The Only Point of Culture is Driving Success

Written by Jamie Notter on February 26, 2016

Here’s a basic truth: everyone wants a “positive” culture. This is most certainly true if you’re in charge in an association. You want to be able to say that the culture there is good or positive—maybe even cool, fun, or awesome. Right?


I understand the desire to have a positive culture—it’s certainly better than a negative one—but as soon as your focus becomes fixed on how positive your culture is, you will be lost. It’s ironic, but the one thing that will NEVER create a positive culture is TRYING to create a positive culture. It’s like forcing people to have fun (which is an annoying part of a lot of cultures, come to think of it). So instead of focusing on how positive your culture is, focus on how strong it is.

And what makes a culture strong? That one’s easy: a strong culture is one that makes the organization more successful. That sounds obvious, but it’s not put into practice as much as you might think. We associate culture with some kind of positive vibe or an aspirational set of values, and we fail to make the critical connection between what is valued internally and what drives the success of the enterprise.

I worked with a small nonprofit once who identified “we have each other’s backs” as their most important core value. Sounds nice, doesn’t it? Well they didn’t choose it because of the warm and fuzzies—it was strategic. In their operating environment, they were required to constantly maintain a delicate balance between the individuals they were serving (a group of industry specialists serving all over the world) and the large government bureaucracy that employed these specialists. They learned that maintaining that delicate balance was critical to success—and they couldn’t keep that balance if they were constantly looking over their shoulder for colleagues who were complaining or being passive-aggressive in the background. That kind of behavior brought the whole delicately-balanced-system down. So in their culture, if you’re not willing to support your colleagues (even if you disagree with them), then you can’t work there. That’s what a strong culture does—it takes a stand on the kind of behavior that drives real success (and, of course, takes a stand against the behaviors that do the opposite).

So does your association value the specific behaviors that make your organization more successful? Do you even know what those behaviors are? And are they tied to the unique needs of your operating environment, or are they just generically nice behaviors? This is the hard work of culture, folks. You need to get clear on what’s truly valued and be able to make the case that what you value will produce results. And THAT should then drive your talent strategy, including hiring and firing. More on that next week.

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