“Culture will eat strategy for breakfast.” Peter Drucker
Senior leadership teams within organizations spend a great deal of time on strategy. It is a fairly common theme to hear that strategic planning is an important driver for organizational success. An excerpt from a recent Harvard Business Review article, The Leader’s Guide to Corporate Culture, authored by Boris Groysberg, Jeremiah Lee, Jesse Price, and J. Yo-Lud Cheng states, “Strategy provides clarity and focus for collective action and decision making. It relies on plans and sets of choices to mobilize people and can often be enforced by both concrete rewards for achieving goals and consequences for failing to do so. It also incorporates adaptive elements that can maintain continuity and growth. Leadership goes hand in hand with strategy formation, and most leaders understand the fundamentals. Culture, however, is a more elusive lever because much of it is anchored in unspoken behaviors and mindsets.” (make visual)
What Is Culture Really?
Culture in any organization no matter what size is created and anchored by the leadership of the organization. Whether the leadership team has multiple members or if there is a leadership team of one, they create the culture of the organization intentionally or unintentionally. Obviously, creating culture or improving a culture with intention will create a higher level of results.
An organization’s culture represents the values, attitudes, and behaviors of the leadership team. If senior leadership believes: When in the office we are to focus on work and no play, the culture will be rooted in the attitude that business means business and measuring results is the ultimate scorecard. If the senior leadership team believes highly in exploration and learning, then the culture will be driven by what can we learn or create to positively impact our customers’ experience. If the senior leadership team believes in the tenants of altruism, then the culture will appear compassionate with a high desire to help others. There is no right cultural path. Your organization’s culture must represent what your company stands for and be bonded with your vision—what the organization strives to become in the future.
No matter what your current culture, every contributor and team member in the organization watches, with a detailed eye, every movement and decision of the senior leadership team from which they take their lead on how to act, behave, interact with each other and customers, and make daily decisions.
Some organizations have a written values statement listing the core values to which the organization aspires. Often, they are published on the company’s web site and in other customer-facing literature. Values are communicated to let contributors, team members, and customers know how the organization will operate and how it wants to be known by its contributors, customers and its community.
Your core values should show what your organization believes in. It’s the backbone which provides context for what to do next, how to act, and so on.
Think of it as a set of guidelines which demonstrates the soul of the organization to whoever reads it. They will serve as a guidepost for all those in the organization who, through their individual efforts, will collectively work to achieve the organizational goals. Values are principles or standards by which you choose to do business and organizations typically consider their values to be non-negotiable.
Below are some examples of values statements from companies we should all be familiar:
We do things right. Period.
Buffer (social media management software company)
Choose positivity, Default to transparency, Be a no-ego doer, Listen first and then listen more, Communicate with clarity, Make time to reflect, Live smarter, not harder, Show gratitude, Do the right thing.
Sweetgreen (casual restaurant chain serving salads)
These six core values embody our culture, spirit, and dedication to doing what is right. They keep us aligned and help us make decisions about everything from the food we serve to the way we design our stores.
Win-Win-Win: create solutions where the company wins, the customer wins, the community wins
Think Sustainability: make decisions that will last longer than you will
Keep It Real: cultivate authentic food and relationships
Add the Sweet Touch: create meaningful connections every day
Make an Impact: leave people better than you found them
Creating and communicating your values, albeit, important is only one component of the organization’s culture.
What Does A Great Culture Look Like?
A great culture really doesn’t look like anything but rather culture is felt. Individuals, team members, and customers experience your culture. Not to oversimplify the issue, but a great culture just feels great.
Contributors who work for an organization with a great culture go to work every morning not just for the paycheck but because they genuinely feel like they are contributing to something bigger than themselves. Customers come back because of their experience and for the ability to feel like they are part of something bigger. This links directly back to Goldman’s concept of motivation. Your organization’s culture needs to be bigger than then your actual product, service or the outcomes.
