The Leader's Cultural Compass Points

March 2, 2010 · by Roger Swanson

As leaders, we have the ability to improve the work environment by our actions and attitudes. Especially when times are tough, we owe this to staff, who have chosen to follow our dreams with us.

Like mine, your father probably told you that if you find a career you love, you’ll never have to work a day in your life.

I am an architect. I love architecture. I love seeing it, experiencing it, reading, writing, and talking about it, thinking about the possibilities of it, drawing and modeling it, and of course, making it. I do, however, feel there are days when I am working hard at it, and love doesn’t seem to be what’s on my mind. It is at these times I like to remind myself that it could be a lot worse.

As leaders of firms, we can make it better. The way we make it better is by surrounding ourselves with people who feel like we do about the work. Namely: make it meaningful, make it count, make it change people’s lives, and make it lasting. This passion for the work is what binds people to each other as colleagues and to their firm. It’s what replaces pay and benefits as the No. 1 incentive.

One’s philosophy about life and work casts the die for one’s happiness. Leaders set the tone for everyone else in the firm. A strong culture depends on leaders who share common threads of philosophy and demonstrate how these play out in their lives and their roles at work.

A prerequisite to being an effective leader is understanding the substance behind our leadership — the philosophy of life that has been the compass on our unique professional journeys. For me, there are eight points on this compass, and they direct me in my actions:

• Pick your paths thoughtfully.
• Hang out with the right people.
• Let personal and professional worlds overlap occasionally.
• Practice being equal strategist and doer.
• Focus on who you are with.
• Manage time and e-communications or they will control you.
• Mentor and rotneM: Let it go both ways.
• Remember who you work for.

If you let this compass guide you, these eight points will become the basic tenants of the organization you lead. And in that sense, I believe they become the compass points of the culture of the organization. Here’s a little shade and color, point by point.

Pick your paths thoughtfully

This is No. 1, and it’s the trickiest. Choose a career path that fits you. It goes back to whether you would rather work or do what you love every day. Above all, what you do must be underpinned by being meaningful — deeply meaningful — to you.

There are forks in this road, and each one should be carefully and thoughtfully considered before taking a turn. Some combination of these turns will be right for you. Taking myself as an example, I knew early on — thanks to an inspirational influence of a professor 30 years ago — that I wanted to use my talents and skills in design for the improvement of the environments in which health care is taught, practiced, and delivered. As a result, I have chosen a path that is meaningful to me because it has a large impact on society and people’s lives. That meaning in what I have sought to do has usually put me in the company of other people who feel the same way, people motivated by the same things. It is the basis of a team that is personally rewarding to be a part of. That leads to the next point.

Hang out with the right people

Once you have figured out what you want to do, find others who have also figured it out, and be with them. This is largely what searching for the right firm to work for is all about. Leaders embrace these values as the genesis of culture and attract like-minded souls to the team to perpetuate and grow it.

Another dimension of this compass point is that you do not want to waste your time with the wrong people. Figure out what is complementary to you because we certainly do not need or want everyone to be exactly like us. Diversity is a great thing. We used to have a joke in my family that we were all so nice because there were enough jerks “out there” and we didn’t need any more “in here.” And we wondered if families of jerks felt the same way — only the other way around.

Unlike families, though, we can select the people in our firms, and we ought to surround ourselves with the people who are attracted and motivated by what we stand for.

Let personal and professional worlds overlap occasionally

While I generally espouse a separation of work and home, bringing these worlds together occasionally or even frequently helps strengthen and build the culture. For example, bringing significant others to meet colleagues and business associates lets people see other dimensions of one another that help reveal our full selves, our completeness as human beings. Such social interactions make the players in both our professional world and our private world more empathetic to the needs and demands of the other.

Practice being equal strategist and doer

It is good that some people are more strategic and others are more implementation-oriented. We need both types in the world, and we certainly need both types in our firms, just as we need good generalists and good specialists, good big-picture types and good detail types. Leaders should strive to be good at being both strategist and doer. These traits blended almost equally in one person are extremely powerful. Such a leader enjoys the ability not only to paint the vision but to command the respect of others by carrying out appropriate parts of related and supporting missions.

Focus on who you are with

Too often in this age of multi-tasking, we lose focus simply because we are trying to do too many things at once. It is becoming the norm that goes unnoticed rather than an exception that stands out. This can have an unfortunate consequence in the culture of an organization because it becomes easy to divert attention from the people we are dealing with at the moment, whether they are in the room physically or connected electronically. What does it say about how important a person and our interaction with them is if our attention is diverted?

When someone is carrying on an 80-decibel phone conversation in the stall of the airport washroom, how important does the person on the other end of the call seem? When someone is texting while you are trying to have a conversation with him, how important is that person making you feel? How about when someone is e-mailing during your meeting? People who are not giving others their full attention are cheating them out of a minimum expectation by being only partially present. Fighting off these people-diminishing habits we are developing as a society will help strengthen a firm’s culture. It says volumes about what is important to us — people and how we interact with them.

Manage time and e-communications or they will control you

The corollary to focusing on who you are with is developing a culture in which people manage their time well and respect other peoples’ time, whether face-to-face or in electronic communications. We are at the dawning of a new age in which we are discovering a great many things that people have not experienced before. It is not all good.

Take e-communications as an example. These will absolutely run your life if you do not manage and control them. I don’t doubt that in a few years, PDA Anonymous meetings will be common (and I know quite a few people who need an intervention to persuade them to attend). Enough said, or this little piece runs the risk of mushrooming into a very preachy book on the subject.

Mentor and rotneM: Let it go both ways

The last compass point that has a direct relationship with how you comport yourself at work and how you lead by setting the standard of the culture regards mentoring. Over are the days of thinking that all you have to do is show up, do what you do, and let the young ones watch and learn. That may have been the way many of us baby boomers were “mentored,” but it is not the way it will work for our children and those in between.

There is a lot of reverse mentoring that is needed today, but there is not much actually going on. (That’s the “rotneM” if you didn’t figure it out yet with a mirror).

Remember who you work for

The final compass point brings you home. After all, that is where the people are who you work for. They are not at work. And if you believe that, live and work that way, and lead your firm, the culture of the firm will hold this point as the most important. Your and your firm’s attitudes, policies, and actions regarding people will reinforce this basic precept and guide the culture.

And there is at least one very important lesson from home you can bring to the professional culture discourse. Your parents learned this from you, their parents from them, and you most likely have or will from your own children. The same can be said for professional generations in an organization.

Generations from one to the next are products of their time and consequently differ vastly. We certainly feel it today just as our parents felt it — no matter what generation we are part of. Someone comments on this almost every day for one reason or another — what the new generation does or does not do, does or does not expect, is or is not willing to do, etc. There is, however, one intractable bridge across all generation gaps: People will always have a basic need for the support, respect, and advice of others. Fill that need, and people will listen to you and follow. More than anything else, this is the lifeblood, the sustenance of a firm’s culture.

Roger Swanson is the chairman and chief executive officer of Anshen + Allen Architects, a firm at which he has spent the greater part of his career. Swanson earned his Master of Architecture degree at the University of California, Berkeley.

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