Steve Salee is the Founder and CEO of Wildfire Strategies. He loves helping high-stakes teams and leaders work better together.
My last two articles explored the wounds that every team has and offered ways to heal them. It’s tempting to think of poor culture or toxicity as isolated at the staff level, but systems theory tells us that problems usually have root causes in other parts of the organization. One of the key places to look is the leadership overseeing the team facing these challenges—not to blame leadership but to help them strengthen.
Toxic culture is never unrelated to the leadership team.
Leadership is either the direct or indirect cause of poorly functioning teams. Here are three reasons why:
• The leadership team is new or not fully formed.
• An existing leadership team isn’t functioning well.
• The leadership team is experiencing high turnover.
For a leadership team that’s new or not fully formed, it is likely that trust hasn’t yet been established. If it hasn’t, it won’t be possible to engage in open, trust-building conversations with staff. Trust can’t exist at the staff level if it hasn’t first been built at the leadership level.
Leaders might have different working styles, may not yet understand one another’s thought patterns and priorities or may not be sure how to leverage one another’s strengths. Often, new leaders on a team are deep subject-matter experts but haven’t been trained on how to manage others. Sometimes, with new and legacy leaders in the mix, cliques can alienate new arrivals.
When an existing leadership team isn’t functioning well, it may be due to:
• Unclear structure
• Vague roles or mission
• Lack of engagement or burnout
• Absence of process or follow-through
Unclear structure might be due to undefined roles, a lack of understanding of the mission or an absence of process metrics and follow-through. Lack of engagement might show up in not understanding the team’s day-to-day experiences or not working together as a leadership team to stay connected. Poor functioning might also result from pandemic burnout or other unaddressed job stressors.
Finally, a leadership team might not function well due to high turnover. A revolving door at the leadership level can destabilize the whole group. Constant turnover means the leadership team never has the chance to “form, storm and norm ” and interim leaders rarely have the authority to do anything but keep the ship afloat. High turnover could stem from a lack of visible support from upper management or a lack of clarity on vision, mission, strategy and the all-important culture. This can create toxicity that makes the environment inhospitable for new leaders, and they ultimately don’t last.
So how do we create a strong leadership team?
Deep Structural Self-Examination And Design
Get clarity on team strengths and weaknesses. As owners and stewards of company culture, leaders must be intentional about defining and defending it. This begins with an honest assessment of who they are and how they work together. What are the leadership team members’ working styles and relationships with one another? Are they aligned and executing on their best intentions? Leadership teams create cultures of unity and trust when they understand how to build on strengths and leverage one another to backfill weaknesses without judgment.
Have a set of simple ground rules. This makes a big difference in building culture and trust. Having clear ground rules for how the team functions—and regularly sharing those ground rules—helps set a tone of communication and respect. Ground rules for navigating conflict can foster discussion that’s free of blame and shame. A clear set of key performance indicators can incentivize desired behaviors and provide a foundation for collaborative problem-solving, friendly customer service and other practices that demonstrate the team’s culture.
Create clear meeting structures and defined topics. Is this meeting about strategic planning, strategy execution, operations or creating community? Be intentional about which meetings should be one-on-one versus team meetings. Limiting or expanding the attendance and scope of meetings can create space for more productive conversations and allow leaders to make better decisions. When each person in the room feels connected to the purpose and content of a meeting, they gain a clearer and more positive understanding of their role on the team.
The Intentional Development Of Culture
Understand your culture. I’m regularly surprised by leaders who don’t realize they own their organization’s culture and are responsible for naming and modeling it. Cultures catch on like wildfire, whether leaders create them or not; it’s the reason I named my business Wildfire Strategies. Leadership teams need to start with an understanding of what culture is present and how it developed. Were leaders intentional in creating it, or did it emerge at the staff level? Does the culture support the goals of the organization? Does it help the organization attract, retain and develop talent, foster creativity and deliver a great service or product? Does it contribute to toxicity?
Demonstrate core values and intentions. When leaders share clarity on core values and best intentions—and implement structures that support them—a strong, positive culture has a chance to grow. How they work together to make decisions and navigate conflict serves as a living representation of the culture, and that’s a great springboard for engaging staff to build culture together. When leaders take on causes or initiatives at the organizational level that reflect these values and lean on partner organizations to live up to this standard, leaders demonstrate their culture to a wider talent pool and attract candidates who could make it even stronger.
Leaders can help culture deliver on strategy, not eat it.
You know the saying, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” But it doesn’t have to. Leadership teams have the power to guide the development of a culture that will help their staff be productive and effective. How leaders communicate, treat people, make decisions and navigate conflict will define and reinforce (or undermine) their organization’s culture. Before a leadership team can drive their organization’s culture, they have to do the work of creating their own.