C is for Creating A Culture

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Imagine you lead an organisation. You will continually communicate the organisation’s purpose and the principles people can follow to achieve the picture of success. You will also show the benefits of achieving the goals.

The next step will be to encourage and enable people to perform fine work. One approach is to act as a positive model and aim:

To build and maintain a positive culture in which motivated people can achieve peak performance.

There are many ways to build such a culture. Let’s explore you can take the following steps.

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Clarifying The Culture

Good leaders are like often like good parents. They are positive and predictable. They create an environment in which people can grow. Poor leaders are negative and unpredictable, so people live in fear.

Looking back on your life, can you recall a place where the culture was absolutely clear? It may have been, for example:

A school.
A sports team.
A self-help group.
A theatre group.
A military unit.
A mountaineering team.
A charity.
A pioneering business.
A government department.
A multi-national company.

Looking back at the place your remember, what was its purpose? What were the goals people were trying to achieve? How did people behave? Were people warm, friendly, open, professional, macho, blaming, competitive or whatever? What were the effects of their actions?

What were the principles – the Dos and Don’ts – people were encouraged to follow to reach the goals? How were these actions rewarded? What was the kind of atmosphere that people created?

What are the three words you would use to describe the culture? You might say that it was: ‘Positive, inspiring and empowering.’ Alternatively, you might say it was: ‘Tough, unforgiving and painful.’ What are the words you would use?

During my early career I ran therapeutic communities. This involved visiting many different places to study what worked in this field. The leaders of such programmes often gave similar messages. These were:

We aim to create a culture in which people can help each other to grow. Whilst we do lots of one-to-one work, the crucial thing is to create an encouraging environment in which people can choose:

To take responsibility for shaping their futures.

To encourage each other to reach their goals.

To develop skills for achieving ongoing success.

The culture we create can help to encourage, educate and enable people to develop. We hope it will provide them with positive memories for life and practical tools they can use to achieve success.

Good leaders often follow a similar approach. They start by communicating clarity – the goals to achieve. They then create a culture that enables people to achieve concrete results.

Such leaders often communicate a compelling purpose. They also communicate the benefits – to all stakeholders – of achieving the goals. The team may aim:

To climb a mountain.
To build a successful prototype.
To find a cure for an illness.
To provide superb hospice care.
To help to build a better world.
Or whatever.

They outline the principles and professional standards – the Dos and Don’ts – people will need to follow to achieve the aims.

These principles are there for a reason, they are not just the leader’s whim. They explain how following these principles will provide the greatest chance of success.

Successful cultures are often made up of people who have similarity of spirit and diversity of strengths. Diversity of spirit is a recipe for disaster. Attitude is non-negotiable, but they want characters, not clones.

Spirit gets people so far. But it is the diversity of strengths that produces something special when it matters. People will express the principles in many different ways, but they must always demonstrate high professional standards.

If you wish, try tackling the exercise on this theme. Imagine that you lead the organisation where you presently work. If you are a freelancer, try applying the exercise to another context, such as you leading a team, workshop, group or whatever.

The exercise invites you to do the following things regarding clarifying the culture.

Describe the organisation’s purpose. Try to bring this life by describing some of the specific goals it wants to achieve.

Describe the principles – the Dos in behavioural terms – that people can follow to achieve the purpose.

Describe the positive benefits – to all the various stakeholders – of achieving the purpose.

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Communicating The Culture

Imagine you are a leader. There are many ways to communicate the culture – both to new people who join and also to people already in the organisation.

Sometimes it is good to start by giving people context and explaining the big picture. Building on what you have already clarified regarding the desired culture, here are some of the headlines it may be useful mention. You will, of course, say these things in your own way.


The purpose of our organisation is:


The specific goals we want to achieve are:





The principles and, where appropriate, the professional
standards we encourage people to follow achieve the purpose are:




Positive Benefits

The positive benefits – for the various stakeholders – of
following these principles and achieving the purpose will be:




Bearing these things in mind, let us know if you would like to contribute to the culture and help us to achieve success.

Imagine that you have explained the big picture of people. You can continue to communicate the desired culture in many ways. Let’s explore three possibilities.

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Positive Modelling

Good leaders recognise they are always on stage. People focus on what the leaders do, rather than what they say.

Many years ago I worked with a leadership team that was about to launch the organisation’s values. Before doing so, however, the leader said:

We need to act as good models. So my suggestion is that, for the next month, we as a leadership team keep focusing on the values. We can aim:

To try to live the values in our daily work.

To find specific examples of when some of our people live the values.

To look at practical things we can do to bring the values to life in our organisation.

For example, in the interviewing process, induction, rewarding people, promotion, performance appraisal and so on.

We can then decide whether we are really serious about living the values.


Positive Reinforcement

Good leaders often create an encouraging environment in which people can grow. They also frequently show people what good looks like.

They do this by giving specific encouragement. They also highlight when people follow the principles and deliver the required professional standards.

Imagine you want to show what good looks like. One approach is to continually produce success stories.

It is vital to have a mission holder, however, who is accountable for ensuring the stories are collected, written and published. Do not leave it to a committee. There are many formats for producing such stories. Below is one approach.

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Never Walk Past
A Quality Problem

Good leaders reward the behaviour they want repeated. They also never walk past a quality problem, otherwise they have said it is okay.

