What great leaders can teach parents about culture

peaceI’m a culture geek.  I’m not afraid to admit it.  I’m a pocket-protector-wearing culture nerd.  While others think about stuff like who’s going to win the Super Bowl or the latest round of celebrity gossip, I think about culture.  Disney parks, Ritz Carlton hotels, Google, SouthWest Airlines, NetFlix, Chick-fil-A, etc… if the company is associated with culture, I read up on them, spend my money with them and generally try to figure out what makes them tick.  And while I’m fascinated by the systems, processes and policies that these companies put in place to support their culture, don’t be mistaken.  I’ve come to realize that it is not the systems or policies that make culture.  It’s the leadership.  Culture begins and ends with leadership.

It is in this way that the topic of leadership and culture can extend beyond the board room table to the kitchen table.  Great leaders lead and set a clear culture.  I’ve found the same phenomenon to be true at home.  The most effective parents have a clear culture set inside the four walls of their home that contributes to the growth and development of their children and the family. 

What is Culture? 

You may be thinking, “Brandon, what do you mean by culture?”  Simply put, culture is what happens when you aren’t around.  It defines how stuff gets done.  In the business world we often link culture to execution.  If your team is getting stuff done while you are away at the conference, you’ve got an effective culture.

“Culture is what happens when you aren’t around.”

At home, we can make the same statement.  Are members of your “organization” doing what they are supposed to do when you aren’t around?

Whether we are talking about your team at work or your ankle-biters at home, the question for you is the same: “what culture do you want and how are you going to set it?”

How Leaders Set a Strong Culture at Work and at Home

To answer that question, we can turn our attention to leaders of companies with strong cultures.  Over the years, I’ve noticed some common behaviors amongst almost all of these leaders.  And along the way, I’ve also helped myself to their approaches and applied them at home with some interesting outcomes.  Consider the following leadership traits related to leading strong cultures:

  • They see their roles as “protectors of the culture.” Listen to any leader of an organization with a strong culture and they’ll tell you that their role is not to run the business.  Rather, they see their role as the “protector of the culture.”  Dan Cathy, CEO of Chick-fil-A is a perfect example.  Protecting a culture is a full-time job and full time role whether we are at work or at home.  It means making decisions based on the values one is trying to reinforce.  Several years ago, my 10 year old was pushing us to let him quit karate.  He hated sparring class because it was hard.  My wife and I talked together about the importance of teaching him “resilience” and how important it was for us to protect the values of resilience and courage in our household.  We wouldn’t let him quit.  He’s scheduled to get his black belt next year.
  • They make their values clear and simple. The best cultures have simple, sticky and memorable sets of values that can be easily recited inside the organization.  At home it should be no different.  One of my personal favorites that all of my children in my home can recite in their sleep is the following values statement: “Decision-makers pay.”  When a child is complaining about the fantastic gourmet dinner that mom cooked, I announce to the table that this particular child is showing leadership and would like to decide what we will be having for dinner.  And as a result, this member of the family will also be buying dinner for the family.  After a brief pause to contemplate my statement, the child then makes the following statement to the table, “mom, dinner looks and smells wonderful.  Thank you for making it.”  Culture, baby.
  • They talk about the culture every day. We get this.  Jack Welch famously commented that as a leader of a large organization, you’ll find yourself talking about values and culture on a daily basis until you are blue in the face.  This is where I’m going to ruffle some feathers, folks.  Ready?  You can’t outsource this.  As parents and leaders, it requires a regular presence.  If you are not home more nights than not, you aren’t talking about culture.  You aren’t leading culture.  Just like if you were the CEO of a company, you’d never consider hiring a part-time worker to be the culture advocate at your company.  Hiring help at home and expecting them to carry the culture flag is unrealistic and unfair.
  • They punish swiftly and severely when culture is violated. I was talking to a senior HR leader just last week at a Best Places To Work organization and he shared with me this great story.  After searching for some time, he and the CEO hired an external candidate to serve as the President of a division.  After just three weeks on the job, they were hearing more and more complaints from the President’s team until eventually the whole team went to leadership and told repeated stories of arrogance, disrespect and condescending behavior.  Within 3 hours the President was pulled into HR and “invited to leave.”  Leaders of strong cultures punish violators swiftly and severely.  I got the pleasure of having one of these conversations with my 13 year old daughter this morning.  It was not pretty.  Dad probably came in a little too “hot.”  Hopefully she got the message, but time will tell.  Being a parent is hard.
  • They win with their culture. Culture is one of the few competitive advantages of any company that simply can’t be copied.  It is so specific to the people and, more importantly, the leadership that it can serve as a huge competitive advantage for companies that do it well.  Think Disney parks. They dominate the amusement park industry like no other.  In 2009 while the industry reported significant revenue losses as a result of the recession, Disney marched forward with nearly 5% topline growth and has continued the march forward since.  We get what “winning” means at work but what does winning mean at home?  Ultimately, winning as parents is the development of fully formed adults that make positive contributions to society.  But consider this short-term definition of a winning culture at home that I find to be particularly helpful.  It goes back to the statement that culture is what happens when you aren’t around.  My kids may behave poorly at home (not an uncommon experience for any parent, I would imagine) but frankly, it matters less to me than when we aren’t around.  When my children are at school, at a friend’s house or staying with the grandparents, they represent us.  They are Smith-Culture Ambassadors.  If I get glowing reports from teachers, parents, grandparents, strangers and even wait staff at restaurants, I know I’m doing my job.  However, a bad report is a failing grade for leadership and for the culture.  An overhaul is in order.

So there you have it.  One culture geek’s effort at taking best practices in the working world and bringing them home.  And if you doubt my geekiness, enjoy the following picture.  And yes, we wore those the whole day.

Incredible

Who would have thought being a parent would be so itchy?