As a leader, your success will rise and fall on the power of the team that you build. It’s not about how smart or charismatic you are. It’s not about how well you can articulate a vision.

Great leaders build great teams.

So as a leader, your top priority must be to create a culture that allows your team to thrive. The best of today’s young leaders are looking for places where their voice can be heard, where their work has meaning and where their creativity can be maximized.

Does that describe the environment you’re building?

If you can’t build that kind of culture…if the show is about you…the leaders you need the most won’t stay with you.

The Culture You Want vs. The Culture You Create:

Creating a thriving team culture is a constant process. Every leadership team starts off with a set of core principles that they hope will become the culture of their organization. Ideas like:

 “Communication is key, no matter what your position.”

 “When is comes to creative inspiration, job titles and hierarchy are meaningless.”

The real challenge, though, comes in doing the work to make sure that those ideas are actually what’s happening on a daily basis – for everyone that works with you. This is where the battle between the culture you want and the culture that you create takes place.

Are the principles in the company creed actually a part of the daily DNA of your organization, or are they just words on a page?  

It’s your ability to maintain your organizational culture that sets you apart as a leader. It’s not an easy task –  even for the most successful organizations.

I just started reading the book, Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull, president of Pixar Studios. In the book, Ed shares a variety of lessons he’s learned while trying to build a strong creative culture at Pixar. There was one story in particular that showed just how hard this is, even for the most successful leaders.

The story was about a table.

In the main conference room at Pixar studios, their decorator placed a long beautiful table –  like something you would see in the queen’s formal dining room.

The table was exquisite, but it was also deadly.

The Pixar team met for years around this table planning out their movies. The problem was that the table was so long that it made it impossible to hear everyone. Because it was difficult to hear, the main leadership team and top directors sat in the middle so that they could hear the rest of the team. They even went so far as to put place settings out to save the top leader’s spots, as if they were sitting at a formal dinner.

You can see where this is going, right?

The table and the seating rules created a hierarchy in the team that said, “the most important people sit next to the leaders.”   If you were on the end of the table, or even worse, in a chair off to the side, it felt like an intrusion to speak up. Even worse, the rest of the team just assumed that because the seats had been pre-assigned, the leadership team wanted the hierarchy.  So they never spoke up.

Now, the company values I listed earlier are directly from Ed Catmull’s playbook for Pixar:

“Communication is key, no matter what your position.”

“When is comes to creative inspiration, job titles and hierarchy are meaningless.”

This is what they told employees.

This is the culture they believed they were building.

Yet, they met around that conference table year after year, hindering communication and building the very hierarchy they wanted to avoid. It wasn’t until circumstances forced them to meet in another room that they recognized the problem.

By chance, they met in a room with a square table, where they could look people in the eye and hear their ideas. Immediately, they noticed a difference in team dynamics and they recognized how their meeting structure had been hindering the team.

Needless to say, they got rid of the table. But even then, it took work to get rid of the culture that developed.

How does something like this happen? Why were they blind to what was happening?

Beware Of Small Conveniences

According to Catmull it was because “the seating arrangements and place cards were designed for the convenience of the leaders, including me. Sincerely believing that we were in an inclusive meeting, we saw nothing amiss because we didn’t feel excluded.”

This is such an important point: The things that bring us the greatest convenience, may be the very things that are killing the culture we most want to build.

Take a moment and think about your current environment.

  • What systems make things convenient for you? How do they affect everyone else?
  • Are there structures in place, meant to show honor, that are actually undermining the culture you want to build?
  • Are there simple things (like a table) that are creating dynamics you don’t want in your meetings or team structure?

The answers to these questions might surprise you.

Final Takeaways

Here are a few final takeaways that I got from the story:

  •  Even with the best of intentions, leaders can get in the way of the creativity of their organizations.
  •  We must be careful to not allow personal convenience to hinder the flow of our team.
  •  Simple decisions can have a huge ripple effect on the creative culture of a team.
  •  Just because you don’t feel excluded, doesn’t mean that your team doesn’t feel that way. Your vantage point can blind you to what’s really happening. Try to look at team dynamics from their perspective.
  • Organizational culture is always evolving. It’s not about what’s written in the handbook. It’s about what happens every day.
  • Whether you’re leading a company, an office or your own home, you set the tone that creates the culture.  People play by your rules, both spoken and unspoken.

How about you:

What do you do to keep pulse on your organizational culture?  What do you do to make sure you bring out the best in your team?