Keys To Success: Context and Corporate Culture, The Final Act

March 23, 2016 — Leave a comment

We hear about viAlice_door copysion, mission statements and values often enough, but why are they so important? Similar to Alice unsuccessfully trying to open the door to Wonderland, you must have the right keys to shape your company’s culture and reflect what you stand for.  They are the essence of your identity as an organization – your principles, beliefs, philosophies… and how you do business. Woven into the fabric of its culture, every work environment should strive to encourage positive values and discourage negative influences that affect behavior and outcomes. We all possess a moral compass, defined via our values, which directs how we treat others and conduct ourselves. As an organization, this can be a powerful tool to shape culture. Ultimately, it does not come back to the company, but its people…

Arguably self-awareness and integrity are an important subset of values, but self-awareness and the pursuit of the truth are so important that they should be on every company’s list of values. If integrity is best described by C.S. Lewis as “doing the right thing, even when nobody is watching,” having the ability to be completely honest about your own strengths, weaknesses, and biases is critical. In developing an authentic, sustainable culture this applies not only to the leadership team, but to every single employee. Self-awareness and integrity are easy to lose… and hard to win back. When cultures are failing there are root causes that must be identified, but that can rarely be fixed quickly – and certainly not by policy and procedural changes. During challenging times, leaders tend want to drink from the blue bottle and — ta da! – see that the company culture is fixed. Unfortunately, building, evolving and transforming cultures takes both time and hard work.

Here are 6 core “keys” that will help you to build toward an amazing organizational culture:

  1. Leverage Vision and Narrative.

A great culture starts with a clear vision and is shared throughout the organization.  A simple turn of phrase can powerfully guide your organization’s values and provide it with a clear purpose. That purpose is able to orient every decision people make. When a good vision statement is authentic and prominently displayed it can even help engage customers, suppliers, and other stakeholders. Some organizations have excelled at the simple, compelling vision statement – e.g. Cisco Systems “Changing the way we work, live, play and learn”… Tom’s “One for one“… or ASPCA’s “We are their voice”. A vision statement is a simple, but foundational, element of your organization’s culture – you need one!

Built around the context of your vision, craft a great company narrative. A cultural story is ultimately the most powerful when it emerges from the vision and is identified, shaped, and repeatedly shared as a part of the organization’s ongoing cultural rhetoric. For example, Nordstrom’s cultural stories form the way people work and have created a culture of excellence.  Share the stories of “how we do things here” and how these stories align with your vision and values – they can be leveraged to reward and acknowledge desired behavior and help employees make new decisions in alignment with the vision and strategy of the organization.

2.  Establish Ownership.

It sounds simple, but you need someone who is directly responsible for culture (ehhm, you know if it is you to whom I am speaking). Culture is not something you, as a leader, can just decide and incrementally implement when you have time. No one expects you to do it on your own – and it will be significantly less powerful if you do. While the development and sustainability of culture as a primary part of your strategic plan is critical to your success, it can be somewhat delegated. Assign someone you trust to focus on culture, hold task owners accountable and push everyone else in the right direction – whether s/he is hiring personnel, managing projects or assisting the engineering team as it sets priorities. If you don’t have the personnel to manage the process, hire a consultant to help you – this is just too important to let it tumble down the rabbit hole.

   3.  Create Transparency.

At every company I work with, I strongly recommend a review of all the key metrics of the business with the entire company on a regular basis. The goal is for all employees to feel they know the status of the business, the thinking of leadership at every level, the responsibilities, and strategies at various levels of the company… and can share ideas and feedback no matter whom they are. Most importantly, they understand (and know without a doubt) exactly how they fit into the big picture and the impact their work has on the success (or failure) of the entire company.

Work diligently to invite discussion and build trust. Open, honest discussions are required to discover what employees are thinking and feeling, and you need to be extremely transparent about your own feelings as well (leading the way) so that people will feel more comfortable expressing their ideas and concerns. Culture is created daily in each interaction between members of the organization. If you do not open communication and check your culture clock regularly, culture becomes the accepted behavior rather than the desired outcome – making employees feel more like they are guests at the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party rather than a part of a strong, sustainable culture!

A tangible recommendation to help bring more transparency into the organization is creating a “TGIF call”. TGIF calls take place on the last Friday of the month and are all-hands on deck. Everyone in the company can participate and ask questions. Since people often feel intimidated or uncomfortable in open forums, build smaller, more intimate forums on the internal server where employees can ask questions and propose solutions. Make yourself and your executive team available to respond on the spot.

