A few months ago, one of our private clients reached out with a human resources challenge. I swiftly recommended he call Sean Barnard, our trusted HR expert and certified professional in this area. Sean has decades of experience building, leading and managing high-performance teams and was a general manager tasked with generating $250 million in revenue each year for a tremendously-successful and highly-regulated casino. A task he surpassed brilliantly, year after year, until he retired. At his peak, Sean had over 1,600 employees. This is someone we can all learn from.
Sean and I have become close friends over the years. He’s helped me with my own HR challenges and is doing exceptional work for many of my top clients. Recently, we were chatting about culture and human behavior when it became clear, both in the early days of my practice and in the new client coaching process, that too many business leaders think culture is a box they can check off their to-do list. But culture is significantly more involved and complicated than coming up with and printing a list of core values. Culture is not a placard for employees and visitors to pass in the hallway.
Doctors often ask, “How do I create a better culture in my practice?” Simple. You start by identifying the common beliefs, practices and behaviors of your existing team. Often, because we haven’t thoroughly considered the importance of culture, we are a significant part of the problem. Culture is a process you join. It’s a life lived with others. And, critically important, if one wishes to grow and lead high- performing teams, culture is a shared belief that an environment is safe for interpersonal risk. Culture is an environment where people from different walks of life and different generations can bump up against each other. This is not only productive, but also what sustains life in the organization.
I can smell business stagnation from a mile away. When a culture sucks the risk-taking out of every soul in the organization, revenue, profit, employee satisfaction, customer satisfaction, lifetime customer value and referrals drop like an anvil off a very steep cliff. Alternatively, Harvard Business School Professor, Amy Edmondson, shows ample evidence that psychologically safe teams have “higher levels of performance, higher levels of innovation, a greater willingness to speak up, more honesty about the things that go wrong and right.”
So, where should you get started and what did Sean recommend to help this doctor support a stronger, more-resilient and diverse culture with higher performance? First, raise the quality and candor of conversations in the context of getting real work done (e.g., decisions you make and projects you will complete). Do not entertain abstract discussion. Quickly redirect it to getting at the heart of the challenge. Solve problems for and delight your customers, employees, community and shareholders. Second, you must learn and practice the skill of perspective taking and genuinely curious inquiry. Sean is exceptional at both of these skills.
Back to the lesson: Sean says we can’t be so anxious about what to say that we don’t say anything. “People pay attention when leadership speaks,” he advises, “so make sure your conversations invite the kinds of questions, concerns, and ideas that people are otherwise reluctant to share.” This is how you create and sustain a living culture that becomes a competitive advantage in your marketplace.