The Culture Is Only As Good As The Leader


Has your company culture got a bad case of the Mondays? Is store-bought birthday cake the highlight of your employees’ workday? Do you have company leaders doing the Bill Lumbergh shuffle, strolling amongst the cubicles, coffee cup in hand, looking for missing TPS reports? If so, it might be time to rethink the culture in your office space.

Which Came First: the Leader or the Culture?

A company’s culture is palpable from the moment you step through the front door. Whether it’s a polished establishment, a disruptive startup or an ailing Initech, you get an immediate sense of its energy and style.

There’s a misconception that employees create a company’s culture — how they dress, conduct business and communicate represents the company. If you observed a company’s employees, it would be easy to think they’re both the byproduct of the atmosphere and its creators.

But peel back the layers. You’ll discover that a company’s culture grows, in many ways, from the top down. Leadership is the real root of any organization — the vital source from which all energy, vision, values and style manifest themselves. It’s a direct reflection of a company’s culture. And when leaders forget they’re the ones running the internal machinery, it can lead to a real paper jam.

What You See is What You Get

A company’s culture establishes unwritten rules and norms for how business should be done and how people should interact. So how are you, as a leader, a direct reflection of this culture?

  • You’re the visionary. You set the direction and tone for the company’s personality. Employees want to “fit in” so they take behavioral cues from you. The priorities you set and the way you foster relationships in the office establishes the mindset and guides the behavior of everyone working for you.
  • You’re the gatekeeper. You create internal culture via the people you hire, the information you disseminate and the resources you make available. Externally, you control employee satisfaction, products and services. What you reward and punish sends clear messages about the behaviors you expect from your team.

Leaders who remain aware of their role in shaping the company’s culture to support business objectives will be positioned for success. Costcounderstands this and works hard not to forget it. Founders who don’t acknowledge this often find themselves wondering why they’re stuck in the basement without a paycheck.

Symptoms of a Toxic Culture

As a business owner, certain symptoms in your company’s culture will signal that it’s time to reevaluate your leaders and implement change.

  • Disinterest: Look for declining performance in financials, production or compliance. When you see that once-successful behaviors are no longer working, it’s time to reevaluate what you’re doing and how you’re doing it.
  • Resistance to Change: Getting leadership and employees to change the way they work can be tough. You can have a beautiful strategy for growth that goes nowhere because people can’t — or won’t — adapt to a changing environment.
  • Bad Habits: A toxic company culture evolves out of a leadership holding onto the “right” way of doing business, even though that way no longer serves the company strategy. Stuck management is a recipe for unhappy, unmotivated and disengaged employees.

Healthy Leaders, Healthy Culture

Leadership ultimately determines the culture of a company. You develop it, foster it and maintain it — good or bad. But if you’re the creator of an unhealthy culture, you can also be its cure.

If management is the source of toxic culture, work with your leaders both in groups and individually to intervene and get things back on track. Provide both leaders and employees with a safe space to share their thoughts about company culture and strategy. It’s important to remember that you’re dealing with ingrained beliefs, values and assumptions about how business should be conducted. These must be challenged in order to transition to a new cultural mindset.

Be an honest advocate for the change effort. Bring in an objective expert. Engage all members of the company in open dialogue and talk about culture and how it affects performance. Model the behaviors you want to see in your leadership and employees. Reward those behaviors that align with your vision and the company’s success, and remove the ones that don’t.

Be the visionary, and while you’re at it, ditch the TPS reports.

ByChris CancialosiManaging Partner and Founder at gothamCulture



What 'Corporate Culture' Really Means, And Why So Many Companies Don't Get It

by Jane WatsonTalent Vanguard via @bi_contributors

While completing my undergrad in Anthro, I was President of the students’ Anthropology Society. (Yep, I was that cool). So, you’ll understand that the topic of organizational culture is of particular interest to me.

And organizational culture is having its HR moment right now…articles, blog posts, seminars- everyone seems to be talking about culture!

That’s why it’s especially unfortunate that we are so sloppy when it comes to what we mean by 'culture'.

Prescriptions for how we can change our organization’s culture are tossed around like recipes, with barely a mention of what we mean when we say ‘culture’. This is not just about semantics. It’s actually really important: sloppy thinking leads to sloppy actions, and frankly, that’s reflected in too much of the current discourse about organizational culture. As a profession that still struggles with gaining the credibility we deserve, HR simply can’t afford to be so imprecise about something we claim is so important.

So, What is Culture?

