Today's Challenge: Culture as Competitive Advantage

Lately, I’ve noticed an emerging trend - more and more leaders are talking about the importance of culture. I recently attended a seminar hosted by John Maxwell where he commented, “Culture trumps everything.” If that’s true, today’s challenge should be of interest to leaders everywhere. How do you create a vibrant culture?

Because I work at Chick-fil-A, I get this question all the time. People acknowledge the strength of our organizational culture and want to know how to create their own.
Before I attempt to answer the question, let’s start with a working definition:

Culture is the sum of the habits of the people within a group.

Anything people do habitually is part of the culture. If people greet each other by name consistently, that is part of the culture. If people show up early and work late routinely, that is part of the culture. If people are in the habit of showing up late for meetings, that too is part of the culture. Culture is not what leaders want people to do; it is what people actually do.
With this definition, it is easier to understand two important attributes of culture – first, every organization already has one, and second, it can be changed.
Here are a few ideas on creating the culture you’ve always dreamed of:
Select for Culture. On the surface, this might sound dangerous. If taken out of context, you are correct. This is not about abandoning diversity. It is about finding people to join your team who already “get” your culture. As an example, Zappos is fanatical about serving customers – you wouldn’t want to knowingly select someone who was unable or unwilling to serve; they would be a cultural misfit.
Leverage core values. I believe this is the quickest way to build a culture. As a leader, if you decide which beliefs you want to drive behavior in your organization, then communicate those beliefs, recognize people who exhibit them, recruit and select people who embrace them, and model them yourself, you can have a profound impact in a relatively short time.
Model the way. People expect their leaders to model desired behaviors. This is certainly true regarding core values, but the principle extends far beyond values to everyday activities. For example, if the leader consistently picks up trash in the parking lot of your building, others will soon emulate that behavior. Once habits are formed, the culture is transformed. People always watch the leader.
Attack the gaps. Include people in conversations about enhancing the culture. Acknowledge the favorable aspects and identify the less desirable attributes. If creativity is part of the culture, celebrate that. If showing up late is part of the culture, talk about how to change it. Focused energy and effort can change behaviors and, ultimately, a culture.
The collective habits of people can be a powerful asset to any organization, or they can be a tremendous liability. That’s why the best leaders care about culture. It should not be left to chance but nurtured, protected, and enhanced.
The more I think about it, John had it right – culture trumps everything.[GLS_Shield]


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