When Linda and I lived in the state of Washington we planted a small orchard of apple and pear trees on our property. About three years after planting I began to notice discoloration on the leaves of the trees. I responded by spraying, dusting, and trimming back the deadened branches. But the problem only grew worse. After a few months, our orchard was now a cluster of sad, drooping twigs.

In desperation, I put a few of the remaining leaves in a zip-lock bag and drove to an organic plant nursery to ask for some advice. Hoping to impress the old timer behind the counter, I described to him all of my valiant efforts to battle the fruit tree plague. He glanced at the leaves for about five seconds. Then, looking at me for much longer, he said, “Well sir, you’ve been working upside down. Everything you’ve been doing is above the ground. But the problem is that your trees have weak roots which makes them susceptible to disease. You’ve gotta feed the roots!”

The old man was right. As soon as I began to work below the ground, amending the soil and fertilizing the roots, the trees bounced back. They thrived.

It strikes me that this is not just a lesson in arboring. For me, it’s also a lesson in how leaders build strong cultures. In this case, it’s easy to get caught up in what can be seen “above the ground” like financial performance and customer demands. Making it easy to neglect the “roots”, that which is invisible to the eye but essential to running a thriving organization. I’m referring, of course, to the way core values are expressed in your organization’s culture.

Here are three ways you can feed the “roots” or core values of your culture:

Fix policies and systems that contradict core values. Identify the values that define your organization and make sure your policies, practices, and systems support those values. For example, if you decide that trust is a core value and your personnel policies don’t entrust people to do the right thing, that’s a disconnect that needs to be fixed.

Ask people for their stories. Take time to engage the people around you and ask them about the ways in which they experience the core values of your organization. Ask questions like: “Tell me about a time when you were particularly proud to be working here.” Or “Tell me a story about what it means to do ‘the right thing’ here.”

Shine a light on values in action. When you see or learn about people acting in ways that exemplify the core values of your organization, share those stories and illuminate those people as everyday heroes. And don’t necessarily focus on big, dramatic moments. It’s easy to walk past or take for granted the small ways in which people are living organizational values each day.

The old man at the plant nursery offered some wisdom that speaks directly to what leaders must do — stop focusing so much on what can be seen (e.g., what’s above the ground) and take courage to understand and nurture the more inscrutable roots of your organization.

How are you feeding the roots- the core values- of your organization’s culture?

Photo Credit: QUOI Media Group

Share This