wardell books

Building Culture

Building a Culture of Excellence

When you walk in the doors of a great company, you can feel it. There’s a kind of electricity in the air. Everyone is going about their work with a sense of purpose and pride, working toward something they believe in and want to be a part of. What you’re experiencing is the outcome of a great culture, and to an entrepreneur, it’s poetry in motion.

Culture is the set of shared values, goals and behaviours that characterize an organization. It's the glue that bonds people together for a common purpose. However, if you ask that same entrepreneur to explain it, they’ll often have difficulty. They might tell you about the outstanding men and women who work for them or about the amazing culture that binds them, but rarely can they explain how or why it works. Only that it does. This is because corporate culture is often shaped unwittingly by the natural charisma of a strong leader who promotes and encourages a certain type of behaviour. Unfortunately, when a culture is driven by only one person, their influence can be diluted as the organization grows, permitting it to lose its way. And, should that leader move on, the culture may leave along with them.

To avoid this, a culture must take on a life of its own. It must become a strong and independent culture, built on the foundation of a set of clear corporate values. Corporate values are intended to shape the behaviour of all stakeholders. They help keep a company pointed in the right direction and perhaps most importantly, help attract and identify the right employees. If your employees don’t share your corporate values or have the potential to be motivated by the kind of culture you’re trying to build, little else will matter. You need to start with the right people or you won’t get anywhere.

But as important as the right people are, it’s not enough just to hire well. After all, does Apple have better people than Google? Or does Wal-Mart have better people than General Electric? Of course not. And yet the cultures of these successful companies are very different from each other. So then, what defines a great culture? Certainly the hallmark of an effective culture is long-term profitability, but what type of culture is required to achieve this? Is it one where people laugh and have a great time all day long? Is it a hardworking, serious environment?

If you examine enough company cultures, it soon becomes obvious that there is not only one best cultural style. There is, however, a common thread that weaves its way through all great cultures and it has little to do with foosball tables and free coffee.

What makes a culture truly effective is the value of “continuous improvement.” The result is an environment where everyone takes an active daily interest in making the company better than it was the day before. We call this a “Culture of Excellence” because it has the effect of making the company better and better as time goes on. Whether you want to build a culture of innovation, customer service, or hard-driving sales, the core value of “continuous improvement” will take you there.

Depending on where you sit, getting there may seem like a daunting challenge for your business. But if building a culture of excellence is your goal, you have a number of tools at your disposal to help shift the odds in your favour.

A culture, any culture, is nurtured through a tapestry of 5 main influencers which are...

  1. Environment
  2. Language
  3. Stories
  4. Symbols
  5. Rituals

These influencers are symbolic of a much deeper message – a message that says to all its members, “This is how we do it here.” And, while they are often applied haphazardly, they can be effective tools for proactively defining, communicating and ingraining the values that are the essence of a culture. As you read through their descriptions, consider how you might apply them to your own business.

The good news is you don’t have to go that far to make an impact. Start small and go from there. Something as simple as a fresh coat of paint, for example, can have a positive influence on the care your employees put into their work.

  1. Physical environment – How would you feel if you walked into a dark grey room? Would it make you feel different than if you walked into a bright yellow room? What if the room was cluttered and messy? Or if it was neat and clean? Or if it was noisy? Or dead quiet? Our physical surroundings influence our emotional state, and consequently our behaviour, and yet rarely do we give them a second thought. What a business looks and feels like can have a significant impact on how people behave. Toyota, for example, is well known for their fanatical attention to order and cleanliness. This helps to support the systematic, orderly behaviour of their people.

  2. Language – Every sub-culture has its own language. Different generations, geographical regions, sporting teams, and so forth use acronyms, key phrases, invented words, and even gestures that subtly indoctrinate team members and encourage certain types of behaviour. For example, in sports, giving someone a “high five” after a great play is a way of telling them “great job.” The action promotes teamwork and encourages people to try even harder. One common business strategy is the creative renaming of job titles. For example, share owning WestJet employees are referred to as “WestJet owners” encouraging them to treat the company and its customers with greater care and attention.

  3. Stories – Probably the strongest cultural influencer is a story worth telling. Stories have been used throughout the ages as a means of keeping ideas and values alive across the generations. They are everywhere in books, magazines, newspapers, television, movies, the Internet, and so forth. Great stories become folklore, in society and in business. What makes a great story impact a culture is its tendency to be retold, again and again. Stories that show bravery, loyalty, fortitude, foresight, great customer service, beating the odds etc. help people connect to a company. If you need help getting started, begin by asking questions. Your employees are a wealth of knowledge, and love to share. Ask them what are the best things they have seen, experienced, or heard at your business.

  4. Symbols – Throughout history, symbols have been used to shape behaviour. Sometimes they are used as rewards, like Olympic medals. Sometimes they are used to convey emotion such as red roses and diamond rings. While other times they are used to communicate important information, such as traffic lights and public washroom signs. However they are used, symbols are never as important as the messages behind them.

  5. Rituals – Rituals are established routines that we follow in given situations, primarily for their symbolic value. Shaking hands when meeting, going down on one knee when proposing, and blowing out candles on a birthday cake are all classic examples. When you think about it, a large percentage of our lives are guided by rituals. And business is no exception.

The employees of one of our clients, for example, do a silly little dance whenever they exceed their production targets. It was started as a joke by one of the employees and spread across the shop. It’s now become a bonding exercise, tied to an important company objective. Another example is the Wal-Mart company cheer. Recited by employees around the world (...Whose Wal-Mart is it? It's my Wal-Mart! Who's number one? The customer! Always!), it encourages employees to take ownership of their work and put the customer first.

At 1-800-Got Junk?, for example, team members will often stand by the side of the road waving at traffic, wearing bright blue wigs. They even have little blue wig stickers on the heads of the stick man and stick woman figures on their head-office washroom doors. The wigs were originally part of a hockey related publicity stunt, but their meaning is much deeper now. They remind people that the company was founded on out-of-the-box thinking.

Rituals don’t need to be complicated or even all that outrageous to be effective. For example, at Wardell, one of our rituals is to use a portion of our weekly team meetings to educate each other on something new. It's one simple way we keep education at the forefront of our culture.

In the end, corporate culture is all about people. Can you shape behaviour? Absolutely. But only if your people buy into what you're trying to accomplish. You can’t ram it down their throats. You need to get them involved.

Often the best ideas will show up on their own. In fact, they probably already exist within your company. You just need to recognize them and capture them through documented systems. Otherwise they may fade away as quickly as they showed up. A simple litmus test is to ask everyone involved, “Does this positively influence the culture of our organization?” If the answer is “yes,” the employees involved are more likely to act as internal champions, helping you promote positive cultural change.