Culture: a conversation with Leslie Lewis

by | May 31, 2024 | Articles

6 min read

Introducing Leslie

Leslie and I worked together at a bank for several years – Leslie as head of our very effective training department and me as CFO. During those years together, I came to respect and admire her passion for strong culture. So I recently invited her to my office to capture some of her insights on that subject.

Excerpts from our conversation

Eric: “We worked in a place with a strong and distinctive and respected culture. Talk about culture.”

Leslie: “OK, what is culture? Culture really is nothing more than the manifestation of the values of the organization. One of the things that was very unique about where we worked is that they communicated their values, they spoke about their values all the time and they spoke about it in a way that said these are the values that we live. They didn’t say this is the ’culture‘ that we have. Rather, by emphasizing the values, the culture was created, in support of the values.”

“And there has to be a direct correlation to the values that the executive leadership truly believes. It starts at the top – and must be authentic; if they’re just throwing out today’s word or value du jour, people will see that.”

“A lot of people think that values are just fluff, that it’s a ‘nice-to-have.’ But it’s not. Clearly communicating and demonstrating the values of any organization is what aligns people to a common goal and accepted ways in which to accomplish those goals.”

Eric: “My Finance team was within that culture, but we almost had our own Finance subculture within the broader bank culture.”

Leslie: “I believe that: I think every department has kind of their own little micro-environment. They have to, to adjust to where the weight of the strategic goals come into play for them. But the micro-environment can’t contradict the values of the organization as a whole – but should serve to strengthen them.”

Eric: “How do we foster a robust culture in our organizations?”

Leslie: “If you’re trying to develop a strong culture in your bank or your organization, you have to start with what the leadership team values.  Then, your leadership team must model them. If what they DO doesn’t align with what they SAY, it will be evident in the culture and can weaken the organization.  The leaders have to be authentic.”

“Let’s say you aspire for your people to be more innovative: ‘I want them to think out-of-the-box.’ Well, you’re going to have to model that by allowing people to make mistakes, by being open to new ideas. So your values can be aspirational, but again, it has to come from leadership first. People will understand what your real values are by watching their leaders, whether they’re the stated values or not.”

“I think you have to talk about it a lot. I think you have to be very clear about what you value and it has to go all the way through the organization. Your values can be linked and evident in your communications, your policies, your team meetings, even your performance reviews.  You can imagine the leadership opportunity, making sure that your managers are living and rewarding the right behavior and discouraging the wrong behavior – all based on the values of the organization. And training to it. Training to values for your culture is so foreign to most organizations. You can’t just be in the same boat. Your oars have to be going in the same direction in order to make progress. Your values have to be consistent across the footprint of your organization. And if a company really wants to move the needle, lean in to your values and embed them in the communications of your organization.

“I think this is the epitome of good leadership: upholding the values of the organization.”

“Think about it: if you’re in a leadership position, at any level, because you care about your team members you need to be able to say, ‘Hey. Wait a second. That’s actually not the way we treat people in meetings – our values, for example, say we collaborate or we treat each other with respect. We give everybody an opportunity to speak.’ Think how powerful that is. And how it resonates with somebody at that moment, not to call him out in front of a group, but to be unashamed in redirecting the behavior, to say, ‘Hey, hey. Let’s take a pause. We can do it this way and get a better result because of our values.’ It’s OK to have a real conversation, to set the direction where someone has gone off course.”

Eric: “What happens when that culture and those shared values are promoted? When it permeates the organization?”

Leslie: “Everybody’s on the same page. People start to love the organization and believe in the organization because they have direction. They know what the right thing is to do. Because let’s be real, nobody goes to work and says, ‘I just want to mess up everything today; I want to do a terrible job today; that’s what I’m setting out to do.’ Nobody does that. Everybody wants to know what’s expected of them to meet or exceed those expectations. And living the values in your day-to-day work strengthens the culture in your organization and can help everyone be successful.”

Eric: “Talk about stories (anecdotes about how employees demonstrated the values) and their power in helping convey values and culture.”

Leslie: “I love the stories. I love these stories because people can remember them. And I love the stories because you can use them to coach somebody, they are relatable.”

“Stories help get the values across the finish line. At the bank we had people on calls talking about the stories that support the values, and some of the stories were 20 or 30 years old. In all honesty, I think the key is to keep them fresh, to say that we’re still doing this 20-30 years later.”

“The stories demonstrate the values. In the stories, we see you living the values, and that gives me examples of how I can live the values, too; the values are in action.”

Eric: “Why should Finance people care about culture?”

Leslie: “I think every department has an opportunity to help define and strengthen culture and Finance is no different. It’s important to believe that you’re a part of something bigger than just you doing your job. Acknowledge the fact that there’s all these different components that you support, including the people on the frontline, and that you’re there to help frontline be more successful.”

“If you don’t know what the values are, ask.  Ask lots of questions to know what part you can play in helping reach strategic goals – using the values as your compass. Don’t be afraid to question what you’re doing that you’ve done for the last 15 years: ‘Is this still adding value?’ Listen to your internal customers’ stories and think where you can help: ‘I just heard that they’re really monitoring fees and that this person saved the bank this many dollars in fees. How does that relate to all of this information that I have at my fingertips? Can I provide more information or different views of information? Do the values of your organization support you asking questions and going deeper? Don’t just wait for somebody to ask you or tell you what they value because if you’re paying attention, if you’re really listening and you know what the values are and what the frontline does with the information or with the customers, you should be able to come up with a way to make a difference if you ask your own questions.”

Eric: “The way you’re discussing values and culture, it’s clear these are not amorphous, remote abstractions, but rather something tied to the core of what we do as an organization, something at the very heart of why we exist as an organization.”

Leslie: “And that’s what I think makes people the most successful and the most excited about their job: when they realize they are connected to this much bigger thing. Every day you come into the office and you have an opportunity and a role: to help make everything better – everything that you touch, everything that you can imagine. You know what is valued, which helps you become an integral part of the culture. Sometimes your idea is going to get shot down, sometimes you’re going to get deflated, or your leaders aren’t going to want to hear about it right now. But keep asking.”

It’s something to think about

“Keep asking.”

I love that conclusion to our conversation: culture and values are not a one-and-done. Fostering them, strengthening them – it’s a process, not an event. And it definitely involves ongoing conversations up and down and all across the organization.

Thank you, Leslie, for your part in that conversation.

Eric R. Alexander

May 2024


No A.I. was employed in the creation of this content – except in the conversion of the interview recording into a raw transcript document. Quotes were lightly edited (by humans) for flow and clarity.

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