Building a strong culture, one that attracts and retains the best talent, is a huge undertaking for any organization. Undoubtedly the most difficult part is aligning the entire company on whatever values—old or new—constitute the core of the culture. Managers play a pivotal role in creating that alignment.
Of course, it’s not easy. There is no standardized process for building things such as honesty, teamwork, accountability, or innovation. Many managers come to believe that it takes a natural leader, someone who is innately skilled in inspiring and motivating others, to effect this kind of sweeping change in an organization. However, that belief is a myth which holds back so many otherwise capable leaders. Any manager can build a strong culture if they do the hard work of turning vague values into concrete actions that employees can take.
When it comes to translating values into action, where do most managers fall short? As one wise leader put it to me, “Driving innovation and creativity, for example, can’t simply be aspirational. Managers have to talk about it and reward it.”
In my experience, a lot of managers fall into the trap of mistaking broad performance standards for concrete expectations when talking one-on-one with their employees. So, how do you identify whether this is a problem for you? When communicating a broad performance standard, managers usually say something like this, “From now on, we will focus on accountability as a team.” If a statement can begin with the phrase, “From now on…” that’s a good sign you’re communicating a broad performance standard.
Usually, a broad performance standard means doing more, doing it better, or doing it with a bigger smile on your face. A concrete expectation, on the other hand, is the means to achieving that broad standard. Concrete expectations are comprised of goals, deadlines, and actions the employee can take. Managers have to step back and ask themselves, “What steps must an employee make to get from Point A to Point B?”
In terms of building company culture, this can be especially tricky. Managers are expected to get more teamwork or innovation from their people, but what exactly does teamwork or innovation mean? How are those terms defined in your organization? Maybe there is an answer to those questions, maybe not. If there is not, you may be able to get a clearer idea by asking your own boss or HR. But the majority of managers have to define company values for themselves with little or no guidance.
Take a particular value—whatever it is—and ask, “What does this look like on my team? What is an example I could give of someone embodying this value? What specific actions from that example could someone replicate?” It may be worth holding a team meeting to discuss these questions and create definitions and guidelines together.
Then, use those definitions as the starting point for action plans you create together with direct reports in your one-on-ones. If you’ve already taken the time to customize your approach to each person and developed a Manager’s Landscape, it will be much easier to identify unique and meaningful goals.