Staff Culture: More Than Just a Trend

Written by Sarah Sladek on December 10, 2018

Culture has become a hot topic as of late. It affects our workplaces and, in associations, it affects our membership. We have experienced a culture shift. When I was researching my book Talent Generation, one of the main conclusions I came to was that we have been operating for quite some time according to a 20th century mindset: this idea of hierarchy and structures and processes and people keeping jobs only because they need the work. Now we’re shifting into this 21st century mindset - a little bit behind the curve, but we are catching up.

In this century, people want purpose. They want a job that means something to them. They want an experience. The more we explore what kind of culture matches this desire, the more we realize that culture determines our organization’s success.

In the for-profit world, Google is renowned for having an exceptional workplace culture. Google as a workplace is known not for what it does, but rather for what it stands for. Its principles define its culture, and of course it is one of the most successful companies in the world.

Some readers might be thinking:

“We’re not Google, we are an association. We can’t be innovative and intentional about culture while we’re dealing with things like Capitol Hill and government and hierarchy and bureaucracy.”

Is that really holding associations back from thinking about culture? There’s room for opportunity here and we’re busy making excuses. I have heard associations get into debates about who is ultimately responsible for the culture. Is it the leaders, the members, or someone else entirely? This too can be a form of derailment in the culture conversation.

Research from the corporate world shows that the top 10 percent of companies, ranked in terms of performance and success and employee engagement, have cultures largely driven by leaders. Those leaders demonstrate that they care about the company and set policies and practices in place. They set the tone and then get the team on board with it. In associations, it’s convoluted because we have these tug-of-war power struggles between boards, leaders, staff, volunteers and members.

It’s important that associations rise above this and pay attention to what is establishing their employee culture. Knowing that will influence membership experiences and membership culture, and help you get a handle on changing what needs to be changed.

A millennial wrote a letter to the editor at a national publication a couple of years ago that generated a lot of controversy. She wrote:

“Don’t confuse culture with collateral. Yes I am a cash strapped millennial who appreciates free lunch. But I don’t wake up at 6am everyday to play foosball in the breakroom. I need to be surrounded by people who are on fire for what we’re doing. I need a manager who is motivated to push boundaries and think differently. Working in a cool office is awesome. So is free lunch but a purposeful culture is more important. A culture of purpose drives exponential growth.”

Benefits are often great and meaningful things, but are they enough? What about the purpose of the people I’m working with? Associations have tremendous purpose and they’re doing tremendous work. Capitalizing on that and communicating that effectively is key to attracting passionate staff who will thrive in a strong culture.

Our industry is constantly changing and it’s anybody’s guess what’s going to happen in future. And yet, there are cues that are telling us what we need to aim for. Start by creating a culture of success.

Sarah spoke in the “Creating a Culture of Success” session during SURGE Optimism 2018, an interactive virtual conference hosted by on November 7th-9th. Click here to watch the sessions on demand.