Building a Culture for Success

Having spent most of my professional career in the technology world, I’ve seen, and been a part of bringing some pretty amazing innovations to the market.  Some have truly changed how we get things done, and some others were just plain cool.  What has always been interesting to me, though, is why some companies make it and some do not.  I don’t mean those who get gobbled up and become part of some other company; I’m talking about first-to-market companies, market leaders, name brands that just…go…away.  You can name them in every industry, and it can be a depressing exercise. Yes, there are market forces involved, strategic missteps and technology changes (think VHS vs. Betamax) that do in many apparently thriving companies, but there’s one other that can be just as deadly to a business’s health: company culture.

In my experience, a company’s culture, it’s approach to getting things done, decision-making, customer service and how employees are treated can trump many other factors in determining long term success or failure of the business.  As part of the leadership teams of quite a number of companies over the years who wrestled with driving positive cultures, I can boil the topic down to two points: it starts and must be led from the very top of the organization, and it’s really, really hard to change.  As it happens, I have recent experience with both points.

A friend of mine runs the leadership training program for a globally known, very large company which designs and builds big metal things we all see every day.  This company is in an industry that has its ups and downs and the company has been generally successful, especially of late.  But in a conversation recently, my friend mentioned that while most of the people he works with are bright, open-minded and eager to improve, there is an unshakable fear of failure. In spite of efforts from top management, the company’s culture is such that even a single failed effort can spell doom for the person’s career.  The result is that things move slowly, cautiously, and innovation is limited to special groups within the company—everyone else plays it safe and works hard to prevent the boat from rocking.  Hierarchies are rigid, there’s an unfortunate amount of corporate toadying to superiors, and the status quo is maintained.  This company isn’t going out of business, but it’s leaving so much opportunity behind.

On the other hand, I work with a company with a similar scale, albeit in a different set of market segments.  Yes, it too is a huge enterprise with byzantine processes and its share of “30 year men” whose key job function seems to be to get one year closer to retirement.  The difference is, there is a very strong commitment from the very highest levels of the organization to innovate, think outside the box, collaborate internally, and stay focused on the best possible products for their customers.  It’s hardly perfect, and the inertia of a large company is roughly the equivalent of a black hole, but through actions and deeds the company is making considerable progress in pushing this credo throughout the organization.  The result is that people are willing to propose ideas, try new things and if they don’t work out they’re considered learnings that inform the next effort, not a death knell for their career.

Ok, so those are two different views of really big companies, but the points remain the same for any size business.  If you want engaged, energetic employees, you have to actively ensure the work environment you set up—as the executives or business owners—fosters and reinforces that behavior.  I’ve worked in too many companies where getting to the office early turned into a competitive sport, and leaving late became a game of chicken to impress the boss.  If it’s important for you to be perceived as the big kahuna, with the power of employment life or death over people, you’re going to get compliance, not commitment. And your results will reflect that dynamic.

On the other hand, if you’re so laissez faire that a herd of cats would look organized and disciplined, then you’re never going to grow, and neither are your staff.  Key is to bring your leaders and your team together to understand the company’s goals, its objectives and its targets for the year, and make sure everyone knows how and where they contribute.  From there you and your management, right down to the lowest level supervisor, needs to both be engaged in supporting that playbook, and consistent across the team in what behaviors are reinforced and which are discouraged.  There are many reasons why companies succeed or fail—don’t let a bad corporate culture put your business at risk.

 

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