By Candace Coleman, CultureWise Content Manager
If you own or lead a company that’s doing reasonably well, you most likely have a solid corporate culture in place. It might have developed organically, reflecting your strong example. Or there may have been some effort to structure a working culture based on a formal set of core values you want the company to represent.
Either way, it’s probably clear to you the positive impact culture has had on your company’s status.
While organizational cultures that start out like this can be good enough to render a healthy level of success, you should ask yourself two questions:
- Will my company’s culture remain strong?
- Could my company’s culture be even better?
The answers are: maybe…and absolutely.
A Consistent Culture
If you’ve built a successful company, you know how much careful planning and process implementation went into positioning it well. Even if you happened to be in the right place at the right time, you still exhibited exemplary work standards and carefully maneuvered your organization to fully take advantage of those opportunities. Your people rose to the occasion because they were following your lead.
But what happens when your company begins to grow?
You’ll hire new people who weren’t around to watch you sow the seeds of “how things are done around here.” Maybe you’ll add locations or expand into a bigger space where many staff members aren’t interacting with you regularly anymore. Or perhaps you’ll transition to a partially remote team to accommodate changes, and those employees will only be tethered to the group through technology.
When a company expands, or there is a change in leadership, a culture based on its founder’s example or core values is at risk of eroding. People may remain cohesive in how they operate, but there’s a strong likelihood that the culture will begin to fragment and become less potent.
If you want your company’s culture to be a constant force driving success for your company, it can’t be left to chance.
What’s Better than Good?
Most successful business leaders are the type of people who always look for ways to make improvements.
- If they make products, they continuously research and develop enhancements or new models.
- If they sell goods, they constantly look for ways to better their lines and means of delivery.
- If they perform services, they regularly evaluate and increase the value of what they offer.
Status quo is not in their vocabulary. Despite these leaders’ commitment to improving many areas of their company, they often don’t look at culture through the same lens. Their attitude is that if it seems to be working well, it doesn’t need attention. But just like products, systems, and services, organizational culture always has room for improvement.
Considering that the quality of a company’s culture impacts every part of a business, settling for good enough shouldn’t be an option.
Leaders who prize excellence in other aspects of their business should accept nothing less in their company culture.
As business advisor and author Jim Collins is famous for pointing out, “Good is the enemy of great.”
An Aspirational Plan for Company Culture
An organization’s culture is reflected in the everyday conduct of its people. Another reason business leaders don’t try to work on their culture is because they don’t know how to make changes to such an intangible part of their business.
But as CultureWise Founder and CEO David Friedman points out, the process to improve the more concrete areas of a company also applies to culture—and it begins with a plan.
“Not having a culture plan would be like trying to run our companies with no budget or forecast and hoping we hit our numbers. While we may make money, our chances for success would be much greater if we had a clearly thought-out and documented plan. The same is true for culture.”
Once a leader has determined that they want to improve their company’s culture, the first step of their plan should be to reflect on the behaviors that will elevate their organization beyond where it is today.
As mentioned before, effective leaders are likely to already have a relatively good culture with prioritized standards of behavior. To make the culture better, the leader should envision how those entrenched positive behaviors could be heightened. Then they should ask themselves what other bar-setting behaviors could be introduced that would strengthen their workforce.
Some executives may worry that trying to augment an existing culture will be met with resistance. They may think that asking people to act in ways not currently reflected in the workplace isn’t authentic. But that’s like saying it’s not authentic to improve products or services.
For their company’s culture to transform from good to great, leaders should be aspirational. They should think big and then do what it takes to make it happen.
In his book Culture by Design, David Friedman explains that improving a company’s culture begins with a visioning exercise.
“We’re trying to envision our best selves, and then we’re going to do the work to bring that vision into reality. We’re not claiming that this is how we are today. Rather, we’re identifying how we want to be.”
Defining a Permanent Company Culture
When leaders initiate a culture initiative, they should do it with what Friedman calls “an intention of permanence.” They should identify enduring behaviors that will form the underpinnings of their company’s success. These traits, which describe how people approach their work, collaborate, and interact with customers, won’t become obsolete regardless of changes in the industry.
