Culture is one of those “good ideas” that’s often ignored since it’s not as easy to define and implement as a new HR policy or software development methodology. Most leaders acknowledge that culture is important but struggle to explain what it is and how it can be changed for the better (or worse).
Some companies and organizations carefully manage and modify their culture, while others assume it’s some innate quality that’s barely observable, let alone something that can be changed. At a basic level, culture dictates how a group behaves. Think of it like the “operating system” of an organization, which provides basic, fundamental rules for interacting with others and the outside world.
Your various business functions, from sales to customer service to technology, operate with the rules and constraints of your culture, just as your web browser or email application are subject to the fundamental constraints of your computer or smartphone’s operating system. Like your computer, if your organizational “operating system” is poorly designed, the software running atop that OS is likely to perform sub-optimally or fail entirely.
The benefits of a strong culture are that it allows your organization to robustly and predictably respond to challenging problems. Essentially, culture guides your people in their decision-making when no other resources are available. Organizations with a strong culture can weather difficult business conditions, ethical challenges, and emerging trends as culture provides an anchor and framework when all else fails.
Culture is also an asset that’s difficult to duplicate. A competitor can easily copy your products or poach your staff, but they can’t easily create a strong culture that mirrors yours. Most organizations with strong positive cultures are high-performing, perhaps an obvious outcome of the support and shared values that a strong culture provides.
Start with the Key Elements
As you consider your organization’s culture, start by thinking about the key elements that should exemplify your group’s “operating system.” It may help to think about other companies with strong cultures.
A famous example is the Ritz Carlton hotel chain, known worldwide for its focus on customer service. The company’s motto: “We are Ladies and Gentlemen serving Ladies and Gentlemen,” provides a statement of this culture built around customer service, treating employees with respect, and empowering everyone in the organization to deliver exceptional customer service.
What fundamental values should be the hallmark of your organization? Avoid the temptation to create a multi-page “shopping list” and focus on 2 or 3 values that might range from ethics to relentless innovation to frugality.
Think about times when your teams will be faced with difficult decisions and the response you’d like them to take. Should they act with caution and rally a dozen colleagues to “work the problem,” or should they take the best action at the moment and adjust course later? Should they do everything in their power to make the customer happy or focus on shareholders or another key stakeholder?
With a shortlist of key values, consider if any of them conflict. If you want to create a Ritz-level of customer experience but also a culture of extreme frugality, you’re asking for the impossible. Similarly (and perhaps more relevant to technology organizations), trying to create a culture of innovation while simultaneously avoiding risk and controlling costs is utopic.
With the key values of your culture defined, assess where your organization stands currently in exemplifying those values. You may be well on your way to implementing some of the values you’ve highlighted, or perhaps are trending in the opposite direction and need to redirect.
Perhaps the 2 most potent and interrelated means of developing and shaping culture are leading by example and storytelling. Like it or not, your teams will emulate the behavior they observe from their leaders, both positive and negative.
All the lovely mission and value statements, HR policies, and expensive consultants in the world will do nothing if you and your fellow leaders behave contrary to the cultural values you’re trying to establish. Leaders who act contrary to particular values create a negative culture that will grow suspicious and resistant to leadership efforts to dictate values.
However, if you as a leader exemplify the cultural values you’re trying to establish, you’ll set a powerful example that’s likely to be emulated.
You can accelerate this effect by creating and sharing organizational “stories” about successfully applying these cultural values. Just as various nations and individuals have their own stories and mythologies, so too should your organization have shared stories that exemplify its culture.
If you’ve hung around with innovative companies, you’ve probably heard some variation on a story of a small team or single individual identifying a problem and heroically solving it with minimal resources other than grit and initiative. Similarly, customer-focused companies have dozens of stories of employees going above and beyond the typical “call of duty” to satisfy a customer.
By exemplifying the cultural norms you’re trying to establish, you create some of these stories. You can also share examples of when these norms were demonstrated. Ideally, the “hero” of these stories is a typical individual or team, allowing others to see that you don’t have to have a fancy title or particular position in the organization to live up to its cultural expectations.
Done well, your culture will inform your teams’ approaches in everything from marketing to software development.
Culture Care and Feeding
Like anything, culture requires occasional “care and feeding.” Couple your periodic strategic planning efforts with a brief assessment of your company culture. Are you making progress in implementing your key values? Are you and your fellow leaders behaving according to the “operating system” you’re attempting to build within your team? Do employees have a “library” of stories that exemplify the best elements of your culture that they naturally share with others, particularly new team members?
Culture change certainly doesn’t happen overnight, but it can be implemented without any financial costs or flashy projects with some forethought and daily effort. Like a well-tuned operating system, your culture will keep your team performing well and provide a foundation for growth that’s difficult to duplicate.