Don’t Leave Your Culture To Chance

don't leave culture to chance

“I’m not sure I can do this.”

I’ve heard these words countless times. You may have as well.

During my 15 years as an executive for the YMCA, one of the globe’s largest non-profits now branded as The Y, I heard these words from a teenager about to climb a rock wall – on belay, but nervous about the task before her. I heard these words from an adult volunteer who has signed on for the first time to help with the branch’s annual fundraising. Her $5,000 goal during the three week campaign was pretty intimidating. I heard these words from a high school junior who was minutes away from running his first committee session in the Model Legislature and Court, even after weeks of training and practice.

I heard these words in my own head just before taking the stage to keynote a convention with 10,000 in attendance. It was the largest audience I’d ever spoken to and I was nervous about how attendees would respond to my expertise, content, and stories.

During my 26 years as an executive consultant, I heard these words from a division head who knew he had to re-direct a high performing player on that player’s demeaning, aggressive interactions with peers each day. I heard these words from leaders who realized that in order to proactively manage an inspiring, productive workplace, they’d need to significantly shift how they spent their time – away from managing production and towards managing cooperative interaction and effective citizenship.

Recently, I heard these words from a senior executive who was unsure if he could effectively lead culture change in his large, multi-unit organization.

This organization is like many across the globe. It is successful, generating profits from satisfied customers. And, in their markets, competition is encroaching. This leader knows that great service to their customers is the way to differentiate themselves from their competitors. And, great service is only going to happen when employees feel trusted, honored, and respected in their organization.

This organization’s culture was like those of many companies across the globe. The culture wasn’t a focus – getting products out the door was the focus, for decades. In the company’s early years, the culture was very “family-like” – but that had changed over the past 10 years. Growth, the global recession, the retirement of long-time employees, and the influx of younger generations into the business had shifted that casual, family culture to one of silos, competition between units and players, and an “I win, you lose” dynamic.

Sound familiar? This is the case with many organizations, from small businesses to global multi-national companies. Their initial comfortable culture evolves to a much more stressful culture that’s less productive and more frustrating to live in daily.

This executive wanted to bring back the family culture. He realized that the company needed to formalize its desired values. He drove that process and the company published – for the first time – four values that reflected their historical culture and would help make the workplace less frustrating for employees today.

The values and their definitions were communicated very effectively. A marketing campaign helped get the word out with a cool logo, a brochure explaining the need for formalized values and explaining everyone was expected to demonstrate the values daily, and more.

A year later, the leadership team conducted an all-employee (leaders, managers, supervisors, operators, drivers, support staff, etc.) survey to learn the answers to two questions. First, did employees understand the values. Second, are employees demonstrating the values.

They learned that the new company values were very well communicated. 80 percent of their employee population understood the values and definitions. And they learned that very few people were seen as demonstrating the values. Only 25 percent of employees modeled the values in daily interactions.

Want a safe, inspiring, productive work culture? Make values as important as results.  ~S. Chris Edmonds

This leader was very frustrated with the lack of traction their values had. So, this executive reached out to me for help.

I worked with this leader and his leadership team to plan a half-day session for their 40 top leaders. I facilitated the session to help those leaders get much more specific about what “demonstrating our values” really meant and what that looked like. They had to get these lofty values into tangible, observable, measurable, behavioral terms.

I helped this team understand that announcing the values was the first step. Formalizing valued behaviors was step two. The next 20 steps require living the values themselves, praising aligned behavior, re-directing mis-aligned behavior, etc., every day.

They did a great job generating about 20 valued behaviors (observable and measurable indications that players were modeling the company’s values). The next step is for the senior leadership team to draft 3-4 valued behaviors for each of their four values, and gather feedback from the entire employee population on the accuracy of these valued behaviors.

It’s been a few months. I had a coaching call with the senior leader recently. During that call, he said, “I’m not sure I can do this.”

It’s a big step to commit to formalizing values in behavioral terms. It’s not something they’ve done before – very few leaders have experienced successful culture change much less led one. They’ve rarely had their bosses effectively manage culture change. Their bosses managed results – so that’s what today’s leaders think they should do.

Leaders do need to manage results. And – managing results is exactly half the leader’s job. The other half of their job is to create and maintain a workplace culture that treats everyone with trust, respect, and dignity in every interaction.

Effective, inspiring, safe, productive, and fun organizational cultures don’t happen by default – they happen by design. My job as a consultant and coach with this leader – and his leadership team – is to guide them to making that big step: defining values in behavioral terms, then living, coaching, and reinforcing those behaviors daily.

Because, you know what? Leaders CAN do this. And we need leaders TO do this – every day.

Questions to ponder: What are your company’s values? Are those values defined in observable, tangible, measurable terms? What gets measured, monitored, and rewarded in your organization – is it primarily results or values as well? How safe, inspiring, productive, and fun is your team’s culture?

Read S. Chris Edmond’s latest book: The Culture Engine: A Framework for Driving Results, Inspiring Your Employees, and Transforming Your Workplace

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S. Chris Edmonds is the founder and CEO of The Purposeful Culture Group. After a 15-year career leading and managing teams, Chris began his consulting company in 1990. Since 1995, Chris has also served as a senior consultant with The Ken Blanchard Companies. Chris provides high-impact keynotes, executive briefings, and executive consulting. He is the author or co-author of seven books, including Leading At A Higher Level with Ken Blanchard. Learn how to craft workplace inspiration with an organizational constitution in Chris’ latest book, The Culture Engine: A Framework for Driving Results, Inspiring Your Employees, and Transforming Your Workplace. His blog, podcasts, assessments, research, and videos can be found at

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Marlene Chism

    Loved this article, especially the instruction on how to bring the “invisible” into the visible. It is through observable behaviors that we can clearly see whether or not the stated values are being “lived” throughout the organization. As you said, the first step is to claim the values, and until values are claimed we create culture by default instead of design.