Creating company culture is the basis of every good organization.
Culture is a bit of nebulous topic. There are many different definitions and approaches for identifying and evolving culture. The well-known definition “the way we do things around here” is a pretty good way of capturing the essence of culture. I think once you realize that culture is simply the repeatable actions of a group of people, the concept becomes a little less fuzzy. The challenge, of course, is the task of changing the actions of a group of people in a particular way.
Cultures embody certain characteristics or traits. They come to life in particular styles of communicating, making decisions, and approaches to getting work done. Bad organizational cultures often possess these types of characteristics or traits:
Management by committee: Decisions are made by multiple individuals and consensus is required, slowing productivity.
Multiple checks and balances: Decisions have to pass through multiple rounds of approvals, which inhibits speed and can discourage innovation.
Pursuit of perfection: A strong desire to avoid mistakes leads to unnecessary over analysis of every piece of work, resulting in wasted time.
Engage everyone: Meetings are scheduled to keep broad stakeholder groups informed of work that is being completed, resulting in excessive low-value meetings that absorb time.
Cover-your-ass mentality: People copy as many people as they can in email exchanges to ensure that they do not get in trouble, resulting in email overload.
Micromanagement: Leaders and managers lean too far into the details of all work and feel the need to direct all activities, resulting in their people becoming transactional-instruction followers.
Compliance obsession: Being compliant becomes an obsession, which distracts focus from high-value activities that will actually benefit the business, like improving customer service or enhancing a product.
Intra-competitiveness: The siloed nature of the organization creates intense competition across functions and groups, limiting effective collaboration.
I have witnessed these cultural traits in many of the clients I have worked with over the years. Often, people inside the organizations are well aware of the existence of the counterproductive working habits but feel paralyzed to do anything about it or are just unsure of where to start to change the culture. It can seem a little overwhelming when considering how to evolve how thousands or even tens of hundreds of thousands of people behave. A good place to start is with getting simple.
A clear and simple mission or purpose can be an effective driver of people’s behavior. If people know what their company stands for, it is a lot easier for them to act in accordance with it. A simple, compelling mission that is easily understandable and energizing will set the tone for how people should behave in every work setting.
Here are some great examples of simple and clear mission or purpose statements:
Ikea: To create a better everyday life for the many people
Apple Store: Enrich lives
Airbnb: Belong anywhere
Amazon: To be Earth’s most customer-centric company, where people can find and discover anything they want to buy online
Google: Organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful
Microsoft: Empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more
Starbucks: To inspire and nurture the human spirit—one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time
These short, punchy mission statements are often followed by a set of values that clarify the cultural guardrails. While many organizations have value statements that are not enforced and thus are meaningless, those that do take them seriously witness the impact it can have on a culture.
A good example is Whole Foods. Their mission is to only serve healthy food to their customers and they never waiver from this. They do not sometimes include brands that are “somewhat healthy”; they strictly adhere to their standards, which take into account artificial food preservatives, sustainable seafood, animal welfare, antibiotics in meat, and pesticides in vegetables. This commitment to the mission cascades through the organization and influences the way that all employees work on a daily basis.
If the mission and values are strong, leadership can let go of the reins of control. They can trust that their people will act in accordance with the mission and vision. Strong in-depth onboarding training that immerses new team members in the mission and values is often a good way of setting the tone early for new entrants. Various methods of reinforcement, such as storytelling and participative role modeling can be used during the immersion to bring to life what it means to work at a company.
The role of strong leadership in establishing a clear mission and values is essential. People look to leaders to guide their behavior, so the leaders need to carefully model the values they espouse. Often people learn the most from imitating the people they respect, so leaders really do need to walk the talk. If the mission is clear and people understand and buy into it, the performance it can unleash can be dramatic.
So, the next time you feel paralyzed to change your company’s culture why not start with something powerfully simple – establishing a clear and compelling mission.
Jesse Newton is the author of Simplify Work; Crushing Complexity to Liberate Innovation, Productivity and Engagement (CLICK HERE to get your copy). He is the founder and CEO of Simplify Work; a global management consulting firm that helps organizations throw off the shackles of debilitating complexity and reignite top performance.
Did you enjoy this post? If so, I highly encourage you to take about 30 seconds to become a regular subscriber to this blog. It’s free, fun, practical, and only a few emails a week (I promise!). SIGN UP HERE to get the thoughtLEADERS blog conveniently delivered right to your inbox!