Workplace culture: Align or die
Living and breathing an authentic culture requires aligning employees around shared behavioral expectations. The best compass for employee behavior is a clearly articulated set of core values and behaviors that are modeled, reinforced and rewarded. Yet, many of today’s organizations have work to do in this area. Grant Thornton’s research found that while 76% of executives report their organization has a defined value system that is understood and well communicated, less than 33% of employees believe this to be true. Further, only half of employees indicate they understand the vision and goals of their organization.
Salesforce is one company that is committed to aligning the organization around a shared set of expectations, a process that starts at the top with co-CEOs Marc Benioff and Keith Block. The two leaders defined their “V2MOMs”, a framework that allows them to record their vision, values, methods, obstacles and measures for the year to come. Employees follow suit, completing their own V2MOMs and ensure that what they do aligns with the company’s values.
Other leaders clearly define their company’s values as well. For Zappos, the values are all around enjoyment and fun. CEO Tony Hsieh explained the company’s mission this way: “Have fun. The game is a lot more enjoyable when you’re trying to do more than make money.” And Whole Foods is all about purpose. “Most of the greatest companies in the world also have great purposes,” explained founder and CEO John Mackey. “Having a deeper, transcendent purpose is highly energizing for all of the various interdependent stakeholders.”
Whatever an organization’s values are, they should be specific to their unique purpose and not merely to look appealing to customers or splashed on walls in reception areas. Yet, 55% of Fortune 100 companies claim integrity as a core value, 49% customer satisfaction and 40% teamwork. If half of the companies use the exact same adjectives to describe their values, they become generic and cliché and difficult to tie to actual business objectives.
O’Malley explained, “What I think happens is during the process of creating the description of a value we get too theoretical versus practical and the people who are actually delivering on those values would describe them very differently.”
Defining organizational values that build an authentic brand is not just a feel-good, check-the-box activity. They are critical to meeting business goals and differentiating in an increasingly competitive marketplace. As Axcient CEO Justin Moore once noted, “This is not about fuzzy, holding hands around a campfire, Kumbaya stuff. That’s not what values and culture and mission is about. This is about building an organization for success. This is about winning. This is about doing the tactical things to make sure your organization and your people are aligned around the same thing.”
It’s one thing to define core values as the basis of an authentic brand; quite another to make sure employees are fully engaged and aligned with them. As Kevin Rose, Founder of Digg and Partner at Google, once said: “A team aligned behind a vision will move mountains. Sell them on your roadmap and don’t compromise—care about the details, the fit and finish.”
Today’s executives are finding that employee engagement and obtaining their commitment to defined values can be a difficult nut to crack. Grant Thornton’s research study found that only 59% of employees believe their voice is heard in the organization. And while two-thirds of executives think a strong culture is critical to business performance, only 56% of employees agree. Yet, an organization’s culture is very important to employees, nearly half of which indicated they would be willing to take a lower-paying job in exchange for a better culture.
Grant Thornton’s O’Malley stressed that “Every organization has a culture and leaders think they’re getting it right but our study indicates there’s actually a 30 percentage point gap between how engaged executives feel their employees are how engaged employees actually feel they are. This perception gap indicates that executives are out of touch with their employees.”
She added, “Executive teams invest in strategy development, mission and vision and yet only 50% of employees in our survey could even note what their mission or vision was. If the employee never knows how what they’re contributing ties to the overall organizational results, they’re not going to find meaning in the nature of that work. So it’s really important to create a culture where employees can understand what they’re doing, why they’re doing it and how it contributes to the overall success of the organization. If an employee doesn’t see alignment within the organization or they’re not experiencing the brand promise, they’ll just get up and go somewhere else.”
O’Malley added that organizations need to be intentional in the language they speak. “They need to tie their comments back to the mission and vision so employees understand the connection—they can’t assume they’ll make the connection,” she said.
Recruiting for culture
It’s not enough to have the right culture and the appropriate values to build an authentic brand. You have to have the right workforce in place to carry out the organization’s mission. Talent recruitment and organizational culture must be aligned with corporate strategy.
For example, Grant Thornton’s recruitment process includes an enhanced interview approach whereby each interviewer is focused on a key area of assessing talent. “Culture and organizational fit is weighted just as heavily as other factors in the process,” explained Nicole Blythe, national managing partner, People Experience for Grant Thornton.