A Managing Director taught me about this when I was due to meet him. Sitting in the reception area of his company’s offices, I saw him park his car and begin walking toward the main entrance.;

Suddenly he dived into the hedge and emerged with an empty drinks can. It was 7.30 in the morning and the can had obviously been thrown from the nearby main street during the night.

“I refuse to walk past a quality problem,” explained the MD.

“If we don’t keep our hedges and car parks clean, visitors will think we don’t pay attention to our products. I can guarantee that, if it wasn’t me, the first staff member to arrive would pick up the can.”

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If people are serious, they extend this approach to certain aspects of human behaviour. When running the therapeutic community, for example, the young people who came signed up to taking responsibility.

There were many reasons why they had got into trouble. The main one was that they had chosen to deal with their feelings in an irresponsible way – hurting either themselves or other people.

They knew the deal regarding how they were expected to behave in the community. They knew the Dos and Don’ts. If they broke the guidelines – such as being late for a group meeting – they were choosing to leave.

Most people followed the guidelines. But some people did choose to break them, so they immediately went back to the institution or other place where they came from.

Several people who left did reapply to join the community. They had to wait three-months before doing so, however, and they then knew what was required. Those who did return often made the most of their second chance.

“That sounds tough,” somebody may say. Maybe, but the key was to protect the culture in which people wanted to grow.

Successful cultures encourage the people who take responsibility and help others. They do not dilute their principles – or their professional standards – for those who do not want to fulfil the agreed contracts. It is about maintaining standards.

Imagine you are a leader. You and your colleagues want to communicate the desired culture to people. How can you do this in practical ways?

You may, for example, aim to act as positive models, share success stories and never walk past quality problems. If you wish, try tackling the exercise on this theme. This invites you to do the following things.

Describe the specific things you can do to communicate the culture to people so they know the purpose, principles and required professional standards.

Describe the specific things you can do to act as positive models.

Describe the specific things you can do to highlight when people follow the principles and deliver the required professional standards.

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Continuing To
Sustain The Culture

Good leaders often find it relatively simple to start building a culture. People are enthusiastic and are prepared to work hard to achieve the goals.

Maintaining the moment is crucial. So it is vital to keep communicating the organisation’s purpose and principles. These can be brought to life by continually publicising success stories.

People make the difference, however, so it is important to employ people who embody the spirit of the culture.

Let’s explore three ways that some organisations aim to sustain a positive culture. These focus on Interviewing, Induction and involving people in doing a Cultural Health Check.


There are many ways to interview prospective employees. One company made its values the basis for the interviews.

Before the interview, the applicants were sent material that described the values. These were illustrated by real life stories showing how people in the company had translated the values into action.

People were invited to do homework and then share this at the interview. They were asked:

To give two examples of when they had translated some of these values into action in the past – these could be in their personal or professional lives.

To give examples of how they would try to translate some of these values into action during their first two months in the company.

The applicants were given the name of a person in the company who they could contact if they needed more information before the interview.

The aim was to recruit for values, but also to give the applicants every chance of success. This approach sounds challenging, but it proved effective.


One company I work with pays special attention to Induction. It ensures that people spend their first month working with positive role models in the business. They then spend half a day with me.

During the first part of the session we focus on the qualities people need to thrive in the modern world of work. We explore, for example, how they can continue:

To build on their strengths, whilst managing the consequences of their weaknesses.

To proactively manage their key stakeholders.

To perform superb work and deliver success.

During the second part of the session we focus on how people can contribute to the culture. At this point we adopt the approach that the best way to learn is to teach. They are asked to make presentations about the company culture.

Some may think this is asking a lot of new employees, but we find that people rise to the occasion.

People choose the exercise they want to tackle from those listed below. They are given half an hour to prepare. Each group then makes a presentation on their chosen topic.

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Involving People In Doing
A Cultural Health Check

There are many tools for measuring morale, engagement and wellbeing in organisations. The Gallup Q12, for example, is one of the most popular. You can discover more about it via the following link.


One point is worth bearing in mind after getting the results of such feedback. In the old days employers used to think it was only up to them to improve the scores.

Nowadays such improvement is seen as a two way street. One organisation I know invites people to form task forces around the various themes.

People focus on the areas: a) Where the organisation scores highly; b) Where the organisation scores poorly. They are asked to provide practical suggestions regarding how it can keep building on its strengths and improve in the areas where it is weak.

People are invited to explore both the employer’s and the employee’s roles in maintaining or improving the scores. They focus on:

The Employer’s Role

The specific things the organisation can do to
maintain or improve the rating in this area are:




The Employee’s Role

The specific things we can do to maintain
or improve the rating in this area are:




People are invited to follow up and implement some of the concrete suggestions for improving the ratings.

The Cultural Health Check

Another approach is to invite people to give specific feedback regarding the organisation’s culture. They can focus on the following areas.

Doing Well

The specific things we are doing well – or have done well in that past – and how we can do more of these things in the future.

Doing Better

The specific things we can do better – and how – in the future.

Developing In The Future

The other specific suggestions regarding how we can continue to develop in the future.

Below is the exercise people are invited to complete. They can then implement some of these ideas to sustain a positive culture.

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Marvin Bower said that culture is: “The ways we do things around here.” Culture creates the environment in which people can do their best work.

If you wish, try tackling the final exercise on this theme. This invites you to do the following things.

Describe the specific things you can do to continue to sustain the desired culture.

Describe the specific benefits of doing these things.

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