   4.  Embrace Your Frontline.

Every organization I’ve ever worked with (or for) has people throughout the employee base who are raving fans of the company and everything it stands for. These are people who love the company and its core purpose. They are your best cultural cheerleaders. S/he may be the sales person working with the customer to solve a problem, an assistant talking to countless stakeholders, an analyst crunching the numbers, a customer service rep empathetically speaking with clients… or a mid-level manager pouring into other people every day. When they tell friends and family about their job, they don’t talk about their place of employment… but they do tell a work story with a voice that comes from the heart. Do you, as their leader, know who these people are? Have you rewarded them and thanked them? At a time when outsourcing functions such as customer service or automating checkout points of sale are becoming more common, the role of frontline raving fans does not diminish, it disproportionately increases – and can become a real competitive advantage. Building an amazing culture without people who are passionate about what they do and who they work for is just about impossible!

5.  Empower A Sense Of Freedom.

Why do Google, Pixar  and other innovation giants spend so much money on creating positive environments? The bottom line is that  environments shape culture. Nike has a running track that aligns with their fitness culture. Google has pool tables and slides in the office to shift conversations from an “office” to a more “fun” environment. While these are fun aspects of building culture, they are not critical to your success. Simply empower people by creating an environment in which they have a sense of freedom to say and act in accordance with the cultural norms.

On a similar note, how you manage (not micromanage) also has an enormous impact on your ability to create and sustain the culture you want in your organization. Error on the side of providing people general guidelines rather than explicit, detailed directions. Informed employees are more involved and empowered – and they are far more likely to innovate or make tough calls without the babysitter (YOU!) looking over their shoulder. The more freedom people have to take on tasks, manage them, find solutions, and execute them, the more they feel connected to and woven into the company’s culture.

6.  Facilitate Positive Daily Practices

Culture is of little value unless it is embedded in an organization’s practices. If your organization says that “people are our greatest asset,” but has processes and procedures that put hours worked or profit above people, you are essentially creating a cynical culture that works against your desired vision, mission and strategy. What happens within your organization on an ongoing basis is at the core of its culture. Do not delude yourself – your daily practices actually demonstrate and ingrain the behaviors and mindsets needed to create the culture you are looking for.

7.  Prioritize and Focus.

Sure, you have the utopian vision of running a company where everyone’s happy, has fun, loves their coworkers, brings their dogs to work and specialize in marketing, design, engineering and sales. Don’t we all?

However… you do not live in Wonderland – WAKE UP Alice!

Focus on finding people who work together as a team and can focus on moving the organization forward. Decide what will really move the needle for your company and your customers… and act as a team. Prioritize based on what you want to achieve – and focus only on that. One thing at a time… not everything at once. Be methodological in your approach and make sure everyone knows the part they have to play in creating a great culture… and a great company.

Hold an offsite. Seriously – spend the time, money and effort! On the surface, it may seem like a waste of time to executives being pulled in 50 different directions simultaneously, but it’s important. Get employees who you think exemplify the culture you want to build and ask them some simple questions:

  • What do you like about the current culture?
  • What don’t you like?
  • What is culture, anyway?
  • Does it even matter?

Understand that culture doesn’t have to be neatly wrapped up at the end – just get going in the right direction, with the right people. Questions will go unanswered. There will be disagreements. You won’t define culture by the end of the offsite, but you will know where you’re headed, why you’re going there… and how to get there.

   8.  Learn From Loss, Celebrate Success:

Both winning and losing have pervasive effects on company culture. The idea that you learn as much from losing as you do from winning is dangerous. You learn very different lessons from winning vs. losing – both valuable in their own way. When a company experiences loss, or failure, employees must understand what went wrong and move forward to not only avoid such loss in the future, but find a way to move in a positive, productive direction. A couple of years ago, a client site went into overload when they launched a new service. They recovered somewhat due to the amazing work of their customer service team, but lost an untold amount of potential business. Needless to say, prior to the next launch they had an aggressive plan in place not only to prevent disaster, but to propagate their odds of success – allowing them to exceed their goals in spades. Exceeding their plan — as a function of the whole company coming together — was a greater cultural bonding experience than reacting to the crisis. Learning to win together is an irreplaceable conduit for ongoing success. Coming together when you are losing is required to build a great team, but winning more often than you lose is required to build a great culture. Never forget to celebrate those wins, no matter how small they may seem!

You will notice over the past three weeks I have provided you with the keys to open many doors that will create a great culture for your company – some of them may seem to overlap, but they each have their subtleties… and they are all foundational to your success in building an amazing culture for your company. Your job is to open those doors, organize and prioritize them to create a meaningful path through Wonderland… creating a remarkable culture for your company and everyone in it!

Are you doing your part to create and sustain an amazing organizational culture?

You can contact me at or by visiting our website at Check back next Wednesday for the next installation on Global Leadership Across Boundaries & Borders.


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Sheri is The Global Coach, founder of Luminosity Global Consulting Group, Global Executive Coach, Speaker, Writer and Global Business and Cultural Expert.

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