Building a High-Functioning Culture Takes Planning

Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, famously said, “If you get the culture right, most of the other stuff will just take care of itself.” It’s apparent that they’ve gotten something right.

Recently, Eric Chester, who is described as “The Expert on Finding, Engaging, and Keeping Great Employees” visited Zappos headquarters in downtown Las Vegas. Here’s what he discovered –– aside from what he describes as an atmosphere that “radiates individuality and personality with a spattering of controlled chaos thrown in for good measure,” which he wrote in his blog I Got Zapped!  3 Surprising Facts About the Culture of Zappos.”

  1. There are no walls or silos. Top executives are accessible and sit at the same style of desks as employees in the call center –– even Hsieh himself.
  2. Feeling depleted and need a nap? Rather than sitting at a desk, employees are encouraged to slip off to a hammock. That way they’ll be refreshed and bring the best to the customer experience.
  3. The “Customer Loyalty Team is encouraged to transform a faceless point-and-click sale into a warm and friendly experience.” How? By sending handwritten, personalized notes to customers –– a novel idea in this digital age.

Chester says, “It’s what you do for your people that goes beyond what they expect that ultimately determines the level of their engagement. Great cultures never stop evolving.”

Essentially, it takes an intentional leader to create a strong culture –– one with vision and the ability to share that vision across the board –– and one who is always willing to change what needs to be changed.

Creating a Viable Culture

While culture receives lip service in most institutions, few executives truly understand that leading companies spend a great deal of time thinking about and developing their cultures. Without contemplation, input from others, and brainstorming, culture can easily become a hodge-podge of mixed views, behaviors, and misunderstandings––all leading to “sound alike/feel alike” cultures found in any institution on any corner.

Most institutions refer to their culture as a “family culture,” there are in fact four distinct types of corporate cultures.

  • The “clan or family” culture is where employees feel like family.
  • The “hierarchy” culture provides the structure––layers of management, systems, and processes that create predictable outcomes.
  • The “market” culture is a very dynamic and competitive culture highly sensitive to competitive forces.
  • The “adhocracy” culture fosters creativity and innovation.

It’s important to remember that the cultures of most institutions are primarily made up of family and hierarchy cultures attributes. To remain viable and relevant, some of the attributes from both the market and adhocracy cultures needs to be introduced into the cultures of today’s institutions.

Employee Involvement is Crucial

Given the pace of change, culture evolution is an important part of continuing company success.  I tell my clients that “innovation can never be birthed to a closed or satisfied mind.”  Leaders must create an environment where employees have meaningful roles in the change process.  This occurs through delegation of unique project-based work, such as participation on various committees which enable employees to work with other employees across the organization.  Promotions also give employees that chance to develop their leadership abilities. Empowering employees to reach their highest potential is vital to cultural transformation.  For an industry that ceased its formalized training programs over two decades ago, training and developing employees has never been more crucial to organizational success and longevity.

The American Society for Training and Development (ASTD) indicates that.… “according to their research, companies with comprehensive training programs enjoyed a 24% higher profit margin and 218% higher income per employee than companies with less focus on employee development.”

The Value of Being Uncomfortable

Any form of growth and development requires us to get outside of our comfort zone.  In any organization dedicated to transformation, employees must be given permission to feel uncomfortable if true and lasting change is to occur in an organization.  This occurs through the act of leadership meaning that any executive, manager or supervisor must first demonstrate a change in their behaviors. This is then followed up by a discussion with their team of the discomfort experienced making small changes in one’s behaviors.  Lastly, through the act of coaching, leaders create an environment where employees feel safe enough to change their behaviors.  Employees typically are fearful of change.  They fear that their jobs are at risk if they make mistakes.  This must be addressed repeatedly by leaders and managers.  By addressing the elephant in the room and having leaders model behavior change, institutions can evolve their cultures to promote greater organizational agility and innovativeness.

As we begin this new year, consider the ways in which you will evolve the culture of your team and your institution. Will it be coaching for your top executives? A leadership program for your mid-level employees? Or perhaps sales training for your customer-facing team?

As Lou Gerstner, Jr, former CEO of IBM says, “Culture isn’t just one aspect of the game –– it is the game. In the end an organization is nothing more than the collective capacity of its people to create value.”

Let me know if there is any way I can help you.

To your success,

Ray Adler

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