Creating a Culture of Leadership: It's All About the People

#culture #dannylangloss #empathy #leadershipexcellencepodcast #listening #rapport #recruitment #retention #trust Jan 21, 2023

Creating a culture of leadership is heavily dependent on selecting the right people to serve on your team and intentionally developing them throughout the different stages of their career. Prior to hiring a new team member, you must have a laser focus on the soft skills and individual qualities that are “must haves.” While it is necessary to have the competencies to be successful at the specific job, hiring for culture fit is premium. Peoples’ personalities and what they value are very difficult, if not impossible, to change.

If you are wanting to create a healthy culture full of service, giving, passion, humility, teamwork, positivity, consistency, caring, compassion, empathy, dedication, and strong work ethic then you have to hire people who share these values and have these qualities. People who are self-focused, rigid, negative, egotistical, indifferent, manipulators, takers, or who lack passion and energy are next to impossible to mold into valuable team members. Not only do these people not belong on your team, they will destroy your team. 

Givers, Takers, and Matchers:

In his book “Give and Take”, Adam Grant breaks people into three categories: givers, matchers, and takers. Givers always put others first. They do things for others out of service and expect nothing in return. Matchers have more of a “do unto others as they do unto you” mindset. Matchers work very well in a healthy team environment. Takers are out for themselves and foster a toxic work environment. They are consistently seeking out what they want and what will benefit them, and they do not care who they step on to get it. These are the people who only step up to take the assignments they feel are important. The assignments that have the best chance of making them look good and help them advance their career.   

While givers categorically are the highest performers, they are also the lowest performers. The drastic difference in outcomes is determined by givers setting appropriate boundaries and self-standards and leaders creating healthy team cultures. Takers are destructive to team environments.  Their impact on givers and matchers is very different, but equally detrimental.

Givers are always giving. Givers who do not set proper boundaries are taken advantage of by takers. The takers continue to take more and more, constantly withdrawing time and energy from givers. This impacts the giver’s ability to do their own work and ends up burning the givers out, which makes them far less productive. Matchers do not adjust well to takers. Instead of continued matching efforts, matchers just stop giving. This creates further division within the team, significantly damaging relationships. This is why identifying and eliminating takers from your team through the talent selection process, onboarding, and probationary period is essential for creating healthy team cultures that result in high performing teams. 

“Resume Bias”:

How many times have you hired a person whose resume blew you away only to be wildly underwhelmed by the person and the results? I have seen this happen time and time again. While degrees and work experience are very important, having both does not mean you should “draft” the person in the first-round or even add them to your team at all. 

My Assistant City Manager and Director of Public Works, Matt Heckman, has a very solid work history filled 29 years of dedicated service with the City of Dixon. He was hired as an operator with the Water Department when he was 21 years old and ascended through the ranks to become Water Department Manager. 

When you look at the traditional qualifications for assistant city manager or public works director, Matt’s resume may not stick out compared to others who have applied for and held this position in the past. He has a high school diploma and no comprehensive public works experience outside of the water department. During a traditional hiring process for this position, many applicants would have a bachelor’s degree or a master’s degree in public administration. Many would have prior experience, some extensive as a public works director. They would have a resume that stands out showing several “impressive” positions they have held. On all accounts, they would be a first-round draft pick. 

However, what resumes don’t show are the values and qualities that make great team members and great leaders. Resumes don’t show aptitude, passion, work ethic, interpersonal skills, or the depth of a person’s leadership ability. Resumes don’t show culture fit, emotional intelligence, character, and integrity. Resumes don’t show the depth or quality of individuals or predict their likelihood of success. Matt’s resume would not have shown that he was an all-star leader who would transform his leadership team and the results to follow, but that is exactly what he has done. He adds value to every room he is in. He is a difference maker. He is a champion in our organization and a top professional in his field.   

The Interview and the In-Depth Inquiry:

While a 20-minute or even hour interview is not a perfect assessment of a person’s values and qualities, if done correctly, it opens the door into a person’s mind and heart. It allows us to see a glimpse of who this person really is. The words people use are important and listening closely for words like “I, me, my” versus “we, us, them” help differentiate takers and givers.  Listening closely for the way the person views and values others tells you how he or she will interact with your team. Listening closely for the use of the word “team” demonstrates an awareness of the importance of teams. Listening closely to how the candidate has overcome challenges provides insight to how she solves problems. These insights combined with an assessment of a person’s presence, passion, and their “why” should be the focus of the interview. 

So how do you get this level of depth in an interview? Creating an interview environment where the person can get comfortable and combining it with well-designed behavioral-based questions is essential to creating an interview that optimizes depth and substance. Intentionally designed behavioral-based questions will elicit responses that demonstrate the values and qualities of a person and ultimately help determine culture fit. 

Trust but Verify:

In-depth background and reference checks allow you to verify that what you saw and heard in the interview match who the prospective applicant really is. There is no better predictor of future performance or behavior than prior performance and behavior. 

After making a conditional offer of employment pending successful completion of a background investigation and reference check, conduct a short interview with the prospective candidate. The purpose of this short interview is to obtain an expanded list of personal and professional references. You will want to get specific references from prior supervisors and co-workers. These people will be the best source of information when determining who your applicant really is in the work environment. 

During this interview, you will also want to ask the applicant the following series of questions, “As we complete the background and reference check, is there anyone we need to be aware of that may hold a grudge against you? Someone that may say something negative about you. Someone that we should take what they saw with a grain of salt.” Why, you ask? We don’t just want to talk with people who are going to say great things about our applicant. No one is perfect and we want to make sure to dig a little extra, so we can add to the confidence level that our new team member is who they say they are. If someone does say something negative or someone does hold a grudge against the applicant, that doesn’t mean you walk away from them. The decision to hire or not to hire should be based on the totality of the circumstances. 

Previous and current employers will vary on what information they will provide about former or current employees, so having a skilled interviewer ask these questions optimizes the information you will receive. This process should be more than reading a question from a piece of paper and writing down what the employer or other reference says. It really should be an interview. Make sure to use the same series of “grain of salt” questions you used with the applicant. 

Personality assessments are another emerging tool that can be used in the trust but verify process. Using a good personality assessment tool will give you a deeper dive into the true values and qualities of a person.  While these assessments are not perfect, they are an additional assessment tool that may be used and considered as one component of the talent acquisition process.  


The foundation of creating a culture of leadership is all about selecting the right people to serve on your team. Selecting highly qualified people for values, qualities, and culture fit that align with your organization maximizes the potential for success.  These people are primed for a positive leadership culture characterized by employee engagement and high performing teams that achieve and sustain excellence. 

More about Leadership Cultures:

This is one of a series of articles following the release of Danny’s article, “Creating a Culture of Leadership”, Click here to read it

About the author: Danny Langloss is the City Manager in Dixon, Illinois. Danny has led the city through many crisis situations during his 10 years as police chief, to include Comptroller Rita Crundwell’s embezzlement of $54 million, homicide investigations, SWAT operations, and officer-involved shootings. Danny is a keynote speaker on leadership, community responses to opioids, and crimes against children. 

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