I believe that Ken Blanchard nailed it with his statement that “culture eats strategy for breakfast.”  There is much evidence that organizational culture may be the single most important success factor for organizations.  Your company may have a unique product, an awesome market niche, and even great people, but it won’t add up to overall success without a strong culture that supports employee engagement and growth.

As I have worked with various teams over the years, building and sustaining a strong culture is something like a quest for the holy grail – we know it’s out there somewhere but have trouble finding it.  I believe that creating the right culture can be a major challenge for three key reasons.

  • First, building and sustaining a strong culture is difficult because one’s actions need to align with one’s words – every day. I have observed numerous instances of executive leaders who spend significant time and effort to define the company’s core values and culture and even go to great lengths to communicate them internally and externally, brand them, and make it all look and sound great.  However, unless those values come to life in how leaders act (and enable others to act) in a manner that is consistent with them every day, they will be just words on a piece of paper.  Leaders who are confronted with unacceptable behavior by long-time employees or top performing employees are tempted to look the other way.  There can be a reluctance to ‘rock the boat’ with a key performer so the tendency is to laugh it off and say, “that’s just how Ted is, he doesn’t mean anything by it”.  These seemingly little omissions will in fact erode the very fabric of the culture – often in unseen ways.  We need to walk the talk.
  • Second, leaders must clearly and explicitly communicate the behavioral norms, values and performance expectations for new employees. As the speed and complexity of our work has increased, it can be easy to overlook this step and assume that new employees will just pick it up along the way.  While bad fit hires do happen from time to time, there are even more failures due to not clearly defining expectations and not holding employees accountable.  Don’t leave it up to new employees to ‘guess’ what is and is not acceptable behavior in your environment.  Tell them early and often what is expected and be consistent in your expectations.  If you don’t tell them, they will assume and guess.  We all know what can happen when we make assumptions.
  • Finally, building a great culture is challenging because the definition of ‘great culture’ changes over time and with each generation in the workplace. Baby Boomers felt that a great culture was all about job security and stability with one or two nice employee parties thrown in throughout the year!  Gen X was all about using technology and having flexibility and balance in their lives.

And then there are the Millennials.  They want to be happy at work.  Great culture for them is flexibility, meaningful work and career growth.  Oh, beer on tap, ping pong tables and working from home are good too!

So as organizational leaders, it can be very challenging to create and sustain a great culture when it means different things to different employees.  Some employees will be thrilled by an enhancement to the company match for retirement benefits and some want more generous parenting leave policies.  Finding the right balance between intrinsic and extrinsic motivations is a tough and never-ending challenge.   A leadership team may identify the right mix for supporting a great culture and then find it no longer works just a few years later.  Great culture is not a static objective.

An understandable tendency for leaders may be to adopt a ‘me too’ attitude and put in policies, perks and benefits that seem to be successful at other organizations.  However, their situation may not be the same as yours so the answer to “what does great culture look like?” may be somewhat different.  You could end up spending unnecessary dollars on items that add little value for your team.  For example, you may focus on longevity recognition when giving back to the community might be more impactful for your employees.

It’s important to ask these questions of your employees and really listen to their answers.  Let your employees help you as leaders to create and support that great culture – one that is just as unique as your organization.   Revisit your organizational values on a regular basis and see if they are still relevant.  Ask yourselves, what kind of employer are we or do we want to become?  How do we get there? This should be a question that is looked at every couple of years – perhaps in conjunction with updating your strategic plan.

In short, creating and supporting a great workplace culture is not a one and done exercise.  It takes on-going and deliberate focus and it will change over time.  The cool part is that as leaders, you have more than one opportunity to get it right.