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Is Your Leadership Obstructing Profitable Nonprofit Culture?

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Published August 6, 2014 Reading Time: 5 minutes

Culture. You’ve probably seen the topic crop up all over the Internet by now, but don’t take it as just a trendy buzzword. No matter your size, budget, or mission, a strong culture provides the framework for your nonprofit’s values, strategy, and business model. If your organization is a vehicle, your culture is its engine.

Previously, we’ve talked about the importance of defining your organization’s culture this year. We’ve also brought to light how creating a distinctive for-impact culture achieves remarkable results. So how is a culture so effectively established? In all cases, the greatest influencer of a culture’s direction and growth is leadership.

Being a Team Player

As leaders, investing in your culture directly affects your organization’s efficiency and productivity. For one, leaders drive the team spirit that determines how staff will engage with its work. Even if your team members are naturally talented and innovative, they will only be able to tap into as much of their potential as leadership allows them to.

Let’s look at a for-profit example. Zappos, the online retailer famously driven by its happiness culture, knows that leadership is responsible for creating a positive culture that enables a team’s success. In fact, their core values include it as part of management’s job description:

“We believe that in general, the best ideas and decisions are made from the bottom up, meaning by those on the front lines that are closest to the issues and/or the customers. The role of a manager is to remove obstacles and enable his/her direct reports to succeed. This means the best leaders are servant-leaders. They serve those they lead.

So what does this have to do with nonprofit culture? When you lead by example and are both a team follower as well as a team leader, you demonstrate – firsthand – your organization’s value for initiative, collaboration, and positive team spirit. Your staff will be encouraged to take initiative when challenges arise, so that the team and its mission can succeed.

A synergetic atmosphere will begin to develop. Your trust and belief in your team will encourage them to trust and believe in each other. This culture makes people feel supported and inspired to take risks, and thus, solve difficult problems.

So ask yourself:

  • How do you empower your staff to succeed?
  • How do you encourage people to take ownership and initiative?
  • How are you making positive team spirit part of your culture?

You Can Directly Affect Burnout

Of course, there are always two sides to the coin. Just as leadership can foster a vibrant environment for success, it also has the power to create a stressful one.

Let’s consider the idea of “burnout,” a subject that tends to be familiar in the nonprofit industry. Nonprofit professionals often wear many hats and find themselves stretched thin, making burnout seem like a predictable, work-related hazard. But few managers realize that burnout isn’t simply a product of occupational stress.

According to Christina Maslach and fellow pioneering researchers on job burnout, burnout is defined as “a prolonged response to chronic emotional and interpersonal stressors on the job.” It doesn’t just result from having a large workload in a demanding environment; there are a lot of different complex factors and causes. Researchers have found a lack of social support is also strongly linked to burnout, especially a lack of support from supervisors – more so than from coworkers.

All of these factors relate back to organizational culture, and how leadership shapes it. A burnout employee is not always the result of the job itself, but rather the context or environment in which the job is being done. Provide realistic workload expectations, suitable rewards, and a sense of community and support. Strive to maintain a positive environment that motivates, keeps the best talent on your team, and reduces the chance of staff burnout. As a result, people will be able to focus on pursuing their mission.

Upgrading Culture for High-Level Performance

In his influential book, Tribal Leadership, Dave Logan explains how every organization is like a “tribe.” Not all tribes are the same, but what makes the difference in performance is the culture. Effective tribal leaders, then, focus on upgrading the culture. He explains,

If they are successful, the tribe recognizes them as the leaders, giving them top effort, cultlike loyalty, and a track record of success. Divisions and companies run by Tribal Leaders set the standard of performance in their industries, from productivity and profitability to employee retention.

According to Logan, culture has five stages and as leaders upgrade the culture to higher stages the environment produces innovation and utmost efficiency. By focusing their efforts on building optimal culture, nonprofit leaders can attract the highest talent and produce higher ROI. A positive work context inspires new ideas, maximum productivity, less stress, and greater engagement. Employees commit to shared core values and actively seek out leadership. Best of all, people have a blast doing their work.

As a leader, you are responsible for upgrading your organizational culture. You can unify your team around shared core values and interdependent strategies. You have the power to drive out fear and stress in the workplace, and inspire people to reach their full potential.

What Would Happen if You Wrote Your Own Culture Book?

Every year, Zappos creates a new culture book containing employees’ unedited opinions, feelings, and thoughts about their culture. To some, this could seem like a risky move but, more optimistically, it’s a sign of true investment in their culture.
What fascinates me most is that in his book Delivering Happiness, Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh describes how people ask to read the Zappos Culture Book. Not just employees and partners, but customers. Even people who don’t know what Zappos sells want to know about the idea behind the book.

From a nonprofit standpoint, culture can become a channel of communication. When you make strides to creating a solid culture, the word of mouth it generates gives you an opportunity to establish a more meaningful connection with supporters from the start. Being transparent about your internal culture makes it likelier for people to hear about your nonprofit, identify with its core values and come alongside your organization.

On that final note, what would happen if you asked your team members (and community) to share their true thoughts about your culture? Each would have a unique perspective, but would they still sync with each other? Would they communicate your organization’s values and/or mission statement? Would the feedback be something you’d be proud of?

As a leader, creating a context where people feel valued, motivated, and able to take ownership doesn’t simply generate higher ROI from an operational standpoint, it produces a group of passionate people who vouch for your organization, culture, and mission. This all-around return makes culture well worth the investment.


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