Building a successful business requires serious focus on four fundamental components. Those include the three elements of infrastructure: Systems, people and money, and the twine that ties those three together and empowers them to reach their potential: culture.
That means that we must set aside time to intentionally create each of those pieces. This intentionality and willfulness regarding the guidance and creation of the building blocks of a good business is one of the characteristics of successful companies. In mediocre companies, the principals find themselves heavily invested in the transactions of the business, and discover that their systems have been created by the people on the firing lines, without guidance from the head of the business; they find that the people they have were primarily hired in times of crises; and that the money – or lack of it — that is one of the key measurements of the success of the business is a result of their lack of attention to the fundamentals.
It is possible to reach a point in the development of or businesses where we feel like the project is essentially completed. While our systems are never as good as they could be, and can be tweaked continually, at some point we can say, “There. That’s done.” And move onto some other investment of our time.
It is possible to feel that way about the people we employ. We can arrive at position expressed this way: “At the moment, my people are sufficient to the tasks in front of them. I don’t need to spend a lot of time finding new people.”
The same is true for our money. We can arrive at a level of maturation where we can trust the information we have, and we can sleep at night knowing that the business is solvent, the income streams steady and the payables well in hand.
Unfortunately, that is not true of the corporate culture. It is a much more slippery thing to get our arms around.
Understanding Corporate Culture
If we liken the systems, people and money to the bones and muscles of a body, culture is the heart that sends the blood to all the parts and empowers them to function the way we had hoped. Culture energizes and focuses the people to work the systems and bring in the money and achieve the company goals.
Culture is about implementation. We can be flush with cash, have the greatest people and most efficient systems, but if our culture is detrimental, we’ll be continually frustrated in putting them into action.
The Inc. Encyclopedia defines it like this:
Corporate culture refers to the shared values, attitudes, standards, and beliefs that characterize members of an organization and define its nature. Corporate culture is rooted in an organization’s goals, strategies, structure, and approaches to labor, customers, investors, and the greater community. As such, it is an essential component in any business’s ultimate success or failure.
Like a strong heart and clear blood vessels are essential to good health, so a positive corporate culture is essential to business success. Just like maintaining a healthy heart is a process, not an event, so, too creating and nurturing a positive business culture is a never-ending project.
Three keys to a positive corporate culture.
Accept the responsibility to craft the culture.
As a principal or key executive, the responsibility to craft and maintain a positive culture is one of your key jobs. In mediocre companies the culture often arises and takes shape in reaction to crises. As one crisis after another is handled, the attitudes and behaviors that resolved the crises get repeated until they become the unspoken rules of the company. Eventually, the culture is solidified. No one intentionally created it. It arose out of urgent tactics instead of thoughtful strategy.
In successful companies, however, the culture proceeds from the top down, and is intentionally crafted and nurtured by the principals. That’s your job.
Begin by articulating the culture you want.
That’s why those foundational documents – Vision, mission and values statements – are so important. They put into print, for everyone to see, the deepest and dearest motivations of the company. Without a written document to set the stage, its difficult for people – your employees, stakeholders and customers – to guess what is most important to your organization.
In addition to the three foundational documents, you may want to describe, in writing, the details of the corporate culture you desire in your organization.
Proactively manage the culture.
Think rewards and punishments. Since culture shapes and stimulates human behavior, seek opportunities to identify when someone acted in sync with the corporate culture. If, for example, ‘exceptional customer service” is part of your culture, then look for people who delivered it. Reward that person with recognition, if not something more substantial. Tell the story in a newsletter or company meeting. Hold the person up for praise and recognition in front of his/her peers.
Make this a regular discipline on your part. Some of these stories of real people acting in real situations will be so compelling and illustrative that they will take on the status of corporate lore, serving to guide generations of stake holders to the kind of behavior you want.
On the other hand, when you or your management team see someone acting in violation of the corporate culture, step in and deliver a reprimand. Your message should be that the culture is not just something to talk about, but is the heart beat of the organization, and will be protected and nurtured.
A positive corporate culture supplies the blood flow to every aspect of the business. Like a human heart, it’s health should be top-of-the-mind for every serious executive.