The ultimate definition of company culture and 35 ways to make it great

Why culture is everything

Every business has a strategy, but whether that strategy succeeds or fails almost always hinges on one thing: Culture

But what exactly is culture? 

CultureIQ’s definition of workplace culture is the how and why things get done in an organization. Culture is something company leaders can’t immediately grasp: It’s the intangible, unwritten rules that drive employee behavior throughout an organization. Whether an employee is engaged, collaborative, innovative and aligned with a firm’s mission all hinge on that employee’s cultural environment.

If you talked about culture to business leaders 10 years ago, you probably would have been talking to a wall. Most leaders thought of culture as a “warm and fuzzy” concept meant to promote good feelings more than good results in a company. Culture’s power to affect a company’s success – from retention to ROI was largely unknown.

Culture is critical to success

Those days are long gone. Businesses are becoming laser focused on enhancing their cultures, because they realize that culture is more than just making employees happy (although the right culture does that). It’s about making their entire organizations more focused, agile, transparent and capable of dealing with the disruptions and transformations that have become business as usual in our tech-driven world.

In fact, boardrooms and C-suites are now fully aware that culture is critical to an organization’s success. We recently did some research and of the Fortune 500’s 2018 annual reports over 80% mentioned culture or values. Since 2010, there has been a 15% increase in mentions of culture in earnings calls among the world’s largest companies. (CultureIQ sales presentation 2019).

There is also a growing understanding that culture is key to driving business success, above other metrics. “When you’re just measuring engagement, you’re really only looking at the end result and one of the byproducts of your culture,” says David Shanklin, CultureIQ’s Managing Director of Culture Solutions.  “It’s important to really understand the more holistic picture of culture because the outcomes you’re looking for are not just how people feel and how motivated they are, but  what are they doing to drive success for your customers and to create value for your organization.”

Although most businesses are aware of the importance of a healthy culture, many don’t feel their organizations have learned to understand and harness it. These concerns have lingered since surveys about culture earlier in the decade showed that 94 percent of executives feel that culture is important, but only 19 percent believe their culture is widely upheld in their organizations.

The culture-management gap

A CultureIQ survey released in 2017 showed that little has improved.  Only 40 percent rated their company culture as above average; 33 percent rated average; 27 percent rated below average. Lack of senior management and not enough resources were selected as the top two reasons why organizations do not actively manage culture.

In a 2019 Glassdoor survey most respondents said culture was more important than cash to ensure their job satisfaction, yet in another report, less than one-third of employees said they felt their companies have a strong culture.

So how do you get a strong culture?

 When the culture isn’t working at an organization, most likely, the business isn’t working.

A weak workplace culture can act like a buzzsaw throughout a business, creating burnout, destroying morale, undermining strategy, and in some cases, bringing an entire organization tumbling down. Conversely, a strong, healthy culture can make the entire organization more profitable, sustainable, agile, transparent, engaging and more likely to please its customers.

Here are some ways our clients say that the positive culture we’ve helped build has worked for them:

  • “I’ve already started seeing a really big shift [following the survey]. Our people have a much better sense of how they’re doing, which helps us shift to a performance culture,” Watson says. “We can resolve issues as they happen, and ultimately that it leads to a higher performing business and the quality of or work is better – we can do better financially and have happier people in the process.”

-Southern Spars CEO Sam Watson, whose global company builds masts for racing yachts

  • “We were able to work more collaboratively than ever. Most importantly, our transparency when sharing the results of the survey reassured employee groups that they had a voice, and that it was understood. Consequently, we could increase employee engagement, implementing change management strategies while providing support and training in the work environment.”

-Fauzia Sikender, Manager of Employee Engagement, Air Canada

  • “All of our business metrics are doing exceptionally well, and I think that definitely aligns with the survey helping us shift the culture and remove a lot of the bureaucracy and process inefficiency and give people the tools they need to do the job. We’ve seen the result and the impact on our top and bottom line.”

-Narelle Beurle, Head of OD & Change at leading Australian utility firm Powercor

There are more than enough reasons to pursue a positive culture. Organizations like CultureIQ help businesses transform their cultures every day.

Here are 35 great ways our solution can help transform your culture into a competitive advantage.

DEFINE WHO YOU ARE

The foundational step in forming a good culture is to define who you are as an organization

1-5: Find your purpose       

1. Know yourself: The first step for any organization seeking to boost their culture is to understand who they are. Leaders must clearly define the organization’s purpose—its reason for existing, its mission and the values that drive that mission. Culture Framework main

Ask your leaders to define these, and come up with an agreed upon purpose statement.

2. Let everyone see: Now, transparency comes in. You have to set your purpose and values in front of all employees—and be prepared for feedback.

