I’ve had some interesting conversations recently with a couple of clients regarding their company’s culture.
With the first client, someone I was helping to groom as the owner’s successor, he told me how much they value their culture. Not only that, but they felt very strongly about “hiring to their culture”. In other words, they made certain that every new hire understood how important the company’s culture was.
As an executive coach focused on developing successors, these statements were music to my ears! I naturally asked him, “So, what IS your company’s culture?” AND HE HAD NO ANSWER! It turns out, when they speak to new hires about culture, they simply tell them that their culture was important to them but offered no guidance as to what that was or meant. I was confident that he understood what their culture consisted of in general terms, so I sent him off to try to better define their culture and reduce it to a handful of statements.
In our next coaching session, we discussed the list of values and behaviors the company strove to live by. We spent that session refining and clarifying the list so he could better express to employees what mattered to the company and so he could better hold them accountable to those values and behaviors.
With the second client, the president of his company, we had a very different conversation. This client had very clearly defined their culture and like the other client, made sure that new hires were aligned to it. But there was a problem. In fact, it was a major problem.
Most people think that a company’s culture is defined by the values and behaviors a company aspires to. That sounds great and makes sense. Except it’s not true.
A company’s culture is defined by the values and behaviors the company tolerates.
And who does that tolerating? The leaders do. The values and behaviors that the leaders tolerate become the company’s culture. But it doesn’t end there. It gets worse. When a leader professes to value one behavior but acts in a manner at odds with it, it demonstrates a lack of integrity. And when a leader is seen to lack integrity, people lose respect for them. And when people lose respect for a leader, engagement and productivity suffer.
And that’s EXACTLY what was happening at this client’s company. My client was as guilty as anyone in the company, acting at odds with the stated culture. But nevertheless, he couldn’t understand why they had so much trouble making progress and holding people accountable. Consequently, we began strategizing about how to change his behavior and the behavior of others.
So, here’s the bottom line:
- A company’s culture needs to be defined. A culture that exists by default is always inferior and leads to lower engagement.
- Although a defined culture is good (and important), the true culture is really defined by the values and behaviors the leaders tolerate.
- If you want to drive a positive culture, the leaders (and everyone throughout the organization) need to strive to live those values and behaviors and hold one another accountable to them.
A positive, well-defined culture that people live by results in better engagement, higher productivity, and improved profitability.