The Culture Engine

"Workplace inspiration does not happen naturally—it happens only by intention."

- The Culture Engine, page 26

Intentionality. That’s what S. Chris Edmonds’ The Culture Engine is about—being as intentional about culture as many (but, as Edmonds reminds, not all) companies already are about strategy. His recommendation—and what this book is all about—is to create and live by a formalized organizational constitution that articulates purpose, values (defined in clear behavioral teams,) as well as strategy and goals.

You won’t find much theory or philosophy of leadership and culture here—but you will find both the case for building a values-aligned culture and a step-by-step guide, with useful tools for working through its creation, ongoing management and evaluation.

Early in the book, and later, in a terrific case study about WD40, Edmonds demonstrates the incredible return on investment that comes from investment in organizational culture. He also emphasizes, early and often, that leaders are key to the creation of powerful, positive cultures. In fact, the first of the “how-to” chapters is titled “It starts with you” and is all about formally clarifying your own personal purpose, values and leadership philosophy. And then living that personal “constitution” fully. Edmonds says, in the strongest possible language, that leadership happens in every moment and that leaders must consistently live their values—at work, at home, on the road, while shopping for groceries. There’s no room for anything less.

The Big Idea

The Big Idea: The biggest takeaway from the book

The concept of perfection

"Perfection doesn’t mean that things are working ‘perfectly’ or ‘as desired.’ It means they are working exactly the way we should expect them to work, desirable or not."
- The Culture Engine, page 8

While mostly a practical guidebook, there are a few ideas in The Culture Engine that made me stop and think. One of these ideas is that way that we act—as individuals and members of the organizations we’re part of (families are a great example!!) are the logical outcomes of the what we believe, think and do—often without a lot of reflection or conscious awareness. So, if we, as leaders, are seeing less than optimal behaviors, decisions and actions, we need to step back and recognize that people are acting exactly as we might expect based on what we are doing as leaders. Only by changing underlying beliefs, thoughts, expectations—which means we’ll be paying attention to and reinforcing different things—will we see actual changes in the culture.

So, as leaders, we are responsible for examining and redefining the underlying beliefs and thoughts that are driving our behavior, and translating that “redefinition” into what Edmonds calls the organizational constitution.

As you can see, Edmonds puts the weight of culture change squarely on the shoulders of organizational leaders. The organizational constitution—from creation through management to evaluation of how it’s working—is the work of the leader. Per Edmonds—it is work that actually redefines what a leader does. Rather than managing processes and results, the leader in a values-aligned organization is managing people’s energy and “owning” the creation of a safe, inspiring workplace that brings out the best in the people who come to work every day. It’s creating a workplace that is perfect and where that perfection results in a desirable, positive culture.

Insight #1

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Get specific about behaviors—really specific

"Ask 20 people in your organization what integrity looks like, and you’ll likely get 20 different answers. You might even get 30 different answers."
- The Culture Engine, page 28

Values, defined in behavioral terms, are the most important part of any organization’s constitution. They create the culture by making clear what it looks like when the organizational values are being implemented. They create the behaviors that an organization can hire to, coach to and manage to. Edmonds makes the case that we can’t mandate or easily measure attitude or beliefs, but can see both in action through behaviors—which we can both manage and measure. What do people actually do? What are the observable behaviors that demonstrate the organization’s core values?

Defining behaviors is not enough. People in the organization need to understand that they really are expected to live those behaviors—and that everyone in the company is held to the same behavioral standards. If anyone is allowed to act in ways that don’t support values-aligned behaviors, then those standards become irrelevant—or, as Edmonds says, they are simply lies.

Edmonds gives a lot of practical examples of values defined as behaviors. They are simple, they are first person and they are present tense. So, for example, the value of service means, in behaviors terms, things like: “I ensure that each customer is assisted in finding requested items.” Or, mutual respect, in behavioral terms, looks like: “I do not lie, betray a confidence, stretch the truth, or withhold information from a peer, customer, or stakeholder.”

Insight #2

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Managing contribution vs. performance

"What you’re looking for—equal contributions of performance and values alignment by every leader and team member in your organization."
- The Culture Engine, page 152

Many companies talk about values, perhaps even define them behaviorally, but at the end of the day, measure only performance against goals and strategies. A values-aligned organization manages and measures not only performance but also values alignment.

So, a critical part of annual and ongoing performance management—which Edmonds suggests calling “contribution management” to get away from a performance focus—is measurement against specific, measureable and trackable expectations around values. Unlike goals, these values and their measures are likely to stay the same for longer and can be embedded more deeply into the review process and into formal praise, coaching and feedback as well.

Edmonds has created a practical and easy-to-use manual for leaders who are serious about shifting their organization’s culture. It’s full of good tools—and solid messages about what matters most. It’s a great reminder about intentionality—and personal responsibility for living and breathing the values that you define as being at the heart of your organization’s culture. And, by not stopping at the creation of an organizational constitution, but at the hard work of implementation—it’s a reminder that what Edmonds calls MbA—Managing by Announcement—is never, ever enough.

Edmonds recommends starting with a hard, realistic look at what is happening in your organization. So, with that in mind:

What do you see when you look at your organization? What one or two things are “perfect” but not “desirable”? Are you paying as much attention to values as to performance? If not, is it time?

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Ronni Hendel-Giller

ABOUT Ronni Hendel-Giller

Ronni Hendel-Giller has been passionate about leadership since she was a teenager. She's worked in non-profit and for-profit leadership positions—always with an eye to guiding others to realize their leadership potential...
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