The Senior Leader’s Checklist for Shaping Company Culture

Posted 02.01.2022

In over thirty years of either working for senior executives, being a senior executive, or coaching senior executives, I’ve come to a few conclusions. One of them is that, too often, there’s an overemphasis on strategy and an underemphasis on culture. When that’s the case, the outcomes usually aren’t the greatest. There’s a reason the late, great Peter Drucker said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Your organization’s culture is the leading indicator of whether or not your strategy is going to be successful.

Culture needs constant attention. In the absence of being intentional about shaping it and investing time, attention and effort in doing so, you’re going to get whatever you’re going to get. The chance that whatever you end up randomly getting is going to support your strategy is somewhere between slim and none.

In this post, I want to share a short checklist of things senior leaders need to think about and do to shape and drive cultures that make strategies successful. My thinking on shaping culture has evolved a lot over the years and will likely continue to, but here’s what’s on my checklist as of now:

Pick a Lane: There is no one right answer on what makes a great culture. As with most things in life, it depends on what you’re trying to do. Back in my own days as an executive, I was hugely influenced by a book called The Discipline of Market Leaders. The authors argued that companies had to pick between one of three paths to value creation and success in the market – operational excellence, customer intimacy or product leadership. You couldn’t have two or three, you had to pick one. And once you picked one, the work of leadership was to align the culture with the chosen path. Feel free to argue with the three paths they highlighted. The book was written a long time ago and things change. What hasn’t changed, though, is that culture has to align with the chosen strategy. You have to pick a lane and then shape the systems that shape the culture you need to execute on the strategy.

Answer Two Questions: One way to think about culture is that it’s nothing more than a collective pattern of behaviors. Behaviors lead to outcomes. That’s true for both individual people and large groups of individual people. So, one way to come up with the kinds of behaviors that will shape the culture you need to succeed is to spend some time answering a couple of questions with your colleagues on the senior leadership team. The first is, “What are we trying to accomplish in this organization?” The second is, “How do we and everyone else need to behave to make that set of outcomes likely?” The answers to the second question will give you a lot of guidance on the characteristics of the kind of culture you need to succeed.

How Do You Need Your People to Feel?:  As my friend and colleague Alexander Caillet taught me years ago, behaviors stem more directly from how people feel than they do from what they think. An effective culture, then, doesn’t just depend on what you want your people to think; it’s also about you how you need them to feel. Good feelings lead to good behaviors and good results. (You can finish the sentence on bad behaviors.) If you ask your people how they feel about working for your organization, you can begin to do a gap analysis on how well the culture supports your strategy.

Role Model It: And speaking of behaviors, as senior leaders you have to role model the behaviors you expect from others. As I’ve written many times before, leaders control the weather. However you show up as a leader is completely predictive of how your team will show up.  And by the way, the climate shaping extends way beyond the senior team. Way too often, I’ve seen senior teams who actually work well together and model a lot of what they expect but don’t pay enough attention to how their own leadership teams are working with each other and modeling the desired and required behaviors. The old line about the need to inspect for what you expect is true. When you’re a senior leader you need to make sure that the leaders who roll up to you are also creating the right kinds of weather systems. And they, in turn, need to do the same with the leaders who report to them.  Every leader in your organization needs to be accountable for role modeling the culture.

Systematize It: And that brings me to the next point on the culture shaping checklist. There are lots of systems and processes in organizations (e.g., the performance management process I alluded to in the last point) that can either be deployed to systematically shape the desired culture or just left to their own devices. If you go with the latter approach, you’re going to get whatever you’re going to get instead of what you actually need. Be diligent about looking at your systems as strategic levers that can shape the culture and continuously align them to support the outcomes you want. Obvious systems to look at include performance management, internal communications (especially executive communications), recruiting, rewards and recognition, work processes and design, and training and development. I’m sure there are many others, but that’s a good list to focus on if you need to get started or take a fresh look.

Root Out Inconsistencies: In his classic book, The Corporate Culture Survival Guide, Edgar Schein writes that if you want to assess a culture act like an anthropologist and ask three questions:

  • How do they say things get done?
  • How do things actually get done?
  • What are the cultural artifacts (i.e., work spaces, meeting protocols, corporate tchotchkes, executive perks and privileges, etc.)?

If the answers to those three questions line up with and support each other, you have a consistent, aligned culture. If the answers on how you say you do things and how you actually do things don’t line up or the artifacts aren’t supportive of the stated ground rules, then you have an inconsistent and misaligned culture. If you’re serious about shaping a culture that supports your desired strategic outcomes, you have to consistently look for and root out the inconsistencies. People notice when you do and when you don’t and take their cues accordingly.

OK, that was a pretty long checklist. One thing that’s for sure is there aren’t any quick fixes to shaping a corporate culture. If it’s something you’re serious about doing, it’s best to view it as a long-term project that never really ends. There’s always going to be something to adjust or something you can do to make things that much better.

That’s nothing to be discouraged about. It’s sort of like the answer to the question, “What’s the best time to plant a tree?” The answer is twenty years ago. The second-best time is today. There’s no time like the present to shape your culture.

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