The Chief of Staff as Culture Builder

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If you’re playing corporate buzzword bingo, then the free square in the center may as well be “Corporate Culture” because everyone talks about it. Executives from all industries know that a strong corporate culture is better for business, but they don’t always know how to achieve it. They also don’t really know how to describe it. While it is important for top leaders to set the tone for a positive workplace culture, it doesn’t mean that they are the only ones who can influence culture.

As Chief of Staff, you are well-positioned to affect real change when it comes to aligning and engaging staff to a common goal. You can influence the language and actions of executives. At the same time, you’re still seen as “one of us” by the rest of the organization. You can reinforce positive messages with teams and stay ahead of negative feedback floating around the water cooler. Here are a few ways to play the role of culture builder:

1.      Know What Others Want

Bill George, longtime CEO of Medtronic and author of True North says that sense of purpose can attract—and retain—valuable talent, especially as the workforce gets younger.

According to the Pew Research Center, more than one-in-three American workers today are Millennials—adults aged 21 to 37 in 2018—and unquestionably the largest demographic in the American workforce. It is quite possible that you (as Chief of Staff) may also be a Millennial, understanding firsthand the idea of working for a greater purpose. You may also be the only Millennial on the leadership team. However, your organization is a blend of other generations that may want other things from their workplace.

What does this mean for you? As Chief of Staff, this is your opportunity to learn from your diverse workforce. When executives are discussing culture, and defining what they envision as the values of the corporate culture, remind them that people may want different things—and that’s okay. You must find ways to help all of your employees feel a sense of connection to your organization—whatever it may be.

2.      Communicate the Culture and Values

Coming across as too big of a cheerleader for the company can make you look inauthentic, but you do need to be a positive voice that represents the values of the organization. For example, if being a flexible, family-friendly organization is an important value for your organization, then doing little things like asking a co-worker about their children or remembering their spouse’s name goes a long way in making them feel that value. Encouraging colleagues to attend events, such as preschool holiday programs or high school track meets, also lets them know that it’s actually cool with your leaders to do so. Even better if you encourage leaders to follow this practice as well.

You are a voice of influence, and what you say matters. When you communicate the values—either directly in formal settings or indirectly during casual conversations—you influence change.

If you’re working in a place with a weak culture and are trying to make positive change, be patient and consistent. Employees may naturally be skeptical. If they see you consistently put people first and follow through on the corporate values you espouse, you’ll start to win them over and engage others who also enhance the culture.

3.      Encourage Transparency in Leadership

George says that employee engagement should not be a footnote for companies, and that leaders should invest in enhancing culture and becoming more transparent. “The leaders I profiled in my book are much more transparent than corporate leadership of the past. We’ve moved from an era of self-interest to an era where leaders recognize their role is to serve others and a greater cause,” George says.

If you work for a leader who wants to improve the culture, your job is to hold them accountable. Help them communicate more openly and frequently with their teams. Encourage them to craft messages that reflect the company’s values. Push them to make choices that are consistent with the culture they want to cultivate. This doesn’t work if promoting the culture rests only on your shoulders as Chief of Staff because your leader doesn’t make the time to do it. You are a champion of culture along with them, not in lieu of them.

If you work for a leader who isn’t invested in improving the culture, there are still opportunities to encourage their language and actions to reflect positive change. For example, if they are more data-driven, provide research to back the productivity of happy employees when discussing work schedules. They may make the choice for more flexibility based on hopes for higher productivity, not on employee engagement, but you just scored a big culture win for your team members.

Creating a strong corporate culture takes time, especially if you’re repairing a toxic situation. But as Chief of Staff, you are in a unique position to bring real change to an organization. Use your words and actions to highlight what needs to be done when you’re working with leadership. Similarly, be the example for the organization of what the culture could be when you embody the values, and make sound business decisions.

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