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"Culture eats strategy for breakfast." Peter Drucker

While there is some controversy over whether culture eats strategy for breakfast or saves it for lunch, there can be no debate that, in today's business landscape, culture is a key organizational asset... or a terminal liability. As Shawn Parr writes in Fast Company, "Culture is the environment in which your strategy and your brand thrives or dies a slow death." Which will it be? That's up to you.

Why Culture Matters

Leadership expert Jim Vaughan writes, "True competitive advantage is more difficult to achieve and sustain than ever before. Technological breakthroughs are hard to come by, and when they do occur, they are quickly reverse-engineered and copied by competition."

The true advantage is culture. It is inimitable, unique. And critical.

Why is it so important? According to Josh Bersin, principal and founder of Bersin by Deloitte, "...employees have more bargaining power than ever before. Thanks to social websites like LinkedIn, Glassdoor, and Indeed, a company's employment brand is now public information so if you're not a great place to work, people find out fast. This shifts power into the hands of job-seekers." And into the hands of current employees, whose options extend outside your doors.

How do you ensure that your organization is a "great place to work"?

Start By Empowering Your People

Culture doesn't come about by decree; it takes intensive and consistent effort, and it takes the buy-in of people at all levels. Vaughan writes, "Everyone must own culture for a culture to be resilient and viable. Every employee should embody your corporate values and be passionate about maintaining the culture."

Vaughan's framework for building a strong, cohesive culture rests on ability to engage and empower people. To do so:

  • Involve them in a shared vision. People need to know that they have purpose and that they can make a difference. More employees, particularly Millennials, want an "impact" job. They don't just want to clock their time and pick up a paycheck. Leverage their desire into profound results and "provide focus and balance in the pursuit of" the vision.
  • Inspire people to be good team players. Thirty-eight percent of US employees feel as though there is not enough collaboration in the workplace. Research by Cornerstone on Demand finds that workers want positive recognition for sharing input, encouragement from senior staff, and the ability to easily share input with different departments. Give it to them.
  • Share information freely. This way, everyone has the information necessary for sound decisions. Be open, honest, and encourage others to behave the same way. Promote inclusive communication, and reward diverse opinions and constructive disagreement. Netflix, for instance, promotes an environment that values "diversity of thought, culture, background, and perspective." Their results speak for themselves.
  • Believe in the fundamental equality of your people. They're not "subordinates." Your employees are assets, and they're vital in helping your organization reach its goals. Treat everyone with respect and dignity.
  • Lead leaders. Instead of creating followers, grow leaders. Produce the conditions in which others can be successful as they pursue the shared vision. When possible, align personal and organizational goals to engage people.
  • Foster a learning environment. To maintain a competitive edge, organizations need to improve continually. Model appropriate risk-taking, encourage a "learn from mistakes" mentality, embrace creativity and curiosity. Promote the idea that employees (including you!) can fail without being a failure.
  • Align values and actions. The best way to do this is to model the behavior you want to see. Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks, once said, "People want guidance, not rhetoric. They need to know what the plan of action is and how it will be implemented. They want to be given responsibility to help solve the problem and the authority to act on it."

When you empower them, you make this possible - and make other key leadership tasks involved in creating a strong, viable culture that much easier.

Key Leadership Tasks

What steps do you need to take when building, and nurturing, your company culture? Vaughan provides an outline:

  1. Create a vision/purpose. Imagine the desired future state, gather input, and shape it into a concise message.
  2. Communicate the vision and enlist total commitment. Explain the vision and show people how it makes their lives/work better, easier, more rewarding.
  3. Create conditions in which everyone can align with the vision and achieve success. Align, as much as possible, individual and organizational goals, provide the right resources and processes, and then let people do their best.
  4. Help those who don't align find another place to work. Respectfully help people who do not fit (not those who voice dissenting opinions, but those who don't embrace the vision) find other employment opportunities.
  5. "Muscle-build" the organization. Bring in new talent; strengthen the skills of employees; move people into "stretch" assignments.
  6. Make continual improvement a part of "how we do things around here." Don't get mired in the past. Encourage people to accept change - and leverage their talent to seize its opportunities.
  7. Build cooperative mindsets. Share information, and reward people cooperation.
  8. Tend to the culture and core values. Live, breathe, and model honesty, integrity, equality, equity, quality, and service.

Without a compelling culture, disengagement and lack of talent will eat your company for breakfast. Create a competitive advantage that your rivals cannot reverse-engineer and copy, and which ensures your brand thrives.


Larry Hart

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