted on the wall inside his front lobby back to what he expects all of his managers to provide for every single team member. If we only have a list of words in our handbooks or painted on the wall, or we only emphasize what those words mean in how we provide service to our customers, we won’t likely have much more than words…If we want those words to come to life within our organizational culture, we need to do more!

About a year and half ago, Cindy and I got to know a guy named Jeff Henderson. Jeff had just published his book, Know What You’re FOR when we talked with him. While none of us knew it at the time, Jeff also ended up being one of the speakers for the 2021 Live2Lead event we hosted locally. One of the things I heard Jeff say that’s stuck with me was that “employees who know they’re cared for take great care of their customers.” And that’s really what we need to consider as we determine what values we want our culture to be built on!

Then the work starts!

Picking the right words can be hard enough, but that’s the simplest part of the process. Like in that example before, we need to be extremely clear about what each of those values truly mean and we need to pound that drum on a continuous basis - pretty much every time we interact with anyone on our team… But that’s not all! We’ve got to make sure the values we want ingrained into the culture are seen through our own behaviors as well as the behaviors of anyone on our team who carries leadership responsibility. It won’t likely be an overnight process, especially if our team has been in place for a while and this is a big change from what they’ve been used to, but we’ll eventually begin to see our words and actions take root in what they do on a daily basis. And that’s where we start seeing an organizational culture that produces the kind of results I referenced as we started digging into this.

In our next page like this, we’ll really work through a simple process for identifying the specific values we build our culture around, how to articulate why those values matter to us and our organizations, and how we can define the tangible return on investment those values should deliver to everyone involved. Stay tuned…