3. Assess that alignment: Find out if your purpose is something all employees can support. If so, you are on your way. If not, you should consider either modifying your purpose, or perhaps rethinking whether employees who don’t accept your purpose are a good fit for your organization.

4. Put it into action: When your workforce agrees with your purpose, it’s then time to create a specific action plan about how employees can best support your mission and values. You need to show everyone that your purpose isn’t just platitudes—that it’s the groundwork for how work should be done in the organization.

5. Repurpose your purpose, if needed: A company’s purpose should be solid, but not necessarily set in stone. Keep a close watch for changes that may necessitate repeating these steps. Is there an upcoming merger? Are you introducing radically different new products? Going after a new customer who want different things? Hiring a new leader who wants to shake things up? Have increasing employee feedback that they don’t understand or can’t put your purpose into action? All of these things may indicate that you need to define your purpose differently.

6-10: For your culture to work, you must create dignity

6. Treat everyone right: CultureIQ has found that the most successful organizations have a strong foundation of trust and respect. These create an atmosphere of dignity at an organization—and without it, you risk losing talented employees, revenue and your sustainability as an organization. It’s critical that you establish some basic principles on how workers should treat each other, to forge a strong bond that will hold your culture together.

7. Broadcast rules: Again, transparency will come into play once you have established the principles of dignity at your organization. You must ensure that leaders, managers and employees alike know how you expect them to treat each other. Emphasize that the rules apply to everyone.

8. Be consistent: There’s nothing that will show your principles are hollow like giving a free pass to those who think the principles of dignity don’t apply to them. No matter how senior or how talented they are, employees who don’t treat others with dignity need to face consequences. Be firm and transparent about what those consequences are.

9: Be a healer: When dignity is wounded, the divides can be great. Have empathy and support and an open, penalty-free door at the ready to help employees heal relationships with each other and truly be able to move along, rather than let feelings fester and divisions worsen.

10. Reward the righteous: And nothing will show that you are serious about dignity than rewarding employees who show these values. Make sure that recognition doesn’t just go to those with stellar revenue-generating abilities.  Reward those with stellar values (and understand that they are revenue builders, too). Here are some ways you can show your love.

 DO THE WORK, AND DO IT WELL

 The next important step in the road to a great culture is figuring out how to make things run smoothly 

 11-15: Know how your people work together

11. Investigate how you collaborate: Once you have laid a foundation of purpose and dignity, you need to have a workforce that comes together to carry it out. First, find out what level of collaboration exists (or doesn’t) at your organization. Are you heavily siloed? Joined at the hip? Does your collaborative process speed projects along or hold some of them up?

12. Use teamwork on teaming: Have your leadership craft collaboration strategies designed to meet your business goals and timeframes, then have employees and managers give those strategies a once-over – do your teaming ideas make sense to them?

13. Determine where the buck stops: On every collaborative team, it must all come down to a decision. Ask your teams to agree on what decision-finalizing method works best for them. Do they appoint a team leader who has the final say? Or is the collaboration culture more democratic?

14. Show the team love: Once again, open up your recognition goodie bag. Give shoutouts to the teams that meet and exceed collaborative expectations. And give feedback and support to collaborations that may get off to a rocky start.

15. Prepare for surprises: Be open to unforeseen fruits of collaboration. If your collaborative teams are doing their jobs, new ideas are going to spring up that might challenge your old processes and hierarchies. And that could be a really good thing, so encourage those brainstorms.

 16-20: Know how to get things done

16. Set realistic expectations: Now the rubber hits the road. Your workforce has to come together and actually get the job done. The first thing to ask is, what are your expectations for getting that job done in terms of safety, efficiency and quality – and do those expectations match the reality of your workforce? Disconnects in this area can easily lead to lapses that cost time, money and sometimes, health. You have to truly know your workforce’s capabilities before coming up with a plan of action.

17. Be perfectly clear: When you have a sense of your capabilities (and have beefed them up if needed), it’s time once again to paint a clear picture to your employees about what you expect them to do to carry out your goals. Be clear not only about the goal you have in mind, but why it is needed and what is at stake when you aim to improve things like safety, quality and efficiency.

18. Get the feedback loop going: Create continuous feedback channels so that your leaders, managers and employees can show you how well the job is getting done. Share any data and metrics on performance with your workforce as soon as you can. Let them share in successes, and get them support to meet goals if they need it.

19. Open your doors: Ask your employees to suggest ways to simplify and streamline. Often, the best suggestions come from workers on the front lines. People want to do their jobs better—give them an open door to show you how that can happen.

