Consultants Can Help Establish Corporate Culture

By Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR Oct 31, 2008
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Establishing a strong corporate culture is growing among large and small companies, says Fred Miller, who heads Deloitte Consulting’s behavior-led strategy practice in Atlanta. Ten years ago corporate culture was hardly discussed, but today “it’s one of the first things that most clients seem to want to talk about,” he says.

While a great culture is something desired by most businesses, its attainment can be transitory. In addition, simply stating that a company has the right culture does not make it so, as many management consultants point out. It is the alignment between stated culture and observed behaviors that really defines the strength of a firm’s culture.

Sandy Gluckman, a management consultant and author of Who’s in the Driver’s Seat: Using Spirit to Lead Successfully (CornerStone Leadership Institute, 2007), says the heads of many companies “do not truly understand what culture is, how it develops, how to measure it, how it directly impacts performance, and how to change it.” Over many years, and in many countries there have been the same defensive responses from leaders, claiming their culture is strong and healthy when employees will tell you that the opposite is true, she adds.

Opportunities for HR Consultants

The desire to have a strong culture and the elusiveness of actually attaining the right culture can create opportunities for HR consultants. In fact, an outside perspective is particularly critical when dealing with cultural issues, says Jenny Schade, president of JRS Consulting, Inc., of Wilmette, Ill. Consultants need to be aware that when they focus on a company’s culture, the types of discussions necessary to evaluate cultural issues can be very sensitive, she says. External consultants are nonbiased observers that can get at feelings and perceptions that might otherwise be hidden. “Employees are less likely to tell their own HR person that the culture is not inclusive or that communication isn’t open and honest,” she adds.

Consultants will find that in many organizations there is a gap between the proclaimed culture and what the culture actually is, Miller says. “The influential piece of the culture to the largest extent is going to be the culture as it is lived, not the culture as it is stated,” he says. “The best way to measure it is to actually look at the way people behave—not what they tell you, but what they do,” he adds.

Schade is aware of the conflict in perception. “I always insist on visiting the company and just walking around in the halls and noting what I see,” she says. “If a company says it has a culture of diversity, I’ll hang out in the cafeteria during lunch and see how employees are congregating,” she says. In addition, she will look for answers to questions such as whether all of the executives have lunch in the executive dining room, never mingling with others in the cafeteria. And whether employees segregate themselves by certain groups while eating lunch. In addition, employees will be asked to compare the stated values with their actual experiences, she says. If a company proclaims a list of “five values,” those values are shown to employees along with a question as to whether those are actual values and, if not, how they can be implemented.

Tying Culture to Performance

However, it is not enough for a company to simply match what a company claims with what the company does, Miller says. Companies need to align corporate culture directly with performance outcomes that go beyond the standard employee satisfaction scores and turnover numbers, he says. Companies with high employee satisfaction might have a workforce that is not driving hard to deliver, and those companies that have very low turnover might not be doing a good job of moving poor performers out of the organization.

A company’s culture is particularly important when tied to specific business outcomes.

A company is not rewarded with high stock prices for having a great culture, Miller says. HR consultants can ask company officials how the effect of their corporate culture is being measured. They can follow up by showing company officials why the business results the company needs are not being produced, he says. That is when the HR consultant focuses on helping the company build a corporate culture designed to help improve business, he adds. The bottom line is for an HR consultant to provide a program that improves the client company in ways that lead to the client firm having a high-performance culture.

Partnering with Internal HR Staff

Kevin Eikenberry, chief potential officer of The Kevin Eikenberry Group, a consulting firm, and the author of Remarkable Leadership: Unleashing Your Leadership Potential One Skill at a Time (Jossey-Bass, 2007), says there is a role for internal and external HR consultants to play when it comes to assessing and improving corporate culture. A company’s HR staff is in the best position to help a firm’s culture if their input is “broadly respected” by the corporation’s C-level executives, he says. However, external HR consultants can help facilitate cultural change in a number of ways, including coaching and support for the internal HR staff and serving as project leaders for those initiatives, he says. The demand is huge for HR consultants with the right skill set, he adds. Beyond good consulting skills, in general, consultants in this area should have experience with organizational change, organizational dynamics, teamwork and collaboration, he says.

But it is the bottom-line impact of corporate culture that HR consultants need to make when pitching their services, Eikenberry says. “Talking about culture isn’t just a feel-good exercise or team-building experience,” he says. “Culture permeates everything from customer service to employee retention to sales and ultimately to revenue.”

Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR, is a Wisconsin-based business journalist with HR consulting experience in employee communication, training and management issues. She is the author of Human Resource Essentials: Your Guide to Starting and Running the HR Function (SHRM, 2002).

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