The Culture Puzzle

I’ve been searching for the recipe for success for years.  As a principal, I literally read, The Perfect School, believing it held the secrets to what it would take to have a high performing school.  As a superintendent, I looked for ways to reimagine learning and found resources that enabled our district to implement new and innovative programs for students.  And as an ESA director, I spend a lot of time promoting our agency and helping connect member needs with services.  

I am proud of and have no regrets for the time I spent time on these things.  I do regret, however, that it took me so long to recognize that our potential is limited by the health of the culture.

Why did it take so long? 

Most people I’ve met–myself included–like success. As a result, we tend to spend time focusing on the things that are easily measured. Metrics such as achievement data, progress toward goals, sales figures, and so on are commonly used in most organizations because they tell a story that most people can understand.  

Who would question the effectiveness of an educator whose student’s test scores are positive?  Or a salesperson whose net promoter score is high?

A lot of good–perhaps great–organizations have been successful focusing on these things. And don’t get me wrong–metrics like I describe above are valuable and help inform practices and strategy. The problem is, these things are generally dependent upon extrinsic motivation.

But what if we could amp up that success by cultivating intrinsic motivation among our teams?  Imagine an organization in which individual stakeholders were inspired and empowered to advance the mission regardless of the leader’s intervention? It is possible.

From my experience, transformational success is achievable when every stakeholder has a voice, a clear understanding of the organization’s purpose, and understands how their unique skills, interests and purpose intersect with the organization’s.

Here are a few strategies:

Throw out the strategic plan – Whittle the plan down to two or three strategic “priorities.” Deliberately refer to the strategic priorities at every opportunity and provide team members the opportunity to tell you what they will do to support those priorities. Team members will be more likely to make a difference because they will be intrinsically-motivated to support the organization’s priorities.

Deliberately seek opportunities to give stakeholders a voice – Ask members of the team to share the stage.  Featuring team members through podcasts, blogs and other media will increase their visibility and the organization’s credibility. 

Engage in non-exit interviews – Meet with new employees after they’ve been on the job for a while to learn how the onboarding process went, confirm whether they have the resources to do their job, and learn about their short- and long-term goals.  Circle back after a couple years to see if anything has changed.  Asking team members for their feedback is empowering.

Provide opportunities for team members to figure out what inspires and motivates them – Incorporate a purpose-defining activity in the on-boarding process and encourage team members to share their purpose with others.  There is no better way to cultivate impassioned team members than to help them find ways to connect their purpose with their work.

Make it OK for team members to express themselves in and through their work – Encourage team members to connect their creative side projects or interests with their work. It will improve morale, culture and employee longevity.

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