Whenever I make a public speech or work with a company on matters pertaining to building and sustaining a group culture, people inevitably ask for my views on what makes this type of initiative succeed or fail. While I have no magic formulas or foolproof answers, I can offer some suggestions based on my past experience.
One of the first things I advise is that the people in charge must take ownership of the “culture plan”. My term for this is simply “putting it on the agenda”. If a culture is a group of individuals who share the same stories and find meaning in those stories, we should begin by finding ways to engage group members in defining basic stories of collective identity: who we are, what we stand for, why we do things the way we do, and where we can go together.
Of course, in the case of entrepreneurs I work with, my recommendation is that the founding team should begin to sketch out these things early in the game. They should reflect deeply, not only about what our company is going to do but also how we are going to do things. In fact, I encourage entrepreneurs to think “who before how before what”. As the case of Hewlett and Packard in 1937 demonstrates, if you get the right people and create the right kind of environment, there is a good chance that interesting things—and profitable ones—will happen.
While I certainly would not advocate neglecting strategy, product development, or execution, I use the “who before how before what” theme somewhat provocatively, as a way to emphasize a basic concept that I have come to believe profoundly. To me, culture and strategy should sit side by side and have equal importance as the firm grows. With all the companies I advise, I come back again and again to the concept of the sage Peter Drucker: if we fail to give culture its rightful place, it will eat our strategy for breakfast.
Unfortunately, few startups give corporate culture the importance it should have. Interestingly, though, here is something that has happened to me over and over: When I ask entrepreneurs—whether their ventures have been successful or not—what they would do differently if they were to start over, they often comment that they would hire more carefully, and pay far more attention to the workplace culture, from the very beginning.
My second principle—after putting these things on our agenda—is simply keeping them in the corporate plan. Maintaining a culture is an ongoing endeavor that needs to be continuously revisited, revised, and updated. A group culture remains alive and vibrant only if we continue to review and co-create it with participation throughout the enterprise.
What I am suggesting may sound like simplistic advice: Put culture on the corporate agenda, and keep it there. What could be more straightforward?
What I most often find, though, is that organizations fail to keep culture near the top of their priority list, and that over time things tend to get stale and lose their meaning. A majority of companies I see have defined the culture they would like to have, usually in the form of written values statements. In many cases however, these documents hang on walls or form part of company guidelines, but people’s actions are not guided by the words on the paper.
Recently, I read an article in the Financial Times called “Hands up if you can say what your company’s values are”. The author of the piece, Lucy Kellaway, polled a group of two dozen managers from well-respected firms, asking them to identify their company’s values from a list she had taken from their websites. Nineteen of the twenty-four people chose the wrong ones.
In addition, when the British financial PR firm Maitland performed an audit of the value statements of the 100 largest corporations in the UK, they were struck by a remarkable sameness of the terms they encountered. Three words—integrity, respect and innovation—turned up over and over again.
Unfortunately, all of this tends to reaffirm my central premise. Most culture initiatives are not nearly as effective—or beneficial to the organization—as they could be, simply because we fail to give them the place they warrant. Rather than revisiting and redefining their values and cultural objectives frequently, most groups allow them to get stale, and thus to lose much of their relevance.
Original image: Flickr-user tiffany terry