Avoiding a Collision with Growth (part 3) – Cultural Leadership

Avoiding a Collision with Growth (part 3) – Cultural Leadership

In this 3rd installment in my series called “Avoiding a Collision with Growth”, we are going to discuss what is arguably the most important leadership quality in any organization – “cultural leadership ”.

Strengthening your foundational culture is key to successful long-term growth. Why? Because culture drives how people behave, how they perform, how they feel, and how willing they are to give their best.

Mastering the art of cultural leadership allows amazing things to happen! You find people who want to live out your mission. You easily attract people who are aligned with the company’s goals, and employees give their heart and soul to help those goals be achieved.

My Definition of Culture
There’s a lot out there about culture; and all the information can leave you feeling confused. I see culture as: “The deeply held beliefs of a group of people. These beliefs drive everything in the organization, including individual performance, interaction with others, decision-making, and treatment of customers.” In this aspect, belief forms our values, and values form our behaviors.

There are 3 components that create culture:
Mission – Why you exist. What you do. Who you serve, and why.
Values – How you operate. What differentiates you. The character traits of the company. What’s important to you.
Behaviors – The way you behave as a result of your mission and the values you hold.

To create a high-performance, engaged culture starts with the definition of the company’s Mission, Values and Behaviors. Now, I can hear what you’re saying – “We went through this exercise with our marketing consultant”; “Our mission and values are everywhere (in the handbook, on the walls); “Everyone knows what our values are; “We talk about our mission and values all the time”. If only it were that easy.

Listen, I do this work with clients and often have to bring them to an understanding. It’s easy to believe that just because the mission is written everywhere, that employees understand it and live it out. I’m sorry to say this – but that’s not enough!

The mission, vision, and values grow from the inside out verses being created for external marketing purposes. These cultural elements should be weaved into the internal fabric of the company. The customer and the employee should have the same experience!

After you’ve clarified your mission, values, and behaviors, the next step is what I call “imbedding for stick-ability”. That means your cultural expectations are baked into all of your people practices. Once you have cultural clarity, you can:

• Ask the right interview questions
• Measure cultural expectations in performance reviews
• Make promotional decisions
• Quickly assess who doesn’t fit
• Coach and develop the right behaviors
• Reward and recognize cultural competency
• Align department and individual goals with the mission

Who creates culture?
The CEO and senior team create organizational culture. They are the ones who demonstrate belief and support for the mission. They are the people who hold themselves and the people they lead responsible to uphold the values and behaviors they say are important.

Cultural leaders have to be willing to hold people accountable to both functional job performance and cultural performance. For example:

If a high performing VP of Sales behaves in opposition to a value you say is important, then they would be coached. If they refuse to change the behavior, then a cultural leader would have to let them go.

Everyone from manager to entry-level employee looks to executive leadership to see what is allowed, punished, and rewarded. They take their cues from leadership, and that develops the true culture – not what you state on your website! Employees can detect cultural hypocrisy from a mile away.

Companies that “Get It”
Before I finish this post, I want to point you to a few examples of companies that demonstrate great cultural leadership. I encourage you to read more about them: REI, Zappos, USAA, Southwest Airlines, and Burkhart Dental Supply (a gem of a company with corporate offices in Tacoma, WA).

Now you’re armed with 2 critical leadership qualities for growing companies – Visionary Leadership and Cultural Leadership. Be on the lookout for my next post where we will dig deeper into the people leadership skills necessary to avoid a collision with growth. Stay tuned!

When have you seen cultural leadership at work? Have you experienced a cultural disconnect, either as a customer or employee? Let’s have a dialogue. Please share your feedback with me, and with others!


Deneen Grant is a Leadership Strategist, Culture Expert, and founder of Progressive Leadership Group. Deneen partners with CEOs and Senior Executives to put the Right Leaders, in the Right Roles, with the Right Skills – creating thriving, high performing, and profitable organizations.

Posted in Culture, Growth, Leadership