The Virtues of Protecting Your Culture

protectcultureThe feeling you get when you build a great culture is extraordinary. It creates a sense of unity, excitement, and unbelievable pride.  People typically light up when they talk about a great culture — I know I do. There is often a sense of community, a feeling of real ownership, and personal dedication to something larger than us.

While many leaders have focused on building or changing their culture (…or shifting, evolving, transforming, whatever term is meaningful), it’s time to take it one step further. It’s time to be deliberate about protecting our culture too. To protect is to keep safe from harm or injury. Thinking about it this way evokes a different emotional reaction. A sort of protective instinct about something we don’t want to lose.

There are cultural threats and risks all around us. Sometimes, it’s one big thing that invades the culture. Other times it’s many small things that slowly chip away to create an underlying threat. In any case, part of our job as a leader is to wrap our arms around the culture and keep it safe from harm. And when we make a conscious decision to protect our culture, it becomes an unwavering commitment.

So, what are some of the things we can do as leaders to protect our culture?

1. Set the bar high. Use cultural expectations and leadership requirements as a way of making informed hiring decisions. It’s always worth an upfront investment to find the right fit.

2. Stand up, speak up.  When someone is not living up to our cultural values and expectations it’s our job to confidently and respectfully challenge them. This is where having each other’s backs is important.

3. Exemplify the behaviors. We’re always watching our leaders. Being a role model will help to instill the same sense of protective instinct in employees.

4. Create support mechanisms. Ensure that your organizational practices support the culture. The weakest link theory applies here. Invest time in aligning expectations, metrics, and rewards.

5. Use your leadership life lines. This isn’t exactly like Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, but close enough. Maintaining the integrity of your culture is a big task, but you’re not alone. Talk to a peer, engage your team, consult with a trusted advisor, or turn to your community of leaders for ideas and support.

6. Demonstrate the courage of your convictions. It takes courage and personal resolve to have difficult conversations, consistently make tough decisions, and carry out the actions. This is where real leadership lives…and a culture worth protecting needs great leadership.

What experiences can you share? What else would you add to the list?

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Audra August is a Principal, Succession & Talent Planning with Knightsbridge Leadership Solutions.  Audra works with organizations to build strong leadership capacity. Her areas of focus include succession management, team effectiveness, and organizational development. Audra can be reached at aaugust@knightsbridge.ca and @AudraAugust on Twitter.

6 thoughts on “The Virtues of Protecting Your Culture

  • I really like your thoughts here. In many subcultures that I have participated in, change has been inevitable. Unfortunately, in most cases, the unity of the culture has deteriorated. The aspects of culture are what bond us to one another the most. Many people do spend time reinventing the wheel, without even knowing why. In many cases of life, it’s the old ways that worked -that’s why they are ‘old’.
    I enjoyed your insight!

    • Thanks, Brian. Culture is such a fascinating thing. Like you said, it’s an ever-evolving thing; but at the same time it has its origin in the past. Scattered around any culture or organization are relics, traditions, even scars. Great thoughts, Brian.

  • Matt,

    You are absolutely right when it comes to protecting your culture. I would also recommend that as leaders we be transparent with our culture. Be honest when mistakes are made (even by ourselves). OUr leadership must be real and authentic. Not everyone will like or agree with our culture. That’s okay. Protecting your culture is extremely hard to do–and it takes a true commitment.

    Mark

    • Man, you’re so right. This is one that’s so hard for some of us exec-level folks to get though, isn’t it? Instead of sugar-coating it when we screw up and do something that doesn’t jive with what we’ve said we’re about, we need to step up and be honest and humble enough to own it, admit it, and learn from it. It seems like that’s when it becomes real rather than contrived.

  • Thank you for challenging me to raise the bar high and to protect the culture of our environment. I needed this challenge particularly right now! I appreciate your wisdom you chare!

    • Thanks, Cailey. Audra did a great job with this post, and she makes a great point, doesn’t she? It’s a big, important challenge that leaders have to be willing to accept.

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