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A company or office’s culture will always be an extension of the leader’s authentic self. This means, first and foremost, that it can’t be faked. Your genuine beliefs, motives and character will form the basis of your company culture.
It also means culture will always be more influenced by actions than words. Leaders always lead by example — whether they want to or not. We all know “do as I say, not as I do” does not work, and that’s particularly true when it comes to culture.
This means that efforts by leaders to pretend to be something they aren’t or to believe something they don’t will, in all cases, distort the culture. The culture the “pretender” creates will be a limiting force rather than an elevating force for everyone on the team.
Conversely, leaders who are authentic and transparent, and who practice what they preach, will generate healthy cultures. When they are also careful, mindful and deliberate about their company or office culture, they can make cultures within which their people will perform far better than they would anywhere else.
Think of your office’s culture as a magnification of your beliefs and motives. If you are fundamentally motivated by self interest, you can talk about mutual sacrifice until you’re blue in the face, and the culture you generate will still be a selfish one. Your people will tend to look out for themselves first, trust will be attenuated, and eventually, the culture will be more or less toxic.
However, if you are more dedicated to the well-being of those around you than to your own interests, your people will know this in their bones, even if you never say a word about it — and your culture will be generous and team-spirited.
Your people will look out for one another (and for you), and one day, you will look behind you and see an army following you, wherever you want to lead them. If you want a healthy and productive culture, first be true to yourself.
What is organizational culture?
Culture happens between people, not inside them. So, organizational culture is mostly about how the people on the team relate to one another, how they communicate and what they mutually believe in and value.
As a practical, day-to-day matter, it often boils down to how your people regard and treat one another.
There is a starting point to creating a vibrant, healthy culture here. Since the organizational culture will be a reflection of your character, beliefs and actions as a leader, and since so much of culture boils down to how people in the organization regard and treat one another, then begin with exemplary treatment of and appreciation for everyone on your team.
This goes far beyond a pat on the back here and there. For a terrific culture to develop and thrive, everyone must know the leader has their backs, all day long.
They must believe you will do what’s best for them, even if it carries a cost for you. They have to know you will fall on the swords and jump on the grenades. “Bosses” may come first, but “leaders” put everyone else first.
As a truth, this is simple. However, as a practice, it often proves much harder than expected. We all harbor so many competing imperatives, many of them selfish (especially in the workplace). And it can be challenging for us to extend to others the degree of trust required to truly put their interests before ours.
The truth is, in the short term, the more selfish path — looking out for No. 1 — may bring the greater rewards. And in the short term, the unselfish leader can get burned.
But in the long run, the reality of your actions and substance as a person will shape the whole environment. If the sum of those actions and substance are fundamentally self-interested, the culture will be stunted and untrusting.
On the other hand, if you make the success and well-being of your people the main objective (and not just merely in words but also in action) through thick and thin, you’ll foster a genuinely exceptional work environment.
In other words, organizational culture is fundamentally relational.
Why is culture important?
Your company culture will determine who you attract to join the team. It will determine your people’s happiness and productivity. It will determine your growth potential.
It will affect your agent’s sales and income. It will affect your bottom line. It will affect your fulfillment and success as a leader, which will profoundly affect how many people you get a chance to help and inspire, and how well you will do so.
It will define how your organization is viewed by the people who are part of it and by the people outside of it. It will define the quality of your creative powers as a leader. In the end, it will define more than anything else your effectiveness and worthiness as a leader: it will be the ultimate measure of your success.
Here is the simplest way I know to say it: Everything is downstream of culture.
Vision, planning, recruiting, retention, training and support, recognition, excellence in service, what you’re having for lunch — you name it, culture comes first. Or as Peter Drucker said: Culture eats strategy for breakfast.
How is culture created?
The implications of all this for leaders are immense. Leaders have to determine which of their own values and beliefs they want and need the team to share, if their vision is to be realized. Which values will contribute to the cause, and which are detrimental?
Leaders then must conduct themselves in ways that are at all times consistent with those values. This circles us right back to authenticity. Notice we refer to “conduct,” not talk. No leader will ever be able to conceal their real beliefs and values through words; their actions will always speak the truth.
Self-awareness and self-inventory are the starting point. Who are you? What are your signal strengths, and how can those strengths also be weaknesses? What to you is the ideal culture? How much of that are you capable of creating? Which beliefs, strengths of character and talents best lend themselves to generating such a culture, and how can you best deploy them?
Next, remember that culture is communicable — each new person that joins the team will absorb the culture (for good or ill!). So nurturing a desirable culture first means choosing the right people. Who will best fit into — and embody — your desired culture? Who are “your” people, and what makes them your people?
We all know what an office “cancer” is, and how certain people can degrade the culture and environment for the people around them. There is never enough money someone can bring in the door, that makes it worth allowing them to impede the development of your desired work environment. Let those people go. You’ll generate far more revenue curating an unparalleled culture than you ever will coddling misfits.
With staff members, let them show how they can contribute to a superb culture. Don’t try to force square pegs into round holes. Everyone has different gifts of personality they can bring that will contribute to the culture you desire. Nurture and reward those things, and paint a very clear picture of how and why they are part of the mission.
Finally, as with all aspects of leadership, you must maintain and adhere conscientiously to your vision. It can take years to create a first-rate business culture with an unshakable foundation. Keep your eyes on the prize.
You are the culture
Even a robust organizational culture will have vulnerabilities. Remember that your weaknesses will be woven into the culture, just as your strengths are.
Remain self-aware, play to your strengths, and emphasize and communicate the elements of yourself that best contribute to the workplace culture you desire, be fiercely consistent, and commit to a sustained vision.
The strongest influence on an organization’s culture will unquestionably be the leader’s motives, intent, character, style, personality and passion. Never forget for even a moment that if you are the leader, then you are the culture.
Brian Walker is senior vice president for Highgarden Real Estate. He’s been in the business since 1995, and resides with his wife and daughter in Carmel, Indiana.