One of the biggest challenges facing a business is creating clarity for their employees and their team. The lack of clarity with the team creates confusion, stress, frustration and inefficiencies.
The purpose of a corporate culture is to help create trust and engage the employees and allow the business owner to create depth in the team and management so the company can grow profitability.
When you have this clarity and understanding in place, your employees can see it and help you sustain, regulate and make it come alive!
Even though corporate culture has been around since the early 80’s, when I think of corporate culture I think of companies like Google, Zappos, Facebook, Southwest and Apple – who redefined the boundaries of a corporate culture and emerged along the lines of an organic evolution designed for optimum output.
The focus went purely from an unspoken model to a mandated rules and regulation standard to the incorporation of freedoms, expression, sharing, collaboration and a more casual line between management and employee. Communication channels opened and a think tank environment was created.
While this made more companies and employees aware of a corporate culture, it still maintained defined beliefs, values, vision and behaviors for interactions and expectations.
As an entrepreneur for over 30 years, no matter how big or small, it’s good to establish a corporate culture so that you and your team are all moving in the same direction towards a mutual mission, vision and purpose.
Building a corporate culture from scratch is a lot easier than changing a corporate culture.
First let’s define what culture really means in a business or any organization. After all the lengthy definitions, culture translates to how a person will think, plan, act, and react to a given situation. This becomes second nature after interacting and engaging with others over a period of time in a specific culture.
Companies like Google have a very deeply established culture that supersedes that of the country culture of the employees around the world. Independent of the geographic location of a Google office you will find employees acting “Googly”. In short, this term has multiple interpretations but ultimately translates to being a forward thinker, non-traditional, entrepreneurial, and committed to excellence by doing the right thing. That culture began years ago when Larry Page and Sergey Brin started the company.
Fundamentally, the corporate culture is built from the founders. It is formally and informally developed through the initial actions, decisions, and responses that occur on a daily basis as the organization begins to grow and evolve. It is further reinforced as the next generation of employees are hired with the spoken or unspoken requirement of “fit”. The culture and associated daily behaviors are modeled and strengthened with every action and reaction to getting work done to support the overall business mission. Independent of what is said or written, the operating principles and values demonstrated physically will become the predominant determinant of the corporate culture. The decisions to hire, promote or terminate people in an organization will be deciphered as a vehicle to translate the true culture of an organization to what is desired and appropriate.
Building a corporate culture therefore starts with the founders and is established by what they say, and more importantly what they do. Daily behaviors are constantly reinforced positively or negatively to mold the culture into what is acceptable. To formally and rapidly instill the desired culture here are a number of specific actions to take.
Create a short list (less than 7) of specific core values that define the corporate culture
- Support each of these with discrete descriptions of behaviors on a 1 (low) to 5 (high) scale to provide for an understanding of how these manifest on a daily basis.
- Formally recognize and publicly reinforce these high (5) level behaviors in real time when they are observed or experienced. This could occur as pubic acknowledgement or private rewards in terms of trinkets or gifts.
- Share stories of these high (5) behaviors with others in appropriate formal or informal settings.
- Model these behaviors on a daily basis and be specific to point out how they are being supported and reinforced.
- Formally evaluate the core value and cultural behaviors at the end of routine meetings or in a formal survey across the organization.
- Confront and address counter culture or culture behavior violations to clarify and identify replacement or alternative approaches that better align with the core values of the organization.
In summary, it is easier to do the culture right from the start. It will be more than just sending out an email announcing the culture and core values to the organization.
Future challenges will address changing a corporate culture, and creating sub-cultures for unique segments of an organization.
In order for a corporate culture to be real, it needs to be observable. The secret to building a corporate culture is to ‘reverse engineer’ it.
First you and your team need to develop the descriptions you want people to use in answer 5 years from now to the question “Tell me about (your company name) – how would you describe it?”
The reason to push it out 5 years is so that people go into their imagination while answering the question. Once you have the list, now as a team describe the language that will need to be used throughout the business – in meetings, memos, material – and the behaviors everyone will need to be using – with their teammates, with customers, with everyone they encounter – day in and day out. Why reverse engineer?
Because ‘culture’ is actually the end product of the language and behaviors of people. Once you’ve described those for the entire organization, now everyone can participate in being the shepherds and checkers of how well it’s going day in and day out going forward. In fact, most organizations that are serious about creating their corporate culture can get it accomplished in 6-months… much faster than the 5-year horizon used during their brainstorming!
Corporate culture is a bit of an ambiguous term. What does a “good” corporate culture really look like? Does it mean everyone is happy all the time? That there are regular office celebrations? Is it the company offering the highest salaries?
When I work with a company I start by listening to the staff, at all levels, what do they like? What is not as pleasant? This rarely has to do with salary or time-off but focuses on “why do I like to work here” or “…why am I considering other job options.” Is money sometimes a concern, yes, but if someone enjoys working for a company and respects their peers and leadership within the organization the money becomes secondary.
