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Build the Culture You Value

5 Tips to Building and Sustaining Your Organization's Culture

Early in my career as a Talent Management Leader and practitioner of Industrial/Organizational Psychology, I often found it challenging to convince business leaders who for decades had lived each and every day of their work lives believing that their success was based on data and gut instinct. (As a researcher, I found it fascinating.) Many, if not most, did not believe that the “squishy” HR stuff, like culture, had any bearing on their ability to contribute to their own success or their business’s success.

I believe that a huge shift has occurred whereby a large proportion of leaders believe that culture does matter. For some time now, there have been data that show the real impact that culture has on an organization's employees and on the business itself. For example, we know that:

  • A strong culture leads to more engaged employees.

  • Engaged employees are more committed to the organization, more motivated to work, more likely to meet and exceed goals, and more likely to proactively seek learning and development opportunities.

  • Organizations with more engaged employees report higher levels of employee performance and retention, customer satisfaction, and business results.

Below are some ways that culture impacts employees and the business. You may have other examples, which we would love you to share!

Culture Guides Achievement of Business Goals.

Culture guides the activities within an organization necessary to achieve business goals and strategy. As described in Harvard Business Review’s The Culture Factor, gaining alignment between culture and strategy is critical since culture will impact business outcomes.

As an example, “Culture Factor” noted the merger of two companies with two very different cultures. Taking on the culture from either of the two companies that is misaligned with achieving the new strategy of the combined organization would be a major obstacle in the new organization’s ability to successfully reach its goals.

Culture Aligns Current and New Employees.

A well-articulated culture across the integrated company is a must before engaging in an assessment and selection of the most effective leaders who would execute the strategy. How a leader is evaluated and selected for a leadership role will be determined from the leadership behaviors that demonstrate the values and beliefs articulated by the culture. In doing so, the broader organization will understand why the leader was selected for the role and will see the alignment among what drives the organization, what values it cherishes and what behaviors they and the leaders are expected to demonstrate each and every day.

Employees need to see that the most senior leaders of the organization are modeling the same set of values and behaviors that they are being asked to follow.

Culture Impacts Employee Experience.

Consider the “employee experience,” which integrates all aspects of what a potential and current job candidate, a new employee, and an existing employee experience in the workplace. An organization’s culture plays an important role in determining who will come, who will stay, and who will go.

Let’s look at the hiring process as an example as this tends to be a “pain point” for many organizations.

The Hiring Process

The Process. An organization’s culture is communicated to candidates through its hiring process, and astute candidates will be able to pick up on these cultural characteristics. I was recently sitting with a senior team at a medium-sized private client presenting findings of a needs analysis focused on gathering people challenges. One common theme throughout the leadership interviews conducted was that they could not find the right people fast enough to fill the open jobs. Sound familiar? When I dove into the hiring process further, I found many touch points that were “broken.” Neither the steps in the recruiting process nor the roles and responsibilities (e.g., hiring manager, HR, interviewer, candidate) were well-defined.

For example, there were a couple of interviewers who cancelled their interviews because they “got too busy;” however, the candidate had already arrived at the company for a series of interviews that had been carefully lined up and confirmed for them.

Such a pattern of interviewer cancellations, late arrivals, or continually changing schedules could indicate a company’s lack of prioritization on hiring, lack of accountability by leadership or an inefficient process, among other things. Any one of those does not bode well for the organization. While objectively, we as leaders intellectually know we should not do this, how many of us have done this anyway?

Definition of the Role. The candidates picked up on the fact that there was no mutual agreement within the organization of what the role entailed or how the individual would interact with the variety of groups they supported.

Culture Fit. During the interviews, the leaders provided different, often contradictory, views of what it was like to work there. Another cultural clue for the candidate?

In some of the needs analysis interviews, leaders articulated that they were asked to evaluate candidates for “culture fit.” Some admitted they did not know what culture fit truly meant, how to describe the culture, or how to evaluate candidates for culture fit. It was clear to me that this was one of the first steps the organization needed to take—that is, ensure that there was a common understanding of the culture and how it will be communicated overall. (Yes, there will be nuances within the organization, which are good to communicate as well.)

Regarding evaluating candidates for culture fit, this is relatively new for hiring managers. Interviewers have traditionally focused on evaluating candidates on technical proficiency.

But think about it. Why would you not focus on culture in the hiring process? Evaluating for culture fit is challenging, yet arguably, it may be even more important than technical proficiency. After all, the technical skills won’t matter if you realize that your new hire is not a good cultural match. You don’t want to get to the onboarding process and realize you made a huge mistake, such as when you start seeing early signs of lower than expected engagement and performance.

