Send Culture to the Door When Trouble Comes to Call

I frequently write the words digital and success in the same sentence. Technology is important. A weak infrastructure at the beginning of 2020 meant it was a very hard year. As much as I value electronic connectivity, culture or the human side of business will always be the imperative.

We may never experience another global challenge like the pandemic. That doesn’t mean that catastrophe is on vacation. Unfortunately, whether a crisis happens across the marketplace or is limited to your environment, unexpected disasters are part of doing business. Great teams make disruption an opportunity for learning and growth. Employees who struggle with collaboration won’t carry your organization to the other side of adversity.  

Claim Responsibility

Indeed, reports that 72 percent of employees believe that it is important to know the details about a company’s culture. But what exactly does that mean. Culture is like personality. Although hard to define, culture infuses every activity from meetings to management style. How employees feel about their jobs, talk about work, and interact with each other are all part of that organizational ecosystem.  

It’s easy to equate culture with employee happy hours and envy-inducing benefits. But most leaders understand that culture is complicated. It is a combination of values and habits. Keeping those ideals on target is a bigger responsibility than doling out the candy. The ongoing discipline required may cause leaders to hide their heads in the sand and pretend that everything is roses when they are actually standing knee-deep in weeds.

Joanna Pineda, Founder, CEO, and Chief Troublemaker at Matrix Group International, Inc. made this observation about culture and responsibility:

“Early in our relationship, my executive coach would remind me that every CEO gets the organization he or she deserves. If your employees aren’t working well together and you’re siloed, it may not be because you created these problems, but you are the person who is allowing them to happen.”

COVID-19 demonstrated how quickly culture can erode under pressure. If your team experienced backsliding or if you survived the last year by the skin of your teeth, there are steps you can take to begin repairing the damage and set your group up for a better outcome the next time trouble comes to call.

Promote Mission and Values

Culture won’t grow in a vacuum. It needs to be rooted in mission. Mission is the destination that guides the journey. Values help you make choices along the way and habits are the activities that result from those decisions.  

Culture must be rooted in mission and values.

It’s the CEO’s job to emphasize those connections and to help staff and volunteers understand how they impact success. This is not a quarterly or monthly activity. It is an exercise in daily awareness about why your organization exists and why your staff and membership should be eager to advance its goals.

Developing a positive culture and solid organizational values is at the top of Executive Director, Nancy MacRae’s, priority list. She explains her role at the Emergency Nurses Association like this:

“It’s all about partnership. Collaboration starts between the staff leaders and the board. It’s not what the staff knows versus what the board knows. It’s the collective talent and energy that is important.”

Fostering teamwork among a staff of 100 employees can be challenging. MacRae leads by example and makes a point of personally recognizing people, activities, and initiatives that support ENA’s values.

“Our ten goals cut across all business lines. They drive our board, budgeting, and staffing. Nothing is just one person’s responsibility. Each individual has a piece in our success. We continually point out examples of that concept.”

Although the pandemic was a harsh reminder of ENA’s critical mission, it was also an opportunity to strengthen bonds that make their team strong.   

Over Communicate

Even the most compelling cause won’t engage employees if they don’t respect the messenger. People don’t have to like you (although it certainly helps), but they must believe in your ability to take the organization where it needs to go.

If you are feeling the weight of this responsibility, there are behaviors you can depend on to support decision-making and help your team move through the toughest circumstances.

Begin by making communication an integral part of your leadership style. It’s easy to put off addressing a challenging situation head-on, especially in the midst of uncertainty. But don’t do it! Whether there is good news or a difficult message, forthright communication stops gossip in its tracks.

The circulation of relevant information throughout an organization characterizes healthy cultures. Pauli Undesser, Executive Director at the Water Quality Association, shared her staff’s habit of frequent informal huddle-ups to brainstorm emerging issues together. When there is a pressing question, these impromptu sessions allow an action team to quickly begin developing a solution.

An organization that is confident about your ability to assess circumstances, assign responsibilities, and communicate status, won’t panic. Explain what you know and what you are still waiting to learn. Admitting that you don’t have all the answers makes everyone a problem-solver and can be a call to action.

Be Transparent

Transparency describes the quality of communication your association provides. Being transparent doesn’t mean sharing details about your personal life or friending staff members on Facebook. It is about regularly disseminating information that supports organizational decisions and helps employees understand the association’s current status and their contributions to its well-being.

Being transparent is about regularly disseminating information.

These are some questions that can help assess your association’s commitment to transparency:

  • Do you report significant actions from board meetings to your staff?
  • Are key performance indicators shared across the organization and is progress regularly evaluated?
  • Do staff have access to financial statements?
  • Are performance evaluations honest and designed to deliver constructive feedback?
  • Do you deliver on promises to employees and members?

In a rigorously monitored, technical industry, Pauli Undesser describes WQA’s commitment to transparency like this:

“To prepare for disruptive changes such as the U.S. China tariff wars, the association created stakeholder groups. Discussions begin with the staff, and as issues are formalized, bubble up to the stakeholder groups. Transparency is integral to this process. We make our intentions, strategies, and reasoning as public as possible. When there is resistance, we ask that people understand and appreciate the consensus position even if they don’t agree. We’ve had a lot of very direct conversations with staff, board members, committees, and sections.”

Act With Intention

Intention completes the circle of behavior that builds solid cultures. In the best and worst of times, it creates stability. Intentional leaders put everyone on the same page. Assignments and initiatives are driven by plans. The focus stays on goals and avoids distraction from background noise. Don’t mistake intentionality for tunnel vision. You can and should be able to reverse course if circumstances change. But when you act with intention, you always know where you are going and how to get there.

Intention is the outcome of an exciting mission and transparent communication. It creates the synergy to build trust which is the foundation for a positive culture. These behaviors are simple to understand, but they will be challenged regularly by the fact that human beings are complicated. The good news is that practice generates momentum and confidence.  Eventually, positive actions become organizational habits. Persistence guarantees that the next time trouble comes to call, culture will answer the door.  

Read profiles of Joanna Pineda, Nancy MacRae, and Pauli Undesser in our Association 4.0 Books

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