Recruiting candidates who can help move the organization’s culture forward not only increases employee satisfaction but helps the organization adapt to business changes. To attract and retain this kind of talent requires that organizations deliver on the culture they have promised. This means everything from the willingness to hire and fire based on defined core values to ensuring that, on a daily basis, they are walking the walk when it comes to living their brand’s culture.
VMware is one company that deliberately hires not just for skills and capabilities but for culture fit as well. Betsy Sutter, Chief People Officer at VMware explained, “We’re deliberate about when we want to bring a change agent in and why, and we’re deliberate about what works in the culture and what doesn’t. Because we can articulate that, it lends itself to more success.”
Success through storytelling
While getting the right people on the organizational bus is critical, employee engagement is not a once and done activity. Regular and frequent communication that reinforces the company’s core values and culture is essential. Simply put, growing a culture requires a good storyteller. Yet, communication and collaboration are two areas in which most organizations need improvement. According to results of Grant Thornton’s Return on Culture survey, only a third of employees rate collaboration within their team as effective or highly effective while less than half rate management’s ability to capture ideas across the organization as effective. Moreover, only 52% rate the quality of feedback from management as effective or highly effective.
It’s important to have a systematic way to communicate, to tell the stories that matter. “Storytelling in great organizations is rampant, and they are always telling stories around the right behaviors,” noted Rhoades. “You can’t just say ‘Thank you for being so great with our customers.’ “What did I do that was so great?”
Consider the example of Juniper Networks which sent a daily email to all of its employees in 32 countries. The communication included a photo of an employee that accompanies a story from a customer about someone living their values. It was a systemized communication to reinforce the right behaviors.
JetBlue is another company that is committed to telling stories. Employees can submit stories of colleagues doing a great job via their smartphone which is linked to the employee’s manager who can leverage them for additional storytelling within the company. It’s called LIFT.
“You can send it to anyone,” Rhoades explained. “Our CEO’s cell phone number and email were available to all. It often could be sent directly to him. And he shared them with many of the board.”
In addition, on the first day of work, employees meet with the airline’s CEO and CFO to learn what values and behaviors are acceptable at the company and how performance metrics are calculated. “So the minute they come to work for us, they’re engaged in achieving our goals,” Rhoades said. “They know what the expectation is and they learn how they can help us deliver on our numbers!”
Communicating to employees in the way they prefer to be engaged is also important. Emails and texts may be preferable for Gen Z and Millennials. Google’s learned that because of the volume of emails, they post information in office bathrooms when it’s something important for employees to know. In other cases, in-person meetings work best. Whatever the method, the culture message can’t be static. It has to continuously evolve.
Culture out of alignment? Adopt these guidelines
Building an authentic, aligned culture that nets bottom-line performance is a journey, not a destination. Whether looking to improve your current culture or engage in a culture transformation, keep these guidelines in mind:
- Define who you are and who you want to be.
Start with a list of behaviors and values which support your mission-critical business objectives.
- Keep it real.
In daily behaviors, actions and decisions, be authentic and true to your defined values and mission. Live your values through internal communications, performance evaluation and employee programs.
- Walk the talk.
Start at the top. Urge leaders to serve as examples of the desired culture, visibly demonstrating its values through consistent word and deed.
- Integrate desired behaviors into your hiring model.
Hire the right people for your defined culture based on shared behaviors. Define the criteria that will attract the right talent to build the culture you desire.
- Make everyone accountable.
Culture is everyone’s job so be sure to build accountability systems and goals into the mix so employees are aligned with expectations. Begin by clearly defining success metrics and make sure everyone understands their role in meeting the defined metrics.
- Let employees shape it.
Provide opportunities for employees to co-create your organizational culture by gathering feedback, empowering culture ambassadors and letting them drive programming.
- Communicate frequently.
Engage in regular storytelling to reinforce the company’s culture message. Encourage employees to collaborate and communicate openly to promote the sharing of ideas. Make two-way dialogue a foundation of your culture.
- Put people first.
Remind employees that they are ambassadors or your brand and that they matter. Emphasize employee programming, development and engagement.
Is your company culture out of alignment?
Take Grant Thornton’s culture benchmarking survey to determine your company’s current areas of strengths and weaknesses. Designed to accommodate any given company’s unique profile, the benchmarking tool tests current performance against five key drivers that lead to healthier cultures including: workplace environment; direct investment in employees, diversity, sense of community and value systems.