5 Winning Moves to Create an Enduring Culture

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

— Peter Drucker

Whether deliberate or not, whether you realize it or not, your organization has a culture.

But has your culture evolved by default or by your choosing? Does it contribute to or hinder your prospects for growth? Does it help you attract and retain top talent? Does it define a place you feel fantastic about as an extension of your own personal values?

According to Merriam-Webster.com, culture is defined as “a way of thinking, behaving, or working that exists in a place or organization.” Put another way, your firm’s culture is the aggregation of behavioral norms that are continually reinforced among your staff.

Researchers including Ivan Pavlov and B.F. Skinner long-ago concluded that repetition and association are the elemental ingredients to behavioral conditioning. In Pavlov’s best-known series of studies, dogs were fed after hearing a bell ring. Over time, the dogs associated the bell with food and began salivating upon hearing the bell—even in the absence of food. 

Seen through this lens, it becomes clearer how cultures, whether accidental or deliberate, grow and thrive: Repeated behaviors become associated as accepted or required.

Which behaviors tend to be repeated? Those that leaders model, accept, reward and/or tolerate in themselves and in others. 

If you aspire to build an enduring culture that contributes to the growth and vitality of your firm, you need to ensure that you model, accept, and reward the behaviors you want your employees to demonstrate while at work. You’ll also need to call out, discourage, and not tolerate behaviors that conflict with the attributes of your firm’s culture.

These attributes are most commonly called Core Values.

Although there are plenty of articles about how important it is to cultivate the right culture within your firm, there’s very little out there about exactly “how to” make that happen. In practice, getting culture right involves far more than simply identifying your Core Values!

Here are the five winning moves to create and sustain an enduring, growth-supporting culture.

Focus Internally, Not Externally

“If a brand doesn’t live on the inside, it can’t thrive on the outside.” – Libby Sartain

Culture is an internal affair, yet many business leaders believe that Core Values are marketing assets that reflect on the firm externally. Although these leaders will utilize a process to help them define their Core Values, once defined, they’ll immediately move to plaster them everywhere imaginable, both as a badge of honor validating their effort and as “proof” they have a “sounds good / feels good” culture. Ironically, the weakest, lowest performing cultures I’ve encountered belong to firms that actively promote their values externally! My rule of thumb: When I see Core Values front-and-center on a website, I immediately become skeptical regarding the strength of that firm’s culture.

An internal-only lens, on the other hand, allows leaders to focus on the realities of employee behaviors without simultaneously worrying about what those external to the firm might think. This orientation enables leaders to be more creative, more rigorous, and more true to themselves as they define their Core Values. Another giant advantage of this approach is that it’s more enduring. Because values created with an internal orientation tend to be more authentic, there is a higher probability that the leadership team will do the work required to model and reinforce them over time.

Identify 4-6 Core Values

“Company culture is the backbone of any successful organization.”

– Gary Vaynerchuk

The number of Core Values is an often overlooked, critical structural element to building a sustainable culture.  

Fewer than four values fail to adequately define enough behaviors within the culture, which leaves room for additional, non-defined behaviors to emerge “accidentally” as add-on cultural norms. Think of too few values as a partially defined culture. It’s slightly better than having no values defined, but not nearly as powerful or sustainable as having crystal clear behavioral guidance defining your culture.

At the other extreme, six or more Core Values are too many because the specific behaviors become too challenging to remember! I facilitated a 2-day planning session recently with a new client that had previously defined seven core values. As we opened a conversation about culture, I asked each member of the senior team to write down all seven of their core values. You might see where this is going: The CEO was only able to remember five of them and the team’s range was 3-5! The problem is that when you add an extra core value, you can’t remember any of them as well—not just the extra one.

This leaves us in the happy zone of 4-6 Core Values as necessary and adequate to define your firm’s culture.

Define Observable Behaviors, Not Merely Headlines

“The culture of a company is the sum of the behaviors of all its people.” – Michael Kouly

As we learned from Merriam-Webster, culture is the aggregation of behavioral norms that are continually reinforced over time. 

I’ve adapted and enhanced Jim Collins’ Mission to Mars exercise to help my clients create clear, behaviorally defined Core Values. Here’s an overview of the process I use:

  1. Pretend your firm is sending a handful of employees on a mission to Mars to tell the Martian people what is best and most right about your culture. The problem is that the Martians don’t understand spoken language: they can only interpret observable behavior.
  2. Nominate 4-6 of your employees (none from the leadership team) whose observable behaviors you believe would represent what is best and most right about your firm’s culture to the Martian people.
  3. Think about each of the nominees individually and write down ALL the observable behaviors they exhibit that illustrate why you picked them to represent your firm. Avoid skills, competencies, years of experience, innate attributes like “intelligence,” and anything else that isn’t an observable behavior.
  4. You should now have 4-6 lists of behaviors. Remove the employee names (after all, they’re not really going to Mars) and eliminate obvious duplicate behaviors.
  5. Group similar behaviors together and, as you do, eliminate any that fail any one of the three tests of a Core Value: (1) You should be willing to fire an offender who, over time, won’t or can’t demonstrate the behavior; (2) You should be willing to take a financial hit to uphold a Core Value; and (3) Each Core Value should already be alive within your firm (note: this is the “easiest” test of the three because all the behaviors originated from current employees).
  6. Using a forced choice process to prioritize, agree on the top 4-6 Core Values that emerge from the behavior list. These become the headlines for your core values.
  7. Write 1-2 short sentences that more clearly define the observable behaviors for each of your Core Values.

