Five Steps To Build a Winning Corporate Culture

If I asked your employees, "What’s it like to work at your company? What kind of place is it?" their answers would largely describe your company culture. How would your employees answer? Would you like what you heard? If not, a leader’s responsibility is to change it.

Some leadership teams attempt to create culture by acting as wordsmiths, spending untold hours carefully crafting vision, mission and values statements. That’s unfortunate, because in the end culture is not created by words plastered on the wall or carried around on laminated cards, but rather culture is defined by actions on the ground.

It’s what leaders do: what they inspect, what they reject and what they reward that ultimately shapes company culture.

It’s not that words don’t have a place in creating culture; they most certainly do. But a winning culture is defined by words so simple and basic a child can grasp them easily, and an executive can explain them quickly.

And, in a winning culture, a leader’s words and actions are aligned. What leaders say accurately reflects the way things are. In a losing culture, words and actions are misaligned. "Happy talk’ masks dysfunctional behavior.

A winning company culture is simple and emphasizes three areas: serving the customer, growing the business, and developing employees. A losing culture is confusing and complex, places customer needs behind those of the company, and emphasizes personal gain over team achievement.

Culture can be consciously created by company leadership, and should be. Below are five steps that will help you consciously create or redefine your company culture. Remember, complexity equals confusion. If your culture is easy to describe, it will be easy to create.

Define three or four guiding principles that define who you are as an organization. It’s the job of senior leadership to define in simple terms what your organization is all about. One of my clients, a consulting group, had a culture marked by mistrust and destructive internal competition. New leadership came in and succinctly defined what the new culture would be and termed it something like this: We are one national practice; we consider our customers in everything we do; we grow our people; and we are committed to each other’s success. Rather than worrying about printing these words everywhere, leadership set about making them a reality.

Use the principles to guide every business discussion and decision going forward. Words are meaningless unless they spur new behavior. Once you have defined your guiding principles, use them to guide all of your business discussions and decisions. I constantly heard my client above refer to their guiding principles in all their gatherings, large and small. I heard them say things like: "Since we are one national practice, it makes sense to do "x." Or, "Will this course of action serve our customers, or will it only serve us?" And, "Since we are committed to each other’s success and growing our people, maybe we should let this individual or that group take the lead on this sales call." They used their words and good intentions to drive positive behavior shifts, which in the end drove a positive culture shift, which led to better business results.

Build the principles into all your people performance and management systems. The old saw is true: people tend to do what is inspected versus what’s expected. Simple words and good intentions are not enough. You need to make sure that your people and performance management systems measure and reward behaviors consistent with your guiding principles, and discourage if not punish the opposite. Leadership actions here are key. If employees see company leaders act in accordance with the principles and yet go unrewarded, or worse, see leaders defying the principles and getting perks and promotions regardless, you’re done.

There has to be consistency between what you say and what you do, and alignment between your words and your actions. Also, begin screening for and hiring people who share your values and who naturally adhere to the principles. And, for existing employees, create processes to indoctrinate and immerse them in the new ways of thinking and behaving. As John Kotter has shown us, constantly repeating the simple change message via all available means and venues is key to ingraining it in the culture.

4 Create a leadership development experience that reinforces the behaviors and values consistent with the principles, and insist all senior leaders attend. Once again, words alone are not enough to drive lasting behavior change. You have to constantly reinforce your words with action. One way to do this is to create an experience based leadership development program that reinforces the values and behaviors consistent with the guiding principles. For example, my client developed a leadership development experience focused on self-awareness and personal responsibility. Over the next two years, all senior leaders came through, and then a similar experience was created for the next level of management down. Don’t try to get everyone through at once. In fact, it’s best to spread attendance and participation out over an extended period of time. Each new class then becomes a renewable source of energy and focus around the guiding principles.

Attendees return to their respective stores and offices and help re-energize and refocus everyone else. In this way, rather than becoming programs of the month, these leadership experiences became an enduring tool to reinforce the fundamental message and desired behaviors behind the guiding principles.

Expect resistance, but stay the course with passion and patience. Changing culture means changing people, and that takes time. Expect some cynicism, skepticism and resistance at first. For example, when people first attended the leadership program described above, many came in with a jaundiced eye. They had seen this sort of thing come and go before. But over time, as more and more people came through, including senior leaders who came back to help facilitate later sessions, more and more bought in.

This became especially true when attendees saw the leadership principles and values that were discussed in the classroom being lived out on a daily basis in the field. In fact, the program became so popular over time that complaints went from "Why do I have to attend this stupid course?" to "Why did I have to wait so long to get in?" More importantly, the culture in the organization at large changed, and with it, the business did too.

Stay Focused on Results
If I have made creating a winning culture sound simple, that’s because it is. Don’t muck it up by making it more complex than it needs to be. Largely as a result of following all five of the simple steps I’ve outlined here, the organization I’ve described enjoyed unprecedented business success over the next several years. You can do the same. Take the ideas I have shared here, bend them to your will, disposition and specific circumstance, and you’ll be well on your way to creating a winning culture marked by new behavior and better business results.

Gary Bradt is the author of "The Ring In the Rubble: Dig Through Change and Find Your Next Golden Opportunity." Visit him online at www.theringintherubble.com.

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