20. Always be improving: When the job is done, it has just begun. Companies who stay on top of their industries, and learn to be disruptors, often adopt a culture of continuous improvement, of constantly monitoring and tweaking work strategies and processes and to make them better. Make your culture one of continuous improvement and you can move your business strategy into the fast lane.

DEVELOP TALENT AND CURIOSITY

The next important pillar to good culture is cultivating great people and great ideas

21-25:  Find the people who will make your organization shine

21. Make strategy and workforce mesh: The first thing to do is look at your organization’s own business strategy, and determine how well your workforce is equipped to carry it out. Assess the strengths and gaps in when it comes to your workforce meeting these goals.

22. Become irresistible to talent: If you find you have a talent gap, it’s time to make a plan to attract talent. Research what your competitors are doing to attract similar talent. Make sure you have competitive offerings on the table when you recruit.

23. Discover hidden assets: It’s also important to assess how your organization develops the talent it has now. What chances does it give its workforce to excel, or to try new things? Sometimes, the greatest talent in your workforce is hiding in plain sight.

24. Don’t overlook: Understand that talent is often the result of a team effort. When a goal is met or exceeded, make sure you recognize everyone’s contribution behind the effort—and be on the lookout for those who are unsung heroes, and those who might be taking credit that they don’t fully deserve.

25. Meet the needs: Besides recognition, take other actions to retain talent and keep them happy—you start first by asking them what they need, and providing the right environment for them to be at their best. That can include everything from being financially supportive, to flexible with job descriptions, to being an open ear to new ideas.

26-30 Create and sustain your idea factory 

26. Focus the brainstorms: And speaking of ideas and curiosity, it’s great to grow both, but be careful you don’t wind up in a tangled forest. Your first step is to make sure your workforce clearly understands your purpose (again, that all-important foundation) and what you want to accomplish so they can become focused in their brainstorming. Sharing a vague purpose like “we want to grow revenues,” or “we want to become more innovative” might get you ideas that are all over the map, and mostly not actionable.

27. Ideas are meant to be shared: Do not put your brains in a lockbox. It’s bad for your business, besides being a scary culture trait. Ideas need to be promoted, shared, discussed, evaluated, iterated upon and tested—in the most transparent ways possible—to show they have merit and can turn into sustainable reality. Consider developing a “skunk works” division within your workforce devoted to brainstorming and testing new ideas.

28. Make failure an option: One of the most important things you can do to foster new ideas and curiosity is to create a “safe space” culture, where employees feel unafraid to investigate new ways of doing things, share new ideas, and unafraid to fail – because failure absolutely must be an option (and a great learning experience) in a culture of incubation and innovation.

29. Give good ideas a fighting chance: And while failure is OK, ultimately, everyone in your organization wants their ideas to work. When your team lands on a promising idea, it’s time to sync them with your process people, so both can create realistic plans to bring ideas to life.

30. Keep the curiosity flowing: A culture that is going to stay ahead of competitors has to be constantly questioning and ideating. Make brainstorming a regular part of your workplace’s strategy –for all workers—from the front lines to the top managers.

 DISRUPT: WHAT YOU DO AT THE CULTURE PINNACLE

When you can define your organization, do the work right and develop talent and ideas, you’ve become agile, a disruptor, and master of your culture

 31-35: The traits of a nimble, disruptive culture

31. Look inward and outward: A culture that is functioning at its best becomes able to both react quickly to change and create change (disruption) in its markets. Two key components of organizations like this are a deep understanding of both their internal cultures and the external cultures surrounding them – the cultures of their customers, partners and competitors.

32. Turn on a dime: Highly agile and disruptive organizations are also highly flexible. They can tap their talent and processes to adapt to unforeseen circumstances quickly, and often use those circumstances to their advantage.

33. Two steps ahead: Disruptors are always thinking ahead of the pack. They know their own internal and external environments as they exist now, but make planning for the future an integral part of business strategy.

34. Make sensible changes: And agile and disruptive entities don’t embrace change for change’s sake -their disruptions are focused on delighting and growing customers.

35. Take the long haul view: And above all, the truly agile and disruptive organization is designed to be sustainable over the long term. They do this by never losing sight of their cultural foundation—focusing on their purpose, and the dignity of their employees through hard times and successes.

You might not need to take all of these steps in your organization, but if you take some, or a few, it can lead you on a path to a greater competitive edge – and to your ideal culture. We know because we’ve helped 33% of the Fortune 500 along various iterations of this path. CultureIQ knows that to help companies not only keep up with the market, but disrupt it, you can’t offer a one-dimensional solution.

The data-driven, human led approach is more than simply measurement – it’s management. And it’s more than just projects – it’s programs. Most importantly, it’s more than engagement. It’s CULTURE.