While the process of defining our culture was fun, and the end result of implementing it has been incredible, the experience of launching our organizational culture was painful and messy.
In the early stages of our growth, I had a revolving door of people coming in and venting about team members, policies, the owners, our processes, and clients. What everyone quickly learned (and still holds true), is that I am not the type of person who is willing or able to be a black hole for venting. It became well known that if someone went to Sarah with an issue, one of two things would happen. Either they would be given advice on how to handle it directly, or I would get involved to help resolve the issue. This allowed me to both empower people to address issues at the root, and also allowed me to improve our processes, policies, and structure as issues were identified.
But it wasn’t all positive and helpful.
Our CEO, Brett Curry, and I tag-teamed a lot of conversations with individual team members, thinking we were acting in the best interest of the team. Despite our good intentions, we were still babies in leadership and made our share of mistakes in handling these conversations and issues. One of the biggest mistakes we made multiple times was having a conversation with Team Member A based on feedback (gossip?) we received from Team Member B. Because of our lack of firsthand insight and knowledge, it was difficult to provide helpful or even truthful feedback. The result was division and hurt with team members that were loyal to OMG and trying their best to improve their team or department, but were being thrown under the bus by toxic coworkers.
To make matters worse, we had not yet established clear leadership roles, which meant that sometimes people came to me with concerns, sometimes Brett, sometimes Chris, sometimes more than one of us (usually with different versions of the story). The result was downright chaos as each of us gave different perspectives and actions based on the information we were given, creating confusion as what we said was spread to the team without any formal explanation or confirmation.
As we started defining our culture, we knew that having documented expectations would give us the ability to hold people accountable to objective standards rather than leaning on our own perceptions (or misperceptions) of the things that other people told us. We knew what we valued and what we did not want to be part of our culture based on our experiences during the first six years of building the company. We were excited to have something tangible to present to the team, and anticipated that everyone would love it and value it as much as we did.
That was NOT the case.
Announcing our new culture values, including “We do not gossip”, “We give and receive direct feedback”, “We have fun solving problems”, “We level each other up”, and “Positive attitudes produce positive results” did not convert our toxic employees into positive team members or magically create a healthy workplace environment. The success we’ve experienced as a result of our culture came with initial stages of intentional hard work and continual organizational awareness and self-realization as leaders.
As we walk through these stages, keep in mind that while they will happen in order initially, they may all be occurring simultaneously on an ongoing basis, as new team members are added, new roles and departments are developed, and new levels of understanding are reached by leadership.
Stage One: Show the Way
We decided to use our Monthly Recap meeting to present our culture values to the team for the first time so that we would have plenty of time to talk through them without feeling rushed. We knew this was a pivotal moment in our organization, but we also understood that the team had no idea how much impact it would have and wanted to make sure they knew our intention and purpose. If you’ve ever heard Brett speak, you know that he is incredibly energetic and engaging. He laid a clear foundation for what our standards and expectations would be going forward:
Expectation 1: Our culture values are required of every person in every role in every department.
Expectation 2: Our culture values inform how we function internally with team members and externally with clients and third-party partners.
Expectation 3: Our culture values will be the foundation for all constructive conversations we have, providing objective standards that we all value and prioritize.
We developed an initial document that outlined and explained the purpose of the culture as a whole as well as each individual culture value. We use that doc and related resources we have developed during our new employee onboarding as well as to inform various presentations and conversations we have with the team.
Stage Two: Talk the Talk
After our initial presentation, it was time to implement. The amazing thing about clear, relevant culture values (not to be mistaken with generic jargon that sounds great, but is ultimately meaningless) is that they literally apply to EVERYTHING. Every conversation I was involved in suddenly had tangible guide posts. I was referencing our culture values left and right as I listened to complaints and frustrations and gave advice to individual team members. Treating our values as non-negotiable made leadership decisions much more black and white. Four and a half years later, nothing has changed. It almost feels like cheating, to have concrete principles to preach and fall back on regardless of the situation or who is involved, but that’s the sign of great culture values. Today, our values are just as relevant and helpful as they were when we created them and have developed even greater weight as we’ve experienced very quick stages of growth. Developing people into directors and other leadership roles has provided additional opportunities to speak to our values in a way that is practical and applicable. This shared language meant that I could trust these new leaders to take over some of my direct report relationships and have similar conversations with their own team members.
Stage Three: Walk the Walk
We have three core values and seventeen value statements, plus a specific mission and vision, all of which tie together to create a singular unit that I like to refer to as an umbrella. We all know what it's like if one rib of an umbrella breaks, or even bends. Suddenly water is pouring down your back or in your face and the umbrella ends up in the trash, worthless. Our culture is a shield that protects us from getting soaked in drama and drowning in wasted time and energy. It creates a safe environment to accomplish our purpose. It gives us confidence that we are making the right decisions, especially when they are hard. One of the things I love about our culture is that it requires us to step outside of ourselves and consider the people we are working with and for. Another great thing is that it makes having difficult conversations so much easier, because there is agreement among our team that we share the same values and priorities. We are all responsible to protect our culture values and walk them out in every circumstance. If we were to ever compromise on a value, it would break the trust we have in our organization and each other. We have to be intentional about considering our culture values in our decision making and conversations, because even though we are fully bought in, they aren’t always instinctual.
As I’ll discuss in further detail in my next blog about protecting organizational culture, if we don’t equally prioritize each culture value, we put both our client and team member partnerships at risk.