How to Influence Organizational Culture as a Leader

Kerry Stover

Imagine the DNA in your body. Invisible yet inextricable, it determines almost everything you do and the way you do it. In a company, culture is the DNA. Every cell, every system, has the same DNA coursing through it — these are the units, departments, and individuals within the company; the culture is the practices and beliefs they carry between them.

That’s why culture rises above function in an organization. It doesn’t matter whether you’re designing logos, calling customers, making coffee, or building financial models — culture is the DNA of how you go about your business, with each individual acting as part of the same body.

Employees are aware of culture. They know it and feel its permeable effects in their daily lives. And 77% believe that a “strong culture” empowers them to do their best work. This is why leaving your culture to chance is a mistake. After all, a culture will only strengthen during scaling if you can shape it in collaboration with your team.

How Growth Influences Culture

Culture and purpose are closely tied. In fact, it’s the pursuit of purpose that causes people in a company to define their culture. They aim to create a disruptive tech startup, so they establish beliefs and practices that are disruptive and tech-forward, for example. Whatever the purpose is, a company will direct its energy toward that purpose in many subtle and overt ways.

Many quickly growing companies pride themselves on their company culture — it serves as a reminder of the beliefs and practices that bind their employees together. But as these companies grow, that feeling of united purpose can begin to loosen. As your company scales, its external environment will introduce many more pressures. Unless the ability to adapt is firmly baked into the company’s DNA, the effect of the cultural environment on business will be detrimental — it will begin to lose its purposeful direction and start floundering.

Take Sears, for example, which has long been a household name. Sears was revolutionary in its early days, priding itself on the ability to send everything from a teapot to a tractor straight to your door. And yet, we’ve witnessed its decline and ultimate descent into bankruptcy. Its current sad state is not the result of Sears lacking a culture, but because it didn’t successfully adapt to the culture around it. Whether you blame its downfall on bad mergers or the rise of e-commerce, Sears ultimately lost its ability to please customers as they — and the world — evolved.

So, as a company grows within a changing environment, it needs to recognize new elements in the market and develop a culture of evolution.

Leadership’s Role in Positively Changing Culture

Leaders naturally feel a responsibility regarding culture. They take the reins as they scale the company, and in doing so, they have to prioritize certain practices and beliefs to force movement in one direction or another. 

In order to successfully prioritize, leaders must be able to take the temperature of their organization. They should communicate transparently when making decisions so that employees feel involved and important, and they need to constantly assess the response to such decisions so that no department or function suffers in silence, feeling devalued. 

The key for leaders wanting to have a positive impact on organizational culture is to talk openly about it. According to a survey by Slack, 87% of workers wish to be in a job that values transparency. With such openness, everyone can see how culture is being developed, what might be lacking, and what’s definitely working. That doesn’t mean the whole team has to decide on a single purpose statement and stick to it for the rest of time — it just means that change must always be on the table and everyone should be able to contribute to it.

The relationship between organizational culture and leadership is symbiotic, but the wisest thing leaders can do to create great culture is to simply step back and listen. Leaders must be the ones most willing to change their ideas. They should be willing to learn rather than believing they know it all. Only then can they help create a company culture that powers the entire body of their organization.

Kerry Stover

About the Author

Mr. Kerry Stover has over three decades of management and technology consulting experience in developing and implementing business strategies enabled by leading technology. With expertise in defining and implementing the strategy, organization, people, processes and technology required to execute meaningful business change, he has specific experience in co-creating value in his clients and companies throughout his career.

 

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