4 Practical Steps for Developing Culture. Photo courtesy of BigStock (phildate).Once upon a time, investment services firm Camelot Portfolios was just Darren and Steve. The two guys were near opposites – Darren, the creative visionary, and Steve, the practical get-it-done guy (ENFP and INTJ, respectively, for those of you who speak Meyer-Briggs). But the combination was a great formula, and they got along well together. Clients loved them for their objective advice and long-term, non-alarmist investing approach.

Over time, they added three employees to their team. The new staff naturally picked up Darren and Steve’s values and work styles, almost through simple osmosis. When I met Aaron, for example, he struck me as just as trustworthy, likable, and competent as the two founders whom I had known for years.

Then their business started growing faster. Soon, their team was 13 strong, but it wasn’t as clear whether the culture and vision were hitting home or getting watered down as a result of a larger team.

“I’ve heard what thought leaders like Jim Collins and Patrick Lencioni have to say,” Steve said, “but it just seems like theory when I think about how to apply it to our team. What practical things can we do today to develop our culture?”

Whether you own a small business like Steve and Darren, or you are a leader of a department within a large organization, or you lead a family or group of volunteers, it eventually comes down to the small team of people who are closest to you. Whether you realize it or not, that little team has a culture: how you work together, how you treat others, and what your priorities are. You may have the opportunity (or challenge) of crafting that culture from scratch, or you may have inherited it from the larger organization or a predecessor (such as the previous boss, or the kids’ birth-parent). Regardless, the ball is in your court to develop a culture intentionally rather than let it emerge haphazardly.

Here are four practical actions that you can take – in any order – to build an effective culture for your team.

  1. Clarify what your top values are. For maximum impact, boil it down to three points, but no more than five. Write a definition of each one. Steve could easily say that “service” is one of their top three values, but what does “service” mean in their context, and why is it important? To create greater ownership and accountability, involve your team in identifying the top values by asking questions such as, “What do you like most about working here?”; “What do you think makes us different?”; and “Why do you think customers prefer us?” I prefer to consider the list of values as written in sand, which means we can feel free to change them over time as we grow and gain deeper insight into our team. (Note: if this tip seems daunting to you, skip it for now and use tips 2 and 3 to start bringing your top values into focus.)
  2. Tell a story that illustrates a value. Nothing sticks like a story. Everyone pays attention when you say, “Let me tell you a story,” and they are more likely to remember a story than a lecture. It’s also the easiest way to take what may be an abstract concept (“The customer is always right”) and make it practical (such as the famous story about a Nordstrom employee who allowed a customer to return a car tire, even though Nordson doesn’t even sell tires). Some of these stories can come from the times when you notice your team living out a value (tip 3).
  3. Look for opportunities to share feedback that reinforces a value. One of the things I learned from executive coach Tom Henschel is to get into the habit of providing at least one bit of feedback in every engagement. Look for something you want people to continue doing (positive feedback), stop doing (constructive feedback), or start doing (creative feedback). Remember or take notes of some of the more notable occasions for positive feedback, and turn them into stories that you share publicly with the team (tip 2).
  4. Match your actions and your words. “Do as I say, not as I do” never works. Be extremely careful that you don’t violate the very values you have been teaching. If you do mess up, be up front about it and humbly share your story as a learning opportunity about the journey toward accomplishing your team’s vision.

Do these four steps sound too simple to you? Tom Hill, Chairman of manufacturer Kimray Inc. used these same basic steps to transform the company’s previously toxic culture (except that rather than focusing on 3-5 values, he defined a list of 49 character qualities). In 1992, Tom created the leadership development program Character First to teach the process to others; it continues to be used at Hobby Lobby in the US, The Costa Group in Australia, and many other organizations large and small around the world. And it all boils down to clarifying and defining the values, telling stories, sharing feedback, and matching actions with words.

Suggested Resources for More Information

Podcast episode 020: How to Develop an Effective Culture

Book:  Making Character First  by Tom Hill

Leadership tips from executive coach Tom Henschel:


Jesse Lahey, SPHR, is the host of the Engaging Leader podcast and the managing principal of Aspendale Communications. Add a comment below, or connect with Jesse on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn.