I recently had the privilege of spending the morning with a large company in Massachusetts. As we discussed their challenges and how we might be able to help them, the owner expressed that he needed to change some things in his company (including some of his people).

He said that he didn’t want his staff just coming in and going to their desks and working, he wanted them to have fun! He wanted them engaged. We then talked about the need for the culture of the business to change.

What does this mean? What is culture?

From Wikipedia, organizational culture is defined as the “behavior of humans who are part of an organization and the meanings that the people attach to their actions. Culture includes the organization values, visions, norms, working language, systems, symbols, beliefs and habits.”

So just to be clear, you have a culture right now. It’s probably not written down or described anywhere, but it’s there. Your customers are exposed to it. Your employees feel and sense it and your actions display it.

If you’re not happy with the culture of your company, how do you change it? What are the steps you need to take?

It’s more than just making sure your people are having fun or hiring a “fun director”. It’s more than ping pong tables or company get-togethers. What does “changing your culture” even mean?

Coming from a science background I tend to take vague statements like, “we need to change our culture” and want to define a pathway to change. Change what to what?

As part of the annual planning process, your executive team can go through the process of defining your culture. In this post, my goal is to describe the steps you can take to clearly define our culture. Hopefully, it can serve as a framework for you to use.

Much of the framework we used was based on the Jim Collins’ HBR article “Building Your Company’s Vision”. You can download the article here.

The article describes the components of a company’s vision as the core ideology and the envisioned future. I’ll focus on the core ideology when talking about culture because core ideology is really the heart of company culture.

According to Collins, “core ideology provides the glue that holds an organization together through time”. Core ideology is made up of two components, core values and core purpose. You discover core ideology by looking inside. It has to be authentic. You can’t fake it or force it on the organization.

How Do You Determine Your Core Values?

The process of determining your core values is one of discovery not of dictating them to your staff. You can hold a few meetings with your staff to get their view on what they thought our core values should be. You can meet as an executive team and perform the Mars Group exercise (click here for a great pdf to download from Jim Collins)

The HBR article describes the exercise as this:

“Imagine that you’ve been asked to re-create the very best attributes of your organization on another planet but you have seats on the rocket ship for only five to seven people. Whom should you send? Most likely, you’ll choose the people who have a gut-level understanding of your core values, the highest level of credibility with their peers, and the highest levels of competence.”

Ask each executive to pick 3-4 people who they feel exemplify the core values of your company. During the exercise, each executive reveals their top 3 and describe why they chose those people. What happened from there was pretty interesting. There were some overlaps, but I was surprised by the number of different people. As we discussed the core values these folks exhibited, common core values began to emerge and be repeated. We summarized the core values and presented them at our next company meeting. Here’s the list we came up with:

  • Act with uncompromising honesty, integrity and professionalism
  • Unwavering focus on providing a superior client experience and satisfaction
  • Maniacal focus on data, goals and metrics that drive accountability and execution
  • Expectations of greatness – Smart, empowered team with inherent positive attitudes that are excited and energized by solving problems and persevering…all while having fun.
  • Commitment to building efficient, scalable systems through innovative technology and exceptional service
  • Undeniable passion and commitment to the Mission

Core values are the foundation for company culture. As Collins says, they are the “glue that holds the organization together over time”. If operating with uncompromising honest, integrity and professionalism is a core value that will become part of the culture.

Reward Those Who Model Your Core Values

Once you’ve identified your core values and communicated them to your company, you can reward employees that exemplify those values.

How about a core value award? Employees are nominated by other employees and the executives vote on who should win. This is one simple way to encourage and underscore the values that are the basis of your culture.

How You Act Reveals Your Core Values

Again, your company already has core values. Some may have been communicated, but many are unspoken. Corevalues are communicated by how YOU behave and by the actions that you either reward or chose to ignore.

For example, if a member of your staff is doing things which are damaging to your business and you do nothing about that, you are sending the message, “it’s OK to behave this way”….those behaviors then become part of your culture.

If you show favoritism, you are sending the message, “there are different rules for different people – it’s not fair here” and that becomes part of your culture.

Having clearly articulated core values helps you to weed out and identify behaviors that you don’t want and reward those you do.

So as a first step, I challenge you to take the time to define your core values. If you want a culture of belief and passion in the products and services you provide, then make that a core value and reward it. If your sales staff truly believes that a customer is missing out if they go to a competitor, then their actions will show that. Look for examples of your staff displaying these values and your culture will soon begin to change.

How Do You Determine Your Core Purpose?

The second component of your company’s core ideology is your core purpose. This is simply WHY you do what you do. Why does your company exist? What is your mission?

Again from Collin’s article:

“An effective purpose reflects people’s idealistic motivations for doing the company’s work. It doesn’t just describe the organization’s output or target customers; it captures the soul of the organization.”

I also love this quote from Simon Sinek’s book Start with Why, “people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it” Here’s a great video of Sinek speak about starting with WHY.

Employees want more than just a paycheck. They want to be part of something special, something meaningful. It’s your job to define the mission and communicate it to the staff. You want people who are bought in and BELIEVE in your mission. If they don’t, your culture will show this. Most importantly, YOU must be bought in a believe the mission.

Make Sure Everyone Is Bought-In To Your Core Purpose

Can you see why It’s critical that the entire organization understands and buys into the mission? Everyone needs to believe in what you’re trying to accomplish.

Again at Envisionable, we meet monthly and re-iterate our mission. I challenge the team to do a “gut check”. If they don’t believe it, Envisionable is probably not the best place for them. This is another way to build your culture. Define your mission and MAKE SURE everyone understands and is bought it. It’s OK if everyone isn’t, that just means there are probably some people who are not a good fit for your company.

Final Take-Aways

So I’ve just given two areas for you to work on in order to create the type of culture you want for your business. Notice I didn’t talk just about having fun. That can be part of your values, but employees need something deeper, something lasting.

First, define your values. What is important? Once defined, reward those members of your staff that exemplify these values.

Second, define you purpose. Why does your company exist? Communicate that to your team and make sure EVERYONE is bought in.

What are you going to do this week to change the culture of your business?