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How to Create Great Company Culture

Knight Campbell
May 20, 2024

Without strategy, culture is aimless. Without culture, strategy is useless.

I used to quote Peter Drucker about culture eating strategy for breakfast. Let’s be real though. A fantastic culture without a clear and compelling strategy is like a luxury yacht with a broken rudder. 

We simply can’t separate culture from strategy. Good strategy drives great culture and great culture enables the execution of good strategy. 

One of the most powerful tools we use to form culture on an adventure is a simple team charter. At the beginning of an adventure, we ask people what kind of team they want to be on over the weekend. They tell us. Then we write it down, and we all sign it.

The real issue is not competition between culture and strategy, it’s unintentional culture. Most of us think that culture just happens, and that is true when we are not proactive. Culture happens whether you impact it as a leader or not. 

Many leaders tend to be passive about culture, either hoping for the best or installing ping pong tables and checking it off the list. In reality, leaders have outsized influence over culture. People tend to watch leaders. When we don’t use that influence, we are wasting one of our biggest assets. 

How do I know? Well, we have taken 60+ groups of complete strangers out on weekend trips at Cairn Leadership, and EVERY group has said, “this group must be one of the most tight knit groups you have ever guided right?” 

In reality, every group forms a strong bond. Our guides intentionally craft that culture in a weekend. If we can do it with strangers in a weekend, imagine what you can do with your team in a year! 

build a high performance culture


What is culture?

The dictionary definition of culture is “the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a social group.” In other words, culture is the implicit and explicit way we do things around here. 

How do I assess my company's culture?

Edgar Schein was one of the first researchers to look at organizational culture in the 1980’s. He considered what might be visible to an outsider observing an organization and developed the classic iceberg model (below).


Here's what you need to know:

look at your culture from all levels to understand it holistically.

Artifacts: These are the things that are obvious to anyone walking in with no context – the signs on the wall, the layout of the office (open or cubicle), or the way people sit in meetings (circles or rows). As a leader you have a lot of influence over these artifacts. You make decisions like where managers park in the parking lot, who talks first in meetings, and how the office gets decorated (or not).

It is worth taking some time to walk around your office with a fresh perspective and consider what your people see every day. The team charter pictured above is a prime example of a simple and powerful artifact.  

Values: It’s one thing to write the company values on the wall, it’s another to infuse your actions with them. Schein says this is the most dangerous ground for leaders, because if your artifacts, actions, and values don’t match, people won’t trust you. Hint, culture follows actions not words. 

For example, I had a commanding officer who said family was a priority. He also had no family and stayed in the office until 7 or 8 pm every night. Do you think leaders in that squadron prioritized family? Heck no. We all stuck around late every day.

Spend time figuring out what your values REALLY are, and then create small rituals every day to reinforce them.  

Basic assumptions: One morning on a Crux Adventure, my co-guide walked into breakfast and casually remarked that a super tired group of hikers had stopped by our campsite last night and asked if they could set up camp in the corner. She proudly recounted how she told them to keep moving and not ruin our time outside…

Our group was shocked. They looked at me as if to say, how could you let this happen? When an action or inaction shocks people, you have found a basic assumption. These are almost impossible for people in the culture to perceive, but they drive the values and actions behind your culture. 

An easy litmus test: How do people on your team react to trouble?

Schein makes the point that culture either derives from a group addressing external challenges or seeking internal comfort. A great way to clarify your culture is to pay attention to what happens when internal or external adversity arises or when your team confronts a new situation. 

 

take steps to influence your culture

1. Reveal instead of building

James Kerr talks about the need to let culture emerge rather than trying to force it. Imagine yourself like Michelangelo chipping away everything that is not David. For example, instead of forcing a mandatory picnic to create community, try bringing coffee and doughnuts on whichever day your people tend to show up earliest.  

2. Reward liberally

Operant conditioning builds culture. Identify a couple key behaviors to support the culture you want to emerge and then appreciate and reward them often! 

3. Eliminate counter-culture behavior

You need performance management that provides critical feedback early and often. If someone does not change with that feedback, they will poison your culture. It does not matter how much you like them or how talented they are, if they don’t align with your values, you need to let them go. 

4. Foster psychological safety  

If people are not comfortable speaking up about the culture, you will have a hard time influencing it. When people give you tough feedback on the culture, your only two responses should be “thank you” or “tell me more.” Anything other than those two responses and people will stop telling you how to improve your culture.   

5. Repetition

Culture is like water dripping on stone. The first time something happens it just splashes around randomly. After 100 times a groove starts to form. Once the groove forms, you will have to move the stone to change the pattern. Whatever you repeat (or allow to repeat) will become your culture. 

 

You have an outsized role in creating culture as a leader

When you lead other people, they watch everything you do. Any corner you cut creates a new standard. Every time you give tough feedback, you reset a higher standard. The way you greet new people dictates a friendly or cold environment. Where you park in the parking lot tells people how important you think you are, and therefore how important you think they are. It can be a lot of pressure, but if you think of it as an opportunity to build a great culture you can enjoy the process.

Questions? We'd love to hear from you! 

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