Why worry about your company culture? Aren’t there more pressing issues today for business leaders?
According to a recent article in the Harvard Business Review by Sarah Jensen Clayton, “the reality is that culture–often thought of as a company’s most precious asset–is increasingly a liability for companies that don’t tend to it.” When they fail to do so, a crisis is often looming. Further, in today’s environment of high employee mobility and turnover, leaders must recognize that a well-defined, and inviting culture attracts and retains top talent more effectively than pay or anything else.
What exactly is culture? Webster’s Dictionary provides some insight:
A. The set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization
B. The set of values, conventions, or social practices associated with a particular field, activity, or societal characteristic.”
While each of these definitions are helpful, a more simple version might be:
Culture is the everyday personality of organizational life in any enterprise.
So, for you who lead companies today, what is the process for developing the culture you desire? I have found the following five actions to be essential in that process:
- Define It. Be a visionary culture developer. What will the culture of your company look like when you are successful? How will it serve to create the outcomes you desire for the various stakeholders of the business? Strive to paint an inspiring and strategically sound picture of that culture. Take the time to work on this with the key leaders within your company. Wrestle with it until you arrive at a clear and compelling definition. And be sure to put it into writing.
- Embrace and Evangelize It. Make conversation regarding your desired culture an everyday practice. Be explicit about the way you want the interpersonal environment within your company to be, and what you want your customers to experience and feel. Don’t be afraid to challenge aspects of your current culture that you want to change.
- Live It. This is where “the rubber meets the road.” Ultimately, culture is very little about what we say….and very much about what we do. If we fail to “walk the talk,” we undermine the culture. And the longer this continues, evidence of hypocrisy leads to cultural dissonance.This necessarily demands that we treat culture development as an ongoing process, not as an event. Having defined what our culture should be, we must recognize that only consistent daily effort over months and years will bring that culture into existence. As Ari Weinzweig, author of Building A Great Business has said, “ I try to remind myself that every action I take and every word I speak is going to influence our cultural development. To pretend that my words, actions, and attitudes don’t have a significant impact would be to live in big-time denial.”
- Story-ize It. Use stories to reinforce the culture you want, sharing how they embody the principles that you want your culture to reflect. Some companies like Zappos have instituted a “culture book,” sharing employee stories that epitomize their culture. It’s mandatory reading for newcomers and long-time employees alike.
- Measure It–and Reward It. Too often, companies have dissonance between their definition of their desired culture and what they measure–and reward. They may, for instance, emphasize the central importance of the customer experience they provide, but reward only superior throughput. One such notable disconnect at a software company emphasized the importance of solving customer issues, while paying bonuses to their telephone support staff based on the number of calls they fielded each day. Unfortunately, many of their support personnel shortchanged their interactions with customers in order to bolster their call volume and bonus income, leaving a growing number of disgruntled customers.Setting the right metrics or KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) is an essential part of creating your culture. This requires that when setting your metrics you challenge potential tradeoffs between what you say you want, and the behaviors your KPIs might motivate.
Once metrics are set, carefully observe the actions, behaviors, and outcomes that they drive. Assure that they harmonize with the culture you desire. As you observe that harmony, be sure to reinforce it by rewarding your people for creating that culture. Recognize the importance of recognition and rewards. Ari Weinzweig adds, “Take note that I’m not really talking about money per se. That’s certainly one way to do it, but money will never be enough.” Strive to use “a creative array of rewards and recognition.”
Richard Tyson is the founder, principal owner and president of CEObuilder, which provides forums for consulting and coaching to executives in small businesses.