Building a strong corporate culture takes commitment, buy-in, leadership and guts. Here are some of the most valuable lessons I learned as a newly appointed ‘culture guy’ in a fast-growing e-commerce business.
Lesson #1 – Sometimes you have to rock the boat
In 2012, I was promoted to VP of Mission & Culture. It was a brand new role and I moved into it from being a team leader on our marketing team. I led our initiative to define our core values and what they meant to us as a company. I learned a lot. Quickly. Some lessons were painful and others were eye-opening, but I knew I was on the right path when I inadvertently rocked the boat a little too much during a leadership team meeting when I proclaimed that “Culture eats strategy for lunch, every day.” It sounded better in my head than it did out loud, considering the blank stares I received and the ensuing discussion.
Apparently I struck a nerve with such a statement. Maybe it was because our culture wasn’t ready for it. Maybe it was because I was a new leader who hadn’t yet ‘earned his spot’ at the leadership table. Maybe it was that I just needed to slow down… but going slow isn’t really who I am. In the end, all of it — and more — was true.
The truth is that culture change requires you to rock the boat. Do yourself a favor and throw your team some life preservers before you rock it too hard. In other words, prepare them in advance with 1-1 sit-downs to get their buy-in and commitment or you’ll find yourselves in even rougher water.
Lesson #2 – Growth is necessary
As the vision for the VP role became clearer for all of us, the next phase was also challenging. We spent weeks working on defining our core values. And that’s when I learned another valuable lesson: People like the idea of change until it means they’ll also have to change. The business of culture requires growth, and with growth comes growing pains.
It’s fun to debate, campaign and even fight for core values. But the fun part can wear off when your managers learn they have new (additional) responsibilities. What they need to understand is that after the initial work is done, a thriving, healthy culture makes everyone’s job easier, especially theirs.
The business of culture requires growth, and with growth comes growing pains.
Lesson #3 – Core values are powerful
As a new leader, I hadn’t fully considered the inevitability that people would lose their job because of core values. It was true, though. Creating a values system exposes your toxic employees and they find their way out, either by choice or by decision.
Core values must be honored and respected or they will become hollow words on a plaque in the lobby. The worst thing that you can do is continue tolerating attitudes or actions that are outside of the core values. Tolerance is the same as acceptance, and your team sees it. Words are only as good as the actions that back them up. The thing with core values, however, is that most people embrace them wholeheartedly. Why? Because they understand the expectations for everyone. It’s a built-in measure of accountability.
Think of it this way: values drive our actions. And our actions determine the results we see. If you value integrity, people will trust you to deliver on your word. If you say you value honesty, but you repeatedly do things that others see as dishonest (ie, taking credit for someone else’s ideas, not paying for the snack in the break room, denying you knew about the “big error”) then you are not acting in an honest way. A values-based organization quickly sheds light on who’s engaged and who’s faking it.
So if you have a department, team or group that is under performing, there’s a good chance they’re doing so because of a breakdown in values. And it needs immediate attention because bad sub-cultures have a way of spreading like a virus, infecting other healthy areas.
Similarly, if you have a high performing team that’s driving innovation, has a winning attitude and great camaraderie, study it! Go see what it is they’re doing well. Then replicate it everywhere. And if you’re a leader, be a humble a servant and let the person(s) responsible for creating a great team share how they are doing it with everyone else – including your fellow leaders.
Values drive behaviors. Behaviors determine outcomes.
Lesson #4 – Value communication
Core values are easy to uphold when things are going great. But, they’re crucial when things aren’t going well. All companies experience waves of growth. A strong values-based culture guided by values helps leaders and employees navigate the natural cycle of ups and downs that organizations face.
One of our core values at Clickstop was, Communicate Openly With Confidence & Respect. This applied to every aspect of the organization. When times were good we shared success stories with each other which often inspired additional growth. When times were tough, we also communicated why. There wasn’t finger pointing or blame, no gossiping about who was at fault or blaming a team that missed its targets. On a winning team, everyone feels accountable for hits and misses.
This value was also ideal for coaching each other; manager to employee, peer to peer, and employee to manager. Honest, frequent feedback on performance and attitude was frequent. Giving honest, direct feedback is coaching. Sometimes the coach has to push the professional beyond where they think they could go.
A boss assigns deadlines, expectations for quality, and greater production. Bosses miss an important element, however. They often forget to communicate why. They don’t lead with a vision, they command with numbers. Leaders spend time investing in employees, building relationships where feedback on performance is given – and expected. Leaders know that employees want to be successful.
Leaders know how to be great coaches, but they also learn how to be great at being coached themselves.
Lesson #5 – A great culture will attract rock stars
Hiring is the single most important job any leader will do in the course of their career. Hire the right person and life is great. Hire the wrong person and life is, well, not good for anyone.
Emphasizing core values at all parts of the hiring process is critical. Your culture dictates the way you write job postings, conduct phone interviews and on-site interviews. The most successful companies don’t have to work hard to promote their culture; people on the outside looking in will see it and be drawn to it.
When applicants visits your workplace they will be looking for confirmation that the culture matches the public persona. How they perceive the environment will be their reality. They’re evaluating how they are greeted when they walk in the front door. They are observing the attitude of the employees they encounter in the break room, bathroom and at their workstations. They’re seeing what the energy feels like.
Authentic, vibrant cultures exude an energy that is palpable. Negative, toxic cultures do the same.
The question is, which one exists at your organization?
When you hire top performers, they’re already working to grow themselves. When they are able to do what they do best, grow and create opportunities for themselves, they will thrive. But if the culture and values don’t match up to what was advertised, you’ll quickly see your best people leave. Highly motivated people don’t wait around long for things to get better, especially when they don’t see changes occurring. They’re in high demand and they have options.
Make it a practice in your organization to hire smart and teach it to all of your hiring managers. High performing, values-centered organizations can afford to go slow and be choosy. Give candidates a chance to be themselves; allow them to let their guard down. Anyone can give good responses to canned questions. Let your culture and core values initiate conversations around hypothetical situations. Hold multiple interviews with a variety of people. Have them participate in a job shadow. Top candidates expect this and will be disappointed in anything less than a legitimately tough process. Your team will give you valuable feedback about the candidate that you might have missed otherwise.
If you're serious about building a rock star culture, learn how to be a humble, generous corporate citizen, pay it forward, and build a network of peers that you can lean on for advice.
Lesson #6 – Stay the course
This is where the true test of your commitment to your vision, mission, values and overall culture will be tested. You’re going to run into situations (and people) that will test any or all of these elements. It happens when there’s a shakeup on a team, a key person chooses to leave, or some KPI is out of whack. That’s when well-intending team members will suggest that the fix is to abandon the vision, tweak the values or remove some facet of the culture (ie, a perk). That’s the tendency of a lot of managers who haven’t full bought into the culture vision. Culture warriors, don’t be tempted to give in to this. You must protect the vision to which you all agreed upon.
Values drive behaviors. Behaviors determine results.
If you’ve built a strong, vibrant, sustainable culture correctly, it will withstand the highs and lows that all businesses experience. Culture shift is not for the faint of heart. It requires absolute buy-in from every individual from the CEO to part-time employees. It is possible and it does work.