Imagine you’re having a stressful day - probably not far from reality, right?
You decide to take a short walk to clear your head. As you stride along under some trees, light dances through the leaves overhead. You take a few deep breaths and smell freshly cut grass. Suddenly, gravel crunches under your feet. The lush environment disappeared. You look down at a long stretch of tamped-down dirt. Weeds poke through the rocky soil, fighting to hold their ground.
You head back to work yet the contrast between the two places keeps popping back into your mind.
As a leader, you’re something of a gardener. It’s your job to nurture people and the culture so there’s a positive environment - a place where people are growing into their best selves, cultivating their talents, and working together for everyone’s benefit. Without tending, your company can become as unwelcoming as that gravel-strewn back lot of weeds.
Consider these five steps to tend your cultural garden as you work and lead.
1. Prepare the soil – Define Your Culture
To grow anything, you need an environment with the right nutrients. To start, determine what’s in your current company culture. Create a list of attributes by answering questions like:
- What behaviors get rewarded?
- What behaviors are discouraged or shamed?
- What are your aspirational values?
- In what ways do you see your company values being lived out?
- What do employees currently say about their work environment?
Does your list make you proud or cringe? This process is humbling and hard. Rather than thinking about what you wish you had, start with the soil you've got and make it better. By taking an honest inventory of where your culture stands today, you’ll know what you need to improve.
2. Plant varieties that can work together – Select for Culture Fit
Companion planting is intentionally planting complementary vegetables in the same bed to "create a harmonious garden by allowing nature to share her strengths” [gardenknow.com]. In vegetable gardens, asparagus and tomatoes do well together, while onions compete with beans and peas. (Bad onions!)
For a healthy company culture, you want to make sure employees’ strengths add to one another. Can teammates collaborate? Do they have complementary strengths? If similar, are strengths being overdone?
We believe healthy conflict in the workplace is essential to accomplishing great things. How is conflict building people up and creating better results than what could be accomplished alone?
A garden full of carrots can produce a great crop, yet only eating carrots all season quickly gets boring.
3. Prune and trim – Engage your Employees
Most plants benefit from regular pruning and maintenance. Cutting off dead branches and leaves, or even healthy new stalks that are “going the wrong way,” allows new growth to strengthen the plant.
Your employees are the same. (Stick with the metaphor here!)
Take time to listen to your team. Ask how they are feeling about their roles and as vital contributors to the culture. In our company, we do periodic stay interviews with employees and ask: what would you love to keep doing in your role and what could change to be better? If tasks and projects no longer serve a purpose, work with employees to trim those back.
If you are hoping for team feedback in a safe setting, consider bringing in a facilitator to facilitate a session on what’s working, what’s not working and what’s missing or unclear in their roles and the company.
4. Eliminate weeds and pests – Have the Hard Conversations
Part of leadership is assessing what is holding back the rest of the team.
In today’s job market it is difficult to find good talent. Many leaders and managers are nervous about letting people go. However, ignoring a problem won’t make it go away. Holding on to people who are the root of a company’s problems is like saying, “I know that weed is choking the other plants, but if I ignore it, maybe it will stop.” Take time to have hard conversations and if necessary, gently transplant those who are inhibiting growth to another garden.
5. Water and feed your garden - Keep Working on Your Culture
If you define your culture yet fail to regularly examine the environment, it won't flourish. As a leader, you need to constantly reinforce your values and principles. Some leaders we worked with learned this the hard way: “We believed we had a strong culture - heck, our principles are posted in every meeting room. Yet no one asks about values or folks are afraid to hold one another accountable to their behaviors. Now we realize we need more than posters.”
A list of values on the wall that no one lives is like fertilizer just sitting in a bag - a bunch of useless crap!
Encourage your employees to point out successful examples of living company principles. Use whatever works with your team to get their attention and have fun. Some companies hand a trophy back and forth when they catch people acting in ways aligned with their values.
The work of a gardener - and of a leader - is never done. Keep working on your culture by caring for the soil and the plants to make your space flourish.
Get planting. See what good things you can grow.
If some master gardener advice or support would help you grow your culture, let’s talk.
Thank you to Christopher Arnold for inspiring this idea!