This article is included in Entrepreneur Voices on Company Culture, a new book containing insights from more than 20 contributors, entrepreneurs, and thought leaders.
Lately, corporate culture has been in the news for all the wrong reasons -- first with the Wells Fargo scandal, and second, with the violent treatment of a passenger on a United Airlines flight. But, for every company whose culture has come into question, there’s a Southwest Airlines whose employees-first mantra and spirit of inclusiveness inspire teams to go the extra mile for customers; there is also a Quicken Loans whose “isms” or cultural values -- like “simplicity is genius” and “yes before no” -- have led the company to become one of the fastest growing online mortgage lenders, not to mention one of Fortune magazine’s top 10 best companies to work for.
In successful companies, culture goes beyond free yoga classes, gourmet meals and other perks. It is about creating a work environment based on shared values and principles -- ideals that are so deeply embedded in the organization’s DNA that they become intrinsic to daily decisions. It is about building a business where people can collectively thrive and grow, and are driven to do good work, better work, which in turn translates into higher customer satisfaction and better performance. Culture is essentially the glue that binds a company together, and as with most important things in a business, it starts at the top with the CEO. So what are some of the strategies that CEOs can adopt to improve corporate culture?
Listen more, talk less.
When you’re busy running a company, it’s easy to miss what’s going on on the frontlines. Would things at Wells Fargo have been different if executives had actually listened to their employees, and understood the pressures that they were under to meet sales targets? Employees live the organization’s culture every day, and if something is not quite right, they are the first ones to know -- which is why it so important to tune in to what they are saying.
Website design startup Squarespace keeps its finger on the pulse of the organization by maintaining a flat, open culture where there are minimal levels of management between staff and executives. This gives employees the confidence to voice their opinions freely.
Encouraging open dialog is important. At MetricStream, I keep a stuffed elephant in my office. It is meant as a reminder that I encourage team members to “put the elephants on the table.” You could consider conducting surveys to collect employee feedback, talking to your staff face-to-face or establishing hotlines where people can report grievances and concerns without fear of being targeted.
As you listen, pay attention to the sub-text, the non-verbal cues. Employees might be telling you one thing, but their expressions and gestures might be signifying the opposite. Are they afraid to speak the truth and, if so, what does that say about your culture? Similarly, when sending out surveys, take note of how many people have responded, or how many questions have been skipped. At team meetings, observe how people interact -- do they look engaged, do they ask questions? These signals provide important insights into your organization’s culture and its alignment with corporate values.
Finally, reward employees for speaking up and raising issues. Invite them to challenge your thoughts, and to bring a diversity of ideas and opinions to the table. When employees feel that they are being heard and when they know that their concerns are being noted, they will be more engaged, productive and innovative. And you, as a leader, will be able to build a stronger, more cohesive culture.
Put collaboration first.
At the 2016 Rio Olympics, the Japanese 4x100 meters relay team pulled off an unexpected victory when it defeated North American sprinting legends to win the silver. None of the four Japanese men, by themselves, were as fast as America’s Justin Gatlin or Canada's Andre De Grasse. However, what they lacked in speed, they made up for in teamwork and seamless baton changes that, ultimately, gave them the winning edge.
Noted leadership expert Ken Blanchard once said, “None of us is as smart as all of us . . .” Effective leaders understand this vision. They know that the best corporate cultures are created when people work as one unit towards common goals and values -- when individual contributions come together to drive collective achievements.
However, fostering a spirit of collaboration in today’s scattered, global organizations can be challenging. Many leaders limit collaboration to specific projects rather than viewing it as the bedrock of a successful organization. But, there are others who understand that one of the most basic human needs is to belong -- and when employees feel that they are a valued member of a team that collaborates towards a meaningful purpose, they tend to be more innovative, high-performing, and satisfied.
Collaboration doesn’t happen by accident though. It takes a strong, sustained strategy and roadmap. Begin by helping employees realize the importance of collaboration, not only in achieving the organization’s objectives, but also in fulfilling their own unique potential. Create a work environment of trust and respect where employees are free to express themselves. Invite them to work across silos with other teams and functions. And finally, establish metrics that can measure and improve the level of collaboration. These initiatives go a long way towards building a company where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
As someone who has spent much of her life taking risks, both as an individual and as the CEO of a company, I’ve learned that the most successful businesses are those that are not afraid to take chances. YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki put it best when she said, “Life doesn’t always present you with the perfect opportunity at the perfect time . . . . Opportunities, the good ones, they’re messy and confusing and hard to recognize. They’re risky. They challenge you.”
Good leaders know that the only way to realize these opportunities is to establish a culture of risk-taking where employees across the organization are empowered to experiment and challenge the status quo. At MetricStream, one of our biggest innovations yet -- the M7 GRC platform and apps -- is the cumulative result of teams across the organization pushing the boundaries of technology to boldly go where few, if any, GRC companies have gone before.
A strong culture of risk-taking is particularly important in a world that is constantly changing. If you want to innovate, transform and disrupt, you have to inspire your employees to take those leaps of faith. And it starts with walking the talk. When employees see their leaders taking smart risks, they will follow suit.
It also comes down to informed decision-making. Employees need to understand the risks they’re taking. Encourage them to spend time measuring and analyzing the possible risks of their decisions so that they are prepared and ready for the outcomes. Establish milestones, check-posts and controls to ensure that the risks don’t spin out of control. And finally, let employees know that it is ok if the risks they take don’t always work out. When Google’s much hyped Wave failed, then-CEO Eric Schmidt told reporters, “Remember, we celebrate our failures. This is a company where it’s absolutely okay to try something that’s very hard, have it not be successful and take the learning from that.”
Culture is not something that just happens. Like anything worthwhile, it takes time, effort, and commitment. Take a leaf out of Asana’s book. The tech company treats culture as a product that, like any app or software, requires careful design, testing, debugging and so on. Representatives from across the company meet regularly to take stock of corporate values, and to identify new ways of embedding these values in the company. They also collect user feedback about what’s working well and what is not. Unsurprisingly, the company was recently named among Entrepreneur’s best company cultures of 2017.
At the end of the day, companies like Asana know that culture is not just a “nice-to-have.” It is as important as the product or service you’re selling; because when you have a robust, cohesive culture, you have happy employees. And when you have happy employees, you have higher productivity, happier customers and stronger profits.