The following is an excerpt from Seeds of Culture, by Dan Bredeson, available now from Greenleaf Book Group.
STOP ME IF YOU’VE HEARD THIS ONE BEFORE . . .
The story of a failing organization follows a pretty standard script. It doesn’t matter if the organization is a sports team, small business, Fortune 500 company, or local nonprofit organization. As soon as the powers that be (PTB) in that organization determine that performance is not meeting expectations (however those expectations are measured), a new leader is brought in. The new leader comes in and makes grandiose promises including, but not limited to, fixing the culture of the organization. But what is culture? Chapter 1 is devoted to answering that question.
For now, let’s imagine it’s your first day on the job with a new employer, and I’m your supervisor. You just went through a new hire orientation that introduced you to the products we sell and the processes that help us do it. Now you’re going to “shadow” me for the rest of the day and learn how we do everything else around here. And I mean everything. You’re going to observe how employees speak to one another. How they speak to customers. How employees dress. How the company celebrates. How the company disciplines. How leaders treat their direct reports. How the company handles conflict. All of that and much more.
That’s a busy first day. And by the end of it, you probably don’t remember a single thing that was covered during the new hire orientation. You can barely remember the products we sell. After one day on the job, you may be a little fuzzy on what we do around here (products and processes), but I bet you have a clear understanding of how we do things around here (everything else from the previous paragraph). If that’s the case, congratulations! You just took a giant step toward understanding the culture of the organization.
When an organization fails, the cultural “fixes” proposed by the new leader are usually nothing more than doing the exact opposite of whatever the previous leader did. I call it the “George Costanza Strategy for Organizational Change.” The previous leader was an autocrat, so the new leader encourages autonomy. Did the old leader have a laissez-faire attitude? Okay, here’s a healthy dose of accountability.
It’s not a sophisticated strategy, but it can be effective in the short term. Especially during the honeymoon phase every new leader is granted when they first join an organization. Sometimes the new leader gets lucky and doing the opposite of the previous leader is exactly what the team needs. Turns out they just needed a bit of accountability after all. Hey, it worked for George Costanza.
However, most new leaders aren’t that lucky. After the initial excitement wears off and the new leader is just the leader, the culture that had been lying dormant during the honeymoon phase comes out of hibernation and begins to drive performance back down.
The leader can’t figure out what happened. The PTB are beside themselves. The members of the organization are just . . . well . . . they’re just doing what they’ve always done. As far as they’re concerned, the new boss is just the same as the old boss. It’s the culture that drives their performance, and nobody bothered to address it properly. The PTB push reset. Another change in leadership. This new leader promises to “transform” the culture. It won’t work.
How can I be so sure? The source of my confidence is more than twenty years of experience dealing with hundreds of organizations varying in size and industry. The sales process I followed to acquire and serve clients began with the C-suite, continued through middle management, and ended with frontline employees. And that process was repeated every year. I was selling insurance products and related services, so every year I had to sit down with every level of the organization to discuss any changes to the plan.
I had several clients who were with me for more than a decade. You learn a lot about the inner workings of an organization if you talk to every team member, every year, for ten or fifteen years. I saw employees come and go. I saw leaders come and go. I saw new mission statements painted on the walls — only to be painted over a few years later. I listened to countless new leaders tell me how they were going to turn the company around by building, changing, or transforming the culture. Then a few years later another new leader would tell me the same thing.
After watching the same old story of failed cultural transformations play out over and over and over again, I couldn’t help but think, “If culture is so important, why do so many organizations get it wrong?” I felt compelled to look for an answer, and when I found it, I felt equally compelled to write the book you hold in your hands. I’ve seen too many lousy, negative, toxic cultures fail to be changed by a leader who tries to build, transform, or create a better one. I thought, “There has to be a different way to influence the culture of an organization.” As it turns out, there is — and my experience with hundreds of different companies and thousands of different employees provided part of the solution.
So far, I’ve only mentioned my clients who were losing, culturally speaking. In full disclosure, those organizations didn’t represent a majority of my client base, but the percentage was high enough to get my attention. Most companies weren’t really winning or losing. They kept the doors open and the lights on, but you weren’t going to see them on the cover of Fortune magazine anytime soon.
On the other hand, a few of my clients were consistently winning at a high level. Winning in both culture and performance. I started paying close attention to the leaders of those organizations. The leaders who were winning didn’t talk like the leaders who were losing. Sorry to be so binary by referring to it as “winning” and “losing,” but that’s the best way to describe it. I wouldn’t call it “winning” if your organization keeps cycling through new leaders every few years.
Unsuccessful leaders talked about fixing, building, and transforming the culture. And they promised to do it quickly. Successful leaders used terms like growth and development. One leader described her mentorship program as “nurturing” the next generation of leaders. The winners weren’t forcing culture into the organization. They leveraged influence and worked hard to maintain their influence. The cultural winners were humble, hardworking, and patient — man oh man, were they patient.
