Keys To Success: Context and Corporate Culture, Part One

March 9, 2016 — Leave a comment


Building and maintaining a strong, resilient organizational culture is one of the few phenomena that is truly all inclusive. Creating a successful company ethos depends on the positive collision of the right people (at all levels) and the right context. But what does it actually take to create a sustainable, remarkable company culture? The answer is complex, so over the next two weeks, we will look at culture first from a larger organizational perspective… and then again at ground level.

“It’s complicated” … A common response to developing organizational culture.

The lack of a clear, simple response as to how to build and sustain organizational culture is the reason most companies don’t have a great culture. All leaders theoretically want a great culture… and believe, if they repeat it enough, it will magically happen. However, wanting an amazing corporate culture and being willing (and committed) to creating one are two vastly different things.

Why? It’s just not obvious how to create a great organizational culture. After helping many clients through this exact same challenge, we know that there are some critical components in developing and maintaining an exceptional company culture.

The bad news: Strong, positive organizational cultures seem more something out of fairytale stories than something you can readily facilitate happening. How to create them seems even further removed from reality.

The good news: It can be done! Culture is the result of many ingredients that come together the right way… at the right time. It is the collision of people and their worldviews, how they interact within their individual and group perceptions and how that context evolves into interactions as they multiply.

The reality: There is a method to the madness, although the spell called for to open the lock is not easy to conjure. By the time most companies realize the root cause of their challenges is embedded in their organizational culture, the state of affairs has become a complex quagmire that is limiting productive business results… and the overall success of the company.

To create or change a culture can seem overwhelming, but you can make the difference if you are focused, can realistically see the future and what it will take to get there — which is not only articulating what your culture is, but also influencing it by determining who stays to create it and how the implementation is executed. People are at the core of your company culture, no matter which path you choose to follow!

This is hard to say because it sounds harsh: The reality is that the people you fire are equally as important to the development of your culture as the people you hire. You have to hire people who embrace and embody the culture you want to instill, but you also have to realize how you got where you are… and course correct. Ultimately, culture is a by-product of the people within the company and their commitment, worldviews and aspirations.

It is absolutely critical that you are able to articulate what you believe are the seven core human values of the best people you have ever hired. These traits become your core virtues, the centerpiece of what you should be looking for in who you hire, promote… and fire (i.e., self-awareness, positive outlook, empathy, intellectual honesty and good judgment).

The downside? It’s hard to find people who meet all of your criteria.

The upside? There are a lot of people out there to choose from – the difference between being willing to do the hard work of finding them and not doing so is the distance between mediocrity and greatness.

When hiring, it is tempting to employ someone who has done it before. You actually don’t want that person. You want someone who is about to do it. After all, if they’ve done it before, why would they do it again? Either they’re not ambitious, not growth-oriented, or weren’t that good in the first place. In any case, you don’t want them. Hiring the “been there, done that” persona is one key way to ensure nothing changes — experience-based hiring leads to bringing in those who have the right credentials, but not the right fire in their soul.

People are crucial to your success, but the next critical point of focus is about passion for the vision, mission and strategic intent of your company. To gauge this, you need to actually know what these are… explicitly. This is a significant juncture in developing your organizational culture. You must understand these components intimately – not only at the organizational level, but how the vision, mission and strategy will look at divisional, unit, group and team levels. When you articulate your vision, mission and strategic intent at every level, it will enable you to begin to see and understand context.

You’ve got a rock solid vision and mission… you know your strategic intent at every level and understand the right make-up of people to embody your seven core human values. You’re done, right? Wrong. People are only part of culture. The other part is the context in which they operate, which is influenced by myriad of things: goals, feedback, promotions, compensation, seating, what’s celebrated and what’s left unsaid. All of these are a study unto themselves, so here is what I believe are some of the most important things to create the right organizational context:

  • Motivation: You can motivate people in one of two ways – fear and joy. The former is easier in the short term, and the latter is harder but more sustainable in the long term. Through extensive experience, I have learned there are no diminishing returns to specific, positive motivations. Individual and group recognition should be a core part of every organization.
  • Back Channel Communications: Even more important are the “water cooler” conversations, the hand-written notes, the quick emails, the one-liners… build a leadership team that observes the principle that the healthiest relationships of any kind have a 5-to-1 ratio of positive to negative feedback. You have to develop a deep sense of goodwill before you earn the right to provide negative feedback without resentment. People need to feel safe before they are willing to take a hard look at themselves (or any ugly truth) alongside you, as a partner, with their best interest at heart.
  • Trust and Tribalism: Both are powerful forces of human nature. The level of trust in business relationships is a greater determinant of success than anything else in developing organizational excellence. Creating a culture of trust and tribalism within and between the various components of the organization will build context unlike anything else. Too often we talk about “trust” as if it were a singular thing – it’s not. Trust is a relationship established between a trustor and a trustee. It takes two to trust (this is true not only of interpersonal trust, but of trust between people and institutions). The role of the trustor is to take risks; the role of the trustee is to be trustworthy. When each is dependable in their roles, a state of trust exists. If either party falls down on the job, trust will disappear in a hurry. Finally, trust involves a frequent exchange of roles; if one party seeks only to be trusted but never to trust, the other eventually will stop taking all the risks and shut down the relationship. You, as a leader, must be the first to demonstrate that you trust and that you can be trusted! Out of trust will come tribalism!
  • Leadership Sets Tone: Culture is shaped a great deal by how your leaders act. Make sure your leadership team embodies the type of company you want to be. Is a ‘teamwork culture’ the ideal? You’d better make sure your executive team truly works as a team. Is ‘transparency’ most important? Guess what, your leaders better be transparent — even when it’s difficult. For example, Cisco Systems and its leader, John Chambers, are famous for valuing customer success above all else. If you are a leader at Cisco and don’t put customer success front and center, you will be quickly shown the door. No excuses or questions asked.

Although it is not at the top of the priority list for many companies, building a strong organizational culture is at the core of business success. If you want to experience that success, you will be willing to work hard to create a culture that recognizes and embraces shared values, attitudes, standards, and beliefs that characterize the goals of the organization. As your company grows, culture will help keep it on track, drive how customers and partners view you, steer hiring decisions for the people who will maintain that success and safeguard your company from becoming something you don’t recognize — even when you no longer know everybody’s name.

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, where we will explore organizational culture on a more personal level.


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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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