Too often considered to be a medium-to-low priority, corporate culture affects everything about an organisation – from the way its over-arching goals, to its internal behaviour, to the types of interactions it creates with its customers. Moreover, corporate culture issues are primarily leadership issues, because the way senior management thinks and acts will always affect the mindset at other levels of the organisation.
Leaders as representatives
Executives represent the face of the organisation, both internally and in high-level business meetings with outside associates. Ideally they will be approachable and welcoming, showing good listening skills and the ability to consider other viewpoints. This latter trait also encompasses their behaviour in foreign environments, as it pertains to cultural understanding and sensitivity.
Simple courtesy includes making the effort to learn about foreign languages, cuisines, and cultural norms when travelling overseas for meetings and conferences. Such markers of respect do not go unnoticed by foreign representatives, and can reflect well on the organisation as a whole.
But leaders’ behaviour also sets the tone within an organisation, both directly and indirectly. If they set a standard of promoting efficiency at all costs, then other priorities – such as quality control, team cohesion, and the customer experience – will be at risk of neglect. If they set up a system of top-down control and micromanagement, then real innovation and morale will suffer as a result.
Business leadership adviser Jocko Willink equates top-down control with a fundamental lack of confidence inside an organisation. “If you’re always telling people to follow your orders,” he says, “it means you don’t trust them to make their own decisions.”
The remedy, he says, is to train them well enough so that they know exactly what the organisation hopes to achieve, and can think for themselves about how best to achieve it. Only in this way, with everybody on the same page and fully onboard with the values and goals of the organisation, can employees begin to take initiative, which is the first step toward innovation.
Towards a culture of leadership
Chris Humphrey former director of customer strategy at Disney, tells a story of how this type of initiative works in practice. When a young girl at a Disney theme park threw her favourite doll, it flew over a fence and landed in a construction site, where its clothes were damaged and smeared with mud. But Disney had trained its employees well, and ingrained in them a cultural ideal that was simple to remember: “We create happiness”.
Mr Humphrey explains how a clear communication of company culture allowed the employees to decide what to do next. In his words:
Accompanied by a photographer, the bedraggled doll was taken to a make-up artist who styled her hair, then to the wardrobe department who made a new dress, and finally to a ‘party’ with other Disney princesses. Later that evening Belle was returned to her owner, together with a photo album showing what a great time she’d had during her ‘makeover’. The girl’s mother sent a thank-you note describing the moment of Belle’s return as “pure magic”.
Such outcomes can only occur when everyone in an organisation – particularly those on the ground level – is hired with the company culture in mind, trained to promote its values, supported and rewarded when they express those values, and given the autonomy to make judgment calls in special cases.
Business culture in the digital age
Companies in the modern economy tend to move quickly, and may have more pressing production-centred needs than an organisation like Disney. But the example nevertheless holds: Whatever your desired company culture may be, it must be clearly articulated so that it can be expressed in everything that you do.
Training and workshops can help introduce employees to your company culture, but they are not the only tools for the job. Your organisation’s own social media accounts, normally directed outward at potential and actual customers, can also be repurposed to bring employees together. By encouraging employees to post stories and photos of your brand’s values in action, and then sharing and rewarding those posts when they appear, companies can use positive reinforcement to keep the workforce all on the same page and motivated to stay on track.
In this environment, where teams keep each other on brand, and benefit from finding new ways to promote the company’s values and culture, the quality of their output is very likely to rise. Such an employee-centric workplace also has an excellent effect on team morale, inspiring belief in the company’s direction and leading to better retention rates.
Each of these improvements, however, must begin at the top. Leaders have a powerful effect on the culture within a company – through both instruction and example. As Mr Willink often stresses, “It’s not what you preach, it’s what you tolerate.” By putting a high priority on its corporate values, and insisting on the universal acceptance of those values within the organisation, any company can strengthen its commitment to a positive and unified effort. From customer interactions to employee experience and the company’s own rate of innovation, the benefits of such an approach are dramatic and long-lasting.