Organizational Effectiveness: CEO as Gardener

I’m not much of a gardener. The only green thumb I’ve ever been accused of having is when I’ve stuck it in pesto. I’ve noticed, however, that my efforts to have my lawn match my wife’s well cared for flowers are only rewarded when I combine the right amounts of enabling and prohibiting—the right conditions to enable fescue and also prohibit the weeds. 

If you run an organization, you might think of your culture as your lawn. 

I’ve run into executives who haven’t given much thought to their culture and that is a big missed opportunity. If you bought a house and yard with no landscaping and just let it evolve, you’ll eventually have ground cover and probably even some trees, but they will not be what you want. If you run an organization and likewise don’t play an active role in managing your culture, you’ll have one, but it won’t be what you want.

Before you try to manage your culture, you have to determine what you desire it to be. As CEO, you’re the landscape architect at this stage. What are the values that you would like to see represented by the behavior in your company? Pick three critical ones, not the boy scout list of all things wonderful.  

If you value performance, efficiency and speed above all else, you’ll have a much different culture than someone who values creativity, collaboration and relationships. The first might be great for a company that has a low-cost provider strategy, the second for a consulting or wealth management firm. Your culture must support your strategy!

Once you’ve identified what kind of culture that you want, you need to enable the right behavior and minimize the wrong behavior. It is much more effective to think of yourself as a gardener at this point rather than a machine operator. 

If you create an environment where your desired values flourish and the undesired behaviors die a natural death, you’ll end up with a more disease resistant culture. I recommend that you spend more time on cultivating the right behavior than nit picking the small variations. Find the heroes and publicly reward them! Put in programs that highlight and foster the right observable behaviors. 

Do you need to use the weed whacker and some Roundup occasionally? Of course. Those who violate your values should be corrected or shown the door. However, a scorched earth environment will not allow anything to grow—lawn or weeds. 

Regardless of how well you enable the right culture, bad behaviors will occur just like weeds in your well-manicured lawn. They always will, and you’ll always have to deal with them so plan for it. Just make sure that you are enabling and growing the good stuff!

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