Thoughts on Leadership: What Makes A Winning Culture?

By Gino Blefari

This week my travels find me in North Carolina, meeting with Tommy Camp, president and CEO of the Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Carolinas Realty family of companies and the Carolinas Realty teams. I’ve written before about how enthusiastic and passionate the Carolinas Realty leadership, staff and agents are – read a story about another memorable trip to North Carolina here – and what really gives the Carolinas Realty family of brokerages its winning edge is a strong, positive culture.

When I think about winning cultures, one prominent name comes to mind: Mike Vance, a pioneer in the field of corporate culture and creative thinking. I had the opportunity to meet Vance on a few occasions because of his close friendship to Mike Ferry, and each time I felt inspired by his creativity.

The motivational speaker, who passed in 2013, was credited with popularizing the phrase “think outside the box.” Vance was the former dean of Disney University and developed staff and training programs to help Disney leadership and staff members thrive. After Disney, Vance co-founded the Creative Thinking Association of America, and worked with clients like AT&T, General Electric, Motorola, Johnson & Johnson and Coca-Cola to cultivate an atmosphere of inspiration, creativity and collaboration.

But what exactly did Vance believe should go into a culture that brings about sustainable success for the organization while also producing highly motivated employees?

Well, it began for him with a singular definition of the term “motivation.” He defined it as “a byproduct of meaningful encounters with the exigencies of life.” Vance explained when a team is unmotivated, its culture is lacking in the inspirational fervor necessary for growth and success. Further, an unmotivated team is never actually a motivational problem but a leadership problem.

“The leadership problem,” he added, “is that you have to create the desire in others to want what it is you’ve got and not give it to them, then teach them how to get it.”

Vance explained that most leaders create off the desire in others, instead of instilling their own desires in the employees they lead. If you can somehow make your employees care and show them how to care, they’ll take ownership in your challenges and triumphs because really, they are now one and the same with their own. It’s this alignment of leadership and team-member goals that creates a winning culture.

In a 2013 article published by the Harvard Business Review, researchers analyzed the cultures at several high-performing organizations and highlighted seven key performance attributes they displayed. The attributes identified were:

  1. Honest. From staff members to leadership, every person in the organization operated with the utmost honesty and transparency. This honesty affected all interactions – with clients, vendors, customers – and created an open and straightforward environment.
  2. Performance-focused. Often these high-performing organizations had rewards for employees, encouraged personal and professional development through training and coaching, and allowed talented, motivated employees clear paths to excel.
  3. Accountable. All team members were held accountable for their actions and accountability was equally distributed as a mechanism for top performance.
  4. Collaborative. These organizations recognized that idea-sharing often produced some of the best initiatives for the company. Leadership always found ways to foster an easy exchange of ideas between all levels of the organization. Beyond management, collaboration was also created through careful office design. Famously, when Steve Jobs was designing the Pixar Animation Studios campus in Emeryville, Calif., he created a great central atrium space that acted as the campus’ central hub. Jobs believed in using design to encourage people to get out of their offices and mingle; the Pixar atrium, with its inviting high ceilings and comfortable seating throughout, provided ample space and opportunity for team members to meet and collaborate.
  5. Agile and adaptive. When necessary, the organizations made quick changes, adjusting to outside challenges with the nimbleness of a much smaller business.
  6. Innovative. Employees, in classic Vance style, were encouraged to think outside of the box, arriving at non-traditional solutions to challenges and complications. As Vance, who believed creativity produces productivity, once said, “Innovation is the creation of the new, or the re-arranging of the old in a new way.”
  7. Oriented toward winning. In this case, “winning” was defined by measurable milestones. Each high-performing organization had processes in place to measure success at every level. Remember, when performance is measured, performance improves. When performance is measured and reported back, the rate of improvement accelerates.

So, what’s the message? Creating a winning culture doesn’t happen in a day. It takes strong leadership to steer an organization’s ship in the direction of a great culture, fighting against the winds of complacency, battling against the swell of bad habits and ultimately, arriving at a place where as a leader, you not only create a positive, winning culture but also motivate your team members to instill that culture in others. As Vance explained, “Success and all good things in life start with a genuine concern for others.”

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