When I began reflecting on why so many organizations get culture wrong and what could be done about it, mental images of leaders I had worked with started running through my mind. And then one day it dawned on me. Almost all of the leaders who were winning with culture reminded me of someone: my dad.
No, the cultural winners didn’t look like midwestern dairy farmers. They reminded me of my dad because they seemed to approach the culture of their organization in the same way my dad approached an empty field. My dad didn’t build the corn that would eventually fill his field. He grew the corn from seeds that he planted and properly cared for.
That’s the same thing the winning leaders were doing. They weren’t building culture — they were growing it! I realized that culture is an organic process. And much like my dad planted seeds of corn, leaders need to plant seeds of culture.
They need to be the right type of seeds. Dad didn’t plant soybeans and expect corn to grow. The seeds need to be properly cared for. This book describes which seeds you should plant to grow a culture of commitment, and how you can properly nurture the growth of those seeds throughout their life cycle. A culture of commitment inspires a sense of community among members of the organization. Before you know it, outstanding performance is a foregone conclusion.
My professional experience provided part of the solution to the problem of influencing culture in a different and more effective way. Reflecting on my upbringing on a small dairy farm in south- west Wisconsin provided me with the “aha moment” that was the spark to write this book. My educational experience fills in the gaps and connects the two. It provides all the technical stuff you’ll see in the endnotes.
Now that you know how I came up with what’s written on the title page, here’s what you’ll find in the rest of the book:
- Chapter 1 describes how I came up with our definition of culture, which seems like a good idea considering the book has barely started and I’ve already used the word culture, or some variation of it, almost one hundred times.
- With the “Great Resignation” as a starting point, we take a look at the impact of culture on organizational performance in Chapter 2. Spoiler alert: culture matters.
- Chapter 3 expands on the culture-performance relationship by suggesting a type of culture that is best suited to improve organizational performance, and I introduce a model to describe how culture does it.
- In Chapter 4 you learn why I use all the farming analogies to describe culture.
- Chapters 5–10 discuss the mindset and traits of successful “culture farmers” (i.e., leaders). There’s been spirited debate within academic circles regarding the “chicken or the egg” of leadership and culture. Does the leader change the culture, or does the culture change the leader? The pragmatic answer is that leadership and culture have the capacity to change each other, but the scale of causality is tipped slightly in favor of leadership as the primary driver of culture.You’ll see me use “leader” and “culture farmer” interchangeably throughout the book. I believe that every member of an organization has the ability, or should I say responsibility, to assist with the growth of culture. Sure, people in leadership positions should do most of the cultural heavy lifting, but you don’t have to be in a formal leadership role to be a culture farmer. Even if your boss sucks at culture, you can still make life better for you and your coworkers by planting seeds of culture.
- Farmers don’t plant seeds before the weather and soil are ready. Chapter 11 reminds culture farmers that organizations are influenced by an internal and external environment. Both should be considered before planting seeds of culture.
- Which brings us to Chapters 12–18: the seeds of culture. Wow, did it really take me eleven chapters to get to the ideas that inspired the title of the book? Well, I’m confident it’s worth the wait.
- A farmer doesn’t plant seeds in the ground and then ignore them. Chapter 19 describes how culture farmers cultivate performance by encouraging the growth of culture.
- Chapter 20 is when I pull it all together, wrap it up, and tie a bow on it. At least that’s what I’m shooting for. I’ve found that writing a coherent conclusion is probably the hardest part of this process, but even a speeding train eventually comes to a stop. The twentieth chapter seems like a good place to do that.
If this book turns out to be your Farmers’ Almanac for culture, then I’ve exceeded my own expectations. Each chapter concludes with a “harvest” that gathers up the ideas presented and asks all you aspiring culture farmers to consider how you’ll plant the ideas in your organization. Before we jump in, let me address one question that might be on your mind:
DOES CULTURE MATTER IN A REMOTE WORK ENVIRONMENT?
Yes. It absolutely does. I would argue that culture — true, genuine, long-lasting culture — matters as much in a remote work environment as it does when everyone is together in one place. It probably matters more, for reasons we discuss in Chapter 2. Work didn’t stop just because millions of employees went remote. Organizations still do all the things they did when everyone was in the office: hire, fire, onboard, communicate, train, perform, recognize, celebrate, etc.
How your organization handles the work that needs to be done will determine your culture. If you get culture wrong, remote employees are left to their own devices to sit at home and stew about how badly you screwed up. They do that for a little while, right before they start looking for a new job.
When there’s no physical connection with the greater organization, there needs to be an emotional one. A feeling of commitment. A feeling of belonging. A feeling of community. Not only do you need a good culture in a remote work environment, you need culture with deep roots.