How many of you have a favorite restaurant that you go to time and time again? For most, the answer is yes. You go back because the food is a cuisine you enjoy, the atmosphere is quite comfortable, and the experience is consistently pleasant. That is part of experiencing a successful culture. Let’s take it one step further, you go back because of all the things we mentioned but how many of you go back and ask for the same server every time? When that happens you are feeling the epitome of a great culture. There is an Italian restaurant in the northeast of the United States who recently did a Facebook poll asking for responses to Please share three things you really enjoy about our restaurant. One of the best answers we saw was, “Lisa, the food, and oh yeah Lisa.” The answer clearly reflects a great cultural experience. This restaurant clearly wants to offer and does offer excellent Italian food. However, having contributors, like Lisa, who embrace the culture takes the customer experience to the next level!
Grocery stores are typically selected based upon geographic convenience by most consumers as larger chains have similar selections and quality choices. The current customers of this grocery store (case study) fall into this category because it is extremely convenient to many business parks and residential communities. However, if you asked many frequent customers about the store’s culture, they would say it was terrible. Their culture literally screamed, “I don’t want to be here and helping you is an interruption of my life! This is a convenient grocery store where you can conveniently purchase what you need. It is a large inconvenience to serve you. Have a nice day.”
About a year ago something changed. Customers were starting to see the seafood counter that was never staffed was now staffed with delightful people. They are starting to experience staff as a whole stop and say hello, make eye contact, and ask how they could help you. They started seeing managers grabbing carts when the cart racks were overflowing in the parking lot. Managers pushing carts were never seen in the past. The carts just overflowed potentially hitting vehicles in the lot. If you had a deli order that was fairly consistent from week to week, the staff started asking you if you also wanted that ½ lb. of cheese you typically order. The customer experience literally went from underwhelming to wow!
So about a year ago, this particular grocery store noticed a huge cultural problem that was negatively impacting their business. They brought in a new leadership team and made some significant improvements from a training perspective as well as a cultural perspective and what a world of difference it has made. This case study does not have any financial numbers to share to show improvement but just ask the customers. They can tell because the store just feels better and the number of customers that frequent the location has definitely increased. This is a great example of how you feel a culture! The reason this cultural turnaround appeared to happen so quickly is the new leadership team took the lead and embodied the values, attitudes, and behaviors of the customer experience that would make a meaningful impact for this store.
By definition, a great culture is the shared values, attitudes, standards, and beliefs that characterize members of an organization as they endeavor towards the achievement of a common goal.
Symptoms Of A Bad Culture
Just like our grocery store example. symptoms of a bad culture are fairly easy to spot once you start paying attention to other organizations or even your own. You will know very quickly if there is a culture problem by witnessing any of the following:
- Low productivity
- Avoidance of accountability
- Lack of teamwork
- Power struggles
- Turf wars
- Lack of communication
- Poor information flows
- Poor or dysfunctional attitudes
- Customer complaints
- Lost customers
- Team member disengagement
From a business perspective, all the items listed above will cost your organization time and profitability. Leaders and managers will be spending more time putting out fires and handling customer complaints as opposed to being innovative and creative focusing on growth opportunities. Even if one of these issues exist in your organization it would probably be important to stop and evaluate what needs to be done to enhance your existing culture.
What Can Make A Good Culture Tank?
Let’s go back to our grocery store case study. We are talking about an established location that identified that poor customer service skills and a dysfunctional culture were impacting the success of its operation. So they brought in a new leadership team and started over. The new team embraced and implemented, by example, what the customer experience should be. By their commitment, the contributors and team members followed suit and a new culture was born. Fantastic news. Now, let’s say the turnaround in that location is remarkable and corporate decides to move the leadership team to another location with similar skills and cultural challenges. What is going to happen? Well, one of two things is going to happen. Hopefully, the leadership team is wise enough to say we can’t go to another location until we can get a new leadership team up to speed, so there is a seamless transition. If not, the culture will immediately go back because the leadership team with the commitment and embodiment to implement a superior customer experience is gone. Which is the wiser move? The answer is obvious; however, choosing the unwise answer happens every day.
