Every organization has a culture. The only question is, has the organization’s culture evolved on its own without any real thought or guidance from the organization’s management? Or has it been carefully crafted and nurtured as a guide for how the organization intends to conduct itself? Most organizations will claim to have a strong corporate culture, but in many cases, that “strong corporate culture” is nothing more than a meaningless collection of words and platitudes that don’t truly reflect the way the organization behaves from one day to the next. As the owner and/or CEO of your organization, you are the keeper of your culture If you try to pass off this responsibility to HR or to someone else further down the food chain, you will fail. However, if you are willing to make a genuine commitment to creating and maintaining a strong and vibrant culture, you can make that happen, but only if it has your unconditional support and has your fingerprints all over it. For more on how to create a real, breathing, functioning culture, please continue reading below.
“A company’s culture is defined by what it tolerates.”
So what’s the big deal about culture? Why do we really need a strong, cohesive culture? What does it really do for us? Recently, the Daily Herald Business Ledger convened a panel of “Leaders from businesses known for their excellent work cultures to discuss what makes a company a place people want to work.” There’s the key: creating “a place people want to work.” Not a place they have to work, but a place they want to work. A strong, vibrant culture creates a work place where people can be with friends and colleagues who support one another and who share common beliefs and values. But cultures are fragile, difficult to establish and even more difficult to maintain. Still, a strong culture can be one of a company’s most valuable assets. Below are some thoughts about how to build and nurture your culture.
- A company’s culture is simply the sum of the values the company wants to follow and uphold . . . think of it as a sort of Operating Manual for your company. So if you’re starting from scratch, you need to first select the values that you want to define your company. If you already have some values in place, review them to make sure they’re still applicable and appropriate. Don’t go crazy here by creating a list of 100 values . . . you should try to hold it to 10 or fewer. Find ways to involve, not only your management team, but all your employees as well, in your values selection process. In the end, the values must be a reflection of the owner/CEO’s values, but still, everyone will be more likely to support and embrace the culture you’re trying to create if they have a hand in crafting it. Look for values that have special meaning for you and your company, and that accurately define the way you expect the company to operate. Commit the values to writing and post them prominently where employees, customers, and vendors will see them.
- Once your culture’s values have been enacted, you’ll need to find ways to keep them fresh and top-of-mind for everyone in your organization. Talk about them in staff or departmental meetings. Select one of the values and talk about what it really means. Talk about what it looks like when you see it in practice. Find ways to reward and recognize individuals who go “above and beyond the call of duty” to honor this value or that. As part of your employee performance review process, evaluate how well an employee adheres to the company’s values. Counsel employees when they need to work on some of those values.
- As with any workplace change, there will be people who embrace the culture you’re trying to create, and those who don’t. Of those who don’t, many will uphold the new values even though they might not agree with them, and that’s OK. Those people may not help create the culture you want, but they won’t hurt it either. However, there may be others who don’t see the point of all this culture stuff, who “like the way we’ve always done things around here,” and who will actively try to subvert your efforts to enact it. In those cases, you’ll have little choice. You cannot enforce your values selectively. You cannot say, “Well, you know, old Bob’s been around here for a long time and is sort of set in his ways, so we’re giving him a pass on joining our culture.” No, you can try to advise or counsel Bob on the merits of a strong, values-based culture, but in the end, if Bob can’t (or won’t) get with the program, he will unfortunately have to seek employment elsewhere. As the quote above suggests, if you tolerate behavior that is at odds with your values, then you really don’t have those values.
- You and all your hiring managers need to make a total commitment to hiring only people who will be a good “fit” in your culture. You may be able to find testing instruments to help you determine if a candidate’s values align with the company’s, or if you’ve got strong interviewing skills, you may be able to learn the same thing through an interview, but however you do it, you and other hiring managers need to be faithful gatekeepers who refuse to let anyone into your tribe who does not belong. This will test you. From time to time, you will be absolutely desperate to fill a particular position and willing to settle for anyone who can fog a mirror. Don’t give into the temptation. Employ workarounds to keep the position open until you can find that candidate who is demonstrably a good fit. And despite your best efforts, you will still make hiring mistakes. Don’t compound that mistake by delaying what you must do to correct it. Acknowledge the mistake and as quickly and humanely as possible, correct it.
To summarize, to build and maintain a strong, meaningful culture, you need to:
- Make an absolute commitment to it, starting with the owner/CEO.
- Carefully establish the values that will make up your culture.
- Find ways to keep your values relevant and top-of-mind throughout your company.
- Over time, weed out people who don’t fit your values and are detrimental to them.
- Make “culture fit” a centerpiece of your hiring practices.
Establishing a robust culture is not easy, nor is it quick. It will take a lot of effort and a lot of time . . . possibly years if you’re starting from scratch. But if the result is a place people want to be, a place where people will bring their A game, and a place where people will willingly devote discretionary time and effort, the heavy lifting you did to create it will be well-worth it.