The famous management guru Peter Drucker is quoted as saying, “Culture eats Strategy for breakfast.” Clearly, business thought leaders agree as to the importance of company culture, but not many have opined about the challenges to organizational culture when a global event interrupts the process. Past wars have impacted global business operations; however, the common battle cry to fight the identified enemy sustained people during the global transition (i.e., WWII slogans like “We Can Do It” and “Dig for Victory”).
What happens when something like a pandemic, an enemy that not everyone can agree on—mask, no mask, lockdown, no lockdown—interrupts the organization’s culture and team members are distributed back to their homes? The immediate shift of our company culture to address the overarching pandemic has created a void in the effective feeding and nurturing of our culture. To rebuild (yes, rebuild) and nurture the organizational culture going forward, requires some deliberate actions that quite frankly happened more naturally in the historical work environment (i.e., office vs. remote).
Nurturing the organizational culture relies upon three distinct actions:
- Non-agenda communication
- Personal touchpoints
- Thoughtful expressions
While office settings provide some of these opportunities more naturally, it’s incumbent upon business leaders to bring these same actions into the remote world as well.
Most business meetings and gatherings have an agenda (known or unknown), information is provided, and goals, policies, issues, challenges, etc. are exchanged. The level of all team members’ involvement is an important factor to organizational culture. Are knowledgeable, but shy team members contributing on the phone more or less than they did in person? Has the leader even noticed? In an exceptional culture, the leader will not have only noticed but taken action to build up the communication process. How? With non-agenda communication.
The key to non-agenda communication is the discussion of items that impact the work environment but don’t typically find themselves on the organizational agenda. This could be work-related or personal work related. A leader who notices a lack of involvement from an employee on Zoom should schedule a separate phone call to discuss what is happening with the team member. Determining and addressing the reasons for the team member’s lack of involvement are what build organizational culture. Asking, listening, and encouraging are the powerful tools of the culture leader. These conversations, if handled well, also create “personal touchpoints”—and this is the bond for future communications that provide a positive view of the team member’s interaction at work.
“ I have seen leaders take broken or distant organizational cultures and teach fellow leaders how to build up team members and encourage unlimited personal growth by providing thoughtful expressions on personal touchpoints. ”
These are usually things that people have either in common, sympathy for, or friendly competitiveness about. In an office setting, these touchpoints are littered throughout our communications. How many times do people discuss their favorite sports team, show a picture of their pet, or express an understanding of a new parent’s lack of sleep? These non-agenda topics are personal touchpoints in which people connect with their team, their mutual goals, shared experiences, and their organizational culture. The mere discussion or remembrance of these topics contributes to the organizational culture as expressions of caring for the individual. In the remote work environment, these can be somewhat “maintained” (if they were already well established), but the leader needs to foster these communications on an ongoing basis. This is critically important in the event of new team members, when leaders must engage them on non-agenda topics to create these touchpoints. Otherwise, new team members that join a previously communicative team will lack these touchpoints and feel like they are excluded from the more personal relationships in the organization (i.e., private jokes only shared by some).
I will share an example drawn from the story of two of my clients. I work with Client A remotely, and we accomplish significant business objectives. However, there are few non-agenda discussions and no real emotional touchpoints. Consequently, the conversations are short, exact, and, frankly, little emotional satisfaction is derived from the communication. In the case of Client B, they have adopted non-agenda topics and touchpoints as a regular practice. That’s why everyone on the Zoom call knows my Goldendoodle Archer (code name: Duchess), and weekly they like to hear a 10-second story of his latest venture. Both clients’ calls are productive, both have serious business to complete, and both have an organizational culture. As a lifelong executive and now consultant, which client phone call do you think I look forward to the most?
One of my favorite quotes regarding organizational culture comes from Maya Angelou, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” It is my belief that the single greatest skill of a leader is the ability to make personal touchpoints and then use them to provide thoughtful expressions that build team members up. I have seen leaders take broken or distant organizational cultures and teach fellow leaders how to build up team members and encourage unlimited personal growth by providing thoughtful expressions on personal touchpoints.
Remembering someone’s birthday or a work anniversary, acknowledging a contribution on a project or success in overcoming adversity, or showing sympathy for team members surviving sleepless nights with a newborn and other struggles—regardless of the topic, a leader’s ability to capture these moments, remember them, and then provide a thoughtful expression that builds that person up is the absolute key to an exceptional culture, whether it lives in office cubicles or on Zoom screens. When the leader effectively utilizes these touchpoints and thoughtful expressions with others in the room (or on the call), the leader demonstrates their humanity, caring, and by their shear interest in the lives of their team members, they draw team members closer to each other, the organization, and the leader. Additionally, this communication method is then role modeled for others with their peers, supervisors, and subordinates.
Thoughtful expressions demonstrate sincerity and humanity to both the direct recipient and the fellow team members involved. Any exceptional culture always has a thick and measurable expression of sincerity and humanity. One of the secrets of sincerity and humanity is that team members crave them for themselves but also learn that sharing them with others can be even more rewarding. The best organizational cultures are self-sustaining and woven into the organization’s DNA; however, it takes a great deal of time and persistence to achieve this goal.
The best advice that I have been given, shared, and lived with regard to creating, changing, sustaining, and/or improving an organization’s culture can be described by the deliberate, daily focused, and repeated practice of following the Golden Rule – “Treat others the way you want to be treated”— nothing more, nothing less, nothing else.
About the AuthorMore Content by Anthony (Tony) Keller