Culture rinses through an organization like a dye: it touches everything. One of our clients was reminded of this recently, as the leadership team reflected on the company’s growth and their plans for the future. A central question that arose during this planning process was, “How can we embed our culture to sustain our growth?” It’s a question any savvy leader asks, whether their organization is large (8500+ employees in over 600 locations, in our client’s case) or small.  But what exactly is organizational culture? There are some very academic definitions, but in this case, simple is better: Culture is how we do things here (Egan, 1994).

Of course, that begs a question. What things? Any list of activities influenced by organizational culture would certainly include the following:

  • How decisions are made.
  • How plans are made and executed.
  • How under-performers are addressed.
  • How mistakes and setbacks are handled.
  • How bad news is communicated.
  • How the basics of HR are managed – recruiting, selecting, training, utilizing and, when necessary, separating people.
  • How people are rewarded and recognized.
  • How the expectations for near-term profits are balanced with long-term investment.
  • How a good work-life balance for employees is achieved.

A company’s culture is described in part by its foundational documents – the mission, the vision, and the driving values. More vividly, culture can be found in the stories which describe the defining events in the company’s history.  It’s not easy to maintain, especially in turbulent times. Top of mind today, of course, is the COVID-19 pandemic, which created conditions for extraordinary operational and financial challenges. And with any new challenge comes uncertainty, emotion, and often, ingenuity. The workforce is acutely aware of how things are getting done in organizations today – and in the case of essential workers, their lives depend on it. Expansive sick leave, employee relief funds, parental leave, and community donations are landing organizations like Verizon, Target, and AT&T on the top of Forbes’ rankings of employers’ pandemic responses.

Even in times of relative stasis, operational processes evolve, organizational structures adapt to the changing needs of the business, and new people are added. There are a lot of moving parts! So, how can a company embed its culture both broadly and deeply, ensuring it is a sustaining resource to the company?

We see seven ways.

1. The public words and actions taken by the leaders of the organization, especially those in very visible roles.

Members of any organization are attracted to being part of something bigger than themselves, and especially so if the enterprise has a meaningful mission. Leaders have a golden opportunity to create “a sense of us,” and there will be times when all eyes are them. It can be a talk or a decision at a critical moment that conveys an important part of the organization’s culture.

An example: a new plant manager in one of our client companies made an effort to greet the workers on each of the three shifts. His message: “We are in this together.” He wanted to do away with finger-pointing between shifts and establish a culture of accountability. The word got around.

How organizations do important things for the first time tends to be a story that gets passed down as an emblem of the culture. As the world grapples with the pandemic, organizations and institutions around the globe are setting precedents – and the triumphs and gaffs will long outlive the virus. Which brings us to…

2. Actions taken in response to a crisis become stories which define a company’s culture.

The classic example of this method is the Tylenol scare. The Chicago Tylenol Murders were a series of poisoning deaths resulting from drug tampering in the Chicago metropolitan area in 1982. The victims had all taken Tylenol-branded acetaminophen capsules that had been laced with potassium cyanide. Johnson & Johnson removed every bottle of Tylenol from store shelves across the US at great cost. In so doing, they placed the safety of their customers ahead of profits, just as it is promised in their credo. No one doubted their commitment to their values, and as a result, Tylenol – a key product – was saved.

In contrast, there is the story of Volkswagen cheating to conceal the damaging emissions from their diesel cars. They placed profits ahead of the law and social responsibility. As of March 17 2020, the scandal had cost VW nearly $34.7 billion in fines, penalties, financial settlements and buyback costs. Boeing is another example: they appear to have cut corners on safety, resulting in hundreds of deaths and landing a blow to both the company’s reputation and finances, from which it is still struggling to recover.

The ways in which organizations are responding to the COVID crisis vary widely. Our clients have shared stories about how a renewed focus on safety in the work environments (i.e., PPE use, social distancing, wellness checks before starting shifts) is creating a sense of camaraderie in their manufacturing facilities.  Executive teams are building cohesion as they come together to make tough decisions. Alternatively, other organizations are struggling to adapt, mistreating employees, and failing to protect them. The message in these cases becomes that the way work gets done around here is “at any cost, including your life.” A recent survey showed as many as 68% of employees would consider leaving their job because of the way their employer responded to the COVID-19 crisis. These events are where toxic cultures are formed.

3. A prevailing operational value can help define the culture of an organization.

A senior economist at The Federal Reserve once said, “We are in the business of cautious deliberation.” That statement, which captures in a nutshell a key dimension of the Federal Reserve culture, is not written on a poster, nor is it repeated as a mantra by leaders at the Fed. Instead, it is woven into their work processes. Problems are carefully studied. Reports are not rushed. Formal opinions are carefully vetted. At the end of the day, they want everyone to know that when the Fed takes an action, it is the product of thorough study.

Similarly, there are organizations/industries (e.g., DuPont or Nuclear Power Generation) who make safety a central part of their operations. Over time, that comes to define their culture. Which operational values – safety, cost efficiency, quality, speed, innovation, collaboration, customer focus – might be emphasized as central to your company’s culture?

4. Viral events on social and local media.

In 2015 a customer noticed a McDonald’s employee helping a disabled person and captured the moment with their phone.

The story went viral, and both the individual employee and the company were highlighted.  McDonald’s, like many businesses, wishes to be viewed as a contributor to the communities in which it operates. Ronald McDonald House is the most prominent expression of that value, but it is also reflected in micro events which have a powerful message. Many people can still remember this story.

5. Compensation, awards, public recognition, and promotion.

These are what some refer to as the mundane tools of building a culture, “mundane” meaning practical expressions of “who we are.” New employees can be told about how the company works and what it values, but it is not until they see the values “in action” that they get the message. These can be big gestures (i.e., a raise), or as simple as this post from Motley Fool’s culture blog and a recent LinkedIn post from Ellie Mae.

6. The “look and feel” of the organization’s locations, offices, technology, etc.

There is an obvious difference between a downtown “silk-stocking” law firm and the offices of the state’s attorney or a local firm handling routine legal matters for small businesses and individuals. One can ask, “What do the outward appearances of a company say about how they do business?”

7. The on-boarding experience.

First impressions are important when it comes to conveying the culture of an organization. The on-boarding or new employee orientation is an opportunity to establish a clear, shared understanding of the company at the level of culture. The usual things will get covered – workplace rules and regulations – but how these are handled sends the cultural messages. There is also an opportunity to tell the defining stories of the organization: the founding of the business, crises that were weathered, big wins, examples of the business at its best. One company brought in retired employees who could tell many of the stories first-hand because they were there. There is room here for some creativity.

For example, this video created by the Cleveland Clinic is meant to remind everyone who works there what is happening all around them. The cultural message is that while the clinic abounds in amazing technology, they prioritize the human experience. What would such a video look like for your business?

Note that none of these tenets rely on posters and slogans. Of course, there is nothing wrong with posters and slogans. However, a problem arises when they are leveraged as the only means of communicating company culture – when organizations fail to establish it comprehensively in everything from big decisions to day-to-day-operations. Combine poster-worthy messages with consistent, value-driven actions, and the power of culture will be felt.

What are some of your organization’s defining cultural values? How do you embed, implement, and express them? Share with us in the comments below!