The Long Term: Sustaining a High-performing, Positive Culture

The Long Term: Sustaining a High-performing, Positive Culture

Last week, I wrote about the importance of creating a culture by focusing on the things we value most and being deliberate about translating that focus into behaviors that reinforce our key tenets. This week, I examine the keys to sustaining a positive, high-performing culture.

Culture can sometimes be described as a “soft” aspect in an organization. But in fact, culture is driven by “hard” organizational components—including infrastructure, data, reporting and analysis, talent acquisition and management, risk management, financial stewardship, and day-to-day communications.  Each of these components must be aligned with the values and vision of an organization in order for the culture to stay consistent.  

As I wrote last week, accompanying these “hard” aspects of culture are the vision and the ensuing expected day-to-day behaviors that sustain positivity.  Sustaining a positive culture is, in itself, a body of work that requires reinforcing the vision, breaking the vision into expected behaviors, clearly articulating what those behaviors look like, acknowledging and encouraging the named behaviors, and calling out those that do not reflect the named culture. It means naming the values as a part of our job descriptions, performance reviews, and articulating them in ongoing one-on-one and team meetings.  

Also essential is an ongoing and consistent process for measuring adherence to the values that comprise our culture.   Every one of us is responsible for upholding the vision and the behaviors that accompany that vision.   We are all “owners” of the business—in other words, we are stewards of our vision, our values, our behaviors, and the structures that embody our culture.

Who we are internally reflects who we are externally to every stakeholder—from vendors to corporate and contract partners to every constituency we serve.  Our culture and the accompanying structural and behavioral building blocks are the keys to organizational success, credibility, and our ability to manifest the Power of Possible in concrete and measurable ways—leading to better lives for those we serve.

I welcome your thoughts. 

Shifting Culture as a Strategic Imperative

Shifting Culture as a Strategic Imperative

The building of a culture requires a thirst for knowledge about what is….”   J. Bennett

Last week, I wrote about the imperative of establishing an organizational culture that embraces change as an essential key to managing strategic risk and accomplishing organizational goals. Over the next few weeks, I will be examining the mechanisms for identifying and analyzing organizational culture and ways to systematically shift the culture as required.

Shifting culture is not necessarily easy—but it is possible—and it can be done with the right process that is emphasized and supported over time. That process includes: 1) clearly identifying and acknowledging the prevailing culture; 2) setting a vision for culture and establishing accountability mechanisms to advance expected behaviors; and 3) ensuring that our employees are acknowledged and supported as they begin to make the necessary behavioral and attitudinal shifts.

Acknowledging the prevailing culture: As leaders, we must be aware of the prevailing culture. This means that we understand what is happening two, three, four layers down in the organization.  Some leaders may make the mistake of assuming that the way people treat them, respond to them or interact with them is the norm across the agency.  Often it is not.  

I do this in several ways. 

First, we talk about culture and its inextricable link to organizational success.  I make it a point of talking with our senior leaders and staff how an innovative, responsive and data-driven culture is a foundation for successfully carrying out our long-term strategy.  That successful and high-performing organizations have a culture that is purpose-driven, performance-focused, and principle-led. 

Then I ask—how do we compare?  I make no assumptions but instead invite feedback and honest assessment from employees by asking very specific questions that speak to culture—sometimes in quick and informal settings and sometimes in more formal gatherings.

I call for honesty around what might be identified as subterranean cultural issues that might interfere with the organization achieving its goals.  For example, I ask…do people respond in a timely manner to one another?  Does the field feel supported by corporate services?  Do they get the information they need, as rapidly as they need it to do their work, manage their budgets, hire good people? I work hard to create a safe place for people to speak directly to the issues of culture and engagement. With every conversation, I listen carefully. This listening establishes trust, which in turn, engenders direct and honest feedback. I want to hear it all. Sometimes I hear things that are difficult or in direct contrast to the kind of culture that is required for success. I invite the truth, and I am not afraid to hear it.  I encourage senior leaders of the organization to be equally as inquisitive, as interested in the day-to-day experiences of their staff.  And I want to know what they learn. 

This learning provides us with the opportunity to act.   We have a sense of where there are gaps—in communication, trust, accountability, and delivery of expected results—and we can respond. 

As we continue to explore culture next week, I will speak to the setting a vision and establishing accountability mechanisms to advance expected behaviors at the leadership and line staff level.

Building a Culture of Organizational Resilience

Building a Culture of Organizational Resilience

Every day, I marvel at the resilience of the individuals we serve. I see veterans wounded both physically and psychologically with the scars of battle; I see men and women who have lost their homes, their jobs, and their families; I see young people who have moved from foster home to foster home—and I see those who have suffered from substance use, and those who have been incarcerated only to re-enter society burned by the stigma of their past. Yet in so many, I see above all, extraordinary resilience. I am inspired by their ability to not only recover—but to bounce back from unimaginable trials. They have been through a great deal—and still they have the stamina to walk through our doors and find hope, meaning and, most importantly, possibilities for a new future.
While the issues are clearly very different, organizations, too, are also susceptible to the impact of the environment. In our organization, like many nonprofits, the only constant is change. Contracts shift. Foundation awards run their course. Federal guidelines change. The political climate shifts with new leaders. Staff move into new roles. These forces create stress. But also like people, organizations can build their resilience muscles so that change is less a cause for stress, and more viewed as an opportunity.
What are the catalysts for resilience? There is much research out there about what makes resilience in human beings. To sum it up, resilience is found when an individual feels: competent—well-built skills to meet whatever challenges arise; confident—in their various abilities; connection—to a mentor, a teacher, a leader, a family member who has faith in their success; contribution—to something greater than him or herself; and control—over the basic and most foundational aspects of their lives.
These characteristics can be applied to organizations as well. These “c’s” of resilience are essential to creating a positive and growing organizational culture.
For an organization to feel competent, there needs to be a common understanding of mission and the skills required to accomplish agency goals. From hiring, throughout the lifecycle of an employee, it is essential that every employee understands the work, how to do it and where to get information to enhance skills.
Organizational confidence comes from leaders who are clear and focused on the right things at the right times.
Organizational connection is essential—to each other, to our Board, our funders, our stakeholders, and of course, to those we serve. These connections help us feel a part of something greater than ourselves.
Contribution, is an easy “muscle” to fall back on as every day we are able to see the fruits of our hard work in the successes of those we serve. This “doing” makes us feels good, makes us resilient.
And finally, control…while we really have little control over the future, we do have the ability to prepare for it by carefully attending to the environment and the trends.
How resilient is your organization?
As always, I welcome your thoughts.