Culture Carriers Reveal an Organization’s Best Self, Inside and Out
The people who really put your company’s values into practice, from those working the front desk to those in the corner office, model behavior for others to follow and drive culture change. They embody the traditions, heritage and values that come to define an organization.
With an over-sized ability to influence those around them, it’s critical that you learn to recognize, spotlight and reward these “culture carriers” and support them in driving the kind of environment you want to nurture. Similarly, you need to ensure that you are the most effective culture carrier you can be in your own company, or as a leader advancing in your career and growing your impact.
People as cultural “artifacts”
When you think of an “artifact,” you might imagine something like old shards of pottery, coins or tools archaeologists unearth and use to piece together the history of an ancient civilization. But anything that conveys information about a particular culture can be considered an artifact, including people who serve as carriers of culture in much the same way that artwork, household items or clothing used by previous generations tell us about how they lived and what they valued.
Culture carriers “personify the company’s vision, goals and strategic objectives,” according to Adam Bandelli, Ph.D, a former partner at Korn Ferry and founder of Bandelli & Associates, a multicultural consulting firm. Human culture carriers have a sense of ownership that strengthens their commitment to the team or organization and are able to adapt to changes in the external environment to rise to unforeseen challenges, Bandelli says.
How to develop culture carriers
Team members who embody an organization’s culture are intimately aware of the organization’s values, have a clear understanding of what the company does and can easily articulate the value their work brings to others. Leaders must build these skills and become effective ambassadors for their organizations to advance. They must also learn to spot these traits in others, nurture their development, and promote those who effectively carry desired culture forward. Here are several ways you can both identify and nurture key manifestations of culture to further embed them in your team and organization.
- Use stories to emphasize values. Everything you say and do becomes part of a story that reveals your personal ideals and points to organizational values. But what you emphasize and repeat provides much of the content for those all-important stories. As a leader, do you emphasize how someone beat everyone else out to achieve top sales numbers? Or do you retell stories about how someone saved the day by staying late to help a colleague faced with an unexpected challenge against a tight deadline? What you talk about, the stories you repeat and who you celebrate as the heroes of those stories speaks volumes about what you value. Use them in intentional ways to highlight desired culture in action.
- Put physical artifacts to work. The way workspaces are organized, how people dress, office décor and signage, awards programs and even SWAG (all those logo-imprinted marketing items) all help to reinforce or conflict with the culture you want to create. If you say all voices are valued and need to be heard but relegate most team members to back offices where they are rarely seen (or heard), people will spot the disconnect. If company rhetoric is all about teamwork but bonuses are given only for individual performance, people will believe actions over words. Try visiting your workplace as an explorer to a new land and look for physical manifestations of culture and how consistent those messages are with the ones you want to send.
- Support cultural fit. Sometimes, the idea of cultural fit can be shorthand for simply hiring and promoting people who feel familiar to you which can lead to dangerous biases and marginalizing historically underrepresented people, which can undermine workplace inclusion. But having a strong understanding of organizational values can help you more objectively determine which team members exemplify those traits. For those who are aligned with company values and culture, it is natural to become a culture carrier. And they tend to develop close working relationships with other culture carriers. But for employees who don’t feel or reflect that fit, efforts must be made to help them engage more deeply and authentically or, when indicated, seek new opportunities.
Leaders exist at every level of an organization and one way that their influence is revealed is in how they embody and reflect organization culture. You can identify these folks by their deep organizational knowledge, active support of others up and down the organization, and by how others gravitate to them. If that describes you, you’re on the right path and, if that describes someone who reports to you, cultivate them and help them advance.