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Soyini Coke


Five Levers for Building Your Desired Culture

Lofty platitudes need not apply

Published: Wednesday, July 11, 2018 - 11:03

In more than 130 interviews with high-performing CEOs, across a wide variety of industries, culture was almost universally cited as the single most important factor contributing to company success.

Why is culture so important? Because culture drives how employees feel about working at your company. And this drives productivity, discretionary effort, and customer experience.

A recent Aon Hewitt study shows that engagement does drive financial performance. According to the study, “a five-point increase in employee engagement is linked to a three-point increase in revenue growth in the subsequent year.”

Here are five approaches to bringing your desired culture to life in your business. It’s a lot more than putting platitudes on the wall in your break room. It takes strength, honesty, and an intentional strategy.

Model the behavior

It’s simple and effective (and cheap!). Culture is very much a conversation. It’s very much monkey see, monkey do. For example, Emory Johns Creek Hospital is committed to removing the “us vs. them” from their culture. Their CEO, Marilyn Margolis—a former nurse—explained her approach to establishing this as a cultural norm. “One of the ideas is a program we instituted a while ago called Walk a Mile in My Shoes,” says Margolis. “What we do is: Everybody in leadership takes time every month to go upstairs, what we call upstairs, and work with a department.”

For Margolis, it’s a chance to demonstrate what she wants from others by using herself as an example. “We go to the pharmacy, we go to accounting. We just find out what everybody does,” says Margolis. And with that, comes a level of input that staying secluded in your office can’t provide.

Throw money at the problem

Keeping a healthy culture is worth the investment. This includes compensation, benefits, programs, and incentives. For Dave Walens, CEO of Exploring Inc, a five-time Inc. 5000 company, it meant hiring an executive specifically equipped to focus on core values.

If health is a core value, you should invest in making that a reality. Put in a gym, or give away gym memberships. Have programs and incentives that encourage people to quit smoking or lose weight. If adventure is a core value of your company, plan and fund team getaways to fly hot air balloons or kite surf. Be creative. Have fun.

Train your team

In my experience, it is more common for large, enterprise-sized companies to put the time and energy (and money) into training their team in core values, but it’s worth keeping on your tools list. This is especially the case if your company has gone through a lot of fast growth, or when you find that the reality of your company is far from the mark set by your core values. Training can help your team get aligned on what your values mean for your company, and can incorporate discussions on the best ways to continue to implement the values.

That said, this is one of my least favorite ways to implement culture. It’s expensive and is only successful about half the time, according to Harvard Business Review. If you do go this route, make sure you use it as part of a strategy for change, not the whole enchilada.

Utilize internal marcomm

In large corporations there are whole departments committed to dealing with internal culture and communications. You might not have a whole team, but make it someone’s job to create and implement a strategy for internal communications. It might start with a newsletter, social media sites, telling the story each month of an employee and how they exhibit company values, or just holding weekly meetings. The idea is to broadcast your values in a variety of formats, and reward employees who are operating inside them. Broadcast the culture conversation.

You can also combine this with the “throw money at the problem” step and bring in an outside expert, such as Gapingvoid. They call themselves a “cultural design firm” and focus on creating internal marketing campaigns and internal communications plans that support cultural development.

Immerse your team in the desired culture

Just like immersing yourself in a language you are trying to learn, immersing your team in your intended culture can fast-track the development of that culture in your company. Gapingvoid includes this as one of their methodologies. They help clients go far beyond talking about the values, and create an immersive environment that creates an emotional reaction in your team.

It may incorporate displays, presentations, videos, stories—as well as the other four methodologies mentioned. It means having a multifaceted plan, and it’s about having the value—integrity, trust, empathy—show up almost as a physical presence in your work space. Human beings are experiential creatures, so having the experience of empathy (like at Emory Johns Creek) is much more powerful than just hearing about it.

Discussions about culture can devolve into spewing lofty platitudes. We’ve all seen cases where a company espouses one set of values on their break room wall and another set of values in executive behavior. I’m not advocating this kind of sickening hypocrisy. Instead, what I recommend is undertaking an authentic effort to have your values reflected in your culture and your culture then becomes a reliable experience for everyone who interacts with your company. And, because this experience improves productivity, engagement, and customer satisfaction, these efforts do pay off in real financial results.

First published on the thoughtLEADERS blog.


About The Author

Soyini Coke’s picture

Soyini Coke

Soyini Coke is Managing Principal at Annona Enterprises, a strategic advisory firm, focusing on healthcare providers and culture design. Most recently, Soyini has served as host of CEO Exclusive Radio, a weekly online radio show that discusses trends that every mid-market CEO should know. She began her career at McKinsey after graduating cum laude from Harvard University in 1998 with a Bachelor of Arts in Applied Mathematics and Economics.


Supports ISO 9004:2018 Section 6, Identity of an Organization

This article is extremely useful, and I will quote the first sentence in presentations I am putting together on ISO 9004 and organizational culture. It supports ISO 9004:2018 clause 6.2, "Mission, vision, values, and culture" which is perhaps the most important element of ISO 9004. The self-assessment section of ISO 9004 talks about processes to attract engaged and motivated employees. My opinion is that the organization must motivate and engage them, and this article shows how this can be done.

The concept is not particularly new, as Napoleon Bonaparte said that morale is more important than technology and even training, while Carl von Clausewitz cited the nationalistic "identify of an organization" that created unity of purpose among the French, who now regarded themselves as citizens with stakes in their country and government. This gave Napoleon the means to conquer most of Europe. The Ford Motor Company also had an organizational identity during the 1910s and 1920s in which workers saw themselves as stakeholders who would get a fair share of any productivity improvements they initiated. Part of the organizational culture was such that workers therefore took immediate and almost personal exception to any form of waste, even machining waste that many people take for granted today, they noticed in the shop.

You are also correct that leaders must walk their talk. "We’ve all seen cases where a company espouses one set of values on their break room wall and another set of values in executive behavior." A CEO once invited W. Edwards Deming to teach Total Quality Management to his executives. He introduced Deming, told the executives he wanted them to learn everything Deming could teach them, and then walked out of the room. That was the end of TQM at that organization. (Michael George, "Lean Six Sigma")

Leader vs Commander

The oft heard adage, "A commander says, 'CHARGE', and a leader says, 'FOLLOW ME'", comes to mind.

Walk a mile in my shoes

Many years ago, I saw an interview with the CEO of a major corporation (I wish I could remember either the company or the CEO). He stated that he only valued an MBA when it was earned by an active employee, as MBA's with no work experience came with a tool set and no idea what they fit.