Culture Shaping: An Agile Leadership Imperative

Posted June 20, 2022 | Leadership | Amplify
culture shape
In this issue:


Bob Galen asks, “How are you showing up?” It’s one thing to talk about new ways of working and cultural change, but the actions of the leader count. Galen suggests that changing yourself is a more decisive action to enable your people. He asserts that culture shaping happens whether by design or not, so it’s far better for leaders to be aware of this fact and act intentionally.


I’ve long wondered where culture originates. We know it when we see it, and we know it eats strategy for breakfast, but what is culture’s directional source? Is it:

  • A bottom-up thing?

  • A top-down thing?

  • An inside-out thing?

  • Organic or intentional?

Depending on what you read or who you talk to, the answer is … it depends. There’s also an illusion that culture is highly complex and difficult to influence. But from my perspective, the answer is more straightforward.

First, I believe culture mainly depends on leaders and their day-to-day actions. I think leaders play the most significant role in setting the culture by far; I like to refer to this as “culture shaping.”

If you dive deep into the culture at any organization, you’ll discover it mainly reflects the leadership team’s principles, values, and behaviors in the cultural ecosystem.

How does that happen? It happens with their vision, words, actions, expectations, commitments, behaviors, body language, and business goals. It’s a reflection of what they amplify as important, what they choose to not amplify, and what they tolerate.

Second, I believe culture is incredibly simple. Since it aligns with the leaders’ actions, changing it merely requires focus and intent. It’s not about one big change; it happens via myriad small, everyday actions.

Third, the leadership culture-shaping imperative is critical to creating an environment where employees feel empowered, engaged, focused, and valued. Gone are the days when leaders could simply “talk the culture.” Now, if we truly want to lead higher-performance teams, we must “walk the culture.” Particularly in the post-pandemic era where work dynamics, team performance dynamics, and cultural dynamics have become even more challenging for leaders.

Micro Steps

If you’ve watched the TV show Ted Lasso, and I recommend it, you’ve noticed he brings a somewhat annoyingly positive attitude to his Richmond football team as their new coach. When he first arrives at the club, as the first American coach of a British football (soccer) team, the team seems to be a perennial loser. It has disappointed fans, low morale, and very little teamwork. There’s also a star player who dominates everything.

But little by little, Ted’s culture-shaping steps bring about a cultural shift, not only within the team, but across the entire Richmond culture.

Cutter Expert (and co-contributor to this issue) Esther Derby captures this idea of small steps or micro shifts in her powerful book 7 Rules for Positive, Productive Change: Micro Shifts, Macro Results.1 She emphasizes the idea that culture shaping, or organizational change, does not come from broad, all-encompassing efforts. Derby asserts that small, illustrative steps can be much more effective.

I like the notion of micro steps for reshaping culture. As a leader, you simply start changing your behavior, one micro or baby step at a time. Just start moving in a direction that supports the activities and behaviors I mention throughout this article.

For example, tomorrow you might try:

  • Surprising one of your teams by joining the daily Scrum and staying curious by listening.

  • Allowing a team to struggle a bit to figure things out on their own, giving them the space to potentially fail and the ability to grow and learn in the process.

  • Scheduling a mentoring/coaching meeting with one of your leaders and helping that person trust his or her teams more. Or stop pushing so hard for speed over quality.

  • Taking a walkabout in your office with an eye toward acknowledging your teams’ great efforts and looking for every opportunity for personal appreciation.

  • Spending the entire day telling stories individually, in teams, and in groups. Stories that illustrate why folks are focused on a particular task, including why it matters to your business and customers.

  • Changing the focus of your one-on-one coaching sessions to listen more and better serve each employee by providing clear, candid feedback to help expand staff capabilities.

  • Showing vulnerability in a public setting by admit­ting when you don’t know something or asking others for help. This level of vulnerability increases the degree of psychological safety across your culture.

You get the idea, don’t you?

How Are You Showing Up?

Before we go too much further, let’s bring the discus­sion back to the core of culture shaping: you as a leader. Not your external role or title or experience, but what’s inside you. What makes you tick as a leader, and how are you showing up each hour of each day?

Bring Your Whole Self

It starts with bringing your whole self to work. I like the analogy of window shades. When you’re being a “professional,” you only open them slightly. You let folks on the outside see what you want them to see. In other words, you are heavily filtering. But this filtering isn’t one way. Since you’re modeling it externally, people filter back in kind. Consequently, you’re only seeing a small part of those around you.

The first part of bringing your whole self to the work­place is to open the shades. I’m not speaking of opening them fully. You might only do that with your family and best friends. But open them as wide as you can. Show yourself. Bring yourself. See what happens. What might that look like? You might:

  • Show vulnerability. Share your fears and doubts. Share your weaknesses.

  • Share your mistakes and failures. Sure, also speak to your successes, but in a balanced fashion.

  • Share what you’ve learned in your life. Those hard-earned lessons you might not talk about often.

  • Talk about your family, your principles, your personal goals, and your aspirations.

