Strategy and technology are important to business, but neither impacts the future of an organization like culture. Countless organizations with a great product or service have failed simply because they did not have that intangible driving force that enables a company to separate itself from the competition and weather the storms that all businesses will inevitably face from time to time.
If a company is a miserable place to work, is it bad culture or no culture that’s to blame? Are they consciously creating a culture and simply failing terribly, or has the idea of company culture just never been introduced? Either way, a company is making a decision to have a strong culture or not, and while culture will not guarantee success, poor culture can certainly be the downfall of any organization.
In retrospect, I have certainly experienced my share of bad culture. Though I may not have realized it at that time, it is clear that poor culture was the culprit for some of the less than pleasant career experiences I have had. All of these experiences shared some similar characteristics, from high turnover to slowed business growth due to a lack of employee engagement. So what makes a strong culture in an organization, and what are the signs that your company is succeeding or failing in this area?
Culture is defined in the broad sense as “the arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively.”
For the purpose of this article, let’s define company culture as simply “The collective goals, values and behaviors of an organization.”
Culture is about working collectively toward the goals and vision of the agency and each of its clients. You cannot buy culture; you must develop and nurture it. As an organization grows, this becomes increasingly challenging.
Does Anyone Know Why We Exist?
As the owner or chief executive of an organization, you should lead the charge when establishing the goals and values of the organization. Creating and communicating the purpose and future of the organization to every employee is important at all times. You may choose to include members of your leadership team as advisors, but it is — or at least it should be — your vision being carried out by leaders within your organization.
Vision & Mission Statements
This process often includes vision and mission statements. These statements must be short, to the point, and clearly identify why the organization exists. They immediately give all employees access to the spirit driving the organization. For potential employees, knowing and understanding the vision and mission of an organization should be on your list of questions during the interview process. If the company with which you are interviewing does not have them, this could serve as a red flag if culture is an important factor to you in your career. Once hired, the vision and mission should serve as guideposts for decision making and behavior. Conversely, if you are an employer, and do not have a clear vision and established goals, then how can you hire appropriately for your needs?
In his book “Good to Great” Jim Collins uses the analogy of a bus where the CEO is deciding where the bus is going, and how they are going to get there. Until that is established, it is difficult, if not impossible to get the right people in the right seats on the bus.
In addition to the vision and mission of the organization, it is critical that leadership clearly defines and communicates the short- and long-term goals of the organization in regards to sales and operations. Not only do clearly defined goals create accountability, but they also give people a measuring stick against which they can evaluate their own progress and growth, including big picture items as well as things as granular as the sales goal for the month. When these expectations are clear throughout the organization, no one should be surprised by performance evaluation results because they are able to benchmark their progress along the way. Perhaps more importantly, culture will dictate HOW employees go about reaching goals, and the “how” is what makes the difference.
Being an agency, we do have a fun work environment (foosball games get seriously heated at Cardinal), but that is not company culture. Games, snacks, company outings, these things are rewards for those that are focused on getting results no matter what or how long it takes. The space a company inhabits may be an expression of culture or more accurately personality, but culture is more about how the people that make up the company behave. Culture is defined by the actions taken by individuals to drive the agency and its clients forward toward a shared goal. A great culture is overflowing with people that will not settle for second best.
The environment that you offer as an employer may certainly go a long way to attract the talented people that exemplify the behaviors you desire, but all the games and nap rooms in the world will not create the culture you desire without purposeful, ritualistic communication of what it means to be a part of your organization.
You cannot simply put the core values up on the wall in a frame and be done. The core values, mission and vision statements, and environment only set the stage. Creating a strong company culture is not a passive activity. You cannot “set it and forget it.”
Developing and maintaining the kind of culture that makes an agency legendary requires daily work. Everyone in the agency must be on board. All it takes is one poor attitude, just one bad hire, to poison an entire department, or even the entire organization. The unfortunate truth if you are in growth mode is that you will make a bad hire at some point. You may have one or more of these culture terrorists on your staff right now. When you do, you run a great risk to your company if you do not take appropriate action.
Finding the Right People
The right people are the key. This starts at the top. If your leaders are not living the culture,then why would you expect anyone else to do so? Leadership should have rituals (activities, actions, etc.) that reinforce the culture. There are a number of great ideas out there that have proven to achieve results. This is as important as training a staff in technical knowledge.
No matter how much time your leadership devotes to company culture, the wrong people will never be on board. In my experience, the right people are the ones that find a way to work toward the personal vision they have for themselves within the vision set for the organization. An employee’s personal goals are not likely to align perfectly with those created by the CEO of any organization, however, when you find those employees that get it, the employees that see the big picture, hold on to them no matter what it takes.
Hard work and long hours are admirable, but if the results are not there, then long hours are of little to no value. Like most, our business is results driven, not action driven. Employees that are inclined to continually find a better more efficient way to achieve results for clients are actively involved in shaping how they work and how work balances or coexists with personal life. In turn, these people are much more likely to find personal happiness in what they do and as a result tend to be the rock stars that are a no-brainer when you have to make selections for promotions or special projects.
These are the employees that make an effort to understand exactly what is expected, and they live and breathe it. They wear the company logo like a badge of honor. I know I said it already but it bears repeating; hold on to these people no matter what it takes.