Tips to improve organizational corporate culture (and this is a generalization which will have to be adapted for varying industries of different sizes): Be transparent. Let each employee see the tangible results of how their position is influencing the success of the company. Encourage each employee to be the CEO of their area. Have them build a plan of action for their job (for example, customer service rep) that ties into the overall strategy of the company.
Be open to new ways to approach a particular position – let an employee make it their own. Provide cross-training opportunities. This gives the organization a more skilled workforce that won’t fall apart when one person, with all the knowledge for a particular position, leaves, and shows employees different roles they might wish to explore. Let people know that their job is important – no matter what it is – and that the organization values their input, and actually will implement ideas of value.
“How do you build a corporate culture – very intentionally! Corporate culture has a foundational impact on your organization’s daily short term and long-term sustainability, and too often, it reflects outdated ways of being and doing that no longer serve.
First, you need to know your values which align with a crystal-clear vision of what you want it to feel like to work here, from tangible opportunities to serve an inspiring mission down to the flavor of how people interact every day.
Second, you need all levels of leadership fully invested in the vision and continuously engaged in modeling of the highest values it embraced by the vision- in their caring interactions with everyone from stock analysts to colleagues in parallel silos down to how you welcome the newest employee and your customers.
Third, you need to consistently communicate and reinforce the message of “who we are and how we do business” in everything from internal media to the organization’s public persona.
Finally, you need to constantly listen to and learn from your employees, your customers and your partners on how your organization is really experienced, day-to-day. If your values and vision reflect the very best of how your organization could operate, and you wholeheartedly commit to living that vision, your culture can become the foundation and guiding star for enormous success, as an enterprise, and as a place where people love to work.”
Anita Sanchez, PhD in Organization Development, international best-selling author, trainer, and speaker
Corporate cultures develop based on the aggregate values of the most senior leaders in the organization. The leaders set the example of what behaviors and norms will be accepted. A CEO that arrives at 8:30 am and leaves at 4:30 sets a different pace than one who is the first to arrive and the last to leave.
Publicly shaming staff, less than truthful assertions and taking credit for others contributions is a sure way for a leader to develop a non-productive and dysfunctional culture. A leader must be a living example of the desired culture. One must establish a clear and focused strategy for the organization that is based on real customer needs and laid out in plain language for the whole organization.
The leader should invite the staff to challenge the strategy and develop downstream activities to achieve it. When there is a gap, the leaders and the staff must immediately reconcile the differences and re-plan if necessary.
Finally, the leaders must embrace a set of values which will guide interactions between all the stakeholders of the enterprise including customers, employees, suppliers, shareholders and the communities in which they operate. Consider the following:
• Customers are the reason we exist
• We value the importance of the individual
• Quality is everyone’s job
• We hold ourselves accountable for results Adherence to the values chosen will drive the organization to the desired culture if the leaders and the staff promote honest communication and collaboration as a fundamental tenet of the work ethics.
Culture Narrative ™ The most important story your organization will ever tell Your compelling story – When people have great clarity on your culture story, they become personally invested in making it come true. People will see themselves and their role as highly meaningful in unfolding the story. Scaling that commitment across a critical mass of employees builds awesome power and momentum coming from within your culture. A Culture Narrative becomes a sustainable core strategy of engagement that shapes a high-performance culture. Now trending – You hear the buzzword “narrative” all the time these days.
A narrative is essentially a plan for communicating a story, account of events, or an experience. Narratives are highly effect in stimulating our right-brain imagination with a story and creative flow that sticks in our memory. How might you use a Culture Narrative strategy to break through the clutter to shape a high-performing culture and attract great talent? Winning the hearts and minds – If you want to become a savvy leader of your culture, then you must realize that a narrative strategy is highly effective as a belief changing discipline. Branding professionals have been using narrative strategy for years to make their message stick in the minds of consumers by shaping beliefs that drive desired behavior.
Culture shaping has the exact same dynamics at work in the hearts and minds of our employees. The beliefs employees have about the organization drive the behaviors that bring your culture to life. Your culture consists of the stories that are repeated formally by leaders, and organically around the water-cooler. Those stories create clear expectations. The Questions are the Answer – Here’s how you can leverage a Culture Narrative framework to tell the complete story of your culture. Imagine being able to quickly and succinctly answer the 5 W’s and the H (The Who, Where, Why, What, When, and How) of your culture story in the form of Leading Principles, i.e., Brand, Vision, Purpose, Values, and Mission(s).
The model I’ve created illustrates how to articulate the 5 W’s and the H of your organization by connecting them to your Leading Principles. Simplicity, consistency and rigor in telling your culture story is the key to success in making it stick. The top-10 opportunities to apply your Culture Narrative ™:
1. Recruiting: Tell your story to attract top-talent and show-off the substance of your culture.
2. Hiring criteria filter: Probe for alignment to your Leading Principles and ask for examples of how candidates have demonstrated these attributes in the past.
3. On-boarding: Connect fired-up newbies right up-front to what is expected within your culture.
4. Leadership development: Center all leadership competencies within the context of your Leading Principles. Measure performance based on how they drive your Culture Narrative.
