Does the Company Make the Culture or Does the Culture Make the Company?

In the Alice in Wonderland story, Alice asked the Cheshire Cat, “What road do I take?” The Chesire Cat replied, “Where do you want to go?” “I don’t know,” answered Alice. “Then,” said the Chesire Cat, “It really doesn’t matter, does it?” This conversation perfectly illustrates what is wrong with some organizations—they aren’t sure where they want to go, or how to get there.

This is an ongoing conundrum for many organizations, but properly establishing the mission and purpose of a company is a good place to start addressing it. But here too, additional questions often arise such as: How does the organization’s culture play into growing the company (and its employees) and taking them to where they want to go?

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What grows and fosters a company culture are its leaders, employees as well as the organization’s mission and purpose. There are thousands of books about how to grow and sustain a good company culture, but what works for one particular organization may not work for another. The secret is finding what works for your individual company. Every company is unique, different, so a broad-brush approach to establish a similar culture as other organizations, will not work. Given this reality, here’s my advice on best practices to get your company culture moving in the right direction:

1. Create Opportunities for Employees to Be Sticky.

Early in my career, someone shared with me two points of wisdom that I’ve never forgotten. First, people do business with the individuals they want to do business with. Second, never underestimate the importance of the sticky factor. Said a different way, build an environment with enough employee touchpoints that the employees can’t see themselves anywhere else a.k.a. become sticky.

What creates the sticky factor? There is no right or wrong answer. It varies by company and by the employee. But I do believe that it is a collection of experiences that touch the employee’s professional, personal and community life.

Not every experience matters to every employee. One employee may love that he or she can help build a mentor program, appreciates the company-paid, long-term disability plan and loves the free monthly lunches. Another employee may love that they are always working on new technologies, loves the family fun days and likes the small group, team atmosphere.

Great (and unusual) benefits are important, but they are not everything. Offering 100% company-paid, long-term disability is a great benefit, one that everyone wants but hopes they never need. It is one of the many things we do but there isn’t a lot of chatter about it. The chatter is about sticky things.

Our weekly company newsletter, “Life as a Sparkie,” started as a data dump of information. Then we added a calendar to the letter but this received little attention. Then we added employee updates, a better option which received more engagements. Then we added a pet-of-the-week section and the attention was enormous and the readership is through the roof. Including a pet section in the newsletter sounds simple, but it was clear that Sparkies (Sparkhound employees) love talking about their pets. Sparkies debate on who has the cutest dog and ponder on organizing a ‘meet and greet’ for pets. As they continue deliberations on “labs are better than poodles,” Sparkies are building relationships across the company’s various practices and regional locations, strengthening relationships and building better teams to solve client problems. The culture of the company can be a sticky factor. Moral of the Story: Live your company’s purpose and execute your company’s mission, this will help create the sticky factor.

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2. Support, Don’t Stifle, Your Employees’ Ever-Changing Goals.  

Every few years, there is a new buzz about the best way to manage and impact employee performance. The buzz often includes such statements as “we should:”

  • Have formal annual performance reviews
  • Eliminate performance reviews completely
  • Add an emoji-reply option to reviews
  • Hold quarterly check-ins
  • Give hot dogs to top performers
  • Hold quarterly check-ins

This type of buzz can be maddening!

Even though the tracking mechanism for performance reviews may be different, one fact remains consistent, employees could care less about what system or process is used to track their performance. To many employees, it is just a lot of noise. They just want to know if they are doing well or not. Why does management make it so difficult for them to realize such a simple answer? And why do employers tend to over complicate things?

Gone are the days when the manager and employee interactions were formal and rigid. Employees are not robots, so it makes sense that a large element of personality overflow into the workplace. Performance reviews have gone in the same direction as career paths