A Step-by-Step Guide to Building a Thriving Organizational Culture

Creating great culture is a lot easier than we think!

I’ve been around many organizational and corporate cultures in my career and I’ve seen all kinds.

Cultures that just plain suck, where people grind it out day after day, no thanks or sense of value, just a pay check and occasional company holiday party.

Cultures where nothing get’s done, no one gives a shit about the work they do, the effort they put in, or the results of their mistakes.

Cultures where incredible things are being accomplished, but people are scared, or depressed, or sick, or even lost.

I’ve also seen places where people thrive. Where the People and the organization come together as one and actually create things, live fulfilling lives, and go home each day smiling.

What? Really?

Yes, they do exist! They exist all over the planet. Places where people work or give of themselves to organizations and corporations as though they are in a family.

They don’t feel like they are going to work every day, they feel like they are going to their life each day. They are inspired and energized by the work, or the environment.

No, this is not some sort of utopian civilization yet to exist on this planet, there are plenty of small and large businesses, organizations of every sort where people live inspiring lives.

Why?

Because each of these places has approached the creation of culture in a manner that is awakening and inspiring, not the same old same old.

In observing so many performance cultures over my career, I’ve come to realize that there are some really valuable cultural ignition switches that anyone who wants to create an inspiring culture can put into practice.

1 — Engage people with character before talent

A good friend of mine Hubert Marsolais runs three of the best restaurants in Montreal. In a town known by foodies as a metropolis for gastronomy, where your food and your service must shine if you want to stand out amongst the competition, Marsolais depends on the outstanding culture of his team to create the best ambiance and the best food day in day out.

How does he do it you may ask?

One of his founding principles is to hire character before talent. As Hubert says, “you can teach people how to do things, but you can’t teach character”.

The how, and the what of food preparation or service are important, but if the person delivering them just doesn’t care, it doesn’t matter how well imprinted or defined the script or recipe might be, the customer just won’t feel it or taste it.

If the customer doesn’t connect, chances are, they won’t return to spend their money on your food and your service, and you will soon be one of a myriad of restaurants that open and close in all the cities across the world yearly.

Marsolais has created not one, but three of the best restaurants in Montreal who’s reputations have stood the test of time, each at the top of the charts for many years.

Character creates culture and culture supports character, they are mutually supportive, and in his humble opinion, character is king!

2 — Make room for opportunity

If you want your culture to thrive, you have to provide opportunity within the world you’ve created.

What do I mean by opportunity?

Your team must feel that they can grow, that they can serve their spirit, and they can rise up within the space. If they feel like they are limited, or can’t contribute, or can’t rise beyond their current station, they will eventually tire of being a part of the team.

This doesn’t mean they have to be able to earn more money or have a fancy title. In fact many business and organizations make the mistake of thinking that by just paying people more, or giving them the corner office, they will be happy, and in the end, these things are not what serve our souls.

To feel like you are contributing to the growth and development of the organization, that your contribution is of value, and that you can in turn grow within the organization, is a must have these days.

In a world where lateral and vertical movement is far more available, and people are just not afraid to go somewhere else to find fulfillment, the culture within your organizational space is a key element in securing their loyalty.

Give your people the chance to shine.

3 — Make the ground rules simple and clear

Policies and procedures meant to make all things equal and honest within an organization simply hamstring culture.

People don’t flourish inside mandated structure. If for every decision there are six steps, and three people to speak with, then time becomes ever constraining. Function becomes defined by too many variables. People feel bogged down, and in the end, they stop moving forward.

They simply begin to exist within the structure instead of reaching, risking, and learning by trying.

Take the time to evaluate what your key definitive rules are, what are the un-breakables? Make them clear to everyone, and hold people accountable to them, but beyond that, let your people explore the possibilities. Let them make mistakes and learn from them.

A good friend of mine who has worked for 25 years in the pharmaceutical industry in sales told me once that the best boss she ever had, had one rule. “Do what you feel is right, but make damn sure you let me know what you did so I can back you up”.

Simple and clear, it says, “I trust you, but just make sure you don’t put me in a spot where I look stupid and we’ll both rise together”.

Rules should facilitate, not inhibit the process!

4 — Structure and Flow

Speaking of rules!

The idea of structure in any system is to provide room and clarity for flow. Flow is the opportunity to be, to think, to create, and to explore. Any organization or business cannot be successful without some structures or systems. This yin and yang between structure and flow is important to any businesses’ foundation for success.

The key to structure and flow is identifying a “flexible” system that allows those who are more flow oriented to be fluid and unencumbered, and those who are more structure oriented to have systematic anchors from which they may flourish.

It may even be necessary to have independent systems within “zones” of an organization. As an example, structure oriented areas of business like finance or engineering might need greater levels of structure, while areas of an organization that have a greater dependence on free thinking like design or artistic expression may need more room to flow.

That being said, no matter how flow oriented a person might be, they will have some fundamental structures that center them when necessary, and no matter how structured someone may be, they will from time to time allow their minds to drift into a flow state where they may be creative.

Find the happy place for your people to flourish.

5 — Lead by example

In any organization or family, those who are in charge or looked toward for direction or leadership must set an example. If you expect others to do things, don’t expect it to happen much if you don’t do it yourself.

Want people to be at your meetings on time? Start them on time!

Want people to submit expense reports? Submit yours!

Want people to take care of their health and wellbeing so they can be more productive? Then take care of your health and wellbeing.

Want people to be honest and accountable? Be honest and accountable yourself!

It would seem logical, but quite often those in leadership positions ask people to do things they aren’t willing to do themselves, and that’s when things get very murky.

6 — Pride in the Jersey

Ken Holland, the long standing General Manger of the Detroit Redwings, one of the most successful hockey teams of the last 25 years (mostly under his supervision) told me in an interview we did together, that one of the most important aspects of his players character was pride in the jersey. In other words, that they love playing for the Detroit Redwings and would do anything to win for the team.

It also translated into a sense that the jersey must be in turn worthy of that pride and commitment. The sense that when one comes to work, or to contribute to the organization, it matters to them that they represent the “brand” and that the “brand” cares about them!

Building a sense of community, connecting it to a “brand” or representation of character allows people to feel they are a part of something important. All humans want to matter, they wish for significance. So if in being a part of something, being connected to the image at large, makes a person feel more significant, then they in turn will do anything it takes to remain a part of that community.

Pride in your tribe is and all powerful glue that binds.

7 — Mind Your Manners

As all our grandmothers loved to say, “mind your manners”. Nothing done for you should go unnoticed, a simple thank you will suffice, but a thank you is a must.

Asking, not demanding, but asking is the key to opening another’s heart.

The simple and effective use of politeness has been so lost amongst us today. We simply must return to a place where being polite is the norm, not the exception.

As the country singer Tim McGraw says in his song Humble and Kind, “hold the door, say please, say thank you, don’t steal don’t cheat and don’t lie”. Good advice for all of us to heed.

8 — Listen and Learn

Finally, something that we all struggle with each day is our ability to truly listen to others.

Not to give way to their voice, but to listen to what they are actually saying.

Not thinking about what we wish to say next, but letting what we want to say go, and simply investing in what the other person is saying. Listening with intention and learning what matters to those around us is a key element of our true and deep connection.

When we are connected to each other, we will go much further for each other.

Don’t listen with the expectation that you will be listened too, just as you should not expect anything in return when you truly give, nor should you bear any expectation that you will receive a listening ear. Do right because it is right, not because you expect right in return.

As culture is the crux of organizational and corporate success, If we employ many of these simple strategies in forging a vibrant culture, we will find that the culture we create will inspire and eventually stand the test of time.