by Randy Pennington

Building your corporate culture: more like a culinary art than a science?

May 03, 2019
IT Leadership

It would be great if building and sustaining a great corporate culture was a simple equation. Then we could get on with doing the “real work” of serving clients and providing solutions. It doesn’t work that way. Creating your culture is more art than science, and the payoff is big if you use the right ingredients.

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Credit: First Run Features

Sometimes the words you say in a moment of frustration come back to haunt you and then teach you. That was the case for me as I worked with a group of engineering leaders at a client organization.

After a particularly difficult discussion about their need to be more intentional in their efforts to create a culture that attracts and retains top talent, I lamented that “I’m not sure why this concept is so difficult. Creating a positive culture isn’t rocket science.”

I called a break at that point, and an attendee approached me at the front of the room.

“My last job before I came here was at the Jet Propulsion Lab,” he started with a sly smirk on his face. “I am a rocket scientist.”

“Great,” I thought. “This guy is going to debate my reference to rocket science and miss the point about culture.”

Fortunately, my fear vanished when he said, “Rocket science is easier. For us, 1 plus 1 always equals 2. It’s not that way with people.”

Creating your pièce de résistance

Every business consultant and author has a formula for building and sustaining a strong, vibrant culture.  On paper, they resemble a step-by-step equation for success. It sounds like science. If only it were that easy.

In reality, your organization’s culture is like a chef’s signature dish. Others might prepare something that resembles it, but theirs is a one-of-a-kind work art.

Admittedly, I am not a great cook much less a chef. My efforts are stellar if they include a microwave. My wife, on the other hand, is an amazing cook and often trades secrets with the chefs at places where we dine. I have learned to appreciate the artistry that results from her dedication and attention to detail. 

There are guidelines. You can’t, for example, ignore the chemistry of how ingredients interact. But there is also a tremendous opportunity for creativity in crafting the perfect meal. Some dishes need a little more spice while others may need to appeal more conservative preferences. The masterpiece, in the eye of the consumer, is in the intentional blend of art and science.

It is the same with your organization’s culture. A rigid three, five, or seven-step process will work if you want a cookie-cutter culture that is just like your competitor’s. But, how do you stand out if you look, sound, and act just like everyone else?

The basic ingredients

The building blocks for a soufflé are egg yolks and egg whites. Everything else is discretionary. You can have savory ones or sweet ones. You can even add extras like chocolate or Grand Marnier to customize it. I know this because my wife makes them at home.

There are basics required for creating a great culture, too. Here are six that are present in each of them.

1. Clarity

The Southwest Airlines culture is anchored by two statements: Live the Southwest Way and Work the Southwest Way. That doesn’t really tell you much, however. Southwest is crystal clear on what those two statements mean. Working the Southwest Way means working safely, wowing customers, and keeping costs low. Its team members Live the Southwest Way by having a Warrior Spirit, Servant’s Hear, and Fun-LUVing Attitude.

The City of Carrollton, Texas – one of the clients with whom I have worked to articulate and anchor their culture – defines their desired culture in three words: Better, Faster, and Friendlier. Walker Sands, a tech PR agency based in Chicago with whom I have no financial relationship, has built its culture on the three core values of Learn, Support, and Do.

There is nothing magical or set about the length of your list. Zappos, for instance, has 10 Core Values that define its culture including some that are uniquely them such as Create Fun and a Little Weirdness

Clarity around exactly how you want your culture to look, feel, and act is the basic ingredient from which everything else flows. The distinctiveness and relevance of your culture is in direct proportion to the clarity you have about it. Everything else flows from there.

2. Constancy of commitment

Thomas Watson, Jr., the second CEO of IBM, wrote:

I firmly believe that any organization, in order to survive and achieve success, must have a sound set of beliefs on which it premises all its policies and actions. Next, I believe that the most important single factor in corporate success is faithful adherence to those beliefs.  And, finally I believe if an organization is to meet the challenge of a changing world, it must be prepared to change everything about itself except those beliefs as it moves through corporate life.”

The beliefs and values on which your culture is built can’t shift with each new organizational fad.  Otherwise, there will be nothing to which you can anchor yourself when turbulent times arrive. The necessity of constancy serves as a reminder that you can’t short cut the clarity piece of this recipe.

3. Consistency

Southwest Airlines has over 58,000 employees. The recent struggle with their mechanics union aside, the company has an amazing history of utilizing its culture to sustain its performance. The reason is consistency. Sustaining the culture is part of hiring decisions, promotion decisions, leadership performance, and every other aspect of what happens within the company. That consistency is what allows a similar feel and experience regardless of where you interact with the company.

At Walker Sands, consistency is maintained through a combination of formal policies, adherence to metrics, and equal dedication to bring in the right people while removing the wrong people. For instance, promotions are based, in part, on an associate’s willingness to help others succeed as an example of support. A formal policy exists to ensure that everyone understands its flexible paid time off commitment. The company continuously measures both employee and client happiness to determine its consistency of culture.

4. Communication

Organizations that are proud of their culture shout it to the world. They know, as Walker Sands President Mike Santoro told me, that a great culture is a crucial weapon to win the war for talent. He told me, “I know that our team members are getting calls for jobs with higher salaries.” He also knows that his associates will trade the Walker Sands culture for a marginally better salary if his company does the work for communicating through word and action.

Also, communication about the culture is a two-way conversation in the best organizations. Erin Rinehart, City Manager for the City of Carrollton, visits operations around the organization of over 800 employees every week. For her, the opportunity for dialog is a visible commitment to protecting and nurturing the culture.

Interacting with people isn’t as much of a challenge for the 120 associates at Walker Sands. Even then, the company sends out weekly one-question surveys through a dedicated portal and mobile technology. One survey per month is dedicated to monitoring employee happiness.

5. Competence

The fifth core value at Zappos is “Pursue Growth and Learning.” In other words, the company has made the competency of creating competence an integral part of its culture. You expect your team members to improve their technical skills. Why wouldn’t you want them to improve their ability to influence your culture? Education for leaders and managers is only the beginning. To make your culture truly special, invest in every person at every level to help them reinforce your culture through their own performance and behavior.

6. Courage

Dr. Brené Brown says, “Courage is contagious. Every time we choose courage, we make everyone around us a little better and the world a little braver.”

Quoting a social worker in an article about corporate culture might feel a little out of place in a business discussion. That’s the point. Creating a great culture is more art than science, and art is created out of human emotion. It is inherently a little—or a lot—messy.

There will be times when you try something and fail. You will find yourself distrusting the intentions of others, and others will find themselves doubting their trust in you. You will definitely experience discomfort as you push yourself to grow your leadership competence to match your intention. Those are necessary parts of the process to find what works for you.

The goal isn’t to be Southwest Airlines, the City of Carrollton, Walker Sands, or Zappos. It is to be the best version of you. Every author or speaker promotes a culture of something. In the end, the only culture that matters is the one that empowers you to deliver the results and create the environment that is right for you.

A vibrant, compelling culture is the intangible that allows you to set your organization apart in a world where customers and employees see very little that is different. That comment from my rocket scientist participant reminded me just how difficult it can be to accomplish.

We would like for it to be as easy as even the most difficult equation. It’s not. Do you want a culture that is based on the same equation everyone is using, or do you want a work of art?