Slide1Creating a great company culture can feel like chasing the White Rabbit down the rabbit hole… everywhere you turn are examples of what happens when a company culture goes south. This is most often because companies often get caught up in the day-to-day challenges of running the business and forget the importance of creating a remarkable company culture.

Establishing a culture you believe in means having a clear and consistent vision and knowing how you’d like everyone, inside and outside the company, to view the organization. Many old-school executives often view the order of operations as Profit, Policy, Process… and then People. This is completely backwards – it’s people that make a business successful and people that create a culture. The greater the inclusion of people, the more significant the contributions made… which flows over to customer satisfaction – and increased revenue.

Similar to the conversation between Alice and the Cheshire Cat in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, “if you don’t know where you want to go, then it doesn’t matter which way you go” – so it goes with culture. When you don’t have a clear vision, strategy and plan for execution it doesn’t matter who you hire or what you do – you will wander aimlessly, never arriving at your desired destination. If you have a vision without a strategy, or a strategy without a plan for execution, your corporate culture will fall right down that rabbit hole into Neverland… oops, I mean Wonderland!

Last week we discussed some high level organizational items to help build the right infrastructure to create a healthy corporate culture… this week, we are going Through The Looking Glass… but it may not be the tea party you were hoping for…

After some two decades of achieving substantial success in building and operating businesses (others and my own), I have observed some important principles for building and scaling organizational culture. There are other key aspects of culture and variations on the themes below, but here are some immutable laws of creating great culture that can work for your company whether it’s staffed with 10 or 10,000+ people:

1.Institutionalize Purpose.

Understand your “why” from the inside out. This is about mission, not marketing. What calling does your business serve? This should feel authentic, inspirational and aspirational. The companies with strong purpose are those we tend to love best because they feel different – Chipotle, Toms, Ikea or Apple… to name a few. Whether it’s trying to offer high quality food, or innovate for great design or function, the cause behind the brand is clear.

Create an environment where everyone – from the Janitor to the CEO – understands that “why” and is personally invested in being a part of something larger than themselves. Build a company culture that everyone wants to be a part of and that will, in some way, change your little piece of the world for the better. Keep in mind you’re not just building a culture, you are also building a place people want come and be a part of. There is nothing more purposeful than creating meaningful work – people are invested in what they believe in and are involved in.

2.  Define Commonality: Language, Values, and Standards.

Great cultures need a common language that allows people to actually understand each other: first, a common set of values, which are the evergreen principles of the firm, and second, a common set of standards by which a business will measure how they’re upholding those principles. For example, if you have leadership as a stated value, then you must consider how you define it and how to measure it. Will it mean that you expect employees to follow a certain promotion path and career timeline? Does it mean that you will hold internal 360’s that determine leadership scores… and tie those scores to bonuses? Or will you go further and only promote those people who develop others? Only when you have common language, common values, and common standards can you have a cohesive culture.

3.  Lead By Example.

As a leader, you have to set the tone by creating a culture where success and excellence is expected… but also enabled. Simple, but not easy. Your voice, as a leader, must be replicated throughout the organization at every level. This seems logical enough, but what differentiates excellence from mediocrity is how proactively you engage in creating culture daily through taking action to ensure 1) everyone is living the company core values and 2) accountability to execution and embodiment of the company culture.

As a leader, you must reflect your company’s values and standards. You must be the strongest representations of the firm’s culture and purpose – internalizing and exemplifying what the company stands for. A few examples bring this to life: do people feel that Richard Branson lives the Virgin brand when he makes daredevil entrances or entertains on his island? Do people have any doubt that John Mackey (no relation) of Whole Foods approaches food with a greater consciousness about its quality and origin? These types of leaders don’t just have incredible passion and work ethic, but an intrinsic cultural disposition in that how they do what they do inspires others.

4.  Define Organizational Design.

Simply put, organizational design is the process, structure, and hierarchy you put into place that allows you to put your culture into practice – it’s “how you do things.” This will include communication, company policies, team building, performance indicators, performance evaluations, division of responsibilities, and even how you schedule and run meetings. For example, do you have a weekly meeting at the same time and in the same place, or do you hold meetings only when there’s something worthy of discussion? Are meetings for all employees, division heads, or specific team members? Do you always meet in conference rooms, in a specific area of the office, virtually… or does the setting change?  If designed well, everyone will do his or her job more effectively with good organizational design. Your business culture will be significantly enhanced if the organizational design you put into place clarifies authority, responsibility, and accountability.

5.  Put People First.

When recruiting, spend more time screening for character than you do screening for skill. While skills can be learned, it is much harder to cultivate attitude and character. There is no doubt that over time, institutional character and culture is the simple by-product of individual people. Whether you are hiring based on competency or character, remember that A’s will always attract other A’s — but B’s will attract C’s… or worse. Bottom-line: Never sacrifice – hold out for the A players. Compromising on talent that is good enough, but not necessarily the best you think you can get – especially in pivotal job roles – is a sure path to the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, sacrificing a strong culture and long-term performance for, well, madness.

Once you have the right people, treat them like valued contributors, not like cogs in a productivity wheel. If people are indeed your greatest asset, it is essential to show that by investing in them in explicit ways, and insuring that process, procedure and rewards are all aligned with your investment in human capital. What we measure and reward gets repeated. The best long-term retention strategy is to ensure people know their intrinsic value to the organization. I’ve found that what matters more than any extrinsic rewards — like compensation and title (although not without merit) — is showing people their value and consistently moving them toward their full potential. When people feel cared about, they do their best work. They also stay longer, work harder, and produce more – which means emotionally investing has an amazing ROI. When people feel safe and cared about, they are more likely to relate to others in the same way. People First should be wholly ingrained into your company culture. You can’t create a successful company without great people, and you can’t create a great company culture without recognizing the inherent value of your employees… as well as your partners and customers.

6.  Communicate. Communicate. Communicate.

Know that people hear and understand things in different ways. Communicate your values and culture explicitly and continuously, both internally and externally. Every Employee must understand the company culture… and why it’s important. Make sure you are using multiple vehicles to communicate company culture – verbal, physical, written and visual. If you want to build a collaborative culture, for example, make sure collaboration is openly discussed and encourage collaboration as an important part of every workday, send memos and updates on communication and collaboration as an important part of the culture, hold frequent brainstorming meetings and create open spaces in the office where people can see creativity occur. Hang up whiteboards in public spaces, schedule retreats, and hire people with collaboration baked into their DNA…

Ultimately, reward employees who advance the culture, and be open and honest with those who don’t. Do this always and in tandem with every other culture initiative, or your company culture will be merely hollow words on a mission statement… in a dusty, unopened drawer. Communicated well, however, the company culture will seep into your employees bones and they will spread the culture intuitively.

Ultimately the biggest determination of culture is action and interaction – what you do each day and who you do it with – regardless of the posters and speeches. If you do not check your culture clock regularly, culture becomes the accepted norm rather than the desired outcome.

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

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