Building Culture

Shared patterns of beliefs, values and expectations

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Does the emergence of a company’s culture happen organically or by design?

Building Culture

Many organizations strive to “build a culture.” The positive values they seek include cooperation, honesty, teamwork, respect, tolerance, interaction, innovation, merit-based rewards, openness and other virtues.

But does — or should — the emergence of a company’s culture happen organically or by design? Can you build a company’s culture from the ground up? Can you change an established culture in a larger organization?

What is company culture?

A good working definition of company culture is a shared pattern of values, beliefs and expectations. These values and patterns produce rules — both explicit and implicit — for desired behaviors.

People within the norms adhere to widely accepted behaviors. Those outside the norms resist accepted behaviors.

In Tom Peters’ book In Search of Excellence he writes that “excellent companies are marked by very strong cultures, so strong that you either buy into their norms or get out. There’s no halfway house for most people in excellent companies.”

A hard-driving company may have expectations that the customer’s needs must be met no matter the cost or time invested. Fifty and 60-hour work weeks may be the norm. Weekend conference calls and cancelled holidays may also be expected.

Someone who values work/life balance may not be a fit, no matter how competent or capable they are.

Company founders build something based on a combination of their desires, needs they saw in the market and the drive to build

Building a company culture

People often cite desirable perks like free lunches, unlimited vacation, ping pong and allowing dogs in the office as culture builders. In truth, these are applications of defined culture. Perks will eventually lose importance without establishing values, vision, mission and purpose.

Successful company culture icons like Netflix which intentionally set out to establish desired behaviors through their widely cited Culture Deck suggests that companies can build a culture. However, boilerplate and platitudes about respect, innovation and inclusion rarely build culture.

Specific, hard-hitting statements of value, such as “Adequate performance gets a generous severance package,” and “Hire only A players. Excellent colleagues trump everything else” establish and communicate real culture.

By telling manager’s, “Your most important task is building a great team, and recruiting a great team is your top priority” direction is provided without explicit guidance.

Creating broad standards instead of specific policies, such as dealing with expenses, e.g. “act in the company’s best interest” and compensation: “you determine how much compensation will be in the form of equity vs. salary” quickly and forcefully create cultural landmarks, even if they break with classic HR practices.

Questions that Create Culture

Articulating the purpose of a company has a strong cultural and organizational influence on building culture. While establishing core values is frequently a starting point for culture building, citing one word values such as “innovation” or “honesty” or “safety” sometimes add to confusion and vague interpretations.

Purpose Drivers

Questions can help capture and even create a culture. Knowing who your organization is on a fundamental level is key. Questions that help uncover purpose are helpful, such as:

  • What ideas and principles were the company originally founded on?
  • What lights the organization up
  • What do our people genuinely care about and even get fanatical about?
  • What do people need that we want to create that the competition isn’t giving them?

Founding Principles

Sam Walton, the founder of of Walmart was a child of the Depression Era. He was that rural Americans couldn’t access decent quality items and that retail shopping was actually more expensive in the country due to limited availability. Thus began his volume buying model. The purpose: to save people money so they can live better.

In 1971, Herb Kelleher sees flying is reserved for the “elite” as only 15% of the population fly. On the back of a napkin, he creates a new model in aviation with only one type of aircraft used, open seating, and 20-minute turnaround time. Southwest Airlines is born. The purpose: give people the freedom to fly.

Values and Purpose

From purpose, values begin to emerge. The people in the organization believe in and adopt the purpose. They then seek to preserve them to unusual and even extreme degrees.

BMW has long been known from its tagline: The Ultimate Driving Machine. But BMW’s tagline is not its purpose.

It’s core purpose is to enable people to experience the joy of driving. To that end, they seek to follow the values of independence, innovation and authenticity. The way they design products and engineer them is to seek near perfect 50/50 balance over front and rear axles for exceptional agility, control and feel.

Engineers live by the principle of: “If it doesn’t provide more exhilaration, comfort or safety, it doesn’t belong in our car.”

Building a Team Culture

Fortune magazine pointed out that it may be easier to change a company’s people than to change its culture.

After establishing purpose and values, the key to culture is whom you hire and promote.

People often get jobs and move up more based on the degree to which they fit prevailing cultural norms than for any objective reason. For hiring leaders who must interview and hire candidates from outside the company or industry, this carries very important implications. We need to know if candidates will fit into our culture.

