I wish I could give you a crisp definition of what the word culture, with regard to business, really means. It’s a tricky word that finds its way into most discussions regarding the workplace these days.
Like so many things, it’s hard to describe, but you know it when you see it.
The thing is, every business has a culture. It may be strong or weak, positive or negative, or just plain hard to spot, but it’s like a form of internal brand in a way. It’s the collective impression, habits, language, style, communication and practices of the organization.
Some elements of culture are intentional, some are accidental. Some are rooted deeply in the ethos of an original employee group, some are created out of a lack of any real direction or clarity.
My belief is that a healthy culture is a shared culture, one created through shared stories, beliefs, purpose, plans, language, outcomes and ownership.
These aren’t little things; these aren’t things that you get right during an annual retreat. These are things molded over time with trust and passion and caring. These are things that evolve.
I don’t have all the answers, no one does, but I assure you this is the question that needs answering – How can I build a culture of shared commitment?
The following elements make up the foundation of a system of shared commitment.
The first step is to begin to develop, archive, curate and tell stories that illustrate what your business stands for.
Stories that tell why you do what you do, who you it for, why you’re passionate about it, and where the business is headed.
Throughout time great leaders have used stories to inspire commitment and attract community.
The central elements of a strong culture are the stories that employees tell themselves and each other. The why you would want to work here story, the orientation story, the here’s how we deal with challenges story, the here’s where we are headed story.
These illustrations are like oral traditions that allow culture to sustain, thrive and grow and it’s the job of the leader of the business to make story building an intentional act.
People want to work for more than a paycheck. Sure, they want to be paid fairly and in some cases the element of salary will be an important aspect of their decision to come to work for an organization, but perhaps more importantly, people want to work on something they believe in and they want to do that work with people that share their passion and beliefs.
This isn’t the same thing as saying, everyone in your organization has to maintain the same beliefs. However, by creating a set of core beliefs that everyone in the organization lives by and supports, you create a set of filters for how decisions are made, how people treat each other, how they treat customers, what’s expected, how to manage and even how to write a sales letter.
For some time on this blog I’ve talked about the idea of connecting your passion with why you do what you do, or what some might call purpose.
In order to bring purpose fully into the organization you must determine a way to bring it to life and reinforce in every decision the organization makes.
This may take the form of an employee development program, foundation support, benefit package or community program. The key is to bring purpose to life by example. Your actions, or how you treat your staff, will speak far louder about purpose than any page in an employee manual. In order to create a shared purpose the staff must be your first customer.
The strongest, most productive cultures come to life when people know what to do and how to do it – In places where they are trusted to do go work and use their creativity to solve problems.
If you are to grow your organization to the point where it can serve you ultimate higher purpose, you’ll need to develop a system that enables people to manage themselves.
Now, that may sound a little foreign or perhaps even scary to anyone who’s worked in a typical hierarchical business structure, but it’s central to a fully alive culture.
The key lies in systematic planning thinking, clear accountability and consistent communication.
While stories are an important way to attract and inspire people to join you on your journey, they can only take you as far as the leaders you develop around you.
After payroll is made and your business is generating sufficient cash flow I really believe that the leader’s primary role should shift to developing leaders internally.
In fact, as the owner of a business you’ll never succeed in reaching beyond where you are today until you are no longer the person that brings in the most work.
Teaching others to land the big fish, to tell stories, to create shared beliefs, to inspire and attract commitment means you have to invest time and resources in this very thing in a very intentional way.
This element of the shared culture comes by teaching your people what an ideal customer looks like, what a customer is desperately in need of, and how to communicate your core difference in a meaningful way.
It comes by teaching what everything costs, how profit is made, how every decision impacts a customer in some way. It grows by sending them to school, supporting their growth in other areas and demonstrating this is an organization that cares for the whole person.
One of the strongest ways to foster commitment is to get people to commit to a stake in the outcome of their work.
The only way I know to do this is to establish benchmarks, goals and indicators and then report and communicate progress religiously.
You must create reporting mechanisms that truly measure the most important components of your business. This will include key financial elements, but must strive to go far beyond into measuring success around shared beliefs and culture.
The ultimate measure of commitment is achieved when people that work for your organization come to understand that they play a crucial role in creating the kind of company they want to work for – that the company is actually their most important product. (Of course the owner has to realize that first.)
This won’t happen until you help your people free themselves from the typical job descriptions and organizational charts so they can begin to manage themselves. It won’t happen unless they are excited about the journey they are on. It won’t happen until they fully understand how a dollar spent on a new desk equates to profit margin.
It won’t happen until they start thinking like an owner (and I mean in the good way) when it comes to meeting a customer’s needs. It won’t happen until everyone realizes they can help develop new business, build the community, create innovation, fix problems, right wrongs and make decisions that impact the organization on their own.