…depends mainly on what we look for.”

It seems that everywhere we look in business writings these days, you will find multiple posts and articles on the importance of culture to business success. With all the expertise being distributed, you have to wonder why we haven’t figured it out by now!  The truth lies in the definition of culture combined with the accelerated speed of change we now find ourselves in as 21st Century leaders.

A common definition I use with clients and my graduate students is where culture is the shared beliefs, values, attitudes, behaviors and norms that guide members of the organization. Based on this definition, we can conclude that culture exists in every organization large or small. While every organization has culture embedded in its DNA, the real question is whether the culture can support sustainable success through the vision and strategy of the business. How does a leader know if the culture is what she wants it to be?

  • Define the Culture – Too many leaders talk the talk of culture yet struggle to define their own business cultures. If we go back to the definition, a culture is defined by a set of attitudes and behaviors any outsider could see and describe. This is not as easy as it sounds, especially when describing the attitudes desired in the culture. If a leader tells me their culture is one of “Can-Do” then what does that look like?
  • Audit the Culture – Once defined, leaders periodically plug into the culture and see if it is what they believe it to be. The title quote of this article by John Lubbock speaks to leaders who can offer a litany of things done to create the desired culture without spending the requisite time validating their efforts. Culture is defined by what the organization’s members do, not by what the leader wants them to do!
  • Live the Culture – The most important action the leader can do is set the example of what the culture should be. Living the culture with integrity means the leaders themselves are living examples to the organization of the desired attitudes and behaviors expected by everyone in the business. It does little good to espouse the virtues of a family-oriented culture if leaders treat associates as expendable laborers whose only value is in the transactions they conduct. Their behavior will dictate culture and in this example of out-of-integrity, it will not look family-oriented!
  • Hire for Cultural Fit – The last piece of this discussion is hiring people who are a cultural fit to the organization. Once again, the definition of culture comes into play where new associates are predominantly hired for their attitudes and values. While skills and knowledge are important, combined they represent a quarter of the success of the new hire. Attitude represents the majority of the cultural fit and is what the leader must be looking for in the hiring process. Having used this successfully in my own career, I continue to see examples of success when attitude is the differentiator over skills and knowledge, even when the skills are less than what is initially desired.

I often use a graphic of an iceberg to depict culture. The behaviors are what we see above the water. We all know that most of the iceberg (over 90% of it) is underwater. So too is the rest of the culture we cannot see (values, attitudes, beliefs etc.) below the waterline. To define the true size of the iceberg, we look below the waterline. To accurately define the culture, leaders must look below the waterline and see the rest of what they are looking for.

What do you look for in your culture? What do others see in your culture?

Lead Well!