Who can’t relate to this month’s dysfunction: “This is NOT the right corporate culture for me.” The good news is that as a leader, you can do something about it. Whether you are the manager of a department or sit atop an organization, you have the power to change a culture by your words and actions. What’s frightening is that you’ve already been doing that – whether you realized it or not. So, how can you more intentionally shape the culture the way you want to? Here’s a prescription for you. Take these doses in order and then repeat:
1. What do you preach? Write it down. I can guarantee that there are words, phrases and conversations you are using in your everyday interactions more than others. What you choose to talk about influences your culture. So, write it down. That way you can be more intentional about what you are saying and why. Here are some good ways to figure out what it is that you are actually emphasizing through your words:
• When you talk to your team members, how do you start the conversation? Do you talk about family first, results first, check-in on how they are doing, etc…
• What do you insist on talking about at every meeting? Is there any common topic you bring up or agenda you use?
• What is the one thing that you think needs to change “around here?” What gets you frustrated in your group and organization that you routinely share with others?
2. What are the “real” messages you are sending to your employees? Make sure you are consistent. Are you operating in a way that is different… or worse, counter to the values you espouse? This could be utterly catastrophic. If your employees see you as a hypocrite, they will write you off and take everything you say with a grain of salt. Consider this story from Ben, a consultant with a firm that espouses the importance of work/life balance and family to its employees:
This past December, our firm went after a high-profile project that our primary competitor had virtually locked up. The client eventually put it out for bid the day before Christmas Eve. Because this was a project that would be fantastic for our firm and directly align with our strategy, we pursued it full on, committing a team of people to work 72 hours straight over the Christmas holiday. In the end, we won the work above many of the most well known names in our industry and our key competitor is now a sub-contractor to us.
While this is a great story for our firm, all I heard was that multiple people sacrificed their entire Christmas holiday, setting aside their loved ones for work. This really made me wonder if my values were truly aligned with my employer’s and what my future at the company could be.
Your actions speak louder than words. What are you “really” saying? Here are ways to find out:
• What values do you do look for when you hire people?
• What do you fire people for? Is that aligned with what you espouse? Note: If you’ve never fired anyone, look closely. If you had been congruent with your values, would you have made tougher decisions by now?
• What do you reward people for?
3. What do your customers want to talk about? What’s important to them? Align your culture with their values. What do your customers value? This is a critical and massively overlooked category when leaders think about culture. Your cultural values should be aligned with those of your customers if you want your culture to help you, rather than hurt you. Consider Bob Nardelli at The Home Depot. When Bob left GE to join The Home Depot, he brought his values with him. Bob, valued efficiency and low cost above everything else. To that end, Bob got rid of many of the most seasoned store employees that delivered some of the best service in the industry, opting to staff the stores with inexperienced, low cost employees. Unfortunately, Bob’s customers did not share the same set of values, traditionally valuing service and convenience over everything else. The result: The Home Depot lost market share to Lowe’s as customers were turned off by Bob and his culture. Frank Blake, Bob’s successor has been working diligently to repair the damage, but once customers leave, it is a long haul to bring them back. Align your culture with your customers for success.
4. Practice the “No Assholes” Rule. Bob Sutton, Faculty at Stanford and author of “The No Asshole Rule” impresses the importance of eliminating those individuals in the organization that are caustic, abusive and cause trouble. Trust me, left unchecked “assholes” will ruin all of your plans. Bob notes that research indicates that one caustic / negative interaction delivers “5 times the punch” of a positive interaction. If you have those kinds of individuals in your organization, despite your best efforts, you run the risk of your culture defaulting to cut-throat behaviors, heavy politics, abuse, unethical behaviors, fear and lowered commitment – all the things we’ve talked about this month. But watch out. Bob also notes that “assholes will breed like rabbits.” Make sure you aren’t putting the wrong person in charge of hiring. And make sure you personally don’t qualify.
Follow these steps and you’ll be on the way to developing the “right” culture. And whether you are a manager or a CEO, these steps can all be put in place today. One word of caution, if you are a manager inside a larger organization, the task of changing culture is a bit trickier because you have several “customers” – your external customers and your internal customers. It can be a challenge to create a healthy “subculture” if you find yourself stuck in an unhealthy one. That being said, life’s too short. Create the culture you’ve always wanted, and who knows, you might be surprised at how many people decide to join you.