Viewpoint: 3 Steps to Cultivating a Customized Culture

By Maddie Grant and Charlie Judy Feb 15, 2017
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​The concept of culture may be more important to organizations than ever. As Millennials move closer to becoming the largest generation in the U.S. labor force, they are teaching us what's important to them, what will motivate them and what they'll invest in—and working at an organization with a culture that speaks to them is a top priority.

Indeed, culture is so important to Millennial workers that they are willing to take, on average, a $7,600 pay cut in exchange for an improved "quality of work life," which includes a strong company culture as well as career development opportunities, purposeful work and work/life balance, according to a 2016 survey by Fidelity Investments.

And not only are Millennials willing to do the homework required to find the right culture for them, they are willing to hop around to get there. In fact, even though 86 percent of young professionals say they are currently happy at work, 49 percent are either actively looking for or open to a new opportunity, according to the Fidelity report.

Yet as much as we hear about culture in the business press and annual lists of top workplace trends, the focus always seems to be on emulating organizations that have successfully cultivated their own cultures—the celebrated "Best Places to Work"—rather than on how to define what makes your own employer special.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Understanding and Developing Organizational Culture]

It's nice that Zappos is experimenting with a manager-less holocracy and that Netflix's slideshow on its culture has been viewed more than 15 million times. But these examples don't explain why culture is important to your organization, how it drives your business success or what role HR should play.

In our consulting work, we've spoken with thousands of HR professionals in organizations of all sizes to help chip away at this culture conundrum. Let's break it down into three things HR can do to create cultures that drive meaningful results. 

Step 1. Get Real About Culture

One thing we've learned in our work: If you ask 15 employees of one company what their culture is like, you will likely get 15 different responses. Many contain the same clichés you might see in a corporate brochure: "We work hard, we play hard," "It's like a family," "We take time to celebrate." While those are nice sentiments, what insights do they really provide?

To start getting real about culture, you first need a deeper understanding of what it means for your organization. So, let's start with a broad definition: "Culture is the collection of words, actions and behaviors that clarify and reinforce what is truly valued inside an organization."

"Clarify" is important here. Your culture must make sense to the casual observer. It should be so clear, in fact, that you don't even need words to describe it. You can see it, feel it … it evokes an emotion. Apple, for instance, has a culture that oozes innovation. We know it when we see it.  

The word "reinforce" is also critical. Culture is about consistency and reliability. Everything about the workplace experience—the operating systems, artifacts, policies, procedures, tools, technologies, talent, facilities and environment—should all reflect the same message.

For example, while Wells Fargo claimed to have a culture that values its customers, the past year's headlines revealing that it opened millions of accounts without its customers' knowledge tell a much different story.

The third important, and maybe the most operative, word in our definition is "valued." This is not necessarily about the "core values" plaque that is mounted on the wall of your lobby. This is about the things that really matter to your company—what your customers or stakeholders like most about you and what your competitors most envy.

Based on this definition, culture is, at its essence, about understanding who your organization really is, how you really work and how your employees really experience it all.

And this is where we disrupt a widely accepted paradigm—the one that claims culture is either "good" or "bad." Good for whom? Bad for whom? Let's stop attaching binary terms to something as complex as culture. What's important is whether your culture is driving your success,  creating growth, helping you attract the right people to your business or even generally evolving toward the "future of work." To do that, you have to stop worrying about whether your culture is "better" or "worse" than anyone else's.        

Step 2. Align Your Workplace Culture with Your Business Success  

Twenty years ago, the five largest companies in the world (based on market capitalization) were, on average, 93 years old. Today, the five largest companies in the world are an average of 30 years old, and the youngest is 12.

Of course, this remarkable change is largely driven by technology and the digital economy, but culture also has something to do with it. That's because successful employers have a laser focus on what drives their success and an unwavering commitment to building a culture that supports it.

Take Amazon, the fourth largest company. In August 2015, The New York Times lambasted it for the unrelenting degree to which it pushes employees to do more and more. The company has a cutthroat culture, to be sure.

Yet it has never tried to present itself as anything other than what it is, as Amazon's founder and CEO Jeff Bezos pointed out in his measured response. "We never claim that our approach is the right one," he wrote, "just that it's ours, and over the last two decades, we've collected a large group of like-minded people. Folks who find our approach energizing and meaningful."

Amazon's culture may not be right for your organization, but it seems to be working for Amazon. In order for a culture to be unique, it can't be all things to all people.

Of course there's a risk in narrowing your focus. You might alienate some good people who will leave. But there may be a bigger risk in trying to please everyone: You'll attract the wrong people and they'll stay.

That's why it's time for HR to take the lead in developing cultures based on growth rather than focusing on employee engagement measures that aren't making a difference to anyone.

By contrast, aligned cultures that clarify and reinforce your success make HR's relevance undeniable and indispensable. 

Step 3: Become the Stewards of Culture

Your organization has a shared responsibility for culture, but someone must own it—and that should be HR. Mostly because HR professionals have the necessary skills, but also because no one else wants it.

Others will say, "Let culture grow organically." No, that's dangerous. It will grow organically, but it will likely evolve into something you don't want it to be. The difference between the right culture and the wrong one is the intention, deliberation and enthusiasm put into it. Unless HR can help an organization get and stay intentional about culture, it will lay fallow—underleveraged and maybe even counterproductive.

The good news is you don't have to go it alone. Culture is the whole organization's concern, so why not crowdsource it? In other words, facilitate an approach that puts it in the hands of the people who are most directly impacted: your employees. 

To do this, we suggest borrowing some concepts from agile software design and applying them to culture work. In agile development, software is typically written by a "sprint team" made up of people from a mix of roles—programmers, designers, testers and even the product owner. Instead of one group working for months and then handing off the project to the next group, they all work together in iterative "sprints" (usually two to four weeks long), modifying the plan based on real-time results and continuous feedback from the people who will actually use the software. The result is a much better product, often completed more quickly because the team learned along the way to avoid working on pieces that would not deliver value.

So, HR, get out there and create a "culture team." Work with team members to first deeply understand your culture, assess how closely it supports your success, and create actionable and measurable plans for moving forward. Give the team visibility and a voice. Let them pull others in; let them share what they find and where they're headed. Give credence to their recommendations; activate them. No leadership team should deny their people such an opportunity. And no leadership team should ignore the work they do and the input they give.

It's unlikely someone will come into your office tomorrow and ask you to take this on. So just take it on. Don't ask for permission.

If your organization has to embark on some long, drawn-out process to figure out where culture ranks on a list of competing priorities, you have already missed the point. The importance of culture can no longer be debatable. This isn't about structuring health care premiums or trying to fix performance management or creating next year's hiring plan. Your culture is the heart that pumps the lifeblood through your organization. It needs something more than it has already been given. HR can and should lead us toward the future of work. Please proceed until apprehended.

Maddie Grant was a digital strategist and is the author of two books on humanizing the workplace. Charlie Judy was an HR executive for some of the world's most prominent professional services organizations for almost 25 years. They are co-founders of WorkXO, a culture startup that helps forward-thinking leaders in growth-oriented organizations unlock their workplace culture to attract the right talent, increase engagement and unleash human potential. Find them at workxo.com. 

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