I recently had several interviews with the leadership group of a non-profit client organization, which included senior leadership as well as a board committee.
This client organization is doing very well and can rightfully boast that its people consider it a great place to work.
The conversations we were having were forward-looking, to a time when there might be a leadership transition. The purpose of the engagement was to build capacity well ahead, prepare some key tactical pieces and consider various paths forward without the pressure of an actual leadership vacancy. A model case of forward-thinking succession planning.
Our conversations quickly turned from practical matters to the central role of culture and its role in making theirs a successful organization. There was consensus that the importance of maintaining a positive, inclusive, and caring organizational culture needed to feature in any future recruitment efforts and had to be communicated to any incoming leader.
We spent time describing the unique culture that the organization had managed to build, and a clear picture emerged on what they held dear. However, in the same conversations, they shared that they generally considered organizational culture to be a staff matter and did not feel that the board played any role in shaping it.
Working with boards of directors daily and as a board chair myself, this is a topic close to my heart! I believe that boards play an important role in shaping culture and that their work contributes meaningfully to developing organizational strategy, creating an effective organizational culture, and working towards the organizational vision.
At its simplest, I offer that culture is the ways people in the organization behave and the attitudes and beliefs that inform those behaviours. This includes formal, stated rules as well as implicit ways and expectations that influence how people work and interact. Culture can be said to be “the way we do things around here”. Equally, strategy at its simplest is a set of agreed-upon decisions on what is most important.
So, if the strategy is the what, then culture emerges as the how.
Increasingly, boards are pushing for accountability not only on organizational results but also on how well the organization is aligned in its activities to work towards its purpose, mission, and core values. There is nothing like a crisis, may it be COVID-19, a difficult leadership transition or financial challenges, to highlight the importance of a shared values base and a culture that supports the mission and vision of the organization.
Creating and maintaining organizational culture is an ongoing process and all members of an organization play a part. It is truly a shared responsibility.
As one of the board’s main responsibilities is to support strategy development, I suggest this also has to include contributing to defining the desired organizational culture, ensuring that it aligns with organizational goals and meets the needs of all stakeholders involved. On the contrary, in the absence of a conscious effort, a default accidental culture will emerge which leaves it up to chance how well the organization will function and execute its strategy.
In practical terms, these are some ways a board of directors contributes to creating and maintaining organizational culture:
- Take steps to outline and describe the desired organizational culture, collaboratively developing these descriptions with the leadership team. Use these descriptions as a reference tool to assess the alignment of proposed actions and actual board behaviour. As a board, model the desired culture.
- Review what you communicate as the board’s and organizational priorities: “What gets measured gets done”.
- Regularly discuss organizational culture with the leadership team, assess and address culture priorities, strengths, gaps, and challenges. This includes providing a budget for these efforts.
- Discuss how the current incentive structures might impact behaviours and what changes might be required to align incentives to the desired behaviours.
- Evaluate how the senior leadership is modelling desired behaviours and communicating the desired culture to the organization.
- Work with senior leadership to define indicators, regularly measure, review results and design actions to address gaps and enhance positive cultural traits. Review and discuss this data regularly at board meetings.
- Include culture leadership capabilities in succession planning and recruitment efforts both at the board as well as staff level.
Clearly articulating and describing how you want to work together and what you consider effective, and strategy-aligned ways to achieve your goals is an ongoing task and forms the backbone of communication across the organization. The goal is to achieve a clear, consistent, common understanding of both culture and strategy. In this way, organizations can harness everyone’s contribution and align their efforts to work towards their unique vision and goals.
When boards realize and assume their shared responsibility in creating and maintaining organizational culture, it is easy to see their impact in contributing to a healthy and successful organization. In my strategy work with boards, this can often seem daunting to the association and non-profit board members who previously assumed that theirs was a somewhat removed role. However, the magic lies in exploring the opportunities that rest in this shared responsibility approach, linking it firmly to strategy and developing culture literacy at all levels of the organization.
Author: Catarina Moreno