Even if your corporate culture leaves a lot to be desired, managers can create a localized environment that inspires your employees to achieve peak performance. It’s a fact that I discovered over and over in my work for JetBlue, Southwest, Doubletree and other companies with high-performing cultures: the vast majority of your employees want to work in a place where people care about customers and each other, are fully engaged, take pride in their work, and feel the obligation to continually improve. In other words, they want you to create an inspiring culture, even if it’s just in your department. They will even help you create it, if you show them the way.
My company, People Ink, assists companies in identifying their underlying values and building their cultures on those shared values, but there is no reason why the people in your department cannot do it on their own. The key is identifying your best employees – your A Players – and spread their values by hiring people who share those values and motivate all employees to live those values every day. And please realize: A Players don’t just come from management ranks; there are outstanding players on your front line that deserve a chance to help you.
We call this the Values Blueprint method of changing culture and we recommend you engage in a two-day retreat with a group of your best players to hammer out what your values should be and what behaviors best exemplify those values. I have seen this method effect culture change over and over, in large companies and small, for-profits, nonprofits and every iteration in between. Single departments and workgroups can also use this to create islands of excellence, even if your top leaders are not ready to buy in. Perhaps you can lead them to it though demonstrated results.
I have also found that even though culture change will be driven by different values in every organization, six fundamental principles inform every successful values-based culture change.
- You can’t force culture. You can only create environment. A culture is the culmination of the leadership, values, language, people processes, rules, and other conditions, good or bad, present within the organization. But you can and should convene a team of A Players to help you analyze what the culture in your department currently is, how it is holding your performance back, and the values and associated behaviors that would change it in a positive way. However, realize that even the best employees cannot “create culture.” They can only help you create the right conditions for a good culture to arise.
- You are on the outside what you are on the inside... no debate. What many managers don’t understand, except perhaps intellectually, is that you cannot create a great customer service organization if you treat employees badly. You can’t force people to smile and treat customers well, especially when they feel ill-used themselves. Not surprisingly, those organizations that do customer service best also treat their employees best. The bottom line? The service you provide for your customers will never be greater than the service you provide to your employees.
- Success is doing the right things the right way. One of the best reasons for redefining corporate culture is that well-defined values can help you – and your employees - make better decisions. In values-rich companies, the front line is where most decisions about customer service can be made. In a company where good customer service is one of the values, one of the behaviors tied to it could be empowering front-line people with tools and knowledge to handle problems personally and immediately. A win there is a happy customer who did not have to speak to a supervisor. By defining your values and the behaviors based on them, you also simplify the task of day-to-day decision making: "Does that make sense in light of our values?" is all you or your employees have to ask yourselves.
- People do exactly what they are incented to do. Our model of culture requires rewarding the behaviors you do want, taking into account how they lead to an outcome. This is made easier with simple values-based performance metrics, with rewards tied, as closely as possible, to achieving those metrics. Hiring and performance appraisal methods, too, must be revised to select people who display the values important to you. And you must be courageous enough to fire those who don’t. Even long-time employees. Even managers. Otherwise, they will render your ideal culture impossible.
- Input = Output. Organizations will only get out of something what they are willing to put into it. Values maintenance—what we call continuous improvement—is as important as values creation. In other words, you are never fully “done” with culture change; you must be always vigilant that no one backslides into old ways. This requires regular monitoring of progress toward full implementation of the model, as well as values-based leadership development and succession planning.
- The environment you want can be built on shared, strategic values and financial responsibility. Conscious action, beginning with determining a set of shared values, can set up the necessary condition for encouraging a culture that will make an organization into a leader in its industry. It should almost go without saying that those values should also be vetted in terms of responsible fiscal management. Happy-talk values that result in spending huge sums of money on questionable programs are not values that are sustainable in the long run. But neither should you let financial concerns derail the project in its infancy. Counsel your financial people to give it a chance - a values-rich culture is likely to save buckets of money sooner rather than later as turnover and training costs go down. It can even help companies avoid the high cost of layoffs - which then should no longer be a first resort to cut costs.
A culture based on the solid values of your A Players are most critical when making tough decisions, but that is also when they come in handiest to illuminate the way forward.
About the Author
Ann Rhoades, author Built on Values: Creating an Enviable Culture that Outperforms the Competition, is president of People Ink, a culture-change consulting firm. Ann serves on the Board of Directors for JetBlue and P.F. Chang’s. She was one of the five founding executives of JetBlue Airways; Chief People Officer for Southwest Airlines; and Executive Vice President of Team Services at Doubletree and Promus Hotel Corporations. To read Ann's complete biography, click here.