Well, that’s a question that continues to be open to debate, but let’s not get existential. For our purposes we can draw on some key concepts from the social sciences that can be used as tools in thinking about what we mean by ‘organizational culture’:

  1. Culture is enacted: that is, culture is continuously created by every member of your organization, through their day-to-day participation in the organization. It’s dynamic, shared, crowd-sourced; not static and unchanging.
  2. Culture is “how we do things here”.  It provides members with (largely unspoken) rules for how they should behave to gain and maintain social ‘membership’ in the organization.
  3. Culture is manifested in a variety of ways, including:
  • Language –shared words or labels your organization uses for things.
  • Rituals – such as Town Hall meetings, the summer BBQ, award ceremonies etc
  • Dress code  – how people are expected to dress in the course of doing their work
  • Symbols – the meaning attached to corporate symbols
  • Decision making – how important organizational decisions are made and communicated
  • Conflict resolution – how conflicts are expected to be handled- discussed or avoided?
  • Status- who is recognized and esteemed, both formally and informally?

So, to summarize, this is (to some degree) a circular process: culture, or “the way we do things around here”, is created collectively by an organization’s members, whose actions are then guided by the shared culture, and by acting in accordance with the culture they further legitimize and reinforce it.

What Culture is Not:

  1. It’s not your employer brand: that’s a targeted, tailored message for an audience. Your organization’s culture is not necessarily what you say your organization’s culture is.
  2. Culture is not monolithic. It’s dynamic, it’s crowdsourced. It’s not something you take out of a box and sell to your employees during orientation. They (and you) are creating and recreating it every day.
  3. Because culture is transmitting from, to, and between the members of your organization every day (not from one central point), it’s actually quite difficult to change culture without a critical mass of people consistently ‘transmitting’ the new culture.

Why It’s REALLY Important That We Lose the Sloppy ‘Culture’ Thinking

I keep seeing blog posts, articles, webinars and presentations directed at HR people that use the word  ‘culture’ to mean a whole variety of superficial, simple things that are not culture. These articles are often advancing  the idea that culture can and should be changed to give an organization a competitive advantage, increase engagement, decrease turnover, etc. etc.

But this sloppy thinking about what culture is means that prescriptions based upon that thinking are at best half-baked, and sometimes total nonsense (sorry, but I don’t think that’s an exaggeration). If HR is going to claim (or be handed) yet another mantle, that of ‘Organizational Culture expert’, then we need to do much, much better at defining what culture is, what it is not, and to think critically about why, if and how organizational culture change efforts should be undertaken.

Let’s Avoid This Sloppy Thinking About Culture!

This is a handful of the sloppiest ideas that are floating around out there like bad viruses. Avoid the sloppy!

1. Culture Must be Homogenous Across the Organization

I’ve read stuff that takes as its underlying premise that an organization’s culture needs to be uniform across the entire workforce in order for leaders to effectively change, harness and use culture as an advantage.

Warning:  If you are employed in a place where the culture is uniform across the entire workforce, I regret to inform you that you are not part of an organization, you are a part of a cult. Don’t drink that glass of Kool-aid! Don’t marry Tom Cruise! Just pack your bag and get out now. And then repeat after me: culture is not uniform, it is not monolithic, because organizations are made up of human beings, not robots.

Nor should you want your organization’s culture to be uniform:

“We’re an innovative technology company with a culture that rewards entrepreneurial risk-takers. Our whole finance team really embraces the culture- three of them went to jail last week!”

Internal inconsistencies and subcultures exist within any culture- and usually that’s okay. The sub-culture in a department or team encourages identification amongst members of that team, it can bind groups together, and it’s often adaptive for that particular group, given the demands and constraints of their specialized function.

2. Having a Team Building or Social Event is a Great way to Change Culture

Oh boy, where to start with this one….

Warning:  Sending your employees on a team-building social event will not change your culture any more than sending the Amish to a movie will change theirs. Social events can (theoretically anyway) impact morale and team dynamics, but that is not the same thing as culture!  Culture is not so superficial that a couple of events can create any kind of lasting, strategic change.

And frankly, if your CEO thinks it’s a good idea to spend a bunch of cash on social events as a strategy to produce the vaguely defined outcome of ‘culture change’ , you have bigger problems than your organizational culture…

3. HR Can Change an Organization’s Culture

I wish this one were true, but it is definitely not. Just like employee engagement, retention and a host of other initiatives that (for better or worse) get handed to HR, we cannot hope to implement culture change alone. Because culture is enacted, dynamic and crowd-sourced, culture change should be thought of less like surgery, and more like conducting an orchestra, where the players are creating something together. You can’t just unilaterally change culture; you need your ‘players’ to willingly start playing a new tune.