6 Things that Make or Break a Corporate Culture Initiative

By Candace Coleman, CultureWise Content Manager

You’ve see examples of companies with thriving cultures, and you want to improve yours.  But you’ve probably also heard about business leaders who tried a culture initiative and fell short.  

If you’re at the point of deciding whether to invest in a program like CultureWise, you might be asking yourself questions like:

  • When a culture initiative doesn’t work, what causes it to fail?
  • What are the most important pitfalls to avoid?

We’ve done a lot of research at CultureWise to learn what it takes to make a corporate culture initiative successful. And we’ve also seen the things that can prevent it from reaching its potential.  Here’s what we’ve learned.

Six primary factors separate companies that are enormously successful with their culture initiatives from those that only achieve moderate success.

  • CEO Sponsorship
  • CEO Involvement in Defining the Culture
  • Commitment to the Launch
  • Prioritizing Weekly Messaging
  • Embracing the Full Toolkit
  • Team-wide Accountability

Let’s delve into each one.

1.  CEO Sponsorship

The first important ingredient in the success of any culture initiative is the attitude and involvement of a company’s leader, or what CultureWise founder and CEO David Friedman calls “CEO sponsorship.” CEO sponsorship is a variation of “executive sponsor,” a term you’ve probably heard in business news.

The Harvard Business Review article “How to be an Effective Executive Sponsor” calls the role a key requirement for any project’s success.  Executive sponsors make sure a project is aligned with company goals, garner support, and focus on creating conditions for success. They’re often senior executives who support project managers.

C-level sponsors might be highly effective for some parts of your operation.

But a for a culture initiative to take hold and improve every facet of your business, sponsorship has got to start at the very top.  

If you simply agree to go along with your HR manager’s recommendation for a culture initiative, and then move on to tend to business as usual, the program won’t have much impact. For it to succeed, you need to embrace and champion the endeavor.

That doesn’t mean you need to be involved in the day-to-day execution of the project. But your active sponsorship tells your people that the culture initiative is important and that everyone should take it seriously.

2.  CEO Involvement in Defining the Culture

The second barometer of success is your degree of ownership in identifying the behaviors that will drive your company’s success. These are the actions and attitudes you want to consistently see in your people. Done correctly, they will define your culture and set your business apart from the competition.

At CultureWise, we call these behaviors Fundamentals. When we see a CEO who wants to weigh in on the choice or refinement of their Fundamentals, it reflects a personal investment in the project that’s a good predictor of success. 

Conversely, when we observe a CEO leaving the Fundamentals up to one of our consultants or someone else on their staff, we see that as a red flag.

As your company’s leader, you can’t be ambivalent about the selection and wording of these critical behaviors if you want your culture to flourish.

3.  Commitment to the Launch

The third indicator of success is the organization’s commitment to the launch of their culture initiative.  An effective rollout for this kind of program is like preparing the soil for a garden. If you prepare soil properly, you give seeds the best opportunity to grow. 

We’ve done more than a thousand rollout sessions at CultureWise, and we know what makes them effective. For a rollout to have the most impact, a company should be ready for and open to all it has to offer their team.

Best-practice elements for a rollout are:

  • Being prepared. Company leaders stress the importance of this initiative to their team, and the staff arrives at the rollout knowing it’s a priority for everyone.
  • Being organized. Arrangements are made for everyone to block time in their schedule, and logistics are in place to facilitate participation.
  • Allocating sufficient time. The company is committed to allotting the full 3 hours to do an effective rollout and doesn’t try to shorten it.

An organization that is unprepared, disorganized, or wants to push back on devoting enough time to the rollout weakens the session’s effectiveness. This kind of reception signals a lack of commitment and forecasts a lower level of success for their culture program.

4.  Prioritizing Weekly Messaging

Once your culture initiative is introduced, one of the most compelling ways to keep the momentum going is to regularly communicate about it to your staff. Making this messaging a priority will significantly impact the progress of your culture program.

If you’re a CultureWise client, your team will focus on one Fundamental every week. Part of that process is sending a company-wide message on Monday mornings with an observation about the featured Fundamental. These messages, which we call Weekly Insights, set the tone for the week.

For the first round of Fundamentals, we recommend that the CEO write the Weekly Insight. The best leaders embrace this opportunity to share their personal perspective and to connect with their people. And there are two big benefits when they take advantage of it.

  • Employees learn why each Fundamental is important to their boss and are more likely to adopt the same point of view.
  • The leader’s involvement demonstrates that the culture initiative is a priority for the company.

The messages for subsequent rounds of Fundamentals can and should be assigned to other people. At that point, because the boss made this task a top concern, others will follow your example. They’ll be inspired to take ownership of this task because that’s what you did.

If you immediately delegate this task to Marketing or HR, this first round of messages may still have some impact. But the buy-in from your team will likely be diminished.

5.  Embracing the Full Toolkit

Every culture initiative needs some logistical means to make it effective. The fifth predictor of success is the willingness to take advantage of all available resources to amplify engagement. The value of these resources is often compounded when they’re used together.

For instance, CultureWise is a complete operating system for culture.  Every piece of the system is integrated with the rest, and each tool reinforces your cultural initiative in a different way.

CultureWise tools include:
  • Weekly scenario-based lessons that show practical application of Fundamentals
  • Short videos highlighting different points about each Fundamental
  • Teaching Points, Coaching Tips, and Questions for Discussion
  • A mobile app that is the most efficient and effective way to interact with your culture
  • Culture Class e-learning courses
  • CultureWise surveys to measure progress

None of these tools absorb a lot of time, and most come with the basic subscription to the CultureWise program.  

If you don’t use all the resources at your disposal, your program’s potential is limited. By embracing the full “tool kit,” you maximize the power of your culture initiative.

6.  Team wide Accountability

A leader’s commitment to accountability is the sixth, and perhaps most important, factor that predicts the level of success you’ll experience with your culture operation.

If you activate a culture initiative for your company, it’s imperative that everyone on your team is behind it. Nothing will dissolve this kind of project faster than an apathetic or even defiant group of people who don’t get with the program.

Some companies may have team members who balk at any change, and others who dismiss new ideas because they think they know better. These people might be doing reasonably good work, and many may be veteran employees.  

Leaders with staff like this may be reluctant to push them to fully participate in a new program.  They say it’s just too hard to find good people, and they can’t afford to lose experienced team members.

But regardless of their tenure or experience, when people aren’t willing to maintain a company standard, they hold the organization back. And if a leader isn’t willing to require accountability for their employees’ participation in a new initiative—no matter how good the program is, it won’t work.  

CultureWise VP of Sales Bill Kaiser goes into more depth about this topic and gives some great examples in his blog, “Drive Your Culture through Accountability.”  If you set the expectation that full participation in your culture initiative is required, you’ve put the project in a position to succeed.

And something else happens when everyone on your team is fully engaged in the operation. Your company will get a reputation for being a great place to work. You won’t have to worry about finding good people—they’ll come to you.  

Recipe for Success

You may have noticed one common ingredient in the six factors that can make or break your success with a culture initiative—leadership.

Great leaders implement everything they do more fully and more successfully than average leaders. Your level of involvement and the example you set have an enormous impact on how everything is done at your company.  This is especially true with your organization’s culture.

David Friedman calls CEOs the “Chief Cultural Officers” of their companies. In his second book, Culture by Design, he explains that as a CEO, you “must be the loud, clear advocate for your culture. No one else carries the same political or emotional clout.”  

If you’re willing to assume the leadership role in your culture initiative and commit to the six things that will drive its success, CultureWise can be transformative for your business.

Contact us to learn how to get started.