Focus on Hiring

Culture and candidates must fit.

The techniques and skills in behavioral interviewing will provide a method for interviewing candidates that will ensure the best possible fit. When considering the critical match of candidates to culture, you can apply a basic principle to all interviewing: The hiring process really boils down to fitting people against jobs. To fit people against jobs in a way that considers a candidate’s fit with your culture, you need to predetermine the behaviors required to succeed on the job.

Culture is determined by the how of each job. Most job descriptions only tell what is required, what is paid, what the benefits are, what the reporting structure is, or what skills are required.

Today’s candidates have been coached in ways to identify and use corporate culture in their interviews. We must be prepared to do the same.

Using certain methods for interviewing such as Top Grading can help identify candidates that not only align with the skill set necessary for the role but also the companies core values.

Coaching and Mentoring in Culture

The key in developing a world class, high performance culture is in creating an atmosphere of sourcing, hiring, effectively onboarding while effectively coaching and mentoring the team. In accomplishing this, a critical mindset and skill is in teaching people critical thinking and decision making skills.
Human nature is that people like to delegate upward. Much like parents, we as managers and leaders love to provide all the answers, displaying all our life knowledge and domain expertise. The issue this creates is that, following the human law of least resistance, individuals stop thinking because it’s easier and quicker to just ask us for the answers. By doing this, they also have plausible deniability if something goes wrong.

Great leader/managers‘ egos are fed by the desire to develop the team. The mindset we have in following this model is to encourage independent critical thinking. This requires a bit more work on our part as take charge managers in that, while it is easier to just give the answer, we need to coach by asking open-ended high value questions which encourage critical thinking.

The counter-intuitive aspect of this is that we may create less certainty by letting our team make decisions, which may not either be perfect or the same ones we would make if we were merely telling the team or individual what to do. The benefit, though, is that over time individuals become more self-reliant and self-confident in the decisions they make, which leverages our time to lead and also prepares them for more senior roles with the organization.

The use of 360 degree feedback modules, Psychological assessments such as the HOGAN or strengths finders can help reveal blind spots and provide a launching off point for the focus of the coaching sessions. It is frequently the case where people who have had years of success have never held a mirror up to their weaknesses and these tactics are a safe and confidential way to begin peeling back the layers for true continuous improvement.

It is important to build trust first. Trust is the pillar or being able to truly be open, honest and transparent in a coaching relationship. All too often coaches pop in and go straight to “ the work: without that critical first step that often takes some time. Add coaching/ mentoring tactics here

Employee Engagement and Culture

Employees engage with their organizations in two primary ways: (1) their work and (2) their boss or supervisor.

Concerning their work, people want to know if the mission or purpose of the organization makes them feel that their job is important. They want to be able to tangibly link their work to the overall purpose of the organization. According to Gallup surveys, “a uniquely human twist occurs after the basic needs are fulfilled — the employee searches for meaning in her vocation. For reasons that transcend the physical needs of earning a living, she looks for contribution to a higher purpose. Something within her looks for something in which to believe.”

Managers are responsible for employees’ level of engagement. Managers represent trust and credibility to employees. They also give voice and personality to the company’s purpose and strategic destination.

Concerning their boss, employees ask three fundamental questions: “Do you care about me?” “Can you help me?” and “Can I trust you?”

Communication issues dominate. Research suggest that engagement boils down to these essentials:

  • Job expectations – I know the work that is expected of me
  • Resources – I have what I need to do that work
  • Skills – I have the opportunity to do what I do best
  • Recognition – I have received recognition for doing good work in the last seven days
  • Personal – Someone at work cares about me as a person
  • Development – Someone at work encourages my development and growth
  • Mission / Purpose – The mission of my organization makes me feel my job is important
  • Commitment to Quality – My associates and fellow employees are committed to doing quality work
  • Friends – I have a best friend at work
  • Progress – In the last six months, someone at work has talked to me about my progress
  • Learn – In the last year, I have had opportunities to learn and grow.

It is important for the Leadership of the company to model and continue to nurture company culture. This includes celebrating wins that align with core values and connecting them to the core values.

Organizational Development Experts

Maria Goldsholl
Maria GoldshollManaging Partner - Human Capital

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