An unexpected trick to becoming a successful manager

By Russ Levanway, President

In January, when our leadership team picked up the book Under the Hood: Fire Up and Fine-Tune Your Employee Culture by Stan Slap, we had no idea how important it would become later in the year. The book addresses how to keep a team connected and company culture strong. In the midst of COVID, that message has become more critical than ever.

As it stands right now, our employees continue to work mostly remotely, with just a few people in the office. We conduct meetings online, but otherwise, we don’t see much of each other in person. Under normal circumstances, making cultural bonds is deep work with slow (but worthwhile) returns; meeting virtually means we need even more ways to make the same cultural bonds without seeing one another face-to-face. Thankfully, we’d worked hard to develop a healthy company culture before the lockdown. Slap’s book is another tool that’s really helping us. Having invested heavily in healthy company culture — and by continuing to invest in it — we believe we can maintain it without being in the office every day.

As a leadership team, Under the Hood has challenged us to think about culture in a different way. According to Slap, culture isn’t a core value or a set of intentions; it’s an entity. Some parts of culture are rational and can be measured, but many cannot. Think of company culture as a living, breathing person. It’s a complex being, not always predictable. Culture is made up of more than core values or whether a company holds lots of staff parties or encourages hanging out after work. It can’t be summed up simply or pithily.

Slap has some great insights about a manager’s piece of this puzzle. Managers can’t successfully manage people without first nurturing the culture — a subtle but important difference. Slap believes that a powerful tool for any manager on your team is to know the answers to these questions and be prepared to employ that knowledge every day:

  • How to start a fire (get things done) in the culture
  • How to stop a fire (when things are getting done the wrong way)
  • What intensity looks like in the company
  • What humor looks like in the company
  • What sentimentality looks like in the company
  • What the culture expects from its manager
  • What to do if the culture goes over your head to talk about you

There are no wrong or right definitions for each of these concepts, but a definition needs to exist. For example, when we have a critical client incident, we respond by calling a Code Red event and this kicks off a chaotic (but thorough) process where everyone jumps in to help.  It’s culturally accepted that everyone who thinks they might have something to contribute jumps into the fray.  This is not technically how the procedure is supposed to work.  However, this response comes from a sense of high ownership that is embedded in our culture.  A new manager who frowns on this and tries to silo off their people to focus on “their job” might be trying to be efficient but will come into conflict with how the culture gets things done around here.

It’s been fun to think about management in this context. Want to be a successful manager? Stop managing people and start asking what the culture wants. A lot of managers think they need to cajole people into working. A healthy culture creates an intrinsic motivation to do that. This approach is inspirational and aspirational, not authoritarian.

I’d encourage you to pick up a copy of this book because there’s no more relevant time than now to think about your employee culture and how to keep it healthy in these crazy times.