Igniting Your Company’s Culture: From Vacuum to Boardroom

Really important work is completed at companies big and small to make explicit what is already in the hearts and minds of their people – the cultural values of the enterprise. Yet for so many companies, these principles live as a framed document created at one moment in time and never generating the kind of business impact considered so promising at their inception.

How do we take a corporate culture from a “vacuum” within which many might think it now lives and into a “boardroom” where the underlying values can come alive and thrive? This is a legitimate question on several fronts. First, the integrity of a culture and its associated values are only as strong as one’s ability to apply the culture on the job and in the market. Second, there is a precious time investment associated with the articulation of a culture/values/desired behaviors, whether tacitly or analytically defined. A lack of discipline and leadership to execute these behaviors within the business would seem to be unacceptable. Finally, there is a negative impact on the human reaction to a culture that is sedentary and dated. Such an impact can harm recruiting efforts, competitive differentiation in the market, and organizational morale.

So what types of cultural bridges or tactics can bring our culture and human capital values to life and serve a productive role for the business?

Years ago I worked with a financial services company that had a small, but growing, multi-family lending division. Despite the positive momentum of its strong brand, low transaction fees, and a strong sales team, this bank faced strong headwinds related to its success in creating a positive “customer experience”. Specifically, formal customer feedback called out the insufficient way in which the sales team Communicated with borrowers during the lending process, the Accuracy of the information borrowers received (e.g. interest rates), the Reliability of the data and documentation deadlines posted, and the overall Ease of doing business (e.g. efficiency, steps in the process). We called this unfortunate acronym C-A-R-E. We then leveraged the bank’s core values to articulate a new sales culture built around an improved CARE sales process with a commitment to dramatically elevating the customer experience. The charismatic President of this division was at the forefront of this initiative, advocating the importance of becoming a CARE sales manager.

This is just one example of a competitive lever, in the form of a performance gap, which served as a landing ground for the bank’s existing corporate values. Certainly, any particular lever will draw out some values more than others. But if these values are the right ones for this culture, what better template for a solution can you find than the collectively defined and communicated tenets of the business. Below are three ways to bring your own values strategically alive.

  • Mobilize the culture and corporate values around priorities or opportunities within the business. A SWOT Analysis provides one natural framework here. Perhaps there is a weakness or threat that must be strategically addressed, such as the lending organization’s service issues discussed above. When Steve Jobs returned to Apple after his long hiatus, the company’s culture of “innovation” that had been so vibrant during the production of the Macintosh but somewhat lost after his departure, became immediately activated upon his return to drive the development of the iMac and decades of future products. Alternatively, there might be a Strength or Opportunity for growth. Certainly, when Timberland expanded from a boot company to an outdoor apparel company, its values adapted to a broader vision that included wool socks, flannel shirts and winter sports. New acquisitions might also present revenue channels long considered prohibitive. In such a case, the values can be applied to these newly defined opportunities or, as is often the case, the new or interim leadership team actually rolls out a fresh set of values for NewCo.
  • Design learning initiatives that train the talent of the company on ways to apply the culture to changes in the business. Recognizing the speed of change, well-designed training programs help reconcile leadership’s understanding of key initiatives and ensure alignment with the culture. Many companies invest heavily in new hire orientation programs that include a detailed discussion of the values of the company. When such a program is successfully delivered, all team members (e.g. call center manager, accounts payable clerk, sales director, logistics supervisor), with equal clarity, can discuss what a value like “collaboration” or “risk-taking” means to the way they do their job.
  • Incorporate the corporate values into core processes of the business as a way to “live” the culture, walk the talk and, of course, generate superior business performance. If “safety” or “candor” or “fun” is indeed an element of the collective culture, then why not incorporate the performance of the value into the ratings of leaders who must be the champions of an emerging culture. If “self-discipline” is a stated value, shouldn’t we ensure that self-discipline is hard-wired into the way we forecast and schedule customer orders, the way we pay vendors and the way we provide career opportunities for our people?

No one gets too excited seeing a laminated set of corporate values on the wall, with the possible exception of those who spent a ton of time and drank a lot of coffee building them out. The leadership opportunity here rests on mobilizing our people to apply these values and use the collective culture as a business tool to drive economic value.

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