Building a great culture: The Hard ‘Soft’ Skill
We’re approaching the results time of year. The time we learn who’s won the
championship, who’s the best selling artist, who’s tipped for an Oscar and in business,
we look at our results vs. our goal at the beginning.
For many it’s a celebration. For other businesses, not so much. Many companies that
are a little short of their goals will look to their sales and marketing activities to see what
can be improved. A much smaller number may take a look at the company culture. This
is a shame.
It seems easier to look at numbers like new leads, enquiries, conversion rate, gross
margin etc. and think of ways to improve them. ‘Measuring’ the culture however seems
more intangible and difficult to grasp. The fact is though that even for companies with an
excellent product or service, if the culture is poor, so is everything else!
Developing a healthy culture often comes under the heading of ‘soft skills’. Not so! Many
leadership teams avoid focusing on these issues because of the very fact that they are
What is Culture?
Amidst volumes of information about culture, in my opinion there is a simple and
practical way to think about it. Your culture is reflected in the answer to the question:
“what’s it like to work here?”
Truthful answers, may include words like, supportive, friendly, toxic, finger-pointing,
gossipy, stressful, challenging, rewarding…whatever they are, they are a direct reflection
of your culture and if there are more negatives than positives you’ll have a problem
before long, or you’ve been living with one for a while.
How do you Improve culture?
Just expecting people to behave well together wont work. Imagine if there were no lanes
on a highway and we just hoped drivers would conduct themselves properly. Or picture
trying to bring up an infant child with no house rules. We each have our own (different)
interpretations of what good behaviour is so we need some common guidelines that we
can all live by.
These guidelines are often called values.
Now, executives may feel jaded when you mention these. Some have embarked on
expensive (and unsuccessful) exercises to implement them. Others have found it too
hard to change the status quo, and some just think they are too touchy feely for profit-minded
‘serious’ businesses. However even if a company has no stated values, values
are still present and in effect. They are just the ones that everyone has made up for
themselves…and they may not be the ones that support your growth!
Here’s how to make a common set of values work for you and your company.
Downloading some nice-sounding words from the internet, posting them up in the office
and commanding people to live by them is thinking outside-in. It’s also got very little chance of success.
A better approach is to think inside-out. Think of past examples that represented the
very best of your company: someone doing more than they had to, a team member
sticking to a principle, a colleague supporting a co-worker through a difficult time or a
staff member seeking a real win-win with a customer. These past experiences are the
best of you all in action and a great starting point for determining what the guiding
principles of the business should be moving forward. They need to be collected and
distilled into phrases that everyone can understand but the approach has a much better
chance of success because the examples are real.
How many are necessary? There’s no ultimate right answer, however in practice, three
to six should be enough. Less is better. Just think of trying to live by or enforce twenty
When it comes to publishing the values for all to see it’s best to state them as a phrase
or expression, along with two or three examples of actions which bring the value to life.
For example, if a key value emerges as:
“Team Mates come First” then supporting actions could be:
– We don’t blame colleagues in public. Mistakes are ours and we rectify them as a company.
– We don’t gossip and address grievances with the person concerned directly.
– We address team members by their first name.
To make values ‘stick’ and become part of the fabric of a company, repetition is key.
Leaders need to be the ultimate example of the values in action. Team members also
need reminding of the values often. Those with young children will recall how many
times they’ve had to remind them to say please or thank you. Also in times of disciplinary
action or corrective measures, try and always tie things back to the values and what
standards are required. Remember that repetition is the mother of skill.
Remember the metrics we talked about (leads, enquiries, conversion rate etc) and how
many struggle with ‘measuring’ the culture? Again I’d like to offer a simple metric to see
if your values are alive and well. Stories! At the monthly management meeting (or at
least each quarter) take stock of the number of new stories that demonstrate your values
in action. If there are no stories coming through it could be that you have picked the
wrong value or it needs more encouragement and repetition to make it stick.
Stick with it…
If done properly, cementing in the core values in a company can take several months.
But it’s time very well spent. Values represent the invisible glue that holds the operation
together and the bottom line benefits can accrue over many, many more years to come.