Culture From The Ground Up

Sow some seeds and grow your business

Corporate-CultureMention the phrase corporate culture and you can almost hear the moans and envision a motivational poster. Yes, it might be a bit overused, but moaning at the mere mention of it is doing a lot to define the culture of your company. And, that may not be so good. You may think that only a Fortune 500 company may have the resources to invest in such a seemingly intangible concept. Instead, ask yourself what it might mean to a business that’s focused on immediate needs like cash flow? In a word: everything.

Fertile ground

Values and norms are the building blocks of a company’s culture. Some companies constantly reinforce their defining principles by displaying them in strategic areas of the building. Other businesses treat them less formally, but no less seriously. In either case, every business – and, often, every team – has its unique “rules of the game” that ultimately define the overall culture. Whether formally displayed or tacitly acknowledged, though, if management approaches those values and norms as an afterthought, doing little or nothing at all to articulate them – the result will be deleterious. It cannot be overstated that your company’s culture is a reflection of its management team – always.

Culture is not a soft and fuzzy metric of employee morale and it’s not something only other companies have the luxury of attending to. It’s a real, palpable – and, yes – measurable component that predisposes a company to either optimal or degraded performance overall.

Norms and values are in nuanced operation at every step of business performance. A simple example might help here. In your company, what are the norms that govern how people begin their day, assuming an eight o’clock official start time? After everyone’s chatted about the weekend, grabbed their cup of coffee, and finished their settling-in routine, what time does actual work start taking place? Eight thirty? Nine?

Row by row

You can similarly analyze every other aspect of the work day, relating it to a governing value. Consider: lunch time, accountability, and the manner in which employees are treated. What are the underlying norms and values? How are the guiding principles of your company determining the quality of your goods and services? What’s the state of your customer service? How are staff meetings conducted?

By systematically analyzing company-wide activities in relation to culture, you will soon come to realize where the breakdowns occur between strategy and operations. The truth is culture will trump strategy every time. It does not matter how detailed your strategic planning efforts are. Your culture will determine your ability to execute your plans.

How does your existing culture, assuming you have an accurate pulse on what employees really think, match your ideal? Chances are there is a gap between what you need and what you currently have in place. There are four keys to your culture’s success:

A) Identify the appropriate culture necessary for the company to thrive and execute your current and future strategy

B) Institute a system to test and measure your culture regularly.

C) Establish a systematic method of developing leaders, or evaluate your current system.

D) Every manager in the company must have an action plan and be held accountable for improving their team’s or department’s respective culture every day.

Weed and feed

So where to start? The answer is at the CEO chair. Ask your executive team to show you their budget, which is a reflection of their commitment. With sufficient data, you may be able to rank your leadership team’s commitment to the following:

  • honest dialog and communication
  • developing the company’s leaders
  • accountability
  • excellence
  • benchmarking the company against the best
  • collaboration
  • employee engagement
  • process improvement
  • continuous learning for all employees 

In his Lessons for Success, venerated change master Jack Welch counted employee satisfaction as one of three key performance indicators, along with customer satisfaction and cash flow.

It seems obvious, of course, that employees treat customers based on how they themselves are treated. A high-performance culture is one where the company lives and breathes by that tenet. Ultimately the bottom line will reflect whether it was just a lot of lip service.

Yes, culture is about people. But do not overlook contributing factors such as your company systems, structure, policies, compensation, and accountability. From the recruiting process to your performance management system, all aspects of a business’ operations impact people’s opinions of how they are treated.

Whether your corporate values are posted everywhere from the boardroom to the restroom or hidden away in the back of the employee handbook, culture is at work every day.

The word culture stems from the Latin colere, which means “to cultivate.” Management needs to plant the seeds of a company’s values. With only token buy-in from leadership, culture will grow on its own like a weed, and it could be invasive. Are you guiding the culture, or are the employees designing it? When culture is appreciated as a primary force in your business, success is easier to grow. Better not leave it to chance. 

John Lankford

John Lankford was recognized as the 2007-2010 Associate Business Advisor of the Year in North America and brings proven executive experience and best practices to select companies every year. He served 18 years at the Executive Education Center at Ford Motor Company and is former Senior Director of Ascension Health Learning Institute. John has developed top leaders around the world in partnership with the University of Michigan Business School, the Center for Creative Leadership, Comcast University and GE University, to name a few. His business expertise has been tapped by prominent business media such as the New York Times, CBS and Dbusiness magazine and has been a syndicated business columnist. He is the author of The Answer is Leadership and Superstar for life…Career Transitions. John’s keynote speaking has landed him on the elite team that trains and certifies the new Executive Coaches joining the worldwide coaching community. John is also former Chief Executive Officer of the Innisbrook Leadership Institute. Lankford can be reached at [email protected] or call (888) 730-1950

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