Show me an organization with a strong, positive corporate culture, and I will show you an organization that:
1. Is very clear about exactly which soft skill behaviors are high priority
2. Sings about those high-priority behaviors from the rooftops often
They don’t just focus on their young talent, of course, but their emphasis on key soft skill behaviors makes everybody in the organization much better—even the youngest, least-experienced employees. To make it easy for you to picture, I’ll ask you to think of the U.S. Marine Corps or Disney. Both organizations, in very different lines of work, employ a lot of young people and both famously imbue a huge number of the soft skill behaviors in their workforce. There are many other examples:
1. One quick-service restaurant chain that stands out as the very best in every single market in which it operates: Its employees, from top to bottom, of all ages, are always clean cut, wearing tidy uniforms, prompt and attentive, excessively polite and always going the extra mile to ensure quality and service. I always jokingly reference “Ned Flanders” from the Simpsons—the ‘goody goody’ next-door neighbor—when I’m describing the personnel in this organization. Everybody who works there is like Ned. The company is a model of incredible soft skills throughout the organization. Whether you like Ned Flanders or not, you could see how he would do a great job in a role where what matters most is cleanliness, fresh hot food and great customer service. Right?
2. On the other end of the spectrum, there is a lunch concession in New York City near Wall Street where everything is made to order with lightning speed, and each customer must learn to be prepared to order without delay in staccato fashion: “Wheat bread, mayonnaise, turkey, muenster cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion.” Then with barely a pause, the guy behind the counter hands the customer a sandwich, wrapped and marked, as the endless line moves swiftly and steadily past a self-service soup selection and beverage refrigerator toward the cashier. If you don’t move fast, you miss your opportunities, as the line just keeps moving. Their culture is all about pace (and big portions). Customers know exactly what to expect: a very big sandwich, customized to order, soup and a drink, all very fast. The place is a goldmine.
These powerful corporate cultures don’t just happen. They are the result of an organization that knows exactly what its high-priority behaviors are, focuses on them relentlessly and systematically drives those behaviors throughout the organization in all of its human capital management practices. When it works, it really works.
To be clear, these organizations do not necessarily use the same terms for key behaviors as they are named and described in our competency model. But if you drill down, you will see the same key soft skill behaviors recurring over and over again, underpinning these powerful cultures.
Most organizations with powerful cultures develop their own poignant language and symbols–slogans and logos–internally and externally. Of course, the best organizations align their employer branding with their branding in the consumer marketplace. Slogans and logos–branding—with compelling messages are an important part of creating the shared meaning in an organization that helps define the culture. But it takes a whole lot more than slogans and logos to drive a powerful culture.
Roadblocks to a good culture
I’ve worked with some organizations that are all talk and no action when it comes to culture. They have great slogans, but they do not drive and support and reward key behaviors among employees that are in alignment with the messages. When employees have regular run-ins with customers because management has very strict policies against, say, exchanges and returns, then it really doesn’t matter how many placards there are in the store that say, “The customer is always right!” The slogans start to sound pretty empty.
I’ve also worked with organizations in which leaders get very serious about changing their corporate culture—all of a sudden. It’s as if these leaders have an epiphany and realize what they’ve been missing and decide they want a strong positive culture—and they want it now. They want culture change overnight, by decree: “From now on, our culture will be ___________!” Fill in the blank: “honesty!” “teamwork!” “innovation!” But you can’t force culture change overnight. It takes time because behavioral changes take time.
Of course, plenty of leaders pay no attention to corporate culture whatsoever. I’ve had many senior executives tell me, “It was never an issue before these Millennials came along. Employees just did their jobs and behaved like grownups. Now that we have this generation gap, we are talking for the first time about our ‘culture.’” I always tell these leaders, “Just because you have never paid any attention to culture, doesn’t mean you don’t have a corporate culture. It just means you have a culture by default instead of by design.” Every organization has a corporate culture: Your corporate culture is simply the combined web of prevailing shared beliefs, meaning, language, practices and traditions that have developed over time between and among the people in your organization.
Take a few minutes to think: How would you describe the culture of your organization? What about your team? Are they aligned?
Is your culture by default or design?
Of course, you can’t control the whole culture of your entire organization (unless of course you are the big, big boss.) Still, whether you are the c.e.o. or a manager with a small staff, what you can control is your sphere—whatever part of the organization is your responsibility.
If your organization has a strong positive culture by design, then you need to be in alignment. What are the high-priority behaviors? What are you doing in your sphere to drive and support and reward those behaviors in everything you do as a leader?
If your organization has a less-than-strong positive culture—or a culture by default—then it’s all up to you. You need to create your own culture within your own sphere—not just for the young talent, but for everybody. You don’t need to start a revolution. But you can be a little bit of a maverick. You can certainly be a change leader. Believe me: Your results will speak for themselves because your team will stand out, not just in its business outcomes, but in cohesiveness, morale, and retention.
What are the high priority behaviors that are most important in your sphere? Make them the foundation of your culture. Focus on them relentlessly, and systematically drive those behaviors throughout your sphere in all of your human capital management practices. Develop your own poignant language and symbols–slogans and logos. Make sure it aligns with your organization’s “brand.” Then sing it from the rooftops—make it 1000 percent clear. And start doing everything within your power to drive, support and reward those high-priority behaviors with every employee within your sphere.
Bruce Tulgan is an author and founder and c.e.o. of RainmakerThinking, a management research and training firm, as well as RainmakerThinking.Training, an online training company. Contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @BruceTulgan.