Great Cultures Are Established by Design

By Desda Moss Jun 27, 2011

LAS VEGAS—Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) Masters Series speakers are known for taking SHRM Annual Conference attendees to a higher level. Ann Rhoades, a veteran HR executive and author of Built on values: Creating an Enviable Culture That Outperforms the Competition (Jossey-Bass, 2011) is no exception.

In a June 27, 2011, afternoon session sponsored by the SHRM Foundation during SHRM's 63rd Annual Conference & Exposition Rhoades said, “The greatest cultures are cultures by design.”

And she would certainly know, having held executive-level HR positions with organizations known for strong people-focused cultures, such as Southwest Airlines and JetBlue Airways, before founding her own consulting firm, People Ink.

Strong cultures begin with a process Rhoades called “values blueprinting,” which involves a candid conversation with leaders from across the organization. “It’s not hard to make decisions around your values” when times are good, she said. “It’s very hard to make decisions around your values when it’s a tough economic time,” such as deciding not to charge baggage fees because employees at curbside check-in bear the brunt of complaints and lose tips from unhappy customers.

But leaders must understand that they drive the values, the values drive the behaviors, the behaviors drive the culture and the culture drives performance, she noted.

“Please don’t put the values on the wall and have them mean nothing,” she cautioned. “If you say one of your values is caring, then you had better care about your people.”

Once the culture is framed, Rhoades recommends organizations use a values committee to make sure their culture is alive and well. “Give them a direct link to leadership,” she said, and allow employees to elect members.

But that means organizations must first hire “A players,” Rhoades said—the kind of people who live the values and have the competency needed to perform the job. That means organizations need to screen for alignment with values at the time of hire. “We forget to ask behavioral questions on the values,” she noted.

But she said that’s a mistake.

“Hiring is the most important thing we do. Everyone is an opportunity to reinforce the culture,” Rhoades said. “Everyone should be looked at as someone that is going to be living and breathing the brand.”

“People will help you if they understand the numbers,” she added, which is why JetBlue employees learn the business of the airline on their very first day. She said an organization’s metrics should be simple enough for employees to understand with no more than three seconds of thought.

And when employees want to see the brand succeed, they go out of their way to do the right thing, she said.

As for those who don’t, Rhoades said, most will leave the organization voluntarily because they’ll be uncomfortable with the culture. If they don’t leave, the organization needs to find a way to get them out. “You can’t afford to have them in the culture because then the culture doesn’t exist.”

Rhoades said that Juniper Networks has a “conversation day” with employees to discuss whether they are living the organization’s values or not. If they are, they receive a thank you, she said. But if they are not, they are given 30 days to decide whether they can change their behavior. If they feel they cannot do so, they are given severance and separated from the organization.

“We need to reward behaviors; instead we reward time in the job,” she observed.

Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is an online editor/manager for SHRM.


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