As organizations focus on results through the blinders of productivity and financial return, culture and the customer experience often times falls by the wayside. Here are several examples of corporate decisions that often kick culture to the curb for a perceived return on investment. As an example, it may a successful short-term solution to merge with competitor XYZ. However, if the cultures are not blended properly to maximize both organizations assets in order to enhance the customers’ experience long term success is not a reality. Typically, in the world of mergers and acquisitions, the priority is a successful financial transaction with little thought or action about how the merged organizations will successfully reinvent the customer experience through a well-thought-out and blended culture.
Business decisions that can negatively impact culture include:
- Leadership changes (like our grocery store case study)
- Mergers and acquisitions
- Changes in technology
- Reorganizations and layoffs
- Unmanaged growth
- New hires not acclimated quickly to the existing culture
- Poor communication about changes now or forthcoming
- Uncommitted leadership – new or existing
As A Leader What Can You Do?
As a leader in your organization, your role is pivotal to embracing and embodying the culture you want your organization to be known for and for the experience you want customers to feel. You set the example and the stage for every contributor and team member. Here are some daily action steps you can focus on that will help create the best example and drive your culture forward. These action steps also go a long way to helping the best culture live beyond your tenure at the organization.
- When making changes include all contributors, team members, and stakeholders in any discussions regarding the changes. Some changes may be inevitable with no real options for course correction. However, the sooner you in involve everyone affected with transparent communication the better.
- In conjunction, with your strategic plan establish and monitor clear goals. Help all contributors and team members know exactly how their daily activity directly connects to the organization’s goal and objectives. Going back to our grocery store case study, if the deli staff remembers a customer’s standard weekly order and asks them if they want that extra ½ lb. of cheese, it increases upsell revenue for the deli by 10%. Let the staff know that is the type of measurable impact they can have on the store’s results by remembering to something so simple. Also, based on our STAR model, does your organization’s structure and rewards system support the upsell? (star model)
- Embrace, execute and live the organization’s values. You are part of the team that created the values, so show your team how it is done. If you need to move grocery carts because a team member needed to call off sick—do it!
- Always manage the message. One of the worst things that can eat away at culture is gossip and untruths. When team members don’t know what is really going on, someone on your team will make it up because that makes them brilliant at the moment. Communicate clearly and often, be transparent, be known for communicating the facts whether they are good or bad. Fundamentally, your team members get it. Sometimes they know what is going on before you do. Remember, they are living in the front lines. Control the messaging and manage expectations. If not, someone will do it for you and it won’t be well done and it most likely will not be accurate.
- Regular and efficient meetings. Here is an effective meeting model.
- Opening – the group has a total of 5 minutes for each member to briefly highlights one personal and one professional accomplishment or highlight their past week
- Dashboard review – the group has a total of 5 minutes for each member to briefly review their part of the weekly dashboard
- Goals review- the group has a total of 5 minutes for each team member to tell the team if they are on track or off track
- Headlines – the group has a total of 5 minutes to share any customer or employee highlights
- Action steps: the team has a total of 5 minutes to share if they are done or not done
- Issues: any issues or questions generated from the previous discussions are discussed here to determine root cause, goals and action steps (the group has a total of 1 hour)
- Recap: the group has a total of 5 minutes for the team members to recap the action steps.
- Acknowledge missteps but spend more time celebrating the team’s wins.
- Create a rewards and recognition process celebrating contributors and team members who represent and implement the organization’s values and culture. The rewards and recognition do not have to be expensive cruises and lofty bonuses that your budget may not allow. It can be a simple, handwritten thank you note and public recognition at a weekly staff meeting. It can be the use of the employee of the month parking spot, a gift card, and public recognition at a team meeting. There are numerous ways to send a clear message that they did a great job, and you would love for them to do it again because they are providing value for your customers. Watch as most contributors and team members will begin to follow suit. Those who don’t, perhaps, aren’t a good fit for the organization.
At the end of the day, culture matters as much if not even more than the ability to create a well-defined strategic plan. Knowing where you are going and how you are going to get there is important. However, if your people think it is alright to the burn villages and bridges to get there, your plan is still inherently flawed and will never achieve execution to the highest possible level. Customers want to know what they can expect from your product or service, they want to feel a positive experience, they want to live your culture, and if you allow your customers to feel and live your culture, they will keep coming back!