THE BLOG

Yes, But How? Five Choices for Re-Tooling Your Culture

05/27/2015 03:14 pm ET | Updated May 27, 2016

The symptoms are in plain sight: low morale and engagement; silos preventing collaboration; the rise of troublesome sub-cultures. You know your organization's culture needs work. But, how?

Consciously changing -- even tweaking -- your company culture is hard work. There is no tried-and-true 12-step program. There are, however, choices you can make that will help you repair a damaged culture or sustain and grow a positive one over time. Here are five you can implement now.

1. Decide that your culture is a competitive tool. That seems obvious, right? After all, your CEO just reaffirmed it at the last employee meeting as "We Are the Champions," "Roar," or a customized corporate anthem blared in the background.

Not so fast. Affirming is not deciding.

Company "A" inscribed the words Respect, Integrity, Community, and Excellence on coffee mugs and on a huge banner in its corporate headquarters. Company "B" says it is dedicated to "the highest quality of customer service delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, individual pride, and Company Spirit."

Company "A" was Enron. Company "B" is Southwest Airlines. We know which one really decided to make its culture important.

2. Inspect and act on what you expect. Your company conducts an annual employee survey, right? If not, you should. It's simple -- write down what you believe, and ask people how the organization is doing. Yes, it takes coordination. On the other hand, Johnson & Johnson does it every year in 36 languages to employees in 57 countries. You can do this. And, you should do it in every way imaginable -- change your performance reviews, ask customers, and talk to trusted partners.

The difficult part is actually doing something with the information. Inspecting what you expect only works when you act on the information.

3. Hire and keep your people. "Hire for fit" is an accepted principle in human resource circles. And yet, there are managers that still consider education and experience as more important. The best companies make the extra effort to find those who have their culture already oozing from the pores. Everyone else opts for the best immediately available fit and hopes that they will adapt.

Zappos has for years paid people who successfully complete their training program to leave if they aren't sold on the culture. This year they upped the ante even more by offering at least three month's severance to anyone who wanted to leave as it moves to its latest iteration of non-traditional organizational structure. According to the Wall Street Journal, about 14 percent of Zappos team has accepted the offer.

4. Cultivate Culture Carriers at every level. Building a great culture requires that messages be carried to and from every organizational level. Memos from the executive offices compete with social media and text messages from the front line for attention, relevance, and influence. No one cares what the senior leaders say if their immediate supervisors are not living the message.

Exceptional leaders fight for the right to have great people committed to the cause. They see and act on a greater vision than employees see for themselves.

5. Prepare for protecting the culture when times are bad. The major U.S. stock exchanges are trading at or near all-time highs. Job growth is finally making progress after a fitful recovery. Many companies are just now restoring employee trust and engagement from the Great Recession. That makes right now the perfect time to plan and prepare for how you will protect your culture when the next downturn hits.

Bridgeway Capital Management began developing its unique, purpose-driven culture at its inception. It calls its employees "partners" and treats them that way. It chose to cap the salary of the highest compensated partner at seven times that of the lowest paid partner. It gives 50 percent of its after-tax profits to charitable causes each year.

Those were easy decisions before the financial markets collapsed and the Bridgeway saw its assets under management plummet from $3.4 billion to $1.7 billion. Fortunately, the company planned for the impact of a downturn. It developed its plan to restructure compensation and maintain its philanthropic efforts to continue when times were good rather than waiting until a crisis. As a result, the company's culture stood the test that only a crisis can bring.

Anyone can build a great culture when times are good. It takes courage to do so when they are not.

Changing, tweaking, and sustaining a strong, positive culture requires relentless attention in good times and bad. It begins with choices made and implemented at every level of your organization. The result is a competitive advantage that sets you apart in a marketplace where products and services are viewed as interchangeable.

Randy Pennington is an award-winning author and a leading authority on helping organizations deliver positive results in a world of accelerating change. His keynote seminars and workshops are informative, engaging, and memorable. To learn more or to hire Randy for your next meeting, visit www.penningtongroup.com or call 972-980-9857.