When is the right time to start thinking about culture?
It’s the most common question I hear when it comes to team culture and the only problem is – I think it’s the wrong question. If you have at least one other team member, you have a culture. And, if you have a culture, then you need to think about it now. Enough said.
I do think there is a more important question. Rather than asking if you have a culture, let’s focus on whether that culture intentionally reflects what you had hoped to create or if it happened somewhat by accident.
Nearly six years ago I sold my previous business and that – ironically or tragically – was the start of several of the most challenging years of my career (in the days before I launched AbsoluteEngagement.com and once again became blissfully happy with my work). However, if you had asked me what it felt like to work at the company during a time that was incredibly stressful, one word comes to mind. It felt ‘supportive’.
Isn’t it odd that despite the evident challenges, pressures and difficult decisions, that is the word that comes to mind? And it struck me, admittedly in retrospect, that that was the culture that had been created and fostered among a small group of exceptional women. We were not only going to do what had to be done, but we were going to look out for another in the process, be the cheerleader or shoulder (as and when needed) and remind one another that we were doing something good and important. It was, for that reason, a cool place to work. The culture was supportive and everyone felt it.
What is Culture?
In a recent Spotlight interview, I asked Rebecca Pomering, CEO of Moss Adams, to define culture. She would know something about this as she and the COO, Ken Evans, attribute much of their success to a positive and meaningful culture. According to Rebecca, “culture is what it feels like to work here.” And maybe that’s the best definition of all.
Arming ourselves with that definition, of course, is not enough or I would stop writing now. Two problems emerge when we start trying to define culture. The good news is that those two problems have one relatively simple solution.
The Problems We Need to Solve
The first problem is this. Too often, when we define the culture of our team or firm, we describe what we want it to be. Perhaps we want it very badly but it is, ultimately, our vision. And while that vision may be a powerful and important goal, your culture is what it is today, not what you want it to be tomorrow.
A second and related problem relates to the words we use to define a culture. If we don’t use words that are meaningful to the people on the team, then the definition won’t resonate. If it doesn’t resonate, it doesn’t matter. Even if the intent of what you and your team members are describing is the same, the actual words matter very much.
I’ve been reading a new book by Rodd Wagner called Widget: The 12 New Rule for Managing Your Employees As If They’re Real People. He has some insightful (and rather funny) ways of looking at the concept of team engagement. One of the points he makes (obvious only when pointed out) is that firms invest millions of dollars in employee engagement and yet no employee ever uses the term ‘engaged’ to describe how he or she feels about work. Check this article out for the full details. I still use this phrase because I think there is agreement on the objective of the term, but it’s worth thinking about because words matter.
Let’s keep this simple. If there is a possibility that that you are up against either of the problems highlighted above, you can find out quite easily.
Give each person on your team five small pieces of paper and ask each to write down one word, on each page, that describes how it feels to work at the firm or on the team. For simplicity, and to avoid people trying to make things up to fill the time, go with a minimum of three and a maximum of five. Put all the words into the proverbial hat (anonymously) and see what emerges.
- Did team members use positive or negative words? This will tell you something about the mood.
- Did they use words that were the same or, at least, similar? This will tell you if there is focus to the culture.
- Did they use words that you would use? This will tell you if you’ve got it right or wrong.
- Did they use words that reflect what you really want for them? If not, then you have some work to do.
The Next Step
This very simple exercise will work if you have one team member (except for the anonymity part) or a large team. Your only job is to analyze the input, without judgement, and define the next step. Your next step will depend very much on the results but at a minimum it will highlight if and where there is a breakdown.
If you are lucky enough to see convergence around a few key themes, then consider another simple exercise. Take the three to five words that reflect the team view of the culture and ask each team member to provide one example of when and how they experienced each one. For example, I would write an example of when I felt supported in my previous firm.
By going through this exercise you’ll have your action plan. Ask what works. Do more of it.
Thanks for stopping by.