3 questions on company culture

Transformation of a company’s business almost always requires transformation of a company’s culture, too. But getting a solid grasp on what constitutes company culture can be tricky.

Here, Tom Andrews, head of our SYPartners’ consulting practice, shares his insights on 3 essential questions that can help any leader understand culture in a new way.

1. How do you determine what a company’s cultural tenets are, or should be?

What companies currently hold to be valuable is a product of the past. That’s because people learn to value what works and what gets rewarded. This all starts when an institution is founded, with the founder’s own beliefs.

As people act upon the founder’s beliefs, certain behaviors take root over time and become habits because they are persistently rewarded. That can be anything from the way people present to management to the way the organization measures progress.

After a while, people lose sight of the original beliefs and simply focus on the habits. If those habits stop working, and if an organization doesn’t understand why those habits exist, it goes into crisis.

To understand current culture you have to start with what people are habitually doing, and why. Look at what behaviors in particular are rewarded and celebrated. Identify the stories people tell themselves to justify their actions. Look for symbols—important meetings, hires and promotions, awards, space design—that teach you what is and is not important.

Then dig deeper by asking “why.” And return to the founding myth of the organization, where it all began. Companies are human institutions that are much closer to tribes than we care to admit—and their founding stories tend to be powerful sources of belief for identity.

Once you get at the why, you can start to identify the few deeply held beliefs about what matters (“the values”) that are authentic. And when you do that—and when you can name those beliefs convincingly—you can start to rethink the habits and behaviors that exist so they are adaptive to a new environment.

It’s worth noting that many corporations fail to do this well because they stay at a superficial level. They want their values to look good to other people and they don’t take a hard look at what really defines them. That’s why you see so many companies with “integrity” and “serving customers” and “mutual respect” as their published values. The advice here is the advice you’d give others: Don’t try to be someone else. Be yourself.

2. What are some of the cultural elements that companies tend to lose as they get bigger and more complex?

I think the problem is less that companies lose cultural elements, and more that they lose touch with what they stand for. Their founders were often brave risk-takers with great, idiosyncratic beliefs about business and enterprise who were willing to take on the world. As the companies grow larger and more complex, the understanding of those core beliefs fades and becomes very superficial, and what people care about is conforming and not failing, and they just do their best to follow current habits.

The process that great companies go through to rediscover themselves can be quite therapeutic, because it restores a sense of purpose to the organization and enables the leaders to be brave and entrepreneurial again—which in turn summons the courage and energy of all the employees.

3. What are some ways to increase employees’ emotional connection to the company and its culture?

Invite them into the process of defining or reinterpreting the purpose and values of the company.

No one engages with something that they are simply told or lectured about. They engage when they are actually asked to voice an opinion and be part of a conversation.

IBM did this with its ValuesJam when it invited all of its 400,000 employees online to discuss what was core to the company—and the CEO and CMO took part in threaded dialogue over a 24-hour period.

Starbucks did this when Howard Schultz invited 11,000 of his store managers to New Orleans to discuss the future.

Inviting people to participate is not the same as asking them to decide—it’s understood that the leadership team has to make sense of the discussion and come to a final decision. But their participation is what creates the emotional engagement. If it’s the regular course of business, then increasing employee’s emotional connection to the culture is about creating as many moments for conversation and social storytelling as possible.

A company that is having frequent conversations about its culture—and I mean genuine dialogue—will be more likely to have an engaged and vibrant culture. A company that is relying on a monologue from leadership down to dictate actions is a company that is not engaging its employees in any meaningful way.

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