How to use leadership to shape organizational culture
Whether you shape organizational culture deliberately or not, it exists. It can be a toxic, broken culture or a unified, team-oriented culture. Or it might be somewhere in between, where the only shared value is mediocrity. Again, all of these statements are true, whether there’s a deliberate effort by leadership to shape culture or not.
Here’s one more truth: as a leader, both the vision and the culture of your organization are your responsibility. And only by uniting those two can you build a team that’s working together towards one goal, one vision. Without a “clear sense of direction,” your team is merely adrift at sea. Without positive, shared cultural values, your team is merely a collection of individuals.
Set your vision
Part of the issue is that for many organizations, leadership lacks clarity when it comes to their own vision for the company. If this is you, it is absolutely vital that you spend time as a leadership team setting that vision and formalizing it in writing. Without it, you won’t go far. Without it, you have nothing to unite your team around when the going gets tough. You’ll have nothing guiding you through marketplace changes and other bumps in the road.
And trust me, without vision, the going will get tough.
Communicate constantly and creatively
Once you have your vision set, communicate it to your team constantly. Think of it almost as though you’re marketing your company to your own employees. Because, well, you are. Without their buy-in into your overall vision, you’ll never shape a team or culture that is bound together to achieve something greater than their individual selves.
Without it, in fact, you have a group of people who can perhaps come together as a team from time to time, but who are, at the end of the day, working as individuals.
Take social good startup-turned-national company Warby Parker, for example. From their very first employee, the founders have emphasized the employee experience. Why? Because treating their employees as valuable and special is an act of appreciating them as human beings and for the work they’re doing on your behalf.
And when it comes to shaping culture and values, they believe that executive leadership should be involved in every employee onboarding.
“The presentations might seem repetitive after a while, or below the C-suite’s pay grade, but having them drive onboarding sends a strong message that new employees are extremely valuable to the company. Beyond that, a startup’s leadership team tends to have all the important institutional knowledge at their fingertips — from the origin story to governance structure. Also, when company values are articulated, explained in detail and reinforced (ideally with examples) by a founder, they carry far more weight than they might when simply written on a piece of paper or a poster on the wall.”
The communication around vision and values doesn’t end after onboarding, though. Leadership holds weekly all-team meetings, and makes it simple for remote or absent employees to stay in the loop as well by providing written briefings and videos.
They get creative, too. Each new employee receives an office map and other standard fare, but something unique to the company too: a copy of Jack Kerouc’s Dharma Bums. Warby Parker gets its name from two of Kerouc’s more famous characters, and the book serves as both reminder and connection to the company’s heritage. Awards, breakfasts, and team trips celebrate moments big and small that align with the company culture you’re trying to shape.
Live your values
There’s a reason living your values and leading by example is an essential part of every leadership level. Culture is a living, breathing ecosystem, but it is also 100% modeled after the values exemplified by the leadership. If those values are lacking, the culture and teamwork will be lacking as well.
Vision is about where you’re going as a team. Culture is about how you get there — it is “lived every day.” So while you can describe your vision and put it in writing, you must embody your values and demonstrate the culture you wish to have thrive in your organization.