THE BLOG
07/19/2012 06:44 pm ET | Updated Sep 18, 2012

Corporate Culture Matters: Is Yours Good, Bad, or Ugly?

We sat down with Meredith Haberfeld of Institute for Coaching for an interview regarding company culture.

Meredith has been an executive coach in Fortune 100 companies for over a decade.

As your organizational culture can be a draw, a retainer and a repellent for great employees, and can elicit or stunt greater creativity and productivity -- it's a "soft" issue with hard consequences. I sat with Meredith and discussed:

  • Steps to take in order for an organization to assess and define company culture
  • Three universal ways to improve culture

Steps for defining, assessing, and implementing company culture

1.) First and foremost, be clear about what you want the culture to be

"Design. Leadership should take the time to be clear about its values. It is important to establish what you want in the culture before examining what you think is already present, so you will be inventing rather than reacting."

Haberfeld explained that in a new company where the leadership has a lot of involvement in the operations of the business, the leadership on its own can design the culture it is committed to and see to it that the company is built on those values. In a larger and more mature enterprise, this is a much more difficult process and she recommends having key stakeholders involved with the process.

"It doesn't pay to shove expensive 'new cultural principles' down the throats of employees. Leadership can provide direction in key values, but creative participation from influencers can be essential."

2.) Assess the culture of your business -- not what you think it is, but what it really is

"The leadership of a company already has qualities and values without ever
distinguishing them. They are present whether they are intended to be present
or not, and these things are not necessarily what that leadership wants."

Meredith suggests that it is a very useful exercise to get open and honest feedback from the employees about the current culture of the business. Next, you can assess where the gap is between where you are and where you want the culture to move to. Remember, it is important that your employees feel comfortable so that they don't tell you what they think you want to hear.

3.) Infuse the environment with your cultural values

"Figure out how you are going to weave that culture into the fabric of the
business and weed out the things that are undermining."

It is important and useful to utilize "influencers" or key stakeholders within your organization as a vehicle to drive the culture within your company.

"Too much time and money goes down the tubes with newly created cultural principals that are poorly embedded into the fabric of the organization."

If respected employees embody the values of the organization, they will be a driving force for the rest of the employees to follow suit. Meredith suggests that you have a regular check in to assess and discuss culture, whether it is quarterly or semi-annually.

One of the things that makes for a great company culture is spending enough time to vet employees to see that they resonate with the ideals that the company values.

"Where a company's culture can go awry is if it has people in it who don't value the things that the company esteems."

As an example, if you have a company focused on impeccable execution and attention to detail and someone is hired who is not detail oriented and does not value this, dissonance can be created. The value brought by the employee can seem diminished and the employee may not feel appreciated. A new employee should powerfully and positively enhance the values of your company.

3 Tips for Improving Company Culture

1.) Have a clearly articulated vision

"In order to improve culture, an organization and its leadership need to be clear about vision and values. A piecemeal view is insufficient, clarity about the critical principles and direction of the organization drives an organization."

Improved culture means different things to different people, so cultural improvements need to be built around clearly identified values. It is important that employees know how they can powerfully get behind the company's vision, for both the mission and the internal culture. People need to feel that they have clear roles and expectations and know what they can do within their position to support the company's goals. It cannot be a moving target.

2.) Leadership needs to be connected to the staff

"This does not mean simply reading a survey or walking around and shaking hands. It means actually viewing the world from your employees' perspectives and not just the idea of their perspectives."

This opens up new kinds of conversations that benefit the culture because the leadership may identify some misconceptions they have had about the lives and roles of their employee. By seeing the world through their eyes accompanied with open dialogue, leadership can learn a lot about the culture and identify areas for improvement.

3.) Make sure employees feel comfortable with open and honest communication, empowered, and valued

If employees feel
  1. Empowered
  2. Valued
  3. Comfortable with open and honest communication

In the work environment, culture improves. This is nearly universal, whether the company's culture is innovation oriented, results oriented, or any other orientation.

"Making sure employees feel valued for their contribution, empowered in their role, and comfortable engaged in direct, honest communication is a cultural investment that pays off many-fold in employee satisfaction and retention. And more interestingly, it provides a real and powerful bump in creative output."

Meredith Haberfeld is an Executive Coach and co-founder of the Institute for Coaching, with Ryan Flynn, manager and writer at the Institute for Coaching.