Achieving Excellence Through Culture

The tension was almost palpable.

My transition into the role of Human Resources Manager featured a learning curve that made Kilimanjaro look like the Bunny Slope at a local ski resort.

That morning, I sat before my team, rowing against a tide of complacency and routine. They sat there, arms and legs crossed in an undeniable show of disapproval, their icy stares slicing through my soul as if it were a block of room temperature butter . . . organic and unsalted, of course.

Do you get the picture?

While it seemed in that moment that I had very little, if anything, working in my favor, there was an equally undeniable, foundational purpose justifying my actions:

Our culture said it was the right thing to do.

A Matching Set of Values

I didn’t come from a background in Human Resources.

The staff for which I was now responsible hadn’t come from an HR background, either. But they had been developed by a very strong and talented leader whom they now visualized as a role model for the HR Manager position.

Then I walked through the door, and everything changed.

Bumps along the pathway were to be expected. This time it was different, with the level of discontent teetering on the verge of venom. I found out later that the team had met collectively with our director to voice their discontent with my selection.

Nonetheless, the beat goes on. I checked my emotions at the gate and worked through each day one step at a time.

The collective crossroads before us involved the Daily Meeting, a pillar within our organization’s people first culture and an expectation among leaders to execute within their daily routines.

Unfortunately, the office had adopted a staggered schedule that featured the team arriving in 30-minute intervals throughout the morning. By the time the last person clocked in, the office was already open for business.

When I inquired about scheduling our daily meeting, I was informed that we didn’t have one.

The value of gathering had slowly drifted away for the sake of work hour efficiency and a maternalistic need to be available to the general population of associates.

“That’s not good,” I whispered to my inner self. Not only did I feel a powerful connection to the purpose of gathering, but we were Human Resources, the poster child for all things culture and core value.

I sensed it wouldn’t be easy.

Seeking Input, Then Seeking Shelter

Practicing proper leadership technique, I solicited input from the team, only to receive echoed sentiments regarding the implausibility of a daily meeting.

So, I made the command decision that after the last person arrived, we would close the office for 15 minutes each day to conduct our meeting.

The first day was a classic case of resistance. Our office had a 10’ x 10’ reception area which I envisioned as the ideal place to hold our meeting . . . except I was the only one in that space. The rest of the team remained at their desks, although the recruiter did step up to the threshold of her office.

Not good.

The next day, I asked everyone to bring their chairs into the reception area and form a circle. This accomplished two things: (a) removed physical barriers between participants, facilitating a process of open discussion and dialogue, and (b) exposed me to the heat seeking glares that I described in our opening passage.

Undaunted, we proceeded to conduct the daily meeting at 9:00am each day, locking ourselves away from the never-ending demands of society, and focusing on what we could do to perform at our very best.

Weeks turned into months, but slowly the tide began to change. First the legs uncrossed, then the arms, and suddenly we were all on the edge of our seats, sharing, laughing, and growing as a team.

Good culture will do that for you.

Spark One Up

I had nicknamed our meeting the “Campfire”, as it symbolized the power of sitting in a circle, warmed by the experience of sharing stories and emotions.

In the beginning, I was the one announcing, “Let’s spark one up” as a playful take on some not-so-professional terminology. Until the day our Regional Vice President came for a visit.

His arrival coincided with our meeting time, just as one of the team asked, “Tall Tim, are we going to spark one up?”

I pleaded innocent all the way.

The period represents both the value and strength of a culture and the confidence it can provide in knowing you’re doing the right thing.

If you have the right culture in place.

That organization had been around since 1927, surviving global conflict, economic depression, civil unrest, massive advancements in technology, and a dramatic turn from its origins as a restaurant company to a future based on travel and lodging.

And there is a daily meeting every day.

Leveraging Culture

Oxford Dictionary defines leverage as “the power to influence a person or situation to achieve a particular outcome.”

Fitting, because the role of a leader is to influence the behavior of our teams in pursuit of unlimited potential and aspirations. Good.

However, our commitments extend beyond the textbook when facing what’s on the other side of that fulcrum. Consider what each person carries through their day: deep-seeded personal values and beliefs, pressures and expectations from family and society, delicate self-esteem, emotional issues, etc.

Sometimes your inner strength could use a hero advantage.

Culture is a collection of values that inspire trust among groups, influencing emotional aspects of behavior, and deepening a connection to the higher purpose of an organization.

If properly aligned with your personal values and beliefs, culture has the power to exponentially improve the influence of strategic thought and direction. It can provide confidence through reassurance, a timeless support system that validates reasoning and judgement.

I knew advocating a daily meeting was the right thing to do because there were decades of proof supporting its value.

Whether your culture is just being established or 100 years in the making, there are key considerations when using it to leverage your efforts as a leader:

Understand Expectations

This all important first step begins with asking why someone would choose your product or service.

If you’re just beginning as an organization, outline behaviors that would reward and support this choice. If established, work to clarify understanding and appreciation for the selection process, including options available in your competitive set.

Viewing your operation through the lens of your customer, guest, client, or patient validates expected behaviors.

These can now be translated into standards . . . not suggestions, but non-negotiable elements of performance that line a pathway to success.

Driving Accountability

Once standards are set or acknowledged, holding each other accountable for delivery becomes paramount.

This describes a basic, no questions asked, or excuses offered approach to performance.

While we can appreciate the fluidity of a moment, this accountability becomes a baseline expectation of each member of the team.

Both customer facing and heart-of-house environments should feature a complete set of standards to guide successful behavior and performance. Without these, individuals are free to exercise their best judgement . . . which could be a good thing, or not.

Hedge your bets: have standards in place.

Achieving Excellence

Understanding expectations and driving accountability through standards create a culture of performance excellence, wherein exceeding expectations becomes second nature.

You don’t have to spend time worrying about the basics because you’ve turned them into habits.

Once we had established the cadence of a daily meeting and worked through the emotions involved, our HR team was free to explore the “What if?” of our people first culture. We generated ideas, explored innovative thought on a routine basis, driving engagement and celebrating performance across the property.

Not to say that wasn’t happening to some degree already. But it was a lot more fun moving forward.

Lighting The Fire

You’ll experience days where you feel like room temperature butter, the rest of the world teetering on the brink of deflating your efforts to guide and influence behavior.

That’s when your culture becomes your strongest advantage.

Evaluate efforts through the lens of established values and beliefs. If they align with your personal character and connection to the organization, use that to build confidence and drive commitment.

It may not come easy, with days turning into weeks, weeks turning into months. When you hit that moment of  “ah-h-h” . . . you feel like the one sitting around a campfire.

I’ll plead innocent all the way.

This is Tall Tim, and I am At Your Service!

3 thoughts on “Achieving Excellence Through Culture

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