The Secret to Developing a Successful Organizational Culture: Part 1

Categories: Association Leadership

Every organization faces the challenge of constantly developing its culture. Beyond this, organization leaders are continuously tasked with ensuring that the existing culture of their organization is consistent with the culture that they want to instill.

Admittedly, it can be difficult to successfully integrate and harmonize an effective company culture due to the many factors that influence its unique characteristics. These factors can include: background of employees/volunteers; organization’s history; recent experience; individual strengths and weaknesses…and, most importantly, leadership.  As iterated above, the innate challenge lies in the successful development of cultural values, which intricately integrate and harmonize the elements that you want to drive, while at the same time adhering to the diverse characteristics of your team.

As an executive who has led organizational change many times over the years, I believe there are 8 important elements that help ensure you achieve the high performance culture you want:

  1. Collaborative Environment
  2. Thoughtful People
  3. Intellectual Curiosity
  4. Accountability
  5. “Contention Rich” Environment
  6. Risk Taking
  7. Bias Toward Action
  8. Respect for Results

Due to the fact that if I explicitly defined each of these 8 elements within one post, you may be reading my words of wisdom for hours, I have decided to define the first three – the collaborative environment, thoughtful people and intellectual curiosity.  Don’t fret; my next blog post will continue to cover the remaining elements that you need to ensure you are infusing an organizational culture that promotes the success of your staff, and your members.

Let’s begin!

Any successful team needs to operate cross functionally in a tightly coordinated fashion.  This ensures that each specialty takes the time and effort to teach others about their specific challenges and, as importantly, to listen to and learn about the respective challenges of each other’s specialty.  This behavior, when undertaken as a process of collaboration, takes significantly less time and effort and in fact becomes routine when the expectation is that it must happen.

When creating a collaborative environment it is imperative to understand the importance of the role of the leader.  The leader of the team sets this in motion and engages in it regularly. The leader is responsible for ensuring that even the strongest, most talented individual contributors recognize they are undeserving the team if they do not reach out to others to ask for help and offer input and guidance.  Initially, in organizations that under-communicate (I have been in a few) the leadership sets the tone in structure – cross functional meetings on a regular basis with the same agenda structure repeated each time.  Strong and smart team members learn quickly that they can collaborate ahead of the regular meeting, resolve issues and have proposals for the larger team at the scheduled meetings.  This process leads to shorter meetings over time, and the practice becomes “owned” by everyone, not just the leadership.

One of my favorite sayings is “Don’t give me what I ask for, give me what I want!” You can ask any member of my team – I can assure you that they have heard me preaching this a few times around the office!

My fondness of this saying comes from having seen (too often) an employee or group working on a project that they were directed to do (by me or a senior member of the leadership team) and realizing that the focus of the project needed to change based on the team’s “learnings-to-date” about the nature of the problem.  The issue I notice is that upon learning new information that should have changed the direction of the project, the employees still continued with the original directive.  In spite of new findings, they remained on an unaltered course.  When I would ask “Why are we doing this,” I would get the response “This is what you told us to do!”

Instances such as these can be frustrating for all parties involved, and can be avoided if the culture rewards thoughtful employees who do not get caught up in “doing what they are told.”  Rather, we benefit most by setting general direction (intent) and having the execution team make course corrections as they encounter new information.


The element of intellectual curiosity is a close cousin of being thoughtful.  In many, if not most, cases, leaders don’t see at the level of detail necessary to really understand the causes of a problem, nor the full implications of the various alternative solutions.  This is why really thoughtful people are so valuable.

When smart and thoughtful people approach a problem with the right intent, they always come up with a better solution and, in many cases, one that would not have been anticipated at the outset.  The process of “digging in” to get a full understanding of root cause, potential solutions, and the risks and benefits of each approach almost always reveals additional items to consider and thoroughly analyze.  The uncurious will not do well with this as they have a tendency to accept the first, and often easiest, solution needed to move forward.  More often than not, this is a mistake and not the best answer.

When defining a culture that engages members of the team, the element of intellectual curiosity should be encouraged as it drives the best teams to sufficient examination, debate and decision making, thus setting the team up for the highest likelihood of an excellent outcome.
Stay tuned –  there is more to come!

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