“In the end, as a leader, you are always going to get a combination
of two things: what you create and what you allow.”
~ Henry Cloud, Boundaries
As we get stuck into 2023 and approach the third anniversary of the unwelcome global pandemic, we know one thing to be true…our post-pandemic organizations are fundamentally different from our pre-pandemic ones.
What defined our workplace cultures even just a few years ago does not reflect where we are today. The change has been profound and lasting. As the calendar turns and the dust settles, many leaders and organizations we work with are finally getting to grips with what this means. They’re thinking about the long-overdue work they need to do to redefine their cultures and chart the future for their organization.
Many forward-thinking leaders have come to realize that the once crystal-clear vision, mission and purpose statements that guided their teams have drifted out of sight. As they were preparing to focus on another year of managing constant crises, change, and uncertainty, they realized culture was slipping away. The emphasis on efficiency and productivity in a remote/hybrid world comes at the expense of knowing why they exist, where they are going, and why their work matters.
This reckoning on culture brought me back to 2019. I had the awesome privilege of listening to Kim Scott (the maven of Radical Candor) speak with Ryan Smith (CEO of Qualtrics) at a conference in California. It was a riveting conversation! And as the founder of one of the most successful tech companies in this working generation, Ryan brought a treasure chest of insights to the stage. Most resonant and profound was this quote:
“We define our culture by how people talk to one another. If you want to get a read on what our culture is, just listen to the way we talk.”
Think about how much work has changed in the past three years through remote work, hybrid and distributed models, and much more. The way we speak to each other has changed. In-person coffee hangouts have been replaced by 2” x 3” squares on a Zoom screen. Spontaneous conversations at the water station have been subbed out by structured 30-minute scheduled sessions in the Teamsverse.
Culture is not a thing. It’s people. At the heart of any organization’s culture are the relationships and the people that drive and nurture those relationships. Yet the way we work has become transactional with fewer opportunities to connect and build those relationships.
And maybe most important, leaders have realized and accepted that their people have changed.
In 2023, people have different needs, priorities and ways of thinking and relating. An organization’s culture is only seen and experienced through its people, so if those people have changed, then invariably the culture must change too. Denying change, or not having the courage to embrace it, is like standing at the edge of the ocean and trying to hold back a rising tide. It simply won’t work.
Back in 2019, Ryan Smith reflected this insight in a different way. He said that while leaders have agency to steward and shape an organization’s culture, it’s never static and it changes with every single person you hire. New people who bring their own experiences, expectations, and perhaps past bad behaviours into your organization.
The topic of culture has been an increasingly present and critical challenge that many of the leadership teams we work with are facing today. And through team coaching, we’re able to create the space and mindshare to help them navigate these challenges through crucial and vulnerable conversations, all with a bias to action.
The funny (yet completely true) line we’ve often used lately is, “When you are in the jar, it is hard to read the label.” We recognize that teams need to navigate their way forward and choose actions that help them move to a future state. We also appreciate that it’s hard to step back and be objective because everyone on the team lives and breathes the organization. Sometimes you need the time and space to be able get outside the jar and see what you need to see.
And in those team coaching sessions, here are the big questions we ask them…which you might choose to ask yourself as well.
What’s working well in our culture today?
Despite the strains and stresses of the past few years, many organizations can now reflect on some resilient and evergreen cultural norms and practices that have helped them get through the storm and remain relevant. It’s important to start from a position of strength by writing down all the things that are good and functioning well.
What’s not working well in our culture today?
This question helps leaders pause, reflect, and be honest about the things that are getting in their way as a team and organization. Most teams and organizations have some undesirable habits, norms and practices that have been worming their way into the culture. This is a great question to start rooting those things out.
What do we need to let go of from our past culture so we can move forward?
This question is where the lightbulbs go off! Many organizations have carried on with cultural norms and standards that simply don’t serve them anymore. Here’s one example from a client session: the team and company had a long-standing cultural standard and norm where they prided themselves on being a “flat organization” where structures around reporting relationships, communications, and other fundamentals weren’t needed. One courageous leader stepped in and said, “We’re 300 people now! There’s no way that being a ‘flat’ org is helpful for our people.” Bing!
What’s not allowed in our culture in the future?
Amid the massive change in the work landscape, many organizations have acquired some behaviours, norms and other characteristics that they need to let go of and bring to a screaming halt. This goes back to Henry Cloud’s quote about “things that you allow as a leader” which is particularly resonant in this case.
The big takeaway from this blog is simple: your culture is defined by your people. As a leader, you have agency to guide your culture, but you can’t control it. The purposeful work of re-establishing your vision and setting standards for the culture you want to foster for 2023 and beyond is purposeful and timely work for any leadership team.