Walk this way: Do-it-yourself corporate culture

Every time someone wants to talk about great brand experiences and the organizational cultures that drive them, we hear about the same tired list of favorites: Apple, Virgin, Starbucks, Zappos, Google. I’m as guilty as the next guy of trotting them out way too often.

Why? What do these oft-cited brands have in common besides a shared commitment to excellent experiences?

Well, for one thing, they each have founder-leader(s) who created the organization (quite literally) from scratch. Whether that leader has been with the organization they founded the entire time (Zappos and Virgin), or left and come back (Apple, Starbucks, Google), they are the single thread that pulls across all aspects of the companies they founded. That thread is characterized by:

  • A single vision
  • A strong, holistic culture
  • A commitment to selection (hiring), socialization and structure that reflects and reinforce the vision and culture

But how about those chief executives who don’t have a choice about the culture they inherit? Often – as anyone who’s ever tried to play home-handyman can attest – it’s much simpler to start from scratch than to begin with someone else’s mess. Most chief executives inherit an existing group of employees who may or may not buy into the organization’s purpose, mission, vision and values, yet are expected to get everyone to pull in the same direction and deliver great customer experiences.

So the question really is: How do you establish and steer a corporate culture in an environment you didn’t create, with people you didn’t hire?

Think of yourself as a new coach hired to build and manage a team. You’re expected to make your mark on the team while at the same time dealing with an existing culture, people who put forth different levels of effort, expectations and traditions, and team rules you may not be in favor of.

Despite these legacies and limitations, every day executive leaders are creating successful, differentiated brand experiences and aligning employees around the mission, vision and values of the organizations.

Great leaders drive powerful cultures by managing three things well:

  • Selection. If you want to establish a new culture, your hiring process should focus on both skills and “fit” – how well the individual plugs into the values you want to promote. A bad hire wastes time, effort and can create confusion about what the organization values. You need to start by recruiting the right people, then pull them through induction and onboarding that shows them “the way things get done around here.” By hiring people who fit with the culture, you’re also introducing role models to the environment who can show the way to others.

For example, Fidelity felt it was not attracting the right kind of candidates for jobs in their organization. To remedy the problem, they launched a multi-pronged campaign around the theme “If You Only Knew” that included online profiles, questionnaires, quizzes and videos with new employees that all show the kind of people who are successful in Fidelity’s unique culture.

  • Socialization. Corporate cultures are really just a set of limits and pressures that guide the way people behave. There is no single process through which you drive culture. Rather, it is driven through many overlapping and coordinated processes revolving around the things that are said, the stories that are told and the things that are rewarded and recognized.

For example a large hospital system in central Texas – Scott & White – was having problems getting doctors and the rest of the staff aligned. To help get the staff moving in the right direction, they rolled out a comprehensive internal campaign around the tagline “It Matters” that included posters, videos and print pieces that show how “it” – great patient care and experiences – matters to everyone from the chief of cardiac care to the maintenance team.

  • Structure. Do you have a corporate structure and compensation system that reflects the values you want to promote? If you value open communication and honesty, your organization needs to support it by being flatter and less hierarchical.

Many organizations are far too siloed, so establishing regular communications across functions and promoting group collaboration across projects is paramount.

At the end of the day, you don’t need to found a company to drive a customer-centric corporate culture focused on delivering great customer experiences. And while many great companies rely on outstanding founder/leaders, many more rely on executives who learned from their examples.

Joe Panepinto, Ph.D. is VP, Senior Strategist at Jack Morton Worldwide, a global experience brand agency that connects brands to the people most important to them. You can reach him at [email protected].

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