There aren’t many leaders who would disagree with the idea that a healthy, productive culture is a defining element of business success. Yet I’ve seen so many companies with lofty-sounding “mission statements” and “core values” that have the most toxic workplaces imaginable. I’ve met so many leaders who are brilliant when it comes to product design and capital structure but who treat the people in business as an afterthought, a matter of sound administration as opposed to daring innovation.
In other words, so much of our thinking about organizational culture has become so bland, so unobjectionable, that it is on the verge of becoming meaningless. What follows, then, is an attempt at culture shock — five hard questions about the “soft” side of business that leaders must be able to answer if they hope to build a workplace that works.
Is your talent strategy rooted in your business strategy? Culture can’t just be an assortment of well-meaning HR practices; it has to grow out of distinctive business practices. As I reflect on the great companies I’ve gotten to know — companies that are winning big in tough, competitive fields — they all exude what brand strategist Adam Morgan calls a “lighthouse identity.” Every time you encounter them, however you encounter them, you understand what makes them different, what they’re prepared to do that other companies aren’t, and why what they’re doing is relevant today. That’s why building a great culture starts with intellectual clarity about what your organization stands for and why you expect to win. There can be no talent strategy without a compelling business strategy.
Does your company work as distinctively as it competes? Yes, the most successful companies think differently from everyone else — that’s what separates them from the competition in the marketplace. But they also care more than everyone else — that’s what holds people together as colleagues in the workplace. So much of what we focus on as leaders is how to be more clever: big data, slick apps, social media. A great culture allows clever organizations to be more human, to make everything they do more authentic, real, memorable. The true promise of a culture, argues influential venture capitalist Ben Horowitz, is to “be provocative enough to change what people do every day.” That’s the real connection between culture and strategy: If you want to energize and elevate how your organization competes, you have to energize and elevate how your people behave.
Can you capture what it means to be a member of your organization? At its core, the role of culture is to reinforce a sense of belonging, a shared commitment among colleagues about how they solve problems, share information, serve customers, and deliver experiences. Which is why the most enduring cultures are built on language and rituals that are designed to create a palpable sense of community — which, in many cases, only makes sense to people who are part of that community. A favorite slogan among students and faculty at Texas A&M University, a long-established school with a one-of-a-kind culture, sums it up: “From the outside looking in, you can’t understand it. From the inside looking out, you can’t explain it.” That’s the spirit I’ve seen at companies with the most powerful cultures. Their leaders devote enormous time and imagination to devising small gestures and little symbols that send big messages about what it takes for everyone to be at their best every day.
Is your culture built for learning as well as performance? High-output cultures are all about fierce competition, crisp execution, and a relentless commitment to service. But truly enduring cultures are also about change and renewal. It’s one of the hazards that comes with success: The better an organization performs, the more ingrained its culture becomes, and the harder it can be for executives and employees to stay alert to big shifts in markets, technology, and culture. That’s why the best cultures and the most effective leaders keep learning as fast as the world is changing. They’re constantly scanning for new practices from other companies, new ideas for unrelated industries, a new sense of what’s possible in their own fields. At WD-40, a company with one of the richest learning cultures I’ve seen, CEO Garry Ridge likes to challenge his colleagues with a simple question: When’s the last time you did something for the first time?
Can your culture maintain its zest for change and renewal, even when the company stumbles? It’s a lot easier to maintain high levels of energy and morale at a company when sales are booming and the stock price is soaring. But the reality of competition today is that long-term success is virtually impossible without short-term stumbles. For any organization, part of staying relevant is experimenting with dramatically new technologies, sketching alternative business models, and rethinking how it engages with customers — all of which are bound to involve setbacks and disappointments. That’s why the most enduring cultures are the most resilient cultures. Colleagues at every level embrace the power of creative ideas, deep convictions, and confidence in the face of missteps. Leadership scholar John Gardner calls this outlook “tough-minded optimism,” and it’s a hallmark of cultures that can move and morph with the times.
For all of the noble talk about talent and values, I can honestly say that I haven’t met many leaders who think as creatively or as rigorously about their company’s culture as they do about R&D and finance. But for the truly great leaders I’ve studied, the people factor is just as vital as the technology or money one. Here’s hoping that you, like those great leaders, can address these five hard questions about the soft side of business.
Bill Taylor is the cofounder of Fast Company and the author, most recently, of Simply Brilliant: How Great Organizations Do Ordinary Things in Extraordinary Ways. Learn more at williamctaylor.com.
HARVARD BUSINESS REVIEW: https://hbr.org/2017/06/5-questions-to-ask-about-corporate-culture-to-get-beyond-the-usual-meaningless-blather?referral=00563&cm_mmc=email-_-newsletter-_-daily_alert-_-alert_date&utm_source=newsletter_daily_alert&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=alert_date&spMailingID=17363225&spUserID=OTA1Njk1ODMwMAS2&spJobID=1040086819&spReportId=MTA0MDA4NjgxOQS2