Cul-ture (kŭl′chər) The set of predominating attitudes and behavior that characterize a group or organization
Many organizations begin with a great idea for a product or service…many of those products and services are brought to life…yet the organization still fails. The primary reason is the organization attempts to operate without the equivalent of a birth certificate to establish a clear sense of identity. The birth certificate that establishes an organization’s sense of identity and purpose is called culture. The “twin towers” of growing a strong organizational culture are training and discipline. Without top notch training, your product or service will not be competitive. Without discipline, the investment in training will die on the vine along with your organization’s future. Here’s a vignette to illustrate the point.
My wife and I were shopping for a new vehicle a few months ago. My wife had found a vehicle roughly in our price range that met the criteria she wanted and asked the salesman about price. “It’s a great deal ma’am, you can’t beat it, but it’s the last day of the month and I need to sell this vehicle today because the price will go up tomorrow.”
When my wife called me and relayed the message, my immediate reaction was anger at the salesman for trying to use a high pressure tactic that he may…or may not…have tried had I been with her. I asked if we could meet at the dealership after work to discuss.
When I arrived at the dealership, the salesman had left for the day and we met with the sales manager. I asked a few questions and took the vehicle for a drive, but man was I itching to go at it over the way my wife was treated. I told the sales manager what had happened. He said “the salesman is new…that’s not how we do business here and it’s not how I do business.” So I replied “I understand he’s new…who trains the salesmen.” There was no response…I simply remarked that when a person is new, they should reflect the quality of their training more than ever as there hasn’t been time to stray from the basics and develop your own way to do business. We left, and found a vehicle elsewhere.
There are two bright sides to this story. The first is we found a vehicle that made my wife happy (happy wife, happy life). The second is that I discovered a great way to articulate the connection of training and discipline in building an organizational culture. Take a look at the following graphic:
In the graphic, you can see that training has the greatest influence on behavior. In general, performance reflects how well a person is taught to do their job. Early on, compliance will impress supervisors so the urge to strictly follow training is greatest. Additionally, there typically isn’t sufficient experience to form independent opinions on how a job should be done.
As time passes and a person gets into what’s commonly called “the comfort zone”, performance more closely reflects the strength of organizational culture. In the comfort zone, there can be a greater tendency to “do it my way” rather than the way that reflects the organization’s culture. Sometimes this leads to improvement and outright innovation…sometimes this takes a vector away from the organization’s culture. The ability to maintain the strength and integrity of an organization’s culture over time is called discipline.
The link between training and discipline that determines whether an organization’s culture will stand the test of time is accountability. The definition of accountability is simply taking ownership and responsibility for the consequences of choices…and actions that result from those choices.
Accountability is a difficult subject that many don’t want to touch. It often involves uncomfortable conversations that point out errors in execution, lapses in judgment, or failure to conduct business in a manner that reflects an organizations culture. It becomes less difficult to measure, encourage, and enforce accountability if your organization has well defined standards.
If culture is an organization’s birth certificate, standards are its DNA. Through standards of performance and conduct, the organization’s values and identity are put on full display for customers. That display will engender trust that either builds fruitful relationships or is a road sign that points customers to a competitor.
So how do you build a build a winning culture? There are many books on the subject and I encourage you to survey as many as you can, but through my own experiences here are the basics that will get you on your way.
Commit to the idea that you will lead the building of a culture. Culture doesn’t materialize…it is built through a dedicated plan. As the leader of an organization…which includes your family…you must accept the idea that the most important leadership task you will ever accomplish is establishing an identity. Someone is always building a culture in your organization…always. If it’s not you, the question becomes who is, and can you live with it? If culture is your organization’s birth certificate, you are literally letting someone else name your child if you are not the driving force in establishing your culture. It’s one of those lonely tasks of leadership…embrace it and commit to getting the culture right.
In establishing the culture, here are some key components that will help define, communicate, establish, and strengthen your organization’s culture:
- Organizational vision. A vision is a short statement that captures the “why” of your organization. We’ve discussed in previous posts how critical doers act from a strong sense of why…purpose is the key to unlocking creativity and gives people fulfillment as their efforts produce something that adds value to others. Here is an example from Amazon (taken from Amazon web site): “Our [Amazon’s] vision is to be earth’s most customer centric company; to build a place where people can come to find and discover anything they might want to buy online.”
- Mission statement. If the vision statement communicates why, the mission statement communicates how and what. Suggested elements of a good mission statement include your name, identify your customers and clearly make them the focus of your efforts, at a high level describe your product,
- Take a look at this list of values from the Whole Foods web site:
We sell the highest quality natural and organic products available
We satisfy, delight and nourish our customers
We support team member excellence and happiness
We create wealth through profits & growth
We serve and support our local and global communities
We practice and advance environmental stewardship
We create ongoing win-win relationships with our suppliers
We promote the health of our stakeholders through healthy eating education”
In this list we can see 3 things: (1) what the company’s product will be and how they want it perceived (2) the company’s internal commitments and how employees perceive themselves (3) the company’s commitment to relationships and how it wants to be perceived externally. These three themes actually create a great narrative of the company’s mission. If we were to write it in narrative form, it would be as follows: “Whole Foods is in business to make money and grow locally and globally through a focus on our customer wellness by delivering the highest quality products. We can only accomplish these things with a healthy and respected team that believes in our mission and makes everyone, from customers to suppliers, better because of their association with us.”
- Organizations must have a way of objectively assessing their performance and gauging what the future holds to be successful both long and short term. Metrics are a key tool in accomplishing that requirement. Some points to consider in developing metrics are:
- Metrics work for you…you don’t work for metrics. I’ve seen organizations become so fixated on metrics that they lose sight of what the metric is supposed to tell them and it has a negative impact. Remember…metrics inform decisions, they don’t make decisions.
- Metrics must be flexible. Never forget that metrics are a tool for decision makers…they are useful as long as they are telling you something useful. As the strategic environment of your organization changes, the way you measure performance may need to change as well.
- Metrics need to be a combination of leading and lagging indicators. Some of your metrics should reflect where you’ve been to inform evaluation, decisions on execution, and facilitate root cause analysis. You also need indicators that point to problems or opportunities that are on the horizon; these give you a competitive advantage in time and prevent…rather than fix…problems.
In hindsight, maybe my car buying experience wasn’t so awful after all as it helped me articulate a dialogue about how training and discipline work together to build a winning culture. Training is your greatest influencer when your organization, product, or process is new. Over time, accountability that drives a disciplined adherence to training sustains and strengthens an organization’s identity that we call a culture.
In order to gain a real competitive advantage going forward, I encourage you to look at training and discipline as an ongoing model rather than training once and expecting it to last forever. Since we determined that performance more closely reflects training when things are new, we can use periodic training to keep skills and values fresh. Periodic training after initial training reinforces the elements of culture, but the durability is only as strong as the willingness to hold accountability for deviations.
In my case, that point cost a salesman a commission and a dealership the opportunity to earn a loyal customer. Depending on the circumstances, the same mistake could cost either you or your organization’s future. Take these lessons to heart and ensure your organization’s culture is as strong and durable as your product. It’s what a critical doer would…do!
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