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Building a Healthy High-Performance Culture

Your leadership values shape your strategic blueprint

Li #215 Building a Healthy High-Performance Culture
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A DEPARTMENT DIRECTOR in a medical company asked me to visit and give her a coaching checkup. Janet’s vice president superior had suggested it, and I was happy to see what I could do. I was meeting her for the first time.

Janet was friendly and personable. We sat down in her office and she talked about her situation. She led a staff of 15 serving the company’s physicians. Janet seemed quite knowledgeable about the technical parts of her job, and her staff sounded competent in regard to their work.

On many levels they were doing well, but Janet was dissatisfied. “We can do a lot better at customer service,” she said. “Our doctors aren’t completely happy with my staff. They aren’t as responsive as they should be, and they don’t take initiative very well. The physicians feel sometimes that they don’t really care. What should I do?”

Rather than comment on those things, I asked her a question. “What are your leadership values?” Janet sat still for several seconds. Thinking she needed clarification, I followed up. “What I mean is this: If I go out there and ask your staff this question — ‘What does Janet most care about?’ — what will they tell me?”

“I don’t know,” she finally said.

“Then you can be sure they don’t know either,” I replied, “except perhaps for values you don’t know you are communicating.”

After a discussion, I left Janet with the assignment of formulating hers.

Values shape cultures

Why is this so important? It’s because values shape a group’s culture, and culture shapes behavior and performance. Whatever the size of your organization or team, its culture is the greatest indicator of future performance.

All groups have a culture. It’s not if, it’s what kind? A group’s culture can be positive or negative, healthy or unhealthy, a help or a hindrance. A culture can be conducive to great performance or be so toxic as to make performance an afterthought to one’s survival.

A culture can be shaped intelligently by design like a building that is built according to a blueprint. Or it can be formed accidentally like a sand dune according to the prevailing winds. In the latter case, the “prevailing wind” in a group of people typically means the will and mood of its dominant personality, who may or may not be the one with formal authority.

Thus, if you are a leader and do not embrace the task of deliberate culture formation, you are playing dice with your team’s development. There’s no predicting what you’ll get.

Deadly inadvertent values

As I warned Janet, every leader is communicating her or his values through words and behavior, even if they don’t know it. Be sure of this: Values you don’t know you are communicating are more likely to be ones you don’t want!

Across the world of business, leaders are communicating values like these:

  • “Don’t bother me. I’m too busy.”

  • “Customers are an inconvenience.”

  • “Most people are dishonest and trying to game the system.”

  • “Employees who ask questions or need help are stupid and incompetent.”

  • “It’s OK to maintain a negative attitude and to spread it to others.”

  • “If you bring me bad news you’ll be punished, regardless of whose fault it is.”

  • “I’ll cave and let you have your way if you whine a lot.”

  • “I’m in this for myself. You are only props in my story.”

  • “The way to get ahead around here is by kissing up to me.”

Kind of takes your breath away, doesn’t it? You may think that these are especially negative examples, but they are not far from reality in many places. I’ll bet that if you’ve worked with a number of bosses, you’ve seen at least a couple of these.

What kind of local culture will develop where a manager communicates any of these attitudes? It doesn’t take much imagination: Like begets like and multiplies.

There is a better way than leaving culture to chance! It’s by deliberately building one based on positive values you define.

Example of leadership values

To help clarify what I’m talking about, I’ll share mine. Though I don’t presently manage a staff, I did for around 20 years of my career. Here are my own leadership values:

  1. Positive attitude

  2. Servant’s spirit

  3. Teamwork

I’m extremely flexible about many things. Goals, strategies, and organizational structures come and go. Work in the real world consists of much experimentation, trial, and error. I tend to be pretty tolerant of human limitations and weaknesses. But, as anyone who worked for me will tell you, I am not tolerant of deviations from core values.

An honest mistake ­— that’s forgivable. Let’s figure out what went wrong, learn from it, and correct it. But you can expect me to be pretty stern, at the least, if you violate a core value. Here is how I would explain them.

Positive attitude ─ I expect people to maintain a positive attitude. We all have days when we’re not at our best, but an ongoing negative attitude is not OK. Whining and complaining are not productive or acceptable.

This relates to another often-misunderstood word: Optimism. That does not mean ignoring problems! Optimism is realism with confidence. We do not deny or sugar-coat negative facts. We look them right in the eye and address them with the determination to solve them or, at least, to improve them.

Servant spirit ─ As a non-profit public service organization, we exist to serve the public. It is a serious breach to treat a member of the public as an inconvenience. We are here not to be served, but to serve.

A servant’s spirit does not apply only to the public. We must serve one another internally to fulfill our mission and to make this a great place to work.

Teamwork ─ None of us can do this alone. We need each other and rely on each other to fulfill our mission. It is unacceptable to violate the value of teamwork through operating as if you are free agent who does not need to cooperate with others. We are partners and colleagues, not competitors or opponents.

These are my leadership values. Notice that they are specific, clear, and consistent. Given the opportunity, I could speak for hours explaining what they mean and why they’re essential. These are the values I would have told you 20 years ago, and they are the same ones I will talk about 20 years from now.

Identify your leadership values

“Identify” is a key word. You don’t just “pick” values because they sound good. You’ve got to believe them! They must come from the heart, or you will never have the tenacity to stick with them week after week, month after month, year after year. That’s why you must look deep inside and find out what values you actually believe already.

Failure to do this hard brain work is the reason you find companies and organizations all over the world which have polished values statements that they pay no attention to in actual practice. They “picked” values that sounded good and look good on a plaque or website, but they never really believed in them.

The first step is to define your values. I know leaders whose values are built around performance: Accuracy, Perfection, Punctuality, Delivery, Service, Innovation.

Others emphasize behavioral qualities: Initiative, Honesty, Tenacity, Resourcefulness, Energy. In one case I know, Fun!

Some choose from interpersonal behaviors: Cooperation, Harmony, Consideration, Manners, Respect. Of course, you can mix and match from the different categories, too.

After identifying what you most believe in, it’s important to boil them down to three or, at most, four values. Beyond four is too many. They must be easily remembered to the point that they become second nature to your team.

In my next article I will discuss the process for developing a culture by design. For now, defining your values is work enough.

Janet, by the way, did work up her leadership values and began teaching them to her team. Months later, she happily described the progress they were making. Li


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