Even this weekend as I was sipping hot chocolate at Starbucks while talking with a goddess friend it came up in conversation. She took a fabulous new VP of Marketing job at a well-known, successful company working with high-visibility brands…but I asked her why she left her old job where she had really loved going to work.
Her response? “They brought in a new CEO who didn’t fit with our culture. I just couldn’t work for him, so I was thrilled when this new company called.”
There are five truisms in regard to leadership and corporate culture that resonate the most with me:
1. The culture is, ultimately, a reflection of the values of those leading the organization
I was in a meeting one time to which the CEO had invited about 15 people who were at two different levels of the corporation. He asked a question and then went around the table in an orderly fashion getting input from the attendees. When he got to one of the lower level attendees he said, “I’m sorry, I just want to hear from (the higher level) folks”…and moved on down the table.
If you say you value the input of others and invite them to have a seat at the table, but don’t give them a voice, then what are you really saying?
How do you think those folks at the lower level felt in that meeting with the CEO – and how hard do you think they wanted to work toward his success and the success of the company?
2. The culture is a reflection of the stories employees tell
Given the example above, what stories do you think seep out into the organization based on your actions as a leader? Peter Bregman did a brilliant job of conveying the criticality of stories to culture in his Harvard Business Review blog post, “A Good Way to Change a Corporate Culture.”
He said to the CEO, who had asked Peter how he could change the culture of his company after admitting to Peter that he’d made one of his female employees work on the day of her wedding,
“You change a culture with stories. Right now your stories are about how hard you work people. Like the woman you forced to work on her wedding day. You may not be proud of it, but it’s the story you tell. That story conveys your culture simply and reliably. And I’m certain you’re not the only one who tells it. You can be sure the bride tells it. And all her friends. If you want to change the culture, you have to change the stories.”
3. Facing the truth about your stories, and doing something about them, can have a powerful impact on performance
Last July I had the pleasure to interview a CEO who shared with me one of the most inspiring corporate stories I had ever heard. His name is Bill Black and he was CEO of Maritime Life at a time when he knew that growth of his company was only going to come via acquisitions. He also knew the importance of values to the culture and success of a company – as mentioned in point number one.
In his case, he involved every single one of his 1,000 employees in the creation of a values statement that he summarized as,“First to satisfy every customer. Toward that, to satisfy every employee. As a result to have superior profitability and growth.”
Bill was smart enough to recognize that the creation of the values statement alone would not make it successful. So, he empowered a team of employees to write a newspaper with stories about how these values were being brought to life in the company. As he went on to say,
I told them it was ok to be demanding and challenging but they were not allowed to be cynical. I wanted the stories to be a real reflection of what was happening in the organization – so everyone in the company received the newspaper at the same time with no edits by management. I saw the stories at the same time as everyone else.
One example of how this played out was a story that was written about the disconnect between serving our customers (one of our values) and the bonus structure. As a result of the story the bonus structure across the company was changed to include a customer satisfaction piece. Every single employee became eligible for between $0 and $1000 based on the customer satisfaction score achieved that year. And every employee got the same dollar amount. We even took some money out of management bonuses to enable this to occur across the entire company…
I can tell you this - these types of stories were much more powerful in igniting change than if I had written a memo to the leadership team!
4. How well a leader blends together the corporate cultures of different companies during a merger is critical to the success of the new company
In the same interview, Bill shared with me these thoughts in regard to what made their mergers so successful:
It was the acquisitions that allowed us to more than triple shareholder value – but it was the values that made the acquisitions successful. Each time we acquired a company I held up the Values Statement and said, “Read it and leave if you don’t like it.” This was the most effective tool we had at driving integration.
As a result, we discovered that, out of sight of management, our employees were telling employees from the acquired company, “You will love it here.” Our employee satisfaction rate stayed consistently in the 90′s through our acquisitions – which is an extraordinary accomplishment!
On top of that, we began being placed on lists of the “best places to work” – which enabled us to attract the best talent and heighten our corporate reputation – which was really good for our shareholders.
5. With the advancement of women, minorities, a deeper variety of ethnic cultures and now five generations represented in the corporate workplace today, it is more important than ever for leaders to understand the impact of culture, and become adept at shaping it.
Knowing how best to communicate with, motivate and inspire people who come to our organizations having experienced different world views and social norms will make the role of leader more complex and challenging than ever before.
Leaders will disregard the importance of individual culture and its impact on corporate culture at their own peril.
I’m quite sure there are more truisms about leadership and corporate culture, and I encourage you to share the ones that resonate with you in the comments, below.
But here’s the key question:
Knowing all of this, what do you think are our obligations as leaders if we are to create or nurture a culture of success?
Please share your thoughts and insights in the comments – AND – please join my Leadership Chat Co-Host Steve Woodruff and me on Tuesday night, March 8th, to chat about this LIVE on Twitter. It’s not the same without all of you – we would be honored to have each and every one of you there, sharing your experiences with the Leadership Chat Community.
Speaking of which – have you seen our cool, new Leadership Chat website? Check it out and please let us know what you think!
You can find me on Twitter at @LisaPetrilli and on LinkedIn at http://www.linkedin.com/in/lisapetrilli. I look forward to seeing you there!
To hire me, eMail me at [email protected].
Photo is Pope Benedict XVI by Archer 10 (Dennis).