Monday, September 30, 2019

Don’t Leave Culture Up for Grabs


Don't Leave Culture Up for Grabs

Leading healthy corporate and team culture

This article was written by Tim Stevenson, CSC, CSLII and originally appeared in choice, the magazine of professional coaching.

Leaders at any level of a company can and should take initiative to build healthy values and performance-based culture in their sphere. Culture is the air people breathe daily as they work, and it is the greatest predictor of future performance.

Where the larger organization is culturally positive, this will enhance the effectiveness of the leader’s section. Where the organization’s culture is undefined, even somewhat unhealthy, the individual leader can still develop a healthy subculture leading to effective performance.

Every group has a culture made up of assumptions, purposes, values, and behaviors. The issue is not ‘if’ a group has a culture. It is ‘what kind?’ With large organizations, you also will find subcultures, mini cultures, even microcultures, each with its own atmosphere and style.


Where cultures differ is whether they are:

  • Built by design like a blueprint drawn by an architect, or formed by chance like a sand dune, shaped according to whatever winds are blowing.
  • Based on principles known by all and which do not change, or by personalities, typically the strongest-willed persons in the group, shifting according to their current moods and desires.
  • Healthy, mature and honest in communication, respecting and affirming human beings, or unhealthy, misleading in communication, and manipulatively using people, sometimes to the point of being truly toxic.


The process for designing and building a culture is simple to understand, but a genuine leadership challenge to execute. Regardless of the size of the sphere, the process is the same (though more complicated to execute on a large scale).

The steps of the process are: define, shape, and align.


Most people find this step to be the most challenging, because it involves digging deep and discovering what you, or your leadership team, truly believe. It is much different from the common practice of executives picking their corporate values.

Virtually every sizable company today has a published Mission, Vision, and Values. Finding companies that take theirs seriously is much harder. One of the main reasons is found in that word, “picking” – picking values because they sound good or look good on paper is easy. Building a culture takes much more than that.

The better word is “discovering” one’s values. You must truly believe them, or you will not sustain the very long process of culture development. Plus, there is the acid test of values: Will you hold to them even if there is a cost involved? Only true believers will.

Picking values because they sound good or look good on paper is easy. Building a culture takes much more than that.

Whether the client defines his values on the spot or after a week’s consideration, the next thing to do is to test them. I ask my clients to share them with others on their team and ask if they accurately represent the real behavior and priorities of their leader. Team members’ answers can range from “Duh!” to “I don’t think so. I think your actual values are …”

You also test a person’s values by asking two more questions. First, I ask, “Would you hold to those values even if there were a cost attached?” Second, “If I come back in five years, can I expect to find the same answers?” When someone has truly hit bedrock in discovering their values, they don’t change significantly over time.


The message must be clear, memorable, and consistent. Therefore, the second step is creative wordsmithing to achieve those ends. It often helps if they form an acronym or another memorable shape. A C-level executive for a medical company I coached came up with “to HEAL.” Not only did the word fit perfectly into a medical environment, but An individual leader can develop an island of positivity and excellent performance within a chaotic larger organization. the word “HEAL” stood for Heart, Excellence, Accountability, and Leadership. Easily memorable.

After shaping each value, I ask clients to create bullet point definitions for each. This page of thought becomes the leader’s script from which he can draw simple and clear messages.


I warn each client that developing a culture is not done in a day with a long talk. It is more like ‘Chinese water torture’ – drip … drip … drip – small messages endlessly delivered. Each value must be modeled and enforced consistently for the message to take hold, a process that never ends.

Where the culture of the larger organization is on the defined and healthy side of the scale, the individual leader has an easier task and will naturally support and reinforce the corporate values and build upon them, adding the flavor of their own managerial values.

Where the overall culture is on the undefined or unhealthy side, the leader can still work to build a healthy subculture through the same process. An individual leader can develop an island of positivity and excellent performance within a chaotic larger organization.


There are many costs when leaders leave culture up for grabs. People are unsure of what behaviors are desired or prohibited, leading to the reign of unwritten rules and unpredictability. The initiative is stifled because people are uncertain about outcomes. Wrong people can step into the vacuum and turn the culture in a toxic direction. Initiative and responsibility are avoided as the people resort to cover-your-rear behavior. Performance suffers significantly.

Corporate culture is not trendy, soft-skills fluff. It is a serious business affecting the success of any organization or team. Writing about his experience leading the turn-around and revival of IBM in the 1990s, Lewis V. Gerstner, Jr. asserts, “I came to see, in my time at IBM, that culture isn’t just one aspect of the game – it is the game.”1

Wise leaders in any sphere do not leave culture development to chance. They lead and build the kind of culture they want: a healthy one leading to superior performance.

Let’s engage. Share this article with colleagues. Comment on this article to share your thoughts. How do you help your clients shape a corporate culture?

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NOTES: Lewis V. Gerstner, Jr., Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance? (New York: HarperCollins, 2002), 182