After this lesson, you should be able to:

1. Explain the key traits of a great culture
2. Differentiate between a Culture by Design and Culture by Default
3. Explain the elements of a Culture by Design
4. Describe the benefits of leading through learning

The task below will be automatically checked off once you complete taking the quiz.


Culture is the vehicle to an organization’s transformation and its continual evolution. Culture is the constant that transcends change in strategy, environment and everything else. Designing a culture that spans all layers of an organization demands more than trends and rhetoric. Association cultures should be inspired by and modeled after the people and things we strive to be or achieve ourselves:


Smart – Funny – Creative – Expressive – Helpful – Beautiful – Hopeful – Ambitious


A good culture is not rigid or polarizing. It should clarify your organization’s view and purpose and expand its capabilities. It tells your story, by providing context and nuance to the organization’s identity. That story is how everyone involved relates their own culture and purpose in the world to the organization’s culture.

Culture must be understood to encompass your internal behaviors along with the way you operate and are seen in public. Members, and even people outside your membership demographic, need to align with the cultural ideology you put in place, or you will have a mismatch in setting priorities and finding a good operational rhythm.



Key Traits of a Great Culture

  • Inspired by the world outside the organization
  • Mutually beneficial to both the organization and those it interacts with and serves
  • Everyone connected to the organization knows its Core Purpose
  • Internal staff and your external audience (i.e., current members and the public as a whole) understand the organization’s set of Core Values

With a strong culture is rooted in purpose and aligned through values, you can remove many of the micromanaging details often found in policies, and rely on the day-to-day ingenuity that resides in your team’s collective mind, but often remains locked up.

Extensive policies and procedures aim to standardize and reduce risk and ultimately stifle thinking and innovation.

The more apt an association is at giving meaning to its workplace, purpose, culture, and policies, the more creative, informed, empowered and satisfied its people will be.

Organizations require a more flexible framework to allow for better collaboration and support, while staff and leaders alike will take on a more diverse set of functions.

It takes intensive planning, patience and a genuinely bought-in leadership fully competent of and committed to the importance of culture before an organization can reap the benefits of a healthy culture — innovation, teamwork, brand/staff loyalty and streamlined operations among them.

It should serve and inspire people to do better work. By offering access to the organization’s lifeblood that fuels its work, a healthy culture is the center of gravity for everything your organization does, so long as you know how to talk about culture correctly and motivate your people to carry it out for the long term.


Avoiding a faux culture, which is ultimately useless at best and harmful at worst, requires a Culture by Design. An intentional, thoughtful culture depends upon a thriving, autonomous, scalable and competitive environment rooted in purpose and guided by values. It’s also only as good as one’s ability to recruit supporters and contributors to it.


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Simpler is better when sharing ideological concepts. The actual mission of the association might be deeply meaningful, but when expressed in a convoluted or clichéd way, it becomes that boring plaque on the wall of the boardroom rather than a living part of the organization’s culture. Such a misstep occurs when the organization forgets who it is somewhere along the way, and attempts to cover its lack of conviction with a kind of bandage — a generic and unconvincing purpose.

To deliver thoughts around culture and its benefits convincingly, leaders must find ways to simplify the concepts and make them relatable to everyone both inside and outside the organization.

When we present culture as a choice and as something that lives, breathes, grows — and thus capable of dying — the idea of culture sustaining lasting change sounds counter-intuitive to a lot of people. But when we talk about how it forms a legacy (creates a model that others can learn from, contribute to and be immensely motivated by) culture takes on the image of something capable of transcendence, something that will continue to add value and strength to both the organization and the people connected to it, or its mission, indefinitely.


Encouraging a Learning Culture

We know if we’re not trying to learn something new, we are failing the organizations we lead.


Establishing a learning program that the leader is actively and visibly a part of is the best way to set a tone that inspires a collegial type of culture in which everyone can find their best assets and help grow the organization.

Leaders and people in general, who don’t want to learn have a fixed mindset (fixed mindsets are terrible for growth) and cripple not only the leader’s power to invoke progress but also the entire organization’s opportunities for finding a better way. It comes down to cohesion, a pivotal component of all great cultures.

You might say a team that learns together, stays together.

When leaders foster an environment of learning, they enable their team to take an active part in the organization’s development. By allowing everyone to contribute new ideas, strategies, and tools, you provide more chances for a problem to get solved.

By listening and leading with questions instead of answers, leaders can spot new opportunities more readily. Leaders need to be examples of growth by constantly learning and sharing with their team what they have learned.  It may not be possible to give a fair testing period to everyone’s ideas, but a leader who is receptive to the input of others creates an atmosphere that encourages people to contribute as much as they can to their work.

When you establish a learning culture, you’re giving everyone a chance to work at their maximum potential. You’re saying that while a person might work at a low level within the organization, they could be really strong in a particular topic and should be able to come forward and teach everyone else something new about it. The key here is generating the most diverse set of ideas.


Diversity of thought doesn’t come if you have the same people talking and making decisions all the time. You need a wide variety of people thinking and sharing — and have a culture to support it.


This extends beyond your staff. Associations have the amazing advantage of being able to mobilize volunteer workforces to support initiatives in committees and task forces.

For an association to have a thriving culture of learning, the approach described here has to extend beyond your physical office to include volunteers, members and even those outside your membership circle. You don’t get that in an environment unless the leader is emanating an open, receptive and learning-centric tone.


When organizations grow, their focus often broadens. Your consumer base, client/member profile, staff, policies and the markets that impact them, all widen and change as a result of outstanding organizational growth.

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Techniques to Avoid “Hero Worship” Ego


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When people believe in their leaders and have the right guidance from them, they rally around them and work beyond the call of duty to push the organization forward in whatever way they can. That’s the mark of a strong culture, one that allows the leadership to focus on the horizon knowing they have a team behind them willing and able to take them wherever they want to go.



Activities to apply this lesson’s concepts


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See if you understand the concepts by completing the quiz. Click Benefits of a Healthy Organizational Culture Quiz to begin.

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