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Corporate Culture: The Strategic Game-Changer

January 16, 2017

A strong corporate culture will help shape every aspect of your business. Yet most leaders fail to define one that is appropriate for their specific needs. This simple three-step process can help you identify your own unique culture while ensuring that it complements your business strategy and fits existing values and goals.

Far too many companies settle on a weak patchwork of loosely-related principles and ideas to help shape their corporate cultures. There are dozens of factors that influence culture, but defining yours doesn’t have to be complicated. Follow these steps to identify your culture and use it to drive strategy.

Step 1: Determine your focus.

In this critical first step to defining culture, strive to identify the overarching focus of your values. Where does your business find the inspiration that shapes strategy? Is it in people, actions, or outcomes? 

>People: A person-oriented culture puts the needs of its employees, end users, or the community first. Such a culture emphasizes responsibility to others and the greater good. Examples: Team, Customer,
Community, Empathy

>Action: In the action-focused culture, significance lies in the methods used to perform the work. How employees approach a problem or solution takes precedence over everything else. Examples: Innovation, Agility, Learning, Ownership

>Outcome: Cultures that follow an outcome-based focus tend to be larger, older, and more traditional in structure. Titles and hierarchy matter, with performance usually outweighing people in importance. Examples: Profit, Productivity, Growth, Image

Once a primary focus is identified, it becomes much easier to choose the specific elements that make up your unique culture—such as innovation, your team, or profits. Most cultures are actually comprised of several sub-elements, so don’t be afraid to combine complementary characteristics. For example, it’s okay to claim a culture that is both innovative and collaborative. Just be sure to stick to the most pervasive attributes that speak to your unique business.  

Step 2: Align goals.

The values and behaviors that are central to your unique culture must also be reflected by and aligned with your business strategy—with each playing off of and supporting the other through common goals. For example, a retail strategy might require an efficiency-focused culture in order to drive profits, whereas a tech start-up may need to focus on innovation and risk-taking for quick product expansion. 

While strategy drives the what, when, where, how, and who of your business, culture provides the environment in which those factors thrive. Strategy speaks to process, while culture tells us how values apply to that process. Does each value expressed in your culture drive behaviors that support every directive of your strategy? In the end, a culture that doesn’t share goals with your business strategy is doomed to fail. 

Step 3: Equip for success.

Leaders sometimes forget the most critical part of the culture-defining process: follow-up and support. Give your team the resources it needs to sustain its culture. 

>Make the culture universal within the company by using the same language in meetings, corporate literature, and employee communications. 

>Insist your team can clearly articulate the culture, as well as exhibit the ability to weigh all actions, decisions, and behaviors against it. 

>Hire people with the right cultural fit and implement programs to help current employees who are struggling. 

>Train your department heads to carry the message throughout everything they do.

Answer these three questions to determine if your culture will endure the challenges of time: 

> Is your culture at odds with your strategy?

Apply the directives of your culture to each of the main elements of your business strategy to ensure they match. Make certain you aren’t asking your team, for example, to use cheaper, environmentally unsafe materials as a cost-saving measure if your culture is one of community responsibility. 

> Can your team articulate the company’s culture?

Everyone should be able to clearly state main points of your culture and identify the actions and decisions that support or diminish it. Rid your cultural description of any vague terms, giving employees plenty of examples of how it applies to their work.  

> Have you equipped your team?

A culture is useless without the resources and support to back it up. Don’t stop at defining the culture. Make sure your leaders have the right language, executive support, and resources to implement it.