Will you take a Grassroots or Executive-Led Approach to Culture Building?

Written by Rhea Steele on January 21, 2019

Organizations becoming more intentional about how they create and sustain their culture; realizing now what a fundamental impact in has on employees’ ability to be successful. For the purpose of this article, I define culture as the traits of the organization played out in the behaviors of all employees.

In my association career, I’ve approached culture design from a variety of vantage points: as an executive leader working across the organization, to an informal leader working on grassroots change. I’ve seen wonderful successes and brilliant failures from all vantage points. Changing an organization’s culture is different than other types of organizational change (think implementing a new timecard system) because the change touches on people’s values - the things they hold most dear. In order for the change to stick, it has to be grounded in the true values of the employees and volunteers and owned in such a way that employees feel personally compelled to hold each other accountable for reinforcing the culture.

At one organization, we worked closely with the board to build a collaborative and symbiotic culture. We held their priorities as our priorities and they committed to aligning the work of the organization to the strategic plan. Among themselves, they were also intentional about cultivating a culture where discourse, equity, and data-driven decision making were valued. As a result those values made their way into the day-to-day work of the organization work, resulting in a very positive impact on the culture.

In another organization, the most successful strategies were tied to accountability and common understanding. This organization worked on culture from the executive leadership level. We made sure that we, as leaders, had a common understanding of what we wanted the culture to look like, and what behaviors went along with that. We focused on accountability by holding each other accountable to displaying the behaviors we were looking for. At times, this involved calling each other out publicly for out-of-alignment behaviors. With our teams, we had regular conversations celebrating “culture-positive” behaviors when we saw them and addressing “culture-negative” behaviors immediately. The repeated communication and reinforcement helped everyone practice what we were preaching.

The culture of an organization is shaped by the worst behavior a leader is willing to tolerate.

– Gruenert & Whitaker

I discovered the “executive-led” approach wasn’t the only way to align culture with purpose. In another organization, some of the best ideas grew from the grassroots. The organization intentionally valued the fresh perspective of those new to the organization, asking questions and encouraging them to apply solutions in a very different way. Employees at the grassroots level were intentionally engaged in discussions about the design and and implementation of the culture - and at times took full reign over task force activities. As the executive leaders relinquished control, employees at all levels engaged and took greater ownership of their role in supporting the culture we were building.

The culture of an association is instrumental to achieving organizational goals and meeting the current and future needs of members. Will you take a grassroots or executive-led approach (or some combination of both) to culture building at your organization?