Guest Post: How to Build a Great Culture from Top to Bottom: Leading By Example


by William Vanderbloemen

When I started thinking seriously about what I wanted our organizational culture to look like at Vanderbloemen, I realized it had to start from the top. Every organization I have studied that has a great culture has a leader living that culture who is totally committed to it. A little over a year ago, I started doing research for my book Culture Wins: The Roadmap to an Irresistible Workplace. I interviewed as many leaders of award-winning workplaces that I could get on the phone. They varied greatly from ministry leaders to leaders of tech start-ups, but the one thing they all had in common was that these leaders ask themselves regularly, “What am I doing to maintain a healthy culture?” I am always looking to see how our culture is being lived out in small ways at Vanderbloemen, but I have learned that it is up to me to make sure that I am challenging myself to live out our culture with intention. It is up to me, the leader of an organization, to set the tone for the rest of the team. 

If you are the team leader, ask yourself the hard question: Am I leading by example? When you lead by example, it is noticeable to your team. It increases loyalty, and team members jump in to go above and beyond your expectations for their performance or their attitudes at work. As you lead by example, you will notice that your team members become more passionate and committed to the work they are doing. That is another outcome I have found about leading by example: when you lead by example, you attract people to your organization who are a great match for the culture you are building. I am not saying every employee should be exactly alike.

In fact, every employee we hire takes a personality assessment and a communication style test. We train each employee to understand the results of the assessments so that we can celebrate the different characteristics each person brings to the team. Becoming more self-aware through these tools allows us to work together  collaboratively. However, no matter how different we are, each new hire has one thing in common: they are connected to our mission, are passionate about the way we are doing it, and are drawn to our team.

So how do you build a winning culture from top to bottom? Lots of intentionality and hard work.

1. Begin setting culture in the interview and hiring stage of the employee lifecycle.

Start by committing to building and being part of a team that embraces what you’re trying to
accomplish and how you’re going to get there. You can never over communicate your organizational values and mission, especially in the hiring process. If you are clearly communicating your values and mission throughout the hiring process, then you are more likely to hire people that align with your values and mission.

2. Designate a “Culture Whip” on staff to own the culture-building process.

Your Culture Whip should be someone on staff who is an excellent example of your organization’s values and mission. It is part of their paid role on staff to drive culture through the organization. Our Culture Whip spends 30-40% of her job on culture-building. She manages our culture calendar and culture budget. You aren’t serious about culture until you have invested personnel time and money into making it a priority, and that investment has to come from the senior leader.

3. Drive culture through the daily, monthly, and annual rhythms of the team.

Once you have a Culture Whip, empower them to be intentional about infusing your staff values through the regular rhythms of your team. This might include sending weekly articles to the team that align with your cultural values. For example, one of our company values is ridiculous  responsiveness, so our Culture Whip might send an article to the team with interesting facts about how getting back to customers in a timely manner helps drive customer satisfaction. This also includes planning regular culture events that drive back to your staff values. A couple years ago, a few of our departments decided to try an escape room, which is where your team is locked in a room built around a mystery and has to work together to solve the clues to unlock the door within a certain timeframe. People may think events like going to an escape room are just for fun, but they’re not about the specific event; they’re about the intent. For us, it’s about our value of solution-side living. In the escape room, our teams are working together to find solutions to problems they’ve never seen before, which makes them better at their jobs. Culture events are about driving values and culture through the organization. Intention is everything. 

These are just three steps to beginning the process of building a healthy culture from the top down. When these steps begin to be put into place, you’ll see your culture begin to spread like wildfire through your entire organization.

Culture starts - but doesn’t end - with you as the leader.

William Vanderbloemen is the founder & CEO of Vanderbloemen Search Group, an executive search firm that helps churches and ministries build great teams and build winning cultures. The following article is adapted from his book Culture Wins: The Roadmap to an Irresistible Workplace.