This article was authored by Karl Simpson, CEO, Liftstream.
Sporting analogies are almost ubiquitous in business. The constant search for simple, relatable terms with which to describe the context of the business situation often has us reaching for widely understood sporting terms that suitably express the challenge. At a recent gathering of business people, I asked all those in the room who considered themselves physically healthy, to raise a hand. Everyone’s hand went up, including a gentleman who quipped about recovering from a heart attack. I then asked them to keep their hand elevated and only lower them once they felt I had asked a question about their fitness that exceeded their personal threshold. The point of this exercise was to show that people are generally very bullish about their state of health relative to the wider population. Only once you set more specific criteria at higher and higher levels, do they begin to realise, and admit their relative condition.
The reason for wanting to demonstrate this is that during my 25-year recruiting career, visiting companies, large and small, to discuss hiring objectives, I struggle to recall more than a handful of companies who gave an honest assessment of their company culture. Almost unanimously, companies espouse their ‘unique virtues’ (commonly found elsewhere) and try to convey just how strong and healthy their company culture is, relative to the marketplace. Companies, like many people in the room that day, consider themselves among the healthiest. In fact, with companies, many like to say they are the ‘best’ – a self-acclaimed position difficult to uphold under scrutiny.
Company culture can be incredibly powerful, bonding employees, as well as stakeholders, both to the company itself, as well as one another. Strong company culture can deliver far higher employee productivity because of better engagement. It brings other significant benefits too, such as hiring and retention; inclusiveness, innovation, decision making; reduced risks and more. It is why, today, CEOs and senior management, need to be exceptional culture-builders. However, owing to the amorphous nature of corporate culture, it is often difficult for people to articulate the essence of what defines theirs. For this reason, quite often, the list of values and behaviours that companies use as a framework for culture, but which are revised too regularly, substitute the lived cultural experience of the employees.
The result is a misalignment between the management’s view of the culture and that of the employees. Ask most CEOs about their company’s culture, and they will give you a glowing health and fitness report. Question them about typical cultural fault lines, and commonly the response is with opacity, denial or some form of justification about why that particular indicator is not relevant to the business. As I have experienced over time, most consider their culture to be incredibly good – upper-quartile good – if not the best.
As with fitness, there is a spectrum of corporate culture health which would be evident if plotted on a performance distribution curve.
But what are the exercises that help build a strong, healthy culture?
Let us extend the fitness analogy. Any person undertaking a fitness improvement program firstly needs to define their fitness goals. What is the outcome that they’re looking for? This outcomes-based approach to defining a fitness and health regime will determine the subsequent actions and activities a person undertakes, as well as the way they choose to measure the progress. With elite athletes, this gets incredibly detailed and scientific, if the athlete is to be the best.
The same is true of company culture. There needs to be an acute understanding of the outcome sought before embarking on the journey.
Anyone seeking to make health and fitness gains will know that some universal principles must be observed. Whether the goal is to participate in a park fun run or do a triathlon, irrespective of your starting fitness, your conditioning relies upon following some universal principles: such as proper nutrition, hydration, sleep, stretching. These always apply to all.
In a company culture context, there are universal principles which must form the root-system of your company if it is to have a healthy and enduring culture. In the broadest context, these would include employee health and safety, provision of human rights and worker’s legal entitlements; and policy provisions in areas like compensation and place of work.
If, as suggested before, you are choosing to do a fun run in the park, then your training program is unquestionably different from a triathlete. Selecting the training program that provides the inputs necessary to achieve the goal and peak at the right level is crucial.
For many companies, it is here that they often begin. Without understanding the desired outcome, or without bedding-in the root-system, they select from an extensive menu of people-oriented cultural inputs that they feel are highly desirable to the workforce. In some cases, these inputs will be broadly additive to the overall culture, but they are unlikely to combine to bring the total value to a culture that would be gained from taking the preceding steps. Similarly, borrowing from others, imitating peers, introducing shortcuts, all lead to cultural confusion and poor outcomes.
Inputs need to be carefully selected to reach the goal. These are the individual exercises that are necessary to transform your cultural performance. They can, and almost certainly should, be specific to your organisation and tailored to support your outcome-based program.
Presently, we are all pre-occupied with data. Our personal electronic devices record many of our health stats; steps, heart rate, distance run or swam; and calories burned. Knowing what data is useful to the specific outcomes is an essential first step. The frequency with which to process this data is also crucial to measure the status of our health.
Companies have lent heavily on collecting employee surveys as a barometer for measuring the culture. Almost certainly, alone, these feedback metrics are inadequate. Companies struggle with setting appropriate data metrics to assess culture because they rarely understand either their starting point or the outcome they seek. There is also intangibility to culture, which can make measuring hard to do. Consequently, they tend to do what most amateur health enthusiasts do, which is to engage in periodic activities and make crude, often inaccurate, assessments as to their overall health.
Setting and embedding a corporate culture is not straightforward, far from it. There are many things which can blow it off course, and periods of incredible pressure and stress can cause company cultures to fracture, be reshaped, or even disintegrate. In a time of growth and expansion, cultures evolve, and a company’s culture is not easy to export to new territories. But good cultures endure, outlasting the leaders that seed them.
The Covid-19 crisis will stretch and challenge many cultures because of the dislocation employees are experiencing. This testing period will tell us much about the strength of the cultural DNA running through companies, and it will highlight the exceptional value of leaders who can build healthy cultures for all employees.
When we return to more conventional interactions, while accepting the influence this pandemic period will have on corporate behaviour, company culture will again rise as a prominent objective of leadership teams. Let us hope that leaders will approach this by being more honest about the health of the culture in their business and taking the necessary steps to fix it.
Liftstream is an executive search and leadership advisory company serving companies across the global life sciences industry.