  • Share where you’ve come from. What are your roots or the things that made you the person you are today?

Another action to take: be real and be genuine. Gone are the days when a leader stands apart from everyone else. We must be “all in” within the culture we are shaping and leading by example.

Stay Calm

I’ve been told that one of my superpowers as a leader is staying calm during a storm. Early in my career, I didn’t exhibit this much. I often overreacted or overcorrected in response to intense organizational events. In my defense, most leaders around me were doing the same. I was simply following the culture being shaped.

As I gained decades of leadership experience, I noticed I was much calmer during critical events and emerg­encies. I’d seen most everything before and learned that overreacting always made things worse. So, instead, I remained calm. I continued to believe in my teams’ capabilities and didn’t shift my style or habits when the pressure was on.

What I heard from my team members is this became an anchor for them. The stability became infectious, and we maintained our leadership values, principles, and culture when the proverbial shit was hitting the fan.

I think it’s critical for leaders to show up by staying calm during a storm (any storm). Take a deep breath, close your eyes, and center. Now open them, take a step, stay calm, stay measured, and be the anchor in the storm for your organization.

Stay Present

Nowadays you’ll hear terms and phrases like “being in the moment,” “mindfulness,” and “staying present” as leaders. This is one of the hardest things for me to master personally, as I have a brain that constantly spins. I’m often thinking of 10 things at once as I try to stay ahead of the game. It’s who I am.

It’s not uncommon to have a conversation with me where I’m 40% there and 60% elsewhere. In other words, I’m not really there. Not present for the conversation. Not present enough to notice the subtle nuances of our conversation in tone, body language, and focus.

I used to think that folks didn’t notice it (and they probably didn’t) and convinced myself that 40% was good enough. But I’ve since come to the conclusion that whether they notice or not, it’s a problem. I need to come to every meeting, every conversation, every decision with a clear, focused mind.

I’ve found two things that help. The first is limiting my work in progress (WIP). I have a nasty habit of running at a high WIP rate, and lowering it helps me focus. The second is centering and clearing my mind before each engagement. This means taking five minutes in a quiet space to clear and center my mind and then enter the room/conversation with 100% focus and presence. These might work for you as well. Find what does work to establish and maintain your presence.

Build Relationships

I’ll take a page out of Kim Scott’s book Radical Candor: Become a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity.2 One of the fundamentals in Scott’s model is the “care personally” axis, which she also calls the “give a damn” axis. This is where you’ve established a relationship with someone so they know where you’re coming from. Done right, they understand you care for them, their well-being, their future, and their outcomes.

A big part of this is getting to know folks personally. Who are their significant others, how many children do they have, are any of their parents ill? Try hard to get into the lives of those around you and share your life with them. As an introvert, this is challenging for me, but I always endeavor to stretch myself as much as possible in this area.

Another way to create relationships is to ask for candid feedback. But here’s the trick. It’s not the asking that builds the relationship, it’s how you handle the subsequent listening/gratefulness/processing/action taking that builds trust and the relationship.

Another key to relationship building is what I consider the lost art of mentoring and coaching. Take someone under your wing and spend time teaching him or her what you know. Be a leader who shows up and radiates an honest and open curiosity and caring for the people around you. If you “bring it,” they will respond in kind and connect with you in a relationship.

Become More Self-Aware

Finally, I think a culture shaper who “shows up” needs to be self-aware.

I know, I know. You’re self-aware. I’m self-aware. We’re all self-aware. But the reality is that we’re not!

There’s a wonderful Harvard Business Review article entitled “Working with People Who Aren’t Self-Aware.”3 In it, the author references a survey where 95% of the respondents felt they were self-aware but only 10%-15% were actually self-aware based on 360-degree survey feedback. Independent of the specific numbers, it shows about an 80% gap in self-awareness as a norm. That means eight out of 10 people reading this article show up with a lack of self-awareness. Wow!

It’s important to stay open to feedback and observation, solicit feedback, and relentlessly look for details on how effectively you’re showing up. It’s not enough to think you’re effective — you must confirm that you are!

4 Priorities of Agile Leadership Culture Shaping

Once you’ve internalized the notion of culture shaping and explored your inside-out belief system, you’re in a great position to begin culture shaping organizationally. But I don’t want to leave you there without any con­crete takeaways, so below are four focus areas to help you move forward as a leader. They’re equal in importance and impact when it comes to creating a culture that supports the needs of our post-pandemic employees and organizational dynamics.

1. Create a Safe Space

First, continuously focus on creating an environment that is psychologically safe for everyone. This is inspired by Google’s famous Project Aristotle study, which found that psychological safety was the number one factor in its high-performance team culture.4

And I’ll extend the definition of psychological safety that Google used to the four-quadrant version Timothy Clark amplifies in his book The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety.5 Clark defines the following areas:

  1. Learner safety. It’s safe to ask for help, say I don’t know, take risks, and fail.

  2. Challenger safety. It’s safe to challenge the status quo and staid practices.

  3. Collaborator safety. It’s safe to communicate and engage in constructive debate across all levels of the organization.

