Company culture and how not to get it ass-backwards

I rarely got sucked into conversations or debates on social media or LinkedIn but today I have the enjoyable experience of seeing a really nicely presented diagram of graphic of the roads and responsibilities of the C-Suite CEO, COO, CFO & CHRO. Being part of the staffing industry for decades, I was drawn to this, specifically to see what it had to say about the CEO and CHRO.

I noted one of the respondents had highlighted the topic of culture as part of the CHRO role, and decided to weigh in.

My story goes back to my first startup in 1996. I had decided to get into the world of web development at a time when the internet was AOL dialup and barely accessible outside of a computer science major.

Follow me to the promised land..

I needed people to do a job that didn’t yet exist. There were no qualifications, there was no industry body, there was just a few kids playing on their home PC. I realised quickly that if I wanted to sell the ability for a company to have an online presence, I’d need people other than myself to build these websites. But the catch – how to convince someone to deliver work on time when you can’t even offer them a job? How can you keep them engaged to deliver their best work when you don’t even know if you’ll have consistent work. How can you create a culture whereby those first people help future hires become better?

I winged it.

It worked out. We sold the company 3 years later having given a new purpose, skill and career to many people along the way.

The Dog Walker

With each subsequent startup (I’ve had a few) I took more and more responsibility for keeping colleagues engaged and focused on a purpose or vision. It was only 16 years that I was introduced to a more formal process of company values and culture. This was introduced by an extremly talented CMO that I had managed to convince to join my latest startup – a bold fuschia pink mobile app platform for temporary work. We were conducting strategy and branding meetings and got to the part about values. In this exercise the team was asked to choose values they wanted the brand to represent, which would later be used in the material, content, positioning and all other things marketing.

I realised part way through that meeting, after several obvious highly aspirational words had been put on the board that something was missing. Values are not just a marketing exercise – they’re the representation of the company and its people. But more than that – I was seeing words proposed that would sound wonderful, but that the people in the room didn’t really connect with.

I took action. In a moment of vulnerability I laid out the story that inspired me – “The Dog Walker” a fiction piece best described as chick-lit which I’d enjoyed the previous year on vacation. I explained how this book let me empathise with the character, a successful corporate career woman who ditched it all to take up a variety of temporary “gig-work” positions and was happier for it. In that heroine I saw the potential for millions of workers to not be slaves to their employment agency, but to be part of a collaborative effort to solve the labor needs of businesses in a way that provided them with quality of life.

Armed with a newly engaged team – I set about coaching them on the values we wanted – I looked at each one, and picked the word that I admired about each of them, encouraged them to own it and it became part of a hugely successful brand values exercise.

But that was all it was. A brand values exercise.

What happened next was the tipping point. Knowing that the values we had chosen represented the people on my team, I championed their use in everything. Every thought, every action, every hire, every meeting would reinforce each persons core value. It was not a company culture or company values – it was a group of individual values held by the people who were building, selling, supporting and managing the company.

We were out there representing the individual and they knew it.

Key take away – A leopard doesn’t change its spots, so why fight nature. Don’t try and create values that are not the ones represented by your core team

What about culture?

Going back to my opening, it was the comment around culture that drew me into debate. You see, the headline for CHRO was People & Culture, but I wasn’t buying it.

Culture is not something you create, it’s in what a group together do every day.

Culture is what comes from company values. And in the same infographic, the steward of company values is the CEO.

This I related to.

The COO is the most important person in cultivating the culture, because that’s what happens every day, in every customer, or internal, interaction. The CEO is responsible to ensure that the values being represented by the actions of the people are aligned with the values of the company. If they don’t align, bad things happen.

You see, culture is what you do every day. it comes from the actions and choices of the people in the group, who act based on their own individual values and the instructions they get. They will interpret instructions and providing those are aligned with their values, will feel proud in their work.

What happens when you get it wrong?

There’s lots of ways the train runs off the tracks.

1 – The values were not representative of the team and leadership. The most common mistake. People getting together to define the values based on what they think is important to others. Here you’ll see the latest trends represented in full. On one hand the values will say inclusive, while in reality the company is bro-code (Uber, of the past) – or “work-life-balance” where people have neither life nor balance if they want to succeed. Over and over again – leadership picks a list of aspirational values that sound good, but looking around the room they know that nobody possesses.

2 – Wrong owner or shared/confused ownership. This was the core to my LinkedIn debate and the 2nd most common for cultural failure. Culture is the byproduct of the values that the CEO is the steward of. If the team doesn’t represent the values change the team or change the values. Somebody who has a core value of giving, will want to work with someone who has a “to the victor go the spoils” values. It is the responsibility of the CEO and the CEO alone to make sure that those company values are pervasive. Unfortunately too many people think this is a CHRO or CMO responsibility – it’s not. Back to my earlier point – culture is what you do every day. The CEO needs that every hiring manager in the company is aligned to the values or the wrong people get hired. The CHRO can take the horse to the trough but can’t make it drink. If you’re the CEO – know that you don’t create the culture, but your COO reinforces it.

3 – Compromised values – number 3 on the most common reasons to fail. At some point one of the values is tested. Maybe its in signing the wrong deal or hiring a family member who does’t represent the values or simply being too permissive with the definition. Bottom line – if the CEO values the values, nobody will compromise. And if nobody compromises on the company values, then everyone is working as a uint, with trust in each other. But if one of those values is compromised, welcome to the world of classic movie “Mad Max”

4 – Picking the wrong values – But if you have a team who’s value is perfection, you need to be in an industry that thrives on that and not one that is happy with shoddy work.

As you can see, there are not many ways that culture goes wrong. But when it goes wrong it is catastrophic.

An example of getting it right

Before jumping into the “How to get it right”, I want to hat tip and acknowledge one of the best examples of culture that I know of.

Paul O’Neill, CEO of Alcoa. Its a while back, so may not be on everyones radar.

“Every year, numerous Alcoa workers are injured so badly that they miss a day of work,” he continued. “Our safety record is better than the general American workforce, especially considering that our employees work with metals that are 1,500 degrees and machines that can rip a man’s arm off. But it’s not good enough. I intend to make Alcoa the safest company in America. I intend to go for zero injuries.” – Paul O’Neill – October 1987

He decided that safety (and worker welfare) should be a core value. And he owned the responsibility to deliver on this to both shareholders and employees.

“By the time O’Neill retired in 2000, the company’s annual net income was five times larger than before he arrived, and its market capitalization had risen by $27 billion,”

“What’s more,” Duhigg wrote, “all that growth occurred while Alcoa became one of the safest companies in the world. Before O’Neill’s arrival, almost every Alcoa plant had at least one accident per week. Once his safety plan was implemented, some facilities would go years without a single employee losing a workday due to an accident. The company’s worker injury rate fell to one-twentieth the U.S. average.”

So how do I get it right and not ass-backwards?

Most recently I led Glyde through a workshop on values and reflected on how this had been done before – differently to how I had decided to lead it.

Rather than taking the approach of values as a branding exercise or a list of aspirations. I was direct with the team – “What core value do you have that you admire the most in yourself”

If you’ve reached this point and feel that is anti-climatic, then this article has delivered on what I had hoped and already conveyed the importance of representing the individuals, CEO ownership and unfaltering faith that your colleagues represent your values to the world.

Your people are the culture. That’s your company culture. Identify it and embrace it or change your people if they don’t react who you are