Is One Person Bigger Than Your Culture?

In many departments and organizations there is usually one person that is larger than life.  Many times that person is viewed as indispensable, and leaders are left wondering if their organization would be able to still perform without that person.  Building a culture that is bigger than one person is necessary for organizations to succeed on a consistent basis.  The whole has to be better than the sum of its parts.

Is One Person Bigger Than Your Culture?

Recently I found myself standing in front of one of my most important departments telling them that their beloved department head had accepted another position at the largest branch of our organization.  Telling a team that their boss is leaving is usually not very difficult because unfortunately most leaders don’t endear themselves totally to the team.  This case was completely different.  I describe this leader as the heart of my organization, and to the team she was their mom, friend, and confidant.  I tried my hardest to frame her leaving as growth and a great opportunity that she earned, as that is part of our culture here, but it didn’t seem to matter.  The second the shock wore off the tears came out, and the cries of “I am quitting” were coming from everywhere.

As the emotions settled and I started talking to individuals and small groups, and almost unanimously the first sentiment from each group was something along the lines of “Do you know what this will do to me?”  After a couple of these I simply replied back that this isn’t about you, but rather it is a great opportunity that she had earned.  There will be plenty of time to think about you, but today say your congratulations, share your stories, and wish her well.  Several people overheard me, and as the mood changed, I started to get some genuine feedback from the team about why they were upset, and what their expectations were.  

The resulting feedback taught me something about how leaders treat their teams, and gave me a much greater appreciation for the culture we had built.  

  • “Mr. Cano, I left my last 4 jobs because of the managers I worked for.  I thought I died and went to heaven when I got here.  I have only been here three months, but working for her has changed my life.”                                          
  • I had always heard that people don’t leave jobs they leave people.  I absolutely understand this, as I left a very good job because I could not get along with my boss.  It wasn’t so much that he was a bad person, but as so many leaders do, he forgot that his elevated position meant that he had a greater responsibility to the people below him.  His mindset was that he was the boss, he had all of the answers, and anyone with a different opinion was insubordinate.  Leaders often forget that people work for you, not your title.  The harder you work for your team, the harder they will work for you.  Treat them like family, and they will love you for it (assuming you treat them like family you actually like).  
  • “Mr. Cano, please hire someone that will listen.”                                                        

 We have all heard that active listening is an essential tool in a manager’s tool kit.  The process of listening with the intent to understand versus respond, has become one of the first pieces of advice that most managers receive these days.  Just because we receive the information doesn’t mean that we practice what we have been told.  To the contrary many leaders that I meet have a plan that does not allow for deviation as a result of their teams needs, or even worse they don’t care.  People may read this and think that they always listen to their teams, but keep thinking about that the next time one of your team members talks to you while you are checking your phone or typing on the computer.  Sometimes the process of eye contact, non-verbal queues, and simple silence will mean more to your team member than what you have to say in response.                                                                                      

  • “You have always treated us right. I will trust you because you have earned it.  Don’t let me down!”                                                                                                            

This type of a statement not only makes you proud as a leader, but also puts some pressure on you.  Selecting talent is a tricky thing that doesn’t necessarily always work out the way you want it to.  People interview well and have good references, but when it comes to mixing with the team and culture they sometimes fall short.  In this case hiring with the team and culture in mind will be more important than the specific skills they bring to the table.  As many leaders have found, trust is much easier to lose than it is to earn.  It is always enticing to go for the candidate with the most experience, most education, or best references, but the reality is that when you interview you should be trying to find the candidate that fits the best with your team.  Hiring the right leader will further strengthen the trust of the team.                                                                                          

  • “You better teach the new person how we do things around here.”                      

 As an organization it is sometimes tough to determine how successfully your cultural initiatives have penetrated the organization.  In his book You Win In The Locker Room: The 7C’s To Build A Winning Team In Business, Sports, and Life, the co-author Mike Smith (former head coach of the Atlanta Falcons) addressed this by saying: “People often ask me how a leader knows if the message is getting through and I tell them it’s simple: You know that the message was accepted by the team when you hear it being talked about in the locker room, on the practice field, in the cafeteria, the training room and to the media”.  In this case a large number of line level team members all felt the same way.  That the organizational culture is something that cannot change with the loss of their current leader, and introduction of a new one.  Teaching new leaders about the culture instead of focusing on the processes and procedures of their new role will pay dividends with the team they will be leading.  

After all of the conversation I actually left feeling good about how things went.  We may be losing the heart of our property, but it was encouraging to know that the team above all values “how we do things here”, and still recognizes that trust is essential to our culture.  As a leader you have to build something that is bigger than even you.  Your culture will be there through growth, turnover, crisis situations, and great successes.  ​ Ensure that you don’t forget about it with every leader you lose, and every leader you bring on board.

Please feel free to send any comments or questions to  

Thank You,

Chris Cano


JLH Leadership Solutions                                                                                    


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