5. Engagement strategy: Amplify purpose and meaning by connecting people to the short-term goals and long-term vision of the organization. The narrative provides the core repertoire for every leader communication effort designed to increase inclusion within your culture.
6. Energize every meeting: Establish the ritual of starting every meeting with a focused discussion on how your values apply to the work that is front of the team today. Use it as brainstorming stimuli for aligning actions that drive your brand. Get specific on the Fundamental behaviors.
7. Millennial motivator: Allow people to see their own growth potential in the context of your Culture Narrative for success. That vision gives them the confidence they are in the best place to learn, grow, and advance in their career – a key factor for engagement and retention.
8. Decision-making: Get on the same page by leveraging your Leading Principles as guide-posts for aligned decision-making.
9. Rewards and Recognition: Use the framework to create your categories for recognition and appreciation. Leverage the winning stories to build a legacy that exemplifies great performance.
10. Build your brand: The expression of your employment brand, and external brand should be centered upon your Culture Narrative. External customers care about your commitment to culture because it has a high-impact on their experience in doing business with you. Show it off.
BONUS – Innovation fuel: The Culture Narrative empowers your creative thinkers to confidently act upon ideas and solutions that move the story forward. Creativity depends on envisioning possibilities. Turn the disrupters loose in your organization by framing innovation challenges within the context of your Culture Narrative. Your story continues – Keep in mind that your Culture Narrative is a living and breathing entity. It’s as fresh as “What happened today?”, because that introduces the story of “How it impacts tomorrow”. Your ability to update, refresh, and reinforce the events that bolster your Culture Narrative keeps it alive and relevant.
Your Culture Narrative isn’t the story of yesterday, it’s the story that helps people positively anticipate “What’s next?”. Your Culture Narrative framework provides the essential context to continue the next chapter of your success story.
How should organizations approach these cultural development challenges? It helps to think about culture change as a continuing deliberate process of development, nurturing, reinforcement, and renewal.
In my recent book, Global KATA: Success Through The Lean Business System Reference Model, I presented a process perspective of how to develop, nurture, reinforce, and renew cultural transformation. The remainder of this post provides an overview of this process. Culture change is a deliberate process of defining, nurturing, reinforcing, and renewing the complex human attributes of culture. Using a process approach, executives can establish goals, implement culture change activities, listen to the voice of the organization, measure gaps between current and desired performance, and make the right necessary course corrections to keep culture change in a continuously developing mode.
Internalization – The Goal Internalization is a process of transforming culture through critical mass acceptance. Internalization is the deliberate, human-focused process of installing shared beliefs, values, assumptions, attitudes, and organizational best practices about improvement into the consciousness of individuals, groups, and the organization as a whole. Over time, internalization becomes the acceptance of a set of norms, strategies, and expectations established by and maintained by leadership. The process begins with defining, communicating, and learning the desired cultural values and attributes. Then people go through a process of understanding why these values are critical to success and why they make sense.
Finally they accept the norm as their own created viewpoint. In effect, internalization is the interpretation process of formal and informal communication that creates cultural conditions and shapes Kata. Discussing culture and how to cause it to evolve to higher standards of excellence may sound a bit Zen-like and Freudian, but it is more common sense than anything else. This deliberate and longer-term process of internalization is achieved through proactive management of four specific cultural conditions: Projection Introjection Identification Incorporation These cultural conditions are dynamic and easily influenced by real and perceived events.
They require continuous attention and management so that they can continue to transform culture in a positive direction. When the gurus of the past 30 years talked about continuous improvement as a relentless, never-ending process, they meant what they said. Continuous improvement is not easy; it has taken Toyota 70 years and counting to get to where it is today. Like everything else it becomes automatic and routine (Kata) at the mastery stage.
Building a corporate culture takes years. It’s a combination of building an organization that does something, while it’s building teams, developing systems, processes and procedures that ‘work’ in that environment. It’s also an evolution of how leaders and team members have learned to interact, speak, work, and communicate with one another, depending upon how much they trust and respect one another – or not.
In working with my clients, determining the type of organizational culture you want to create or evolve to is a critical conversation early in any engagement. If the current culture is not one the leadership team wants conveyed outside the organization, or it’s not conducive to a strong performing team and work environment, the leadership team needs to take action or risk brand damage, performance issues, and employee mistrust and disengagement. They risk business failure.
So how do I suggest my clients build a corporate culture? Clearly define the type of organization theyu want to have in 3-5 years. What does it look like, how will it operate, what will it produce/do, how will the employees interact and perform, how with the relationships between leaders and team members be, how will employees feel after interactions with their managers and one another, etc? Once those seemingly fuzzy things are clarified, they start to outline the type of behaviors and expectations of the leadership team to not only articulate that future culture expectation, but to then put into place support systems that will help them and their associates most effectively interact, work, connect, and succeed in that organization.
It also helps the leadership team and the associates be clear on the type of person who will be a good fit in that culture and who may not. The leadership team will need to continually tweak their own behaviors and guide their team members as they all work to more closely model their desired culture. It’s a process. It takes time. It takes tweaking. It takes communicating and working together.
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