Manage Your Culture…or Someone Else Will
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The CEO cannot delegate the task of managing and owning organizational culture. If you don't manage your culture, by constantly reinforcing your organization's mission and values, others will do it for you. And they'll blame you when something inevitably goes wrong.

We hear a lot these days about the importance of building a great company culture, which you can think of as your organization's shared values and the way you go about getting your work done. Your culture helps your team understand the right opportunities to pursue--and the ones to avoid. I've written before about the tools you can use — symbols and stories — to help cultivate the kind of culture you want for your organization. There are also structures and systems that come into play as your organization begins to scale up.

But another important aspect of building and nurturing a healthy culture is to make it clear who owns the job of managing it. And that person is you, the CEO. This task is not one you can delegate. If you don't manage your culture, by constantly reinforcing your organization's mission and values, others will do it for you. And they'll blame you when something inevitably goes wrong.

Let me share a story to help illustrate what I mean. Just recently, I was involved with a missionary organization that, at its core, had a set of values that were very clearly spelled out -18 very specific values. But the leader of the organization had brought in some other leaders who happened to have very forceful personalities--and differing opinions on how the organization should be run. Rather than choose to confront these folks for a variety of reasons, the leader let them impose their will on the organization by making decisions that went against the values of the organization. One specific decision was to terminate a number of valuable team members inside the organization.

You could have easily predicted what came next: without all of these key people anymore, the organization suddenly didn't have the experience or the manpower to tackle the many goals it had set for itself. You probably could also guess what happened after that: the organization's board blamed leader for the struggles even though he hadn't made the decision to eliminate the people. Why? Because it was his job to protect the values of the organization, and he clearly missed the mark in this regard.

This is why managing the organization's culture is not a job the CEO can delegate. In this case, the leader should have been having difficult conversations with those people who were acting contrary to the organization's values to get them "on the bus," as Jim Collins would say. If they weren't aligned with the organization's values and mission, then he should have taken on the job of coaching those people. Or, if they simply refused to change their approach, the right decision would be to exit those people to help preserve the culture even if they were someone who was a high performer. The trade-off of short-term performance for a loss of the organizational culture is simply too expensive to make over the long run.

And it's not that the people who made the bad decisions in this example meant to do harm. Rather, they thought they were doing the right thing. But because they were acting outside the lines of the values that the organization had firmly established, they ended up doing the wrong thing. Their values were simply different and when the situation was viewed through their standards, they came to a different conclusion. That's why it's your job to teach people about the organizational values and culture, so they see things in a similar manner and come to the right conclusions for the team. It also translates into coaching your team about the kinds of customers and employees you should be pursuing and the ones you don't want any part of because they don't share the same values as you do.

The best leaders have a clear handle on their organization's culture and they know what levers they need to pull to keep people moving in the same direction. When you can do that, you'll greatly improve the chances that your organization will enjoy long-term success. On the other hand, if you don't take on the responsibility of managing the culture, others will take over the culture, but you'll still find yourself in the crosshairs when your organization's performance suffers.

If you fail to stay on top of your culture, you also greatly increase the risk that your organization will lose its clarity of mission and begin to drift from your original purpose--which is a subject we'll tackle in my next post.

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