Cultural Transparency. Whether or not your organization allows for these behaviors or, on the flip side, holds its managers accountable for hiring, or in the same vain, leading, developing and building a high-performing team), is a cultural indicator. We should demonstrate to candidates the “true” greatness of our organization’s culture—the reality of what they will experience if they are hired and come onboard. After all, a new employee does find out the “truth” soon enough and decides quickly if they will stay or go. Based on the time and cost of hiring and onboarding, it’s better that they find out the true values, beliefs and how things get done in your organization, sooner rather than later.

Candidates as Marketer. Needless to say, the candidate whose interviews were cancelled walked away formulating their view of the organization’s culture just by how the interview process was handled. Whether that was an anomaly or representative of the culture, the candidate would not know. Besides losing a candidate who could have been the most successful hire you’ve ever made, the candidate is a walking and talking marketer of your organization, for better or worse. When I talk to clients about working with them to build framework, processes, tools and resources that attract, hire, onboard, develop, engage and retain talent, the very first phase of the employee experience is attraction. The candidates who did not, as well as those who did, take the role at your organization are part of the overall framework or strategy of attracting the best talent to your organization.

Culture is Your Brand. Aside from the external branding strategy your organization builds and executes, the informal branding that takes place, such as when candidates formulate their view of an organization’s culture based on their hiring experience, is extremely powerful.

Similarly, current employees can also be your “marketers” and hopefully a positive force in your strategic plan to attract great talent. Remember the old adage “people don’t leave companies, they leave their managers”? Are they truly leaving because they have a “bad boss” or is it a bi-product of an organizational culture that enables “bad behaviors”?

Just think, the employees who leave your organization could have been your next star performers with the potential to drive your organization into new markets, develop new innovations, or make new connections. Alternatively, they could unintentionally end up being a negative force to your marketing strategy by communicating to friends, family and professional colleagues over email, social media and job boards, in conversations or at professional organizations, not to join your organization due to their perception of your organization’s culture.

Put Your Best Culture-Foot Forward

Currently in my consulting practice, and for decades as a talent executive overseeing all talent acquisition, development and management-related functions, a primary focus has been on partnering with leaders to ensure they have the “right” people in the right roles with the right skills for today and the drive and potential to build the right skills for tomorrow. I always add the caveat that what is “right” for one organization will not be right for another.

As an organization, who you are, and what you stand for and how you operate play an important role in determining who will come, who will stay and who will go.

Your company culture must be ingrained in the hearts and minds of your leadership before it can be ingrained in any sustainable way in the hearts, minds and behaviors of your employees and before it can become how your organization gets things done.

Remember, If the employee’s experience is not aligned with the stated values and culture of the organization, productivity and engagement will plunge, turnover will be high and the impact on the clients will be large.

Make culture a priority in your organization.

If you know of additional ways that culture impacts employees and/or businesses, or if you have specific examples of how your organization’s culture (which will remain unnamed and confidential) has impacted your people and/or business, either favorably or unfavorably, please email them to us. We want to hear from you!

Key Take-Aways

Define your organizational culture

  • Leaders must be aligned and committed to role model the behaviors.

  • Gain employee involvement to define culture. They have great perspective, and it can help create buy-in.

  • Communicate frequently, using all channels possible.

Show actions, don’t just speak words

  • Actions do speak louder than words. It’s not about the definition. It’s about exhibiting the behaviors that were just defined, reinforcing, recognizing and rewarding the demonstration of behaviors by the employees, each and every day.

  • It’s the sustained behaviors that will lead to culture change.

Hire for “culture fit”

  • Educate all hiring managers on what culture fit means and its importance in the hiring process.

  • Evaluate culture fit in the hiring process using multiple interviewers and approaches.

  • Ensuring alignment of the candidate to your organization’s culture may be even more important than technical skills to ensure the candidate will join your company, stay and be productive and engaged!

Reinforce your culture to make it stick

  • Hold all employees accountable for behaviors that support your organization’s values, beliefs and how things get done

  • Align all candidate, new hire and employee experiences with the organization’s defined culture

Make culture a priority

  • Ensure leaders, hiring managers and every manager role model behaviors that align with the defined culture

  • Remember that candidates and employees are walking and talking marketers for your organization. You determine the messages you want them to communicate

Questions to Consider

To determine the degree to which your organization is taking the steps needed to make it a priority, answer the following questions:

  • Clearly articulate your company culture. Start with your organization's values.

  • What do these values “look like” when they are put into action? (What behaviors do you see? What are people doing?)

  • Are employees being recognized and rewarded for demonstrating the expected behaviors? Are they being held accountable for not demonstrating these behaviors?

  • Are you and your leaders modeling the behaviors each and every day, whether or not you think anyone is watching?

  • Does each component of the employee experience, starting from even before the employee completes an application, support the culture?

  • Are your candidates, employees, and clients hearing the same messages about the values and beliefs of your organization?

  • During your hiring process, do you describe the culture of your organization to candidates applying for jobs? Do you consider how aligned they are with the values and beliefs held by your organization?

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