Examples of such behaviors are:
- Honor commitments
- Be responsive
- Look ahead and anticipate
- Deliver results
- Think team first
Once established, these behaviors become the essence of the company’s culture. Having codified guidelines of exemplary conduct sends a clear message to employees. Their leader is doing more than setting a good example. They’re providing foundational tools to help their staff perform at their best and respond to a rapidly changing world.
Communicate, Teach, Practice—Repeat
Of course, behaviors don’t become entrenched on their own. Leaders must develop a way for their existing staff to internalize these traits. They also should use the defined culture as a barometer to select job candidates who will fit in. And it should be integral to the onboarding process to help new hires thrive in this environment.
One of the most important parts of shaping company culture is how leaders articulate it to the people who live it every day. Human resources expert Laura Hamill tells executives:
“Your policies, procedures, communications, systems, organizational chart, benefits, and so much more need to consistently (and accurately) reflect your culture.”
She notes that it’s especially important to explain to employees how their participation in the culture helps them excel and enables the company’s business strategy to succeed.
Managers should routinely discuss specific behaviors in interactions with their team members and encourage them to do the same with each other. The more the culture is reinforced with every message, conversation, and meeting, the more it will sink in.
As David Friedman explains in Culture by Design, “One of the biggest benefits of regular, consistent, and pervasive communication about your culture is that you develop a common vocabulary.” People will be operating on the same wavelength because everyone’s talking about the company’s ideal behaviors in the same way.
This shared language leads to fewer misunderstandings, more alignment, and enhanced efficiency.
One of the most effective means of teaching staff how to perform the behaviors is through good role models. As previously noted, having an exemplary founder or CEO is very important. But a company’s culture should be modeled by everyone in a leadership position to have a steady and perpetual impact.
Beyond walking the talk, managers should leverage every situation to teach staff how the behaviors apply to their everyday work. David Friedman suggests that managers should ask themselves three questions as they discuss issues with employees:
- What do I want this team member to learn from this?
- What behavior can we further cement by how we talk about this situation?
- What does our culture say about how this situation should be handled?
He stresses that there is an opportunity to teach how relevant and helpful the defined behaviors are every time a manager works through a situation with a team member.
Other powerful ways management can deepen employees’ understanding of the culture are:
- Holding informal training sessions with role-playing
- Establishing a mentorship program
- Inviting staff members to share their perspectives about how the culture’s behaviors influence their work
- Providing regular, constructive feedback
Systematically coaching the behaviors does more than reinforce the company culture; it helps workers develop the soft skills that will improve their careers. And opportunities for growth increase employee engagement. A large majority of respondents to a LinkedIn survey said the ability to learn and grow at work is roughly twice as important as getting a raise.
After they are communicated and taught, prioritized behaviors are “baked into” a company’s culture through routine practice. Like playing an instrument or honing a sport, people won’t get proficient with the behaviors unless they regularly work on them.
David Friedman says that the most effective way to practice the behaviors is to create rituals around them. He recommends focusing on one behavior every week and developing daily formats to reinforce that behavior. These can include:
- Beginning each meeting with a short discussion about the behavior of the week
- Issuing a quick weekly quiz about how to handle a situation based on the behavior
- Having staff rotate writing and sharing a brief weekly insight about the behavior
With rituals, the focus on the behaviors shifts from being episodic to systematic. Over time, even minor routines have a cumulative effect. Companies can experience remarkable results when a series of rituals reinforcing culture is incorporated into every workweek.
How to Build a Better Culture
In Culture by Design, David Friedman lays out an eight-step framework for creating and maintaining a vibrant company culture. The book offers practical, actionable advice for any size organization to maximize their potential via improving their culture. Learn more with a free two-chapter download of this helpful resource.
The book inspired Friedman to develop the CultureWise program. It offers a suite of online tools and support to make it even easier for business leaders to build and reinforce company culture systematically. Explore the website to find out how it works and the effect it has had on companies across the country.
Stay informed about the latest corporate culture news with a complimentary subscription to Culture Matters, the CultureWise blog.