Building organizational culture involves magic and artistry. It’s more like making a gourmet meal than simply following a recipe on the back of a box; you can’t add standard ingredients and get a predictable result. But you create a culture by doing and saying, and you can choose to be deliberate and thoughtful about what you do and say.
The reality is that every organization has a culture: a distinctive mix of attitude, atmosphere, norms, and values. There are no right and wrong answers, but an organization’s culture will bear heavily on the people it attracts as staff, supporters, and partners, on what kind of work it excels at and what it sucks at, and on its success. And the executive director and senior staffers have a disproportionate influence on what that culture looks like.
One national environmental nonprofit we’ve worked with has fostered a very aggressive entrepreneurial culture. Individual staff members are empowered to make decisions and implement strategies, and they are rewarded when their efforts produce results and good media coverage. However, staff members don’t coordinate or communicate much across or even within departments (and they often joke they learn what their colleagues are doing in conversations with partners outside the organization). The resulting organizational culture—distinctively chaotic and high performing—isn’t a good fit for many people, but others thrive and the organization is highly regarded for its work.
Another national nonprofit organization focused on social issues is led by an exceptional and highly-regarded activist. She’s such a rock star that success within the organization is measured by how much of her attention you garner. Getting face time with her is the mark of those at the top of the hierarchy. The result: a hyper-competitive environment characterized by fierce vying among individual staffers for her attention. There isn’t much communication and collaboration between staff and departments (because they are competing with one another for the director’s attention), and the organization contends with burnout and turnover challenges. But the group also happens to be very effective at advancing its mission. Whether this is desirable or not is the subject of great debate within the organization, but there is no question that it, too, has a distinct organizational culture.
How do you create the organizational culture you want? A lot has to do with your own behavior and attitude.
If you always arrive on time and make a point of turning your cell phone off during staff meetings, you will be clearly communicating how important you think these meetings and everyone else’s time is. If you frequently interrupt your colleagues or allow them to interrupt you, you will be establishing interruptions as a cultural norm in your office. If you communicate openly with your staff, they are much more likely to do so with you and with each other. If you treat staff across the entire organization, including your administrative folks, your fundraisers, and your organizers, with equal measures of respect and value, people up and down your organizational chart are more likely to do the same. If you, as the executive director or senior staffer, encourage and celebrate taking chances on innovative approaches, that attitude is a lot more likely to permeate through the ranks. If you adjust your schedule so you can pick up the kids after school, you’ll be fostering a culture with one sort of attitude toward the work/home balance. On the other hand, if you arrive at 7am and don’t leave until 7pm every day and then call your staff late at night, you will be fostering something different. Whether you spend most of your time frantic and grumpy or calm and pleasant has a real impact on the mood and atmosphere of the office.
In addition to shaping your organization’s culture through your behavior, you can also adopt a more structured approach. In the for-profit world, the wildly successful shoe and clothing company Zappos is famous for its creative, fun, customer-oriented organizational culture. Their approach includes a four-week training course in customer loyalty, an annual “culture book” written by employees every year, and separate interviews for all job applicants focused on assessing how well the applicant’s personality fits with the organization’s culture.
At the end of the day, your organization’s culture really does matter. It shapes what it’s like to work for your organization and how effective your organization is. You play a huge role in fostering this culture. You can approach it more organically—especially in smaller organizations—or more formally, but, either way, you should support the things that you like and discourage the things that you don’t. Set the standard for your employees and model the values you want your organization to embody.