This is what exceptional leadership work looks like in organizational culture.
Culture change may be the greatest of leadership work. It is the greatest of leadership and management work because it is the hardest one to pull off. You’re taking ingrained attitudes, outlooks, beliefs, and behaviors and you’re seeking to change them. At large companies, this is seemingly impossible work for anyone where negative roots can run deep and the culture is toxic. These festering factors and harsh attitudes didn’t happen overnight. The company may have even tried to clean them all up through several initiatives and leadership changes. Most done to no avail.
Bringing people together who otherwise would not normally work together is wonderful work. Getting others to collaborate on a project when it isn’t what they want is terrific work. It is the beginning of culture change. Bringing down interdepartmental silos and getting everyone on the same page is the stuff of management legend. Most organizations are still as siloed as ever, especially if they’re big companies. As a manager and leader, it is up to you to help tear them down and get people creating and collaborating again. Get them to support each other through creation. Get them backing what they come up with. Cheer them on.
Culture change is part science and part art, but it is largely discipline. A highly disciplined leader is necessary to instill new structure and process where applicable at the top and then have those processes and behaviors filter down throughout the organization. What will and won’t be tolerated? Who is helping whom with problem-solving? Are we living in an honest culture or one that values back-stabbing and mocking people? How honest is our data? Or, is it designed to make us look better? Are we as good as we think we are? These are all questions that need to be addressed in toxic cultures.
The great news is that for those living in difficult, harsh cultural workplace conditions, things can change for the better. The bad news is they’re unlikely to. If you’re low on the totem pole and hating the culture in which you work, you may want to seek other opportunities elsewhere. If you’re a mid-level manager, you may want to stick around and really make an honest effort at culture change on your team. Again, it can be the best work you do, career-making work, even. It is only up to you. Do note that negativity, backstabbing, and bitterness are difficult behaviors and emotions to overcome. But they can be through coaching, positive, servant leadership, and discipline. You’re showing people new ways to behave. You’re showing people new outlooks. You’re showing people what is possible even in the darkness. It isn’t easy. IN fact, it is one of the hardest professional things you’ll ever endeavor.
The best way to get to the culture you desire is to start with the one you envision. Who do we want to be? What kind of company do we want to work for? What will we stand for? What will we stand against? What will we value above all else? What will be our guiding beacon for decision-making? Who do we want to be a hero to? You’re beginning with the difference you want to make in the world.
That’s what Steve Jobs did with Apple. He started with the difference he and Steve Wozniak wanted to make. He had a bright vision of what he wanted Apple to be, do, and for whom. He let that difference shine and he never let it extinguish. In fact, he told anybody who would listen to him about his vision. Naturally, this attracted top talent to help him, even in the exciting, early days of a tech startup. This is what Apple’s cultural roots were founded upon: the values both Steves lauded.
It is fun and exciting and far easier to design the culture you want out of the gate. You know immediately who you are and what you want and what you stand for and the difference you desire to make. Further, you know the pitfalls of poor organizational cultures and the awfulness of working in those conditions. You want to avoid those at all costs.
As a leader, it is your obligation to steer the organizational culture to health wherever it may be. I look at myself as a guardian of organizational culture: guarding our culture against interlopers and barbarians who seek to infiltrate our company. You have to be on guard — there’s a lot of negativity that infects out there. As leaders, it is up to you and me to root it out of the organization. You don’t want to work with it. Why would anyone else? One bad person can infect the entire team. You ought to have an ‘A’ player mentality, like Steve Jobs did when it came to his people. Only ‘A’ Players. Let the ‘B’ team go play for the competition.
Organizational culture isn’t something that is static. It is dynamic. It is living, breathing, like a giant organism. People are constantly changing so therefore organizational culture can follow that change. However, you don’t want to see it slide downward to the dregs. You want to hold it high in esteem. You want an organization you can brag about to others. You should want to brag on your culture to people who don’t know. You should want to showcase to others working in a toxic culture what’s possible. Great cultures exist! Great workplaces exist! People you work with are awesome! This should blow their minds, especially if they’ve worked in a toxic culture for years. So sad — things can be much better for them professionally and personally and emotionally.
Excellent organizational cultures and Great places to work positively enhance every aspect of our lives. They make us happier. They make us work harder and smarter. They are far more fulfilling. They create long-term employment. They create caring and genuine relationships. They make us far better versions of ourselves than we could be on our own.
With all of these great benefits to excellent organizational cultures, you’d think every company and firm in the world would concentrate on this big goal. And you would be wrong. It’s hard work. Some leaders simply don’t see positive organizational cultures as vitally important to their firm’s well being. No one is leading the charge. With no one leading the charge, the initiative falls flat. Leaders must take the cultural reins and charge ahead with their values in what they stand for, what they stand against, and draw a line in the sand. Take a page out of the book of Jobs and stand for something! Then, go and tell anybody who will listen. You are creating a Great Place to work, a wonderful, daily act of creation.