Here are two sample Core Values that illustrate behavioral clarity:

Own It: We take initiative and are dependable. We assume responsibility for our own contributions, experiences, and impact.

Continuous Improvement: We are committed to getting better every day in everything we do as individuals and as a company.

Lead by Example and Reinforce Behavioral Learning

“Determine what behaviors and beliefs you value as a company, and have everyone live true to them. These behaviors and beliefs should be so essential to your core that you don’t even think of it as a culture.”

– Brittany Forsyth

The most common and damaging culture-building mistake made by well-intentioned leaders is to launch newly defined Core Values to the company before the CEO and executive team have full behavioral integrity with them. 

As a leader, whether you realize it or not, all eyes and ears are on you, all the time! You’re also, as I constantly remind my clients, just as human as everyone else on the planet, which implies that you are imperfect, error-prone, fallible, and likely violate some or all your Core Values regularly without realizing it.

I gently wean new clients into this harsh-sounding reality by encouraging them to self-report their own Core Values violations to one another for 30 days. Their self-awareness soars and, indeed, they realize where and how they themselves violate the very same values they are about to impose on the rest of the firm.

For the next 30 days, I have them give one another permission to provide feedback to each other when they observe non-Core Value or borderline behaviors. This bar-raising activity replaces self-reporting and drives more self-awareness, social pressure (from other members of the executive team), and behavioral integrity with the values.

Yes, that’s a full 60 days of work for you and your senior team to internalize your Core Values! Here’s the reward: You are now prepared to lead by example.

After you’ve launched the Core Values to the firm, I recommend running a fun Core Values Contest for 45-60 days to accelerate behavioral learning among your staff.  Here’s how:

  1. The point of the contest is to reinforce the specific behaviors with each Core Value headline. For example, in the sample value Own It above, “taking initiative” is a specific behavior.
  2. The mechanism of the contest is to have your staff report Core Value Stories where they observe another employee demonstrating a specific Core Value behavior. You’ll need to set up a simple process for stories to be submitted and tracked over time.
  3. Here’s the format for a Core Value story: Name the value, identify the behavior, repeat the value.  For example: “I have a story today about our Core Value of Own It. Yesterday, I saw Mary follow-up three times with our supplier to get more accurate delivery timing. Mary did a great job demonstrating our Core Value of Own It.” Short, behavioral, and to the point!
  4. There are two prizes at the end of the contest: One for the person who tells the most stories about others (the best Core Value observer) and One for the person who has the most stories told about their behaviors (the best example of Core Value behavior). Both prizes work in tandem to help your employees learn and internalize the Core Values!
  5. Along the way, have employees publicly recognize one another and tell their stories during team meetings. You might also create a scoreboard to track the total number of stories told and the number of stories told for each of your Core Values.

Both you and your employees need time and structure to develop behavioral integrity with your newly defined culture. Invest the time, energy, and focus to get this right.

Continually Add Energy to Maintain Your Culture

“Culture is not an initiative. Culture is the enabler of all initiatives.” – Larry Senn

An enduring culture, just like anything else worthwhile, requires ongoing focus and energy to maintain over time. Although there is certainly a cost to this, I’ve found that a small number of low-energy leadership habits more than suffice to reinforce and more deeply root the culture within your firm.

Integrate a Core Value Story into your organization’s Daily Huddle Meetings (read this article for more about meeting rhythms). This ensures that every employee (including you!) will hear at least one of-the-moment Core Value story every day—forever. Unlike the other “rounds” in a Daily Huddle, there’s just one Core Value story told in the huddle daily. Once you update your Daily Huddle agendas to integrate a Core Value story, the process will be in place to automatically reinforce your values daily with every employee.

Update your weekly, monthly, and quarterly meeting agendas to add a topic to the first half of your agenda entitled “Core Values Check In.” This ensures you and your teams have a built-in reminder to check in on the culture regularly over time.  I’ve had clients use this time to diagnose and solve challenges (usually people problems), share good news, and identify next steps they’d like to pursue in the evolution of their culture.

Enhance your hiring process to include Core Value screening. Create 1-3 questions for each value that elicit behavioral answers demonstrating whether candidates exhibit your Core Values. Don’t share your values with them; rather, ask questions designed to see if their past decisions and behaviors align. This way, you’ll not only be hiring staff with the right skills to execute their responsibilities, but also the right values to thrive within your culture! 

Modify employee feedback and review processes to include your Core Values. This is a critical step to continually reinforce Core Value behaviors with staff. Coaching and feedback regarding values behaviors must occur alongside performance-related conversations and be equally weighted for success.


“Corporate culture is the only sustainable competitive advantage that is completely within the control of the entrepreneur. Develop a strong corporate culture first and foremost.” – David Cummings

You are more than capable of building a deliberate, strong, enduring culture within your firm. The key is to recognize the process as one of behavioral change and reinforcement more than anything else.

Along the way, you’ll need to model and reward the behaviors you want your employees to demonstrate while calling out, discouraging, and not tolerating the behaviors you don’t.

By using these five winning moves to create your culture, you’ll make your firm more scalable, attract and retain better fit, higher performing staff, and feel more authentic in your leadership.


Take Action to Learn, Grow, and Improve…

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Upcoming Class: February 7, 2022. Learn more and register!


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