Chris Lorence: Culture eats strategy for breakfast

Leading by Example

By Chris Lorence

Have you ever thought about your community bank’s culture? You know, culture: that intangible, yet incredibly palpable environment that’s created when two or more people are working together, often under one roof. Some have described culture as the social behavior at a workplace that supports or limits harmony and progress.

Whether you are an owner/operator, an owner or a board member, the importance of your organization’s culture should be on par with that of your strategic plan. Given the immense responsibilities that come with operating a bank, including the regulatory burden, is it really that important to focus on what it’s like to work at your community bank?

To be bluntly honest, YES! The organization’s culture is the environment in which your employees will carry out your strategic plan while delivering the service that differentiates your organization from the competition.

Your community bank’s culture is a big component of your brand and is an extension of you. This means it’s critically important that the culture is intentional and positive. Left unchecked or unmanaged, a negative organizational culture can destroy morale and motivation and devolve into broken trust and lackluster collaboration. Many times, negativity thrives just below the surface, so that while all appears to be publicly pleasant, staff members leave or fail to thrive, creating a revolving door of new hires.

Culture can’t be manufactured or contrived. It must genuinely emanate from the top of the organization and be constantly reinforced by those same leaders’ actions. Developing an organizational culture that supports goal achievement and long-term success takes work, intentionality and honest assessment.

While every organizational culture is unique, most have common building blocks from which collaboration, engagement and a strong sense of team are supported and encouraged:

  1. Engaged leaders who are genuinely in touch with the realities of what their staff is experiencing and provide ample opportunity to communicate, motivate and reinforce positive behavior.
  2. Leaders who model the organization’s values help create a social “norm,” which encourages others to follow suit.
  3. Leaders who are responsible and accountable for their own behavior and actions help establish trust and collaboration.
  4. Leaders who acknowledge and embrace both success and failure encourage opportunities to learn from both experiences.

Remember: Cultures are dynamic, shifting, developing and intensifying based on many factors, including some that are outside of the organization’s control. It is for this reason that a community bank’s culture should be intentional, nurtured and regularly assessed. To get started, simply stop, look and listen. Take a good hard look around and ask yourself, is this where I want to work?

Chris Lorence ( is ICBA group executive vice president–member engagement and strategy.