The Acorn that Grows a Well Culture

By Rex Miller | August 30, 2019

If an acorn is the essential beginning to grow an oak, what is the acorn for a thriving workplace culture?

Living systems, in contrast to programs, follow a natural progression. If we seed it right and provide a supportive environment growth is natural. Workplace culture is a living system and I often find we make creating a thriving workplace more complicated than it has to be because we either overlook the acorn or we don’t provide support for it to grow naturally.

In our research on workplace wellness we found leaders often talk about growing oaks but really want different trees and plant different seeds. For example, many want trees that manages risk, reduces cost, attracts employees etc.

If a thriving culture turns out to be the tree you want, what is the seed?

We borrowed this framework from Jack Hess, the Executive Director for the Institute for Coalition Building in Columbus, Indiana.

Here is how it works:

  1. If acorn is essential then what is that essential beginning and foundation for your effort?
  2. Water, sun and soil are necessary. What are the necessary conditions for success?
  3. Cultivation, fertilizer or watering enhance growth. What added elements or enablers will support the growth of your effort.

When we brought our stakeholders together to create a diagram around workplace wellness there was quite a debate on what the acorn should be. Which is the point of the exercise. It’s not as easy to determine the essential from the necessary as it looks. It is a critical leadership discussion before launching forward on something that touches culture.

The Acorn of Conviction and Commitment

I was recently in Denver meeting with the president of a 2000 employee construction firm. I asked him, “Do you have a wellness initiative?”

He said, “We sure do!” He walked me through the office and shared what they were doing. It is a great start with a lot of acknowledged room for growth. I asked, “Why did the company begin this program?” The acorn?

The president confessed that a few years ago he began to have some concerning health issues. His doctor was blunt. If his pace and lifestyle did not change he would not finish his plans to retire in the next ten years. He had a proverbial epiphany.

Changing his life meant changing work. Changing work led to a greater awareness of how the company’s goals, incentives, environment and culture not only drive him but drive everyone.

The president’s conviction and commitment required his ownership and engagement over the drafting of the policies. It required he model and shift the culture beyond following the policies. He ran into one unspoken norm after another that had to be weeded out, behaviors no HR policy could see or address.

He saw that the company would reimburse expenses for nachos and drinks with clients but not cover a $10/monthly gym membership.

He shared that the company had an informal joke, “You didn’t become a seasoned Project Manager until your second marriage.” Ouch. In the construction world it is common to be on the road and away from home weeks at a time.

Testing the Commitment

The company has a talented PM who recently got married, number two. To break this pattern the management explicitly discussed how they could help this talented leader start this second marriage well and give it a good chance to succeed. Their solution? Pull him from two out of town projects and hold him in reserve for a large local project they are bidding on. If they win this local project it will require a full-time PM for several years. This is an investment and a risk.

I also saw a highly committed project team working hard to win this project and one of the reasons is to give this PM a chance to work locally.

The acorn we discovered during our retreat in San Francisco looks very similar. Our small groups answered the exercise with phrases like Leadership Will, Commitment, Conviction and Have To.

The seed you plant depends on what you eventually want to grow. Not every company has as its end game a thriving well culture. This is a revealing conversation to present to leaders. Where you begin (why and how) determines what you will produce.


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