  4. Inclusion safety. Titles and positional power don’t matter, all voices are included, and everyone feels as though they’re on the same team.

While you’re bringing your whole self to the workplace, make it psychologically safe for others to do the same. One important way to make it safe is to check your reactions to events. For example, how do you react when someone fails and it impacts one of your projects? Or when someone makes a mistake? Or when someone challenges your approach or strategy?

It’s not only what you say, but what you do and how you behave. Not simply in words, but in your tone and body language. Remember, it’s hard to fake it with people. They typically see through all of it. You must be genuine and authentic in your safety-supporting efforts.

2. Flatten Hierarchies by Encouraging Networks

Nothing is more harmful to your Agile teams than being coerced to stay in their lanes (or silos). You might have heard about the notion of hiring for (or mentoring for) T-shaped skills within your Agile team members. Usually this implies broadening someone’s skills technically. But I want you to encourage “T-shaped-ness” across functions and organizationally.

For example, if you have a front-end developer, why can’t they share ideas with UX designers or work on designs? Why can’t they sit with your customer support engineers and listen in on the problem stream customers are struggling with? Why can’t they emerge to act in leadership roles in their teams independent of their role? And finally, why can’t they walk into your CTO’s office and suggest some great ideas for optimizing customer value delivery?

As an Agile leader, I want you to consider the balance between staying in your lane and being a silo buster when coaching and encourage each individual on your teams. Shape the culture to become flatter and more networked every day.

3. Encourage Experimentation Everywhere

One of the hallmarks of Agile leadership is not getting stuck in your experience. As culture shapers, we want to eliminate the following expressions in our cultures:

  • We tried that and it didn’t work.

  • That won’t work here, because….

  • The auditors won’t allow us to do that.

  • Our customers will never accept or use that.

  • This is too complex of a problem for that to work.

To combat these narrow views, we want to actively encourage experimentation. For example, if you believe the auditors won’t support an improvement idea, ask them to partner with you to run an experiment to see how it unfolds.

That is, the default reaction to any and all of these challenges should be: “I hear you, but let’s run the experiment and see what happens.” Remember, experiments are short, focused, and they sometimes fail. Which is a good thing, because we fail small while gaining insights to try in our next experiments.

4. Relentlessly Connect Your Customer & Teams

One of the things that has been reinforced by the Agile Industrial Complex are various disconnections from the roots of agility.6 The one that concerns me the most is the tendency for organizations to justify or provide excuses for disconnecting their teams from their cus­tomers. Early Agile teams interacted directly with their stakeholders and customers. In fact, the best Agile teams today do the same thing.

Sure, it might be challenging to create these partner­ships due to geography, space, and time, but it’s worth it. It’s not optional — it’s a prerequisite to high-performing Agile teams.

As an Agile leader shaping your culture, you’ll need to relentlessly inspire, cajole, and perhaps even insist your customers collaborate directly with your teams. Why? So that you reduce the feedback loop and gain real communication between the two groups.

There is nothing more motivating to a team than directly seeing the impact their work has on their customers. It’s priceless, and your culture needs to be shaped so it becomes the norm.

Wrapping Up

Culture shaping is your most important action and activity as a leader. But make no mistake: You’re doing it whether you’re aware of it or not. Whether you’re intentional or not.

Why? Because every micro step you take as a leader shapes your culture. The only question is, how are you going to show up as a culture shaper? Will you:

  • Be mindful and intentional?

  • Keep Agile principles and mindset in mind?

  • Take small steps by walking your talk?

  • Focus on culture shaping with an inside-out perspective?

  • Be relentless in your culture-shaping efforts?

The choice is yours. Consider becoming an awesome culture shaper in order to engage, empower, focus, value, and activate the great people you’ve hired. This is particularly important in the new organizational ecosystems that need to be co-created to thrive in our challenging, post-pandemic climate.


1Derby, Esther. 7 Rules for Positive, Productive Change: Micro Shifts, Macro Results. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2019.

2Scott, Kim. Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity. St. Martin’s Press, 2017.

3Eurich, Tasha. “Working with People Who Aren’t Self-Aware.” Harvard Business Review, 19 October 2018.

4Delizonna, Laura. “High-Performing Teams Need Psychological Safety. Here’s How to Create It.” Harvard Business Review, 24 August 2017.

5Clark, Timothy R. The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2020.

6Fowler, Martin. “The State of Agile Software in 2018.”, 25 August 2018.

About The Author
Bob Galen
Bob Galen is an Agile methodologist, practitioner, and coach. In this role, he helps guide companies and teams in their pragmatic adoption and organizational shift toward Scrum and other Agile methods. Mr. Galen is currently a Principal Agile Coach at Agile Moose. He regularly speaks at international conferences and for professional groups on a broad range of topics related to Agile software development. Mr. Galen is the author of Agile… Read More