Why is culture so important to an organization’s bottom line? I’m Al Curnow, senior consultant for High Performing Culture. We help business leaders all across the country who recognize there is a huge connection between the culture of their organization and how their people perform.
If you think about it for a second, whether it’s a sports franchise or a Fortune 500 company, there is a real connection. The work environment within an organization really drives how people behave, and more importantly, how they perform. So if that’s the case, wouldn’t it make perfect sense, particularly if you’re thinking of starting a new company or whether you’ve been in business for a number of years, to be as intentional as you can about building the culture that you want?
You Can Institutionalize Your Culture
You might ask yourself, is it possible to institutionalize the culture of your choice? And our answer is absolutely yes. In fact, when we work with organizations, we typically take them through an eight-step framework to organize and systematize their culture in a real intentional way. The eight steps of this framework really start with the most critical part, which is defining what you want.
1. Define What You Want Your Culture to Be
What do you want your culture to be? More specifically, how do you want your employees to behave? How do you want them to treat each other? How you want them to treat your customers, vendors, and suppliers? It all starts there.
2.Make It Stick
Secondly, once you’ve clearly defined what you want your culture to be, how do you make it stick? The last thing you want is another company initiative that’s rolled out with great fanfare only to find six or nine months down the road it all falls by the wayside when we get busy or distracted The way we avoid that is creating rituals and habits, and we’ll discuss that a little bit later on in greater detail.
3. Select People for Your Team
The next step is, how do we select people for our team? Having the discipline—not only the proper training, education, and experience—but also having the discipline to make sure that they are a fit culturally before they even spend day one with you.
4. Integrate New Hires
Once they’re on board, we talk about integration, or onboarding, and make the point that the new employee’s first week with our company is the most important week of their career. That’s the time they’re going to see things for how they are. It’s better to take the time from the get-go to make sure the perceptions that they see are what you want them to see.
5. Communicate Your Culture
Next step in the process is communicating your culture, and this might sound superficial but it’s literally sharing the language of your culture everywhere throughout the organization: using it in everyday conversation, placing it on the walls, literally inundating your employees with what’s important to you, your organization, and the culture of that organization.
6. Coach Employees
The next step in the process is coaching. From day one, when you start getting really intentional about driving your culture, you’re going to find limitless opportunities to coach your employees on how to live up to those standards that you’ve defined. A big part of this is looking for opportunities to put concepts you brainstormed during a board meeting into real life practice.
7. Lead by Example
The next step in the process is leading by example, because at the end of the day, let’s face it: it’s not what we say; it’s what we do. You’re bright leaders, you’re hiring bright people: they get it. They’re going to be looking to you for their example. So when you’re defining how you want your employees to behave and what’s important to you as a culture, you’ve got to be living by those same standards. Not to say that we’re perfect. We’re all works in progress and sometimes there’s real strength in admitting that, but as a leader of your organization, you really have to lead by example in order to effectively drive your culture.
8. Create Accountability
The next step is creating accountability, because at the end of the day if you’re going to take the time and effort to build your culture the way you want it to be, you’ve got to hold people accountable. So, for example, if you’re doing performance appraisals, then your performance appraisals should contain language and should measure how your people are living and doing relative to the to the culture that you espouse. Just as important as any of the tactical skills, project abilities and so forth is how your folks are living to the culture that you subscribe.
All those things in totality are critically important to really making your culture what you want it to be and making it last.
When it comes to the eight-step framework, the first two steps are really the most critical. We like to tell our clients that if we can get really good at those first two steps, we’re going to get about 85 percent of the way there in terms of designing and driving the culture that we want.
Define Culture with Clarity
The first of those steps is to clearly define what we want our culture to be. Now the distinction we make, which is different from what you’ve probably heard before, is that we define our culture in terms of “What do we want our people to do?” These are specific behaviors. We call those behaviors “fundamentals,” because they’re building blocks to success. Historically, many of you might have been focused on values. It’s not that values are unimportant. However, it’s much more difficult to train and coach a value than it is a behavior. Values operate at the 30,000-foot level, whereas behaviors operate at the street level. So that’s where we like to focus.
These street level steps are as simple as making sure you follow up on everything. The importance of being a generous listener, speaking straight—all samples of what we see among our clients—are critical key behaviors, or fundamentals, but it’s absolutely impossible to hire, coach, and teach any of these fundamentals until we’ve clearly defined them upfront.
The second critically important step in that eight-step framework is creating rituals. What does it take to get better at anything, whether it’s learning a new language or playing a musical instrument? It takes practice, and let’s face it: most of us hate practice. We get tired, we get bored, we give it up. Think of your local gym on January 1st when there’s a 20-minute wait to get on the elliptical machine. We all know if we wait it out for six or seven weeks we can jump right on that machine as soon as we walk through the doors. And that’s exactly what we want to avoid at our companies. The way we do that is by creating rituals.
Rituals are things that happen and go on within your company every day anyway. They don’t take discipline or willpower. They just happen. Here are some examples of rituals that we use with our clients. We have our clients start every formal meeting they hold in their organization with a brief discussion of that week’s fundamental. We have our clients look and teach their fundamentals one week at a time. Another example would be a weekly email that explains the importance of that week’s fundamental.
These rituals happen each and every week for the rest of your employees’ careers. It’s not left to willpower or discipline; they just happen, and that’s what makes the difference. That’s what makes these fundamental behaviors become ingrained in your people, so over time, it’s just who you are as an organization and the way you do things.
If we can get really good at those two components—defining with great clarity what we want our culture to be and creating rituals so we reinforce and ingrain those behaviors—it’s going to get you well on your way to creating and driving the culture that you want. Unless you’re intentional, unless you have a plan, unless you create rituals, your culture is just going to become what it becomes. It’s going to take on the characteristics of the strongest personalities within your organization. So if that’s the case, you better hope those strongest personalities are the good ones that are espousing the things that are important to you and your company.
Good companies have good cultures by chance. Great companies have great cultures by design.