The term “culture” came up, and so I asked him, “What does ‘culture’ mean?”
He quickly responded, “Other people’s realities.”
Incredible. I couldn’t have defined it more succinctly that that.
Then I asked a follow-up question, “Do you think there’s a ‘culture’ in companies?”
His response: “No clue.”
My son is no different than most adults. We all know company culture is important, but it’s much harder to actually define – let alone change – it.
We all know that a strong company culture can make or break a company.
There also seem to be endless news reports about successful companies that suffer near to full collapse due to their horrible work cultures. For example, growing travel company Away recently made headlines after they replaced their CEO when it was discovered that she was cultivating a toxic, “cutthroat” company culture.
And Away’s news came on the heels of WeWork’s $US47 billion “culture” mistake. After evidence of a highly nefarious culture came to light, the company went from a potential mega IPO to struggling to survive.
So what are companies supposed to do? Is shaping a positive culture really as elusive as it seems?
The good news is that it isn’t elusive at all. In fact, there are simple steps you can take to create an incredible culture.
In this complex world, we often think we have to solve big problems with big solutions. That’s not the case with culture; small changes can make a huge impact.
When I was CEO at my previous company, we had a lot of opportunity to create a healthier, happier place.
One day, I had an epiphany. I was standing on stage in front of about 200 employees. I was talking about some of the progress our business was making. The pride on their faces were palpable. I thought, “We got here mostly by luck. What could our culture look like if we actually focused on creating a superior culture?”
One year later, our culture score on our employee engagement survey went up 15%.
While the things we did weren’t rocket science, it did take a lot of trial and error to get to that point.
Here are the three things that made the most impact for us, and can help you transform your culture as well:
1. Create a culture ‘board of directors’ … and then get out of their way
Give them real control.
Don’t form another “committee.” Instead, signal that improving your company’s culture is of utmost importance by forming a team that’s given a significant title and role.
For us, diversity on this team was critical. I asked each of my direct staff members to nominate three to four people from all levels within their organisation. I then reviewed the nominations and selected the final “board,” ensuring it included people from all office locations, all functional areas, all backgrounds, and from all levels within the organisation.
Now, here’s the hard part: You have to give them control.
As the leader, you certainly set the vision and framework. But that’s where it should end. To begin transforming your culture, it’s critical to fully enable this team.
We achieved this by doing things such as sending them on a “look-see” (an adult field trip) to observe how another company’s culture operated. We asked the team to define the words that described our aspirational culture. We also put the BODs in charge of putting together and leading a leadership summit.
And here is why “getting out of the way” is so hard. The reason we’ve made it into this leadership position is largely because we’ve had good ideas and worked hard implementing them. This is also the same quality that prevents good leaders from becoming great leaders.
As you give up more and more control, there will be times where you may not agree with their ideas. Or you may feel nervous that they won’t “do it right.”
Here’s the reality: Changing culture isn’t about what you do. It’s about how you do it. By enabling this group first, you send a clear signal to others that this organisation isn’t yours; it’s theirs.
2. Invest in leadership training
The training was led by the internal culture board of directors.
This one is a little less simple, and it’s a critical step.
When I was leading my previous company, many of the managers had some previous leadership training. Unfortunately, many others had none.
We made the decision to invest in leadership training for every “people leader.” We chose a partner company, and our goal was to create a common language and system of beliefs that was consistent among every single leader in our company.
We then sent each and every person through the same leadership training. After that, we capped the trainings off with a three-day leadership summit that the entire leadership team attended.
Our partner company facilitated the leadership training; however, the leadership summit was fully led by our own culture BODs.
Why? Because when the attendees saw their peers leading the summit, and not a company that would be gone the day after the event, it sent a signal that this was not a fleeting initiative; this was the start of something they would all carry on well after the summit was over.
This event produced some of the proudest moments in my career. There were so many positive outcomes from the event: Everyone came away with a clear understanding of our vision statement, we created a leadership manifesto, and people simply bonded with others that they worked with every day.
In the end, the most valuable outcome was the team walked away knowing that they were allowed, and expected, to be the ambassadors of our company’s culture.
3. Create an inspiration “platform”
Devote 10 minutes of every meeting to share something inspiring.
Inspiring people is my jam. I’m a storyteller and people lover at heart. And I used to think that was enough to make me a great leader. All I needed to do was keep “running around” inspiring people.
Can you relate?
Then one day, I was reading through our employee engagement survey results. I noticed that the people working directly with me were pretty darn happy. But it was a different story with others in the organisation.
It hit me: My personal inspiration could only take us so far. If I wanted true cultural transformation, I had to find a way to make sure my employees continually inspired each other.
The leadership training and summit was a solid foundation. Now we just had to keep it going.
The most mind-blowing thing is that I implemented one small thing that changed everything. I added a new agenda item to my weekly staff meeting … and our “inspiration platform” was born.
Instead of a standard agenda, diving right into the first problem at the top of the hour and never looking back, we instead reserved the first 10 minutes of every meeting for something we called, “Slow down and inspire.” During this time, people were encouraged to share things such as leadership best practices, something inspiring they observed, or even personal accomplishments.
For example, one team decided to put together a team video, and another created their own team vision board. We even had a team start a monthly “book club,” where they read a new leadership book each month and then discussed it at a team meeting.
As each of these ideas were shared in our meetings, new ideas were inspired. Soon, every team meeting in the entire company had their own version of “Slow down and inspire.” Soon, everyone within the organisation was inspiring each other.
Now, you might be wondering, ‘Did any of this culture work pay off?’
Your job is to create the system, or platform, to shape a culture and then make sure it keeps going.
It did. Literally. Not only did our employee engagement scores skyrocket, our earnings tripled in just three years.
That’s a pretty strong business case that a strong culture yields strong business results.
In summary, if you want to cultivate a great culture, your job is not to “do it all,” or even to inspire people. Your job is to create the system, or platform, to shape a culture and then make sure it keeps going.
Envision this: Your job is to pull the cord of one of those flying disc toys. Your need to get that disc flying. Then it’s up to your team to make sure it keeps flying. And when it falls to the ground, that’s OK. Your job is to pick it back up and inspire it to fly again.