Culture either helps or hurts organizations. It is easy to find organizations who have suffered greatly due to their culture (Wells Fargo, Uber and VW) and those who have thrived (LinkedIn, Netflix, REI, Microsoft and Warby Parker). A recent SHRM finding showed that the cost of US turnover due to culture over 5 years is $223 billion.

The latest Great Places to Work study shared that millennials who experience a great culture are 50 times more likely to stay.

Nearly every leader I have talked with agrees that one of their greatest challenges is to create a company culture where the staff is committed to executing their vision. Whether intentional or not, a culture exists in organizations of all sizes that determines “how to be” at work.

What Is Culture?

Culture exists whether or not it is clearly laid out. Employees will behave in certain ways, and new hires will try to figure out how to be successful in the company. Written and unwritten rules exist.

Each organization’s culture is uniquely composed of intentional and unintentional practices, words and actions creating patterns, expectations and behaviors both spoken and unspoken, employee norms, and leaders leading with their belief systems. Apple and IBM should not and do not have the same culture, despite being in the same industry.

Culture is not about the posters or a campaign that declares it. It is best explained by employees sharing what it is like to work there. Until you know the “water cooler talk” on what it is like to work at your organization, you will not know the employee experience or the company culture.

4 Steps

There are four steps that allow a leader to move forward in their conscious culture and measure it. It does take time – the process is more like moving big ship than a speed boat – but if done thoughtfully and with intention, the big ship will move in the desired direction.

1. Design

Leaders shape an organization’s culture in many ways, from the vision and mission they lay out, to the values and behaviors they articulate and embrace. Without that level of clarity, unintentional practices will drive the behavior.

In a conscious culture, the leadership team must have well defined:

  • Vision
  • Mission
  • Values
  • Behaviors

Using employee input, organizational leaders need to determine how they are unique and craft an inspirational vision and mission statement that emotionally connects employees and applicants to a cause greater than themselves.

Values and behaviors are the heart of the culture and support the vision and mission statements. It is important to have no more than six values and clearly defined behaviors tied to each value. Success happens when you ask 10 employees what the values are, and all 10 know and live them.

2. Listen

The simplest and most powerful way of understanding organizational culture is to see it through the lens of the employee experience. The employee experience is your culture. Gaining a pulse on the culture can be achieved through:

  • Customized culture survey
  • Confidential focus groups
  • Culture team

I remember, as head of HR and a culture champion, I searched for culture surveys that did not put our culture in a box and realized that they did not exist. Survey companies fully integrated their belief system into their surveys, which forced me to choose between what they said our culture was and what insights we needed to best understand and align our unique culture.

Organizational leaders need to spend time on the from/to culture state. Use a credible outside consultant group to interview top leadership team members individually to determine important patterns that are then reflected back anonymously to the leadership team.

A customized culture survey allows organizational leaders to know what is working and not working within the culture. The survey can be a combination of open and closed ended questions that tie directly into the conscious culture the leadership team defined with the vision, mission, values, and behaviors. The best way to measure your conscious culture is survey-to-survey comparisons.

Too often, organizations rely solely on culture surveys to understand the employee experience. Although there is great benefit to a customized culture survey that is designed for your unique culture, it is also vital to take a deeper dive into the employee experience with an employee focus group. An employee focus group, usually composed of no more than 12 employees without the manager, works best when facilitated by an outside party. Using an experienced consultant allows the staff to feel that what they share will be divulged in ideas only, without any reveal on who offered the ideas.

If you ask employees to take the survey and/or participate in a focus group and do nothing with the results, you will have gone two steps back. Bring together a culture team to understand the results and make recommendations for culture improvements. This is best done with a cross section of employees who are willing to share their opinions and offer valuable suggestions for improvements. “Water cooler talk” must emerge.

3. Develop

A classic complaint of a leader is that they share in a meeting how important empowerment is to the culture and yet, ten minutes later, they tell their staff what they need to do. Without developing and reinforcing the conscious behaviors, the best intentions will go flat. Behavior does not change by announcing it. Supporting the intended culture occurs through:

  • Culture specific manager training
  • Culture specific leadership development
  • HR system alignment

Often the weakest link in building an effective company culture occurs at the manager level. It is the organization’s responsibility to ensure managers are set up to succeed. Only when the manager training is directly tied to the culture can managers be highly successful. If the leadership has determined that resolving conflict is key, managers need to offer crucial and difficult conversations skills development. Proper culture-specific training will drive the intended culture on a daily basis.

It is an honor to work with leaders who desire to step up to a higher, more effective and intentional level of leadership. Leaders must understand their blind spots through insightful 360 assessments and interviews and follow it up with proficient executive coaching. When done consciously and thoughtfully, leaders will become more effective and aligned to the intentional culture.

Wells Fargo has become a vivid example of how companies can veer off in the wrong direction due to the influence of their HR systems. HR systems will always win! Review your compensation plans, performance appraisals forms, recognition programs, hiring standards, and promotion criteria as examples. Change what does not align to the values and behaviors.

4. Share

The employment brand is what the outside world sees. Share the employee experience with the outside world. Attract candidates that want to be part of your vision and culture. Use videos to tell the story.

Another way to stand out is receiving recognition as a best place to work. Getting the word out can become your most impactful recruiting tool.

Organizational culture is complex and can be intentionally steered over time. Conscious culture takes thought and deliberation with a plan to implement and learn. If you need to start over then begin by getting alignment with the senior leadership team. Ensure the employee experience is thoroughly weaved into all of the work and is supported through culture-specific development.

Let me know what you think. Feel free to reach out to me at [email protected].