How to recognize a leader who gets culture


Thanks for tackling my questions about leaders and culture in your reply.  As I was reading your response, a couple of thoughts came to mind.  First, I think that you are right that we should tackle defining organizational culture.  Where I disagree is that I don’t think it’s a matter of a “new” definition, but rather just a definition.  I’m not sure we’ve ever really gotten clear in business about what culture is and how to talk about it.   This brings me to my second thought from your post.

Because culture is poorly defined and understood, even those of us who claim to get it and do work in this space tend to get lulled into using generalities when we talk about culture.  In your responses to my questions about culture, you said that leaders who get culture “make it their job” and “act accordingly.”  In contrast, you said that leaders who don’t get it, “pretend that it doesn’t exist or does not matter.”  I know that you spend a lot of time thinking about culture and I’m certain that you probably have a clear idea in your mind as to what leaders who “get it” do, but I didn’t get any of that from you post.  I was hoping that we could get much more specific about calling out how you can recognize or become one of the leaders who’s embracing and leading through culture.  I think because it’s culture, even we don’t feel like we have to be specific and concrete.  Let’s change that.

I’m going to take a swing at my own questions below.  From there, I’d challenge you to expand on your responses to paint a picture of what leaders who get culture do.  Perhaps at the same time, we can begin the process of crafting a Talent Anarchist’s definition of culture.

Do leaders “get” culture? This is a much tougher question that I originally thought it was when I posed it.  “Getting” culture implies that you understand what culture is and how it impacts your people.  I think that there are more leaders out there than we think who have some grasp of the importance of culture and also who know that culture is important.  Where I think it breaks down is where that understanding translates into action.  Very few leaders have a sense of how to actively engage in shaping culture and managing through culture.  Most leaders, in my experience, understand that a culture exists that is very powerful but they disassociate themselves as being any part of either creating, perpetuating, or changing that culture.

How do you know when a leader gets culture? They understand and have invested in defining what culture means in their organization.  If asked about their culture, they can provide a concise and clear definition of their culture.  They will also be able to talk specifically about the ways that they are building and fostering the culture through communication, leadership development, and selection of new employees.  They will be able to describe in great detail how the culture is driving their success (service, innovation, etc.).  They will have stories of top performers in their organization who they had to let go because they didn’t fit with the culture.  In my opinion, leaders who get culture have made the protection and cultivation of culture a primary business process and they can describe the process in more detail than other key processes.

These leaders also hold their people specifically accountable for both culture and results.  They will be able to describe to you a process for how this happens and the kinds of conversations they are having with their people about culture.  In the same vein, leaders who get culture spend a lot of time listening to the organization.  They may want to get out and meet with front line employees within the organization.  They are probably also interested in finding ways to measure and survey for culture to check if the it is consistent throughout the organization.

Is making an investment in culture a requirement of getting it?  If so, what kind of investment is required? Of course.  As you said, we invest in our priorities.  Where to specifically invest is probably the debate.  I might be a bit biased here, but I think that leaders who get culture spend more on HR.  They generally demand a higher level of talent in HR and they hold them much more accountable than in other organizations.  Leaders who get culture want more HR resources directed towards things like leadership development, talent management, internal communication, and recruitment.  They also demand that things like compensation programs and performance management are designed very intentionally to reinforce cultural norms and values–reward the right things.

How does a leader who gets culture operate differently than one who doesn’t? I think I may have addressed this already, but certainly the answer is yes.  The underlying question that I wonder about is what difference it really makes if you get culture or not.  How does it change the results a leader can accomplish if they get culture versus if they don’t?  Is this a performance discussion or a moral discussion?  Are companies with leaders who get culture more sustainable or just more fun to work with?  Also, is managing to a specific culture always a good thing?  I’ve seen examples or organizations in the past who had a very powerful culture that was positive in some ways, but had become almost cultish to the point where it was really hard to bring in new people.

So, as I wrap up, I’m left with more questions than when I started.  As we take our next steps in this discussion, maybe we need to not only define culture, but then to define a healthy culture.  I look forward to your thoughts.


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  1. Pingback: Break Down Culture

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