In a previous post, we talked about the seven foundational elements you need to create a strong company culture including safety, vulnerability, purpose, belonging, creativity, connection, and North Star Leadership. We also wrote about them extensively in our book, “The Voice of the Underdog: How Challengers Create Distinction By Thinking Culture First.” With those seven elements you can build what we call a transcendent company culture. The kind of culture that catalyzes your team and helps you move from where you are to where you want to be.
When you’re focusing on company culture, there are two sides of the equation you have to pay attention to. There’s understanding the cultural elements themselves. And then there’s knowing how to create a strong culture in organizations like yours. In other words, understanding how to get traction with your employees and how to make a new cultural awareness stick. That’s what this post is about.
BUYING IN TO COMPANY CULTURE
How to create a strong culture in organizations is the first question every leader should ask themselves. More often than not, company culture is an afterthought. But as a company leader, one of the most important things you can do is guide the building and constant curation of your culture. That’s not to say it’s all on you. It’s not and never should be. But make no mistake, your team is watching you for cues about your company’s culture and they will tack off what they see from you. Just like your company’s outward-facing vision for growth, every company needs an inward-facing vision for culture. How do you get your team to buy in and help build your company culture? You give them something to believe in.
Study after study after study shows people want to feel the work they are doing is meaningful. And, that they want to spend their careers in a place that values both who they are and the work they provide. That’s cultural. Too often, companies trot out open floor plans with gourmet taco bars and chair massages on Friday and rave about how great their company culture is. But that’s their definition of great company culture. Not their employees’.
It’s often said if you want to know what matters to someone, look at where they spend their time, money, and energy. When you’re looking at how to create a strong culture in organizations that’s a great place to start. Consider your company culture now. Does what you say match up to where you spend your time, money, and energy, or is it merely lip service to an idea that just sounds good? Trust is built on congruence. When what you do and what you say are the same, people buy in. When they don’t, you risk losing them forever.
WHAT YOUR TEAM REALLY CARES ABOUT
At the end of the day, we all have work that needs to get done and done well. A positive, unified company culture is the catalyst that adds meaning to work and gives your team the belief they’re working toward something bigger than themselves. We often talk about purpose being a “we” orientation rather than a “me” orientation. When cultures are toxic, everyone is out for themselves. That’s not just a reaction to the culture. It’s self-preservation. On the contrary, in a healthy, supportive, nurturing culture, people look out for each other. They look for opportunities to be thoughtful and to mentor each other. They extend grace, give the benefit of the doubt, and look for good instead of jumping to conclusions.
In the shadow of “the great resignation” and the new concept of “quiet quitting,” now more than ever, leaders have to know how to create a strong, positive culture in organizations that want to succeed. If that’s where you are, here are four helpful ways to get traction with your people:
INCLUDE YOUR TEAM IN THE PROCESS
Company culture works best when everyone is involved. Though usually imperceptible, your company is changing every day. Your team changes. Clients change. The economy, your vendor partners, your opportunities are always changing. Challenging your entire team to understand how to create a strong culture in your organization and then shepherding that culture through whatever changes come is crucial to your success. Keeping the culture should never be just you. Giving your team the opportunity to make suggestions, call out what’s not working, and hold each other accountable is far more effective than dictating a culture that has to be followed.
PAY EXTRA ATTENTION TO THE NEWBIES
When you’ve had a thriving company culture for years or even decades, it’s easy to forget that not everyone has been there from the beginning. Your company culture has its own institutional knowledge and for new employees, an established company culture can be a bit intimidating. Intentionally, or not, companies develop a shorthand. Because of that, part of your culture has to include being mindful of that shorthand, inside jokes, familiar stories and the like and making sure no one new gets left out or left behind. Fresh people coming into your company bring lifetimes of new experiences, new perspectives, new energy, and new ideas. They are fresh water flowing into a body that can sometimes grow stagnant. Overcommitting to making sure they feel welcome and included ensures that new energy works for you instead of staying bottled up or worse, being wasted.
If you want your team to buy into your company culture it cannot be an afterthought. It can’t be something you discuss when it’s convenient. And it cannot be something addressed with passive communication. Too often, companies will hold a once a year off-site, or management retreat where they discuss things like how to create strong culture in their organization and then they come back, share some “fresh thinking” with their teams and nothing happens. Just as your culture is an ever-present part of your company, so too must be your attention to it. Not every quarter. Every day. That requires sharing cultural accountability with your team. But as a leader, it also means engaging them personally and often. Ask how people are feeling? Is there anything that needs addressing? Reiterate your purpose. Open yourself up for questions. Actively look for ways to connect. That’s how good cultures become great, and how little issues get fixed before they grow out of control.
Your company culture is going to change, and most often, that’s a good thing. Evolution is most often normal and positive. When a company culture becomes more inclusive, that’s good. When a company culture becomes more diverse, that’s also good. Your company culture has to be a living, breathing part of your organization and as your company’s True North leader, you have to take ownership and look for ways to improve it every day. Again, it’s not all you. Culturally engage and inspire your team wherever possible. Encourage new perspectives. New ideas. Leaders at every level taking the time and energy to look at your company, your work, your clients, your culture, and yes, your leadership, with both the permission and encouragement to raise their hands and suggest something better. That’s how to create a strong culture in organizations of any type.
ONE LAST NOTE
There’s a common belief that great employees will fit in and thrive in any great culture. But that’s not true. Talented people respond to different cultural stimuli uniquely. In our book, we devote an entire chapter to, “When Good Cultures Aren’t Great.” As nice as it would be, company cultures are not “one size fits all.” The person who thrives in the fast-paced environment at Amazon, would be miserable working in a quiet bookstore. Likewise, the work from home IT tech who loves her solitude would be overwhelmed waiting tables in a bustling restaurant.
The seven foundational elements we noted at the top for building a great company culture are universal to any organization. But they alone do not fully define what makes up your culture. When you add things like pace, diverse personalities, unique perspectives, multiple generations, and the competitive landscape where you fight your daily battles, you can see how quickly your culture can take on a distinct personality. Your question as a leader is does that personality reflect the company you’re trying to build?
One of the hallmarks of successful challenger brands is that they have a “lighthouse identity” that serves as the heart of everything they do. When you learn how to create a strong culture in your organization, the same effect happens for great employees looking for an inspiring place to work. This is what Adam Morgan, the father of challenger branding and the author of “Eating The Big Fish,” says about lighthouse identities:
“A lighthouse brand is one that has a very clear sense of what it stands for, and why it stands there. This sense of self is built on rock – a product or brand truth that gives it credible ownership of this place to stand and projected in a point of view about the way the world is, or the way the world should be, in everything that it does. And projected in every direction inside and out. The result being that, like a lighthouse, you notice it even if you are not looking for it.”
Hear that again. Lighthouse brands shine with a truth that’s so authentic people see it even when they’re not looking for it. What would it be worth for your company to have a cultural persona like that? There are plenty of crummy cultures out there. Lots of companies that either don’t pay attention to the culture their teams work in, or worse, don’t care. Building and keeping an extraordinary culture is something that will not just set you apart, but help you draw best-in-class talent choosing where to spend the next 5, 10, or 20 years of their careers. Knowing how to create a strong culture in an organization is how you build an extraordinary team. It’s also the first huge step toward winning big.