A Leader’s Guide to Culture-Shaping: Beginning

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A Leader’s Guide to Culture-Shaping: Beginning

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This is the first in a series of five posts that define Culture-Shaping and then explore aspects of it. While intended largely for senior organizational leaders, the lessons apply to us all…

You can find Part-2 here, Part-3 here, Part-4 here, and Part-5 here.

Where does culture come from?

Depending on who you read, reference, or talk to the answer is…it depends. There’s also an allusion to the point that culture is highly complex and difficult to understand or influence.

But from my perspective, the answer is much clearer and simpler on both counts.

First, I believe that culture is largely dependent on leaders and their leadership. In fact, I believe leaders by far play the most significant role in the culture. Or in what I like to refer to as their responsibility in and for Culture-Shaping.

That if you look at any organization, really look at the culture within, it reflects the behavior of the leadership team in the cultural landscape or ecosystem.

How does that happen?

Well, with their vision, words, actions, expectations, commitments, behaviors, body language, and business goals. With what they choose to amplify as important and with what they choose to not amplify.

And second, I believe that culture is incredibly simple. Since it aligns with the leader’s actions, it simply requires focus and intent if you want to change or reshape your culture. And not in one big change, but via a myriad of small, everyday actions.

At the risk of being political, Donald Trump has set a culture within the executive branch and within the White House. I’m sure he set the same culture within the Trump businesses, but there it was more private, more secretive.

As the leader of the country, he’s visibly set a tone of—

  • It’s about him first (lacking humility);

  • If he doesn’t like something (or someone), deny it or question it or denigrate it constantly;

  • Wanting unquestioned loyalty in those around him;

  • Not inviting or desiring any opposing points of view;

  • Never, ever admitting he’s wrong or apologizing for a mistake;

  • Creating his own truth and repeating it over and over;

  • Providing a total lack of transparency, lack of safety, and no respect for courage.

Whether you are for or against Trump, it’s really hard to deny the culture that he’s set around himself. It’s an incredible example, perhaps not an exemplar, of a leader Culture-Shaping.

As leaders, we need to fundamentally understand the power (and responsibility) we have in Culture-Shaping. Every inflection in our voices, every wrinkle of our brows, every micro-management step, every time we empower or trust, every time we blame, and every loss of our temper sends a message to our organizational culture. Whether we realize it or not, it shapes the culture.

But don’t take my word for it. Examine your current culture by mapping it to the “messages” your leadership team is “sending”. Do you see the connection? I’m sure you do.

Now I want to shift from generalizations to talking about leadership Culture-Shaping dynamics in agile contexts.

First, in this context, I want you to think of yourself as a Gardener. Think of culture as the environment you’re setting up within your garden.

There’s a wide variety of factors that might go into gardening—

  • Soil—type, fertilizer, fillers, rocky, mulches, density, history of planting

  • Environment—available sunshine, shade, shade, flat or hilly

  • Goals—what you’re planning to grow, harvesting cycles, ease of maintenance

  • Attitude—hard-working, careful, studious, short vs. long term results

All come into play when you look at the quality of your garden and the results produced. 

Now, as an agile leader, what are the factors that come into play when you’re gardening or Culture-Shaping? I can easily think of the following— 

All of which, and many more, set the tone for the culture you are actively shaping. In this case, if you’re doing all of these with alignment to agile principles and values, you’re effectively shaping the culture (preparing the garden) for a healthy agile transformation.

And if you’re not, perhaps you’ll reconsider your Culture-Shaping impacts?

Earlier, I spoke about how simple Culture-Shaping can be. And it is, depending on how you frame it.

In her LinkedIn article, It’s Messy. And it’s a squiggly line, not a straight one, Jasmine Kernalaguen talks in terms of micro-steps. Here’s a quote—

Challenge: change one small thing, do one small experiment in how you show up that’s more aligned with how you want to think / become in the future. Do that for the next week… then incrementally add one more tiny action.

Some ideas:

Ask a question when you’re inclined to Tell;

Co-Create a solution rather with others than having something fully baked;

Let the Team own their work;

Coach more;

Challenge and Help people Grow;

Focus on Outcomes;

Enter conversations believing that you Might Be Wrong;

Get Feedback and Use It to improve;

Make it safe to make Mistakes;

Enable candid Conversations;

Encourage diversity of Thought;

Demonstrate the Behavior and Thinking you want to see in others.

I really like the notion of micro-steps for reshaping culture. Meaning, as a leader you simply start changing your behavior. One micro or baby step at a time. Just start moving in a direction that supports the activities and behaviors I (and Jasmine) have mentioned.

For example, tomorrow you might try—

  • Surprising one of your teams by joining them at the daily Scrum and simply listening.

  • Stepping back to allow a team to struggle a bit to figure things out on their own.

  • Scheduling a mentoring / coaching meeting with one of your leaders and helping them to trust their teams more. Or stopping to push so hard for speed over quality.

  • Taking a “walk-about” your office with an eye towards acknowledging your teams’ great efforts and looking for every opportunity for personal appreciation.

  • Spending the entire day telling stories individually, in teams, and in groups. Stories that illustrate why folks or focused on what they are. And why it matters to your business and customers. 

You get the idea, don’t you?

One act at a time. One example at a time. One step at a time. Over and over again. Consistently and patiently. Keep this up, and your culture will inevitably change. In my experience, it’s amazing how quickly you can reshape the culture as a leader. That is if you intentionally show up with these characteristics.

I’ve written another post that suggests some “measures” for leaders in agile contexts. Where, instead of focusing on measuring the teams, we somehow measure the effectiveness of leaders setting the right culture. Again, Culture-Shaping.

I think that post compliments this one quite nicely, so you might want to check it out. That being said, I want to end with a challenge.

I think we all frame culture as something that’s too soft, amorphous, and complex for any one person to influence, change, or shape. I passionately disagree.

I think we all have a profound ability to reshape our culture. One micro-step at a time. When are you going to change your direction and put one foot in front of the other to Reshape your Culture? 

Stay agile my friends,


#LeadersSetCulture, #LeadersShapeCulture, #CultureShaping

BTW: there will be a 2’nd article in this series where we’ll explore Agile Values and the insights they can provide for your Culture-Shaping efforts.


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