How to figure out an organization's culture?

Few weeks ago, one of my blog's reader asked me if I had suggestions or tips for a new leader in an organization or team. The main question is How to figure out the new organization's (team) culture and values? A person becomes a leader when people start to follow him. This will never happen if the leader has no idea of what the organization is about.

The new leader should become a detective and try to find as much information as possible about the organization's culture and values. He should not be satisfied with reading reports on how things are done. The most important is to connect to the people in the organization. The Leader should have few questions in mind such as: Was the organization successful? Were there many changes in the last few years? What is the internal reputation of the organization?...

My first advice to any new leader is to observe what happens around him and take notes. The new leader should observe the following behaviors and processes (this list is not exhaustive however it should be a good starting point):

  • Observe everything. This may seem overwhelming  but those observations will give you a lot of soft information about the organization.
    • Observe Interactions between colleagues, supervisor and employees during work time and breaks. For example, Do colleagues eat together for lunch?
    • Observe and Question influential people in the organisation and make sure to develop a relationship with them. They may not have senior or high level position in the organization. It could be the secretary that has been working for the organization for years and knows everyone. The article on Social Networking Analysis could help you to understand what could be done. 
    • Observe Processes. How does the organization get the work done? Is it different from what you are used to? Could it be improved thanks to suggestions received?
  • Ask questions: if you do not know something and you cannot figure it out alone: ask questions. People will appreciate to help you especially if you recognize their participation in your learning.  
    • Ask people: what is their work about? How do they do it? and what could be done better? maybe this will highlight dysfunctions in the organization. This allows the new leader to improve efficiency and work life while being praised for listening and taking useful actions. 

All those observations should help the new leader to better understand and grasp the organization's culture and values. My second advice relates to the leader's behavior in the first few months. Remember that the leader leads by example and that his behavior is influenced by his beliefs and habits. So:

  • What are the leader's values, goals, mission, vision? Do they fit with what was observed? if not should the leader adapt himself or try to change the organization?
  • Clear communication.When a new leader arrive people expect change. The New leader should make sure employees know what is his plan. He should be mindful of the communication tool he uses because it has to correspond to the organization' s culture. 
  • People Talk: good and bad news are quickly spread in organizations. The leader should be aware of the influence of what he says, to whom he says it and how he says it. When people have no idea what is going on they use their imagination to fulfill their knowledge's gap. No one wants negative rumors to spread because the communication was not clear or existent.  
  • Create momentum by communicating clearly and by creating partnership with people within the organization. It is important to  make sure that employees can answer the following question: Where are we going? What are our resources? How are we going to achieve our goal?
  • Slow is better than too fast: I advice any new leader to avoid lead major changes before he understands the organization's culture and values. 
I encourage you to read the following article as it gives another perspective on what should a new leader do.

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