Let’s talk about the “C” word. You know, that taboo phrase that makes people do a double-take when they hear it, especially in a professional setting? Yes, that’s right; I’m referring to “culture.” Specifically, company culture. Culture is woefully misunderstood across all industries. Some business leaders even consider it to be fluff or non-essential. But here’s the catch: It’s not only essential; it’s a core pillar of your ability to succeed and turn a sizeable profit.
In recent months, many business leaders have heightened their focus on company culture, largely in reaction to challenges posed by business stakeholders, consumers, and members of the media to examine organizations’ mission, vision, values, and beliefs that are presumed to influence how they operate as a business.
(For more on this particular trend, watch our recent Power Your Culture video on “Walk the Talk.”)
When business leaders attempt to address their own company culture, the challenge I have observed is that they fall short when defining its origin, meaning, and impact to their organization and the community-at-large. Most business leaders have resigned themselves to letting their company values -- like integrity, diversity, equity, inclusion, and others -- become tools for marketing instead of pillars to how they honestly behave and interact with internal and external stakeholders. When these values become a means for public relations, they usually cease to connect with the company’s overarching operational growth and sustainability vision, creating serious issues down the line.
The reality is, very few companies set out to be corrupt or knowingly employ unprincipled people. Furthermore, no company desires negative publicity as it relates to their business practices. Despite these good intentions, however, counter-intuitive and counter-productive behavior around culture persists, even at a time when organizational values statements and corporate social responsibility are at the forefront of many consumer, economic, and commercial discussions.
Why? Because company culture has become a facade for the business and not a practice.
From Cultural Facade to Cultural Practice
When leaders become focused on outward appearances and begin to conceal a less pleasant or creditable reality, they are putting on a facade, even as it relates to one’s company culture. The most revealing facades are underpinned by a leader’s failed attempt at defining and communicating their company’s mission, vision, purpose, and values.
Most business leaders cannot explain their company culture in the context of business impact or outcomes because they have failed to operationalize their culture. In other words, they never attempted to connect a genuine value and belief system as a framework for how individuals should behave and interact with one another to drive effective decision making to influence specific business outcomes.
This is what I consider to be essential to “operationalizing” your company culture. An operationalized culture begins with defining and aligning the 3 P’s of Company Culture: Purpose, People, and Performance.
The Purpose of Your Culture
When addressing the purpose of your culture, do not confuse this with the purpose of your business’s existence. In other words, the purpose of your company culture is not the same as your company’s mission statement.
While your overall “purpose” plays a critical role in developing your cultural vision, I am addressing the core purpose of your culture itself, and why it is essential to your business. Many organizations have not defined or actively-managed their culture and, as a result, have allowed culture to happen “to” them instead of “because of” them.
Put another way: When you do not actively define your company culture and what you want it to be, it will grow organically and often unpredictably, resulting in less desirable outcomes for your business.
The purpose of your company culture is to define the underlying beliefs, values, principles, and methods of interacting within your organization. It defines and creates a unique environment to work in that you believe is critical to achieving your mission, vision, and desired performance outcomes.
Yes, I said, “performance outcomes.”
A fundamental mistake that many business leaders make is failing to recognize their company culture’s impact on business performance, especially financial performance. Your organizational culture defines what every employee’s behavior should be and how they should interact with the rest of the organization and its customers.
It should define how you, as a leader, must approach your organizational decision making. This culture should consist of shared beliefs and values established by its leaders and then communicated and reinforced through various practices that ultimately shape employee perceptions, behaviors, knowledge, and understanding.
The People of Your Culture
The people of your culture begin with you as the leader. Companies that recognize the importance of company culture as a pillar to their operational strategy are considered game-changers. Leaders of these game-changing organizations understand the power and importance of actively managing their company culture. They are hard-edged business leaders who also embrace what others might consider the "soft side" of leading: with purpose, vision, values, and accountability to this cultural standard.
These leaders know how to integrate the hard and soft sides of leadership into a powerful formula that makes them game-changers in their industries. These leaders and their organizations are purpose-driven, performance-oriented, and principles-led. The simultaneous weaving together of these three capabilities is what helps them get and stay out in front.
Game-changing organizations establish and define company culture. They stand out, not because of their marketing campaigns around their culture, but because of their actions inside the workplace and in the community. These actions demonstrate the company culture they proclaim.
They often create disproportionate value relative to their size and resources. They have big dreams for their organization and recognize the impact that a realized workplace culture will have on fulfilling this vision. These organizations have a palpable culture that is lived and experienced, regardless of role, tenure, or interest. They have a breakaway business model, but they also have a breakaway spirit and organizational culture that focuses on the people as a catalyst for realizing their cultural vision.
The Performance of Your Culture
Touching only the surface of the topics surrounding business performance and company culture (stay tuned for my next article, which will dive deeper into this topic), at the core of operationalizing your culture is the understanding of how your company culture is designed to drive specific performance outcomes for your business.
The nature of establishing a framework by which your leaders and employees should engage and interact with one another as part of the execution of work sets forth the constraints by which you intend to achieve specific performance objectives.
For example, suppose I design a piece of furniture that I intend to build and assemble with others’ assistance. In that case, I will declare my vision for how this furniture should look and operate and develop instructions for how I want others to work together to assemble all of its intricate pieces, including expectations for how the “builders” should function and what I expect as a result.
Similarly, your company culture should include a clear set of instructions -- a blueprint of sorts -- for how this culture contributes to your ability to achieve specific business outcomes. If I have a culture that includes a value system that emphasizes teamwork and collaboration, then I should be able to communicate the importance of these values as they relate to how I measure my business performance.
If I value collaboration and teamwork as part of my workplace culture, I may attribute the outcomes of this culture to how I actively manage my operating costs by requiring fewer resources to complete more work because of shared responsibilities and fewer people working in silos.
This is a tangible business outcome because of the culture I am driving for my organization. If you understand the purpose of your company culture, then you should be able to connect this purpose with tangible results. Upon doing so, you should establish clear performance metrics that connect culture to your bottom-line.
Shifting from a facade culture to a practice/implementation culture is not an easy leap. However, with due diligence and effort surrounding the management of your culture, you will reap tangible benefits. If this article and the ideas outlined above resonated with you, my colleagues and I would love to hear from you. Reach out to me via email, or read more about our work in operationalizing company culture.