Nearly 25 years ago I became a partner in an existing business. While this was a fantastic opportunity for me it was a difficult beginning. For one thing, no one talked to me much. It wasn’t until about six months in that I began to feel like the people who worked there warmed up to me.
I noticed that this was how all new employees were treated. It was a highly insular place where newcomers weren’t welcomed, and one had to prove themselves first. There was also a laid-back attitude, a sense of arrival and a clear message that no one was welcome to rock the boat.
I found this frustrating but even as a leader I didn’t understand how critically important it was to challenge this culture in which I felt ill at ease.
Years later I realized that I had sublimated myself to the culture. I had given up a piece of who I was, certainly at work, to get along. And it was killing my progress and I could see it dramatically limited the ability of the company to thrive.
Having now worked with dozens of businesses, some of whom rapidly achieve their goals, and others that never do, I’ve become convinced that the culture that is created is the first and most important key difference between mediocrity and success.
Culture is defined by Merriam-Webster in part as “The set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterize an institution or organization”. But while the dictionary provides us a clear definition of culture it doesn’t tell us where it comes from.
I love history. And I find it fascinating to consider how peoples have arisen all over the globe differently. Some have become successful and some seem to be mired perpetually in misery. What is the difference? I think it is their culture.
And what I find consistent is that peoples who are intentional about their culture and don’t leave it to chance, or organic development are those that are in a successful group. I have discovered it is the same in business. In Jim Collin’s seminal book “Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t” there is no other idea, or word, repeated more often or with more importance than culture.
Culture is at the beginning and foundation of mediocrity, failure, success, and greatness. And what Collins discovered in his research is that cultures that create failure or mediocrity are those that are allowed to arise. Cultures that create success, and even greatness, are intentional.
So, after a decade of being frustrated with a lack of adequate progress, working in an environment characterized by little urgency and in a place where safety was valued above progress, I knew I had to change things.
As I went about trying to make changes, which was difficult and often painful, I learned that these were the steps I needed to take:
1. You must get very clear on your values, and then how those values should show up in the company. As the owner of the business, you can’t delegate this to anyone else. If the business doesn’t satisfy your professional goals and desires what is the point?
2. You need to communicate this to everyone. Communication is a two-way process. It’s easy to tell others something. It’s another thing to get them to embrace it. This requires retelling, over and over.
3. You must be disciplined, consistent and determined. People don’t like change. And if your ideal culture requires change you will get resistance. Expect it. Prepare for it. Be determined to see it through. When I announced whom I wanted us to become it became clear I was on an island. And over two years virtually every employee left the company. Perhaps I did a poor job but as you’ll see it was worth it.
4. It’s vitally important to create a process of evaluating employee’s agreement with and adherence to your values. You can do this by making this a part of employee reviews and evaluations. We use the Entrepreneurial Operating System in our business and values are half of the employee review in that system.
5. Creating a culture of alignment means you must not hire anyone who doesn’t already embrace your values and when you find someone who is on your team isn’t living and working in alignment you need to invite them to go elsewhere. There can be no sacred cows or protected people, or you will be unsuccessful.
6. Values need to be repeated. They need to be illustrated with examples of values in action with customers, employees, vendors and in any other way you can think of. Only in this way will they become so permanently embedded that they impact every action, every decision, and every result.
I’d like to tell that this entire process was easy and didn’t take very long. But it wasn’t and it did.
I remember the stares, the sighs, and the sideways glances at our first meeting to discuss whom I wanted us to become. We started with a tool from Strategic Coach called the “Positive Focus”. The idea is to start meetings celebrating success to create a positive atmosphere. Many people just refused to participate. When I asked Dan Sullivan what to do about that he said, “those kinds of people aren’t on my team”. That was a wake-up call.
But, as depressing as some of the initial reaction was, I was encouraged when one junior team member said “I love doing this! It lets me know what’s going on and what’s important to everyone.” That comment kept me going.
In the end, we had virtually 100% turnover in three years. As I said people don’t like change! But we also began to attract a different kind of team member. At the end of those three years, we had also grown by 300%! Yes, change is painful, but I was beginning to learn what Jim Collins had discovered which is that greatness doesn’t happen accidentally.
It’s now seven years since we started down the road to a great culture. Our team members know and live our values. They recognize and reward each other for living them. We hire new people who already believe what we believe. And occasionally we lose someone who just doesn’t get it. We talk about them at every team meeting. We review how we are living them every ninety days in our “Quarterly Conversations”. We use them to attract new team members and customers. We use them in our marketing.
And because of all this, our company has become largely self-managing. I am constantly learning about decisions people made, actions they took or results that were accomplished of which I knew nothing. But I am routinely pleased that they were done how I would have liked them to be done. Because we all share the same values. We regularly meet our goals. And best of all our team members thank me for creating an environment where we are serious about whom we want to be.
My challenge to anyone who isn’t 100% satisfied with their business’s performance, people or prospects is to look first to your foundation. Do you have the culture you want and need? Have you done the work outlined in my six steps? The answer is probably no.
But don’t let that discourage you. Let our experience encourage you instead. Create the culture you want and all the other things you seek will come.