How to build a strong company culture

How many of us have worked in organisations where the culture wasn’t just right?

Where the rules and the bureaucracy to make decisions were often so difficult that it was easier just to keep going with the status quo than trying to change things?

In this week’s blog, I draw inspiration from Coaching for Leaders latest episode 426 where Ginger Hardage spoke about unstoppable cultures but also the common myths that remain about what a corporate or group culture is, how it emerges, and whose responsibility it is.

These myths are so ingrained into our thinking that they have become convenient rules of thumb to rely on in explaining why companies are not progressing and staff is and remains unhappy.

Better understanding of these assumptions can enable us to see past these myths and unravel in a more constructive way also the steps we need to create strong inclusive cultures within our organisations.

Culture is someone else’s job

One of the most common assumptions is that “culture is someone else’s job”, that CEOs and people in the leadership positions are the ones who manage and create a company culture.

Therefore, if there is something wrong with the culture, the only solution is to change those people on the top so that a new culture can be introduced.

Yet, Ginger challenges this assumption and notes that a company culture is everyone’s responsibility.

It starts with the operational teams and those who work on the coal face of customer service, and flows through every single job and interaction that customers have with the company.

To create a great culture, like that at the Southwest Airlines, you need to engage and inspire all of your workforce and not just those in the top positions.

So how would you do this to make sure that the company culture is understood and upheld by all of those working and affiliated with the company?

One way to do this is to make sure that everyone is aware of the company’s vision and values and what those look like on everyday basis.

This means that certain behaviours should be celebrated and communicated across the whole organisation, making explicit examples of those actions and those people who exhibit such behaviour.

For example, in Southwest Airlines, the employees know what they are expected to do and how the company values translate into practice: the best customer service ever.

So a company culture is a shared mindset, a set of agreed operating principles that help people (in any position) to know what is expected of them.

Culture is so fluffy and unaffordable

Another common assumption is that culture is so “fluffy”, meaning it is difficult to define and measure to the extent that some people give up even trying to measure or define a company culture.

Even when people recognise the meaning and desperate need for better culture, it is often seen as something so expensive that it is difficult to make the gigantic investment necessary.

Yet, is culture really that expensive to imagine and constitute?

According to Ginger, it is pretty cheap for leaders to live the chosen values on daily basis at their company.

It is not expensive to behave according to the values at the workplace and everyone is always observing and watching whether the big visionary goals and values written everywhere in company brochures are actually part of the lived experience working in that company.

If the leaders do not exhibit or live up to what the company says it keeps as its core values, why would the frontline staff do so instead?

With leadership comes a huge responsibility about being transparent in such alignment and really thinking through how he or she can be a great example and inspire others to live through those values as well.

In essence, culture is the way we live our lives and walk the talk.

That is the real challenge in aligning daily practice with what we say to others we tend to live by.

The truth is, as Ray Dalio also reminds us in Principles, that being explicit and transparent about our own assumptions and values is crucial in enabling other people to assess whether we are living by our values or not.

Leaders in particular therefore need to adhere and set examples of how they themselves are walking the talk and also consistently promote examples of preferred behaviour within that institution or company.

Changing company culture

So how would we go about changing a company culture?

Aligning company culture and values with Key Performance Indicators could be one way of making sure that people are rewarded for particular actions and behaviours that align what the company aims to do.

For example, if we truly believe that our company or institution should exhibit daring leadership, then particular leadership behaviours should be part of our performance review indicators.

This could relate for example to number of leadership certification and development opportunities that individuals have sought, and examples of career development and capacity building development initiatives and opportunities that a leader has provided to his or her team and its members.

So we would look at and look for evidence of leadership in practice; not the old style of leadership that is doing the administrative tasks but rather evidence of brave leadership where the leader explicitly seeks out opportunities for others to excel.

Rewarding those individuals who have realised and seen gaps in what the company is missing out on currently and then taken voluntary and often unnoticed steps in improving the situation.

What if that was the practice and the perspective taken at a company, and if people would be promoted based on such evidence rather than just measuring how much money they brought in each year?

We can change company culture but this requires efforts and also constant talking about the mindset, values and the vision that are essential to master if you want to be part of the organisation.

Take time to culture plan

But all of this is much easier said than done.

To have a truly engaging company culture, you have to plan for it.

Great cultures don’t just happen; people work hard for years behind the scenes and make sure that the processes and practices at the work place become integral manifestations of that culture.

For leaders, this means that the corporate plan is not enough.

They have to “culture plan” and take time out of their busy schedules to sit down and to examine the alignment between what they said the company values and mission are, and how these are aligned (or not) with how the systems have been set up to deliver that mission and vision.

I was thrilled to hear that Ginger for example offers the Unstoppable Cultures Fellowship where leaders come together and take dedicated space and time to work on their culture plan for their organisation (and of course I now want to attend!).

But all of this applies as much to e.g. not-for-profits or movements that want to build a strong culture for their members and where the passion for social goods is aligned with how the group works.

Recently I was very inspired by the Stand Up Unconference as an example that was a great manifestation of how different groups of people can come together and start building shared ideas about what for example the kind of culture that we need and want in social enterprise networks.

By bringing people together to create and plan a culture is an important step in which we need both high level top down ideas and the bottom up creativity in enabling a robust culture plan to emerge that has high levels of ownership.

But most of all, leaders need to walk the talk and promote the kinds of examples that they see where the values and culture are truly aligned.

Originally published at https://johannanalau.com on August 25, 2019.

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Johanna Nalau

Johanna Nalau

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I am a climate adaptation and leadership rule bender, working hard but with a spring in my step to challenge conventional ideas. www.johannanalau.com