Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Defining a Corporate Culture

Last week I wrote about Michael Duffy's thoughts on the importance of corporate culture. I got some feedback that I should write more about how to define a corporate culture. If you don't understand the cultural dimensions, you can't effectively instill a culture.

Following are a few of the dimensions of culture. While some of these feel black-or-white, you can reasonably fall anywhere along each axis. The right answer for each depends on your company, the industry, and your management styles.

Technology/Business/Customers: Companies tend to identify themselves as primarily focused on one of these three things. You can see it in their advertising and mission statements. Technology-focused cultures say, "We make the world's greatest..." Business-focused cultures say, "We deliver shareholder value by..." Customer-focused cultures say, "We make customers successful by..." Determine what you lead with.

Shareholders/Customers/Employees: Companies tend to value one of these three groups as the primary reason they are in business. It is their primary reason for being. Naturally, all three matter, but when there are trade-offs to make, you should think about which group you naturally favor.

Playfulness: Lots of companies like to say, "We work hard and we play hard." Consider if you want group socializing and playfulness to be part of your company culture. Many people consider this as the definition of a strong culture. Be careful, though, many people are repelled by play at work. They would just as soon spend their social time elsewhere.

Family Friendliness: This manifests in lots of ways, not just hours worked. Will managers call people on weekends? Will they set meetings in the evening? Will they ask about family conflicts before making travel commitments for employees?

Time Spent at Work: Most companies have expectations of the hours that employees will be at work. In some companies if you are not at the office before 8:00 or after 7:00 you are not seen as committed. Technology companies often have core hours, where everyone must be in the office between 10 and 4. I was once in a company where it was bad form to not "look like" you worked over the weekend. In most companies this is not a question of the number of hours worked. I've notice that when the culture expects long hours of attendance, they often get short hours of actual work. Employees figure they are at work so long, they don't need to work as hard during all those hours. They also take longer lunches, run more errands and do more chatting during the day.

Frills: Frills can include everything including private offices, blackberries, fitness centers, cookies at 4:00, free catered lunches, pinball machines, and company cars. These extras can build a sense of specialness that keeps people loyal to the company. Also consider the impact on culture when these frills are only available to certain groups.

Theory X/Theory Y: These are management models of how people are motivated. In Theory X, managers believe people are inherently lazy and need to be closely led and supervised. This is sometimes called a "hard" culture. In Theory Y, managers believe people are motivated toward success and want to help the company succeed. In this "soft" culture, managers need to set up the environment to enable accountability and success.

Lightly Staffed/Heavily Staffed: In a lightly staffed culture, a company believes that no matter the challenge, the team is up to tackling it. They over-commit, work to near burn-out and take pride in the successes. In a heavily staffed culture, the company values having the right people, particularly specialists, to do the jobs that the process demands. These cultures often are more family friendly and put a high value on predictability.

Hierarchical/Flat: This choice says something about the value the company puts on rank, power and politics. It also provides a way to think about delegating authority effectively. Flat organizations can sometimes be a technique leaders use to maintain control and avoid delegation.

Decision Making Model: Some cultures put value on individuals making decision within the scope of their position. Individuals get input from other people, but ultimately are accountable for their own choices. Other cultures value decision making by teams, favoring consensus in the team over individual authority. Still other cultures rely on well-defined decision making processes and sign-offs. The trade-offs are around risk tolerance, speed, individual growth and empowerment.

Honesty/Integrity/Respect: Everyone would claim that these traits are part of their culture. But, companies often behave counter to these values. If you treat you employees dishonestly, they will do the same to your customers. If you tolerate rudeness in the workplace, you get more rudeness in the workplace. The culture will be what you model. Be explicit about these basic human values.

The first step to instilling cultural values is to be explicit about what your expectations are. Spend time thinking through what your values are in these dimensions. Then spend time thinking about the other dimensions you value. Finally, come back and add other value dimensions to the comments so we can all learn together.

In a future post I'll write about implementing your cultural values. Here is a preview: It's a twofold problem. Not only do you have to instill the cultural values, you have to model behavior consistent with those values.


Mike said...

Language: Outside the english-speaking world I found one of the most powerful tools (if not the most powerful) in culture change to be language.

For example in a German speaking smaller company, going through change and growing fast as part of an American parent - the most significant change was when management meetings, email, documentation etc changed to English in 90% of cases.
This was the point where a "new culture" really began to take form and be taken on by the employees.

In terms of a sliding scale the question would be. If 2% of your workforce only speak english and 95% have a strong preference towards a different common language, or problems with english:
Do you expect the 2% to find a way of getting information outside the normal meetings and to get documents translated specially or do you expect the 95 to cope with english so that everyone at least partly understands?

Its a serious consideration about involvement. In both situations someone is going to feel "left out".

The opportunity also presents itself to invest in your employees skills through training. Do you take it?

Ken Flowers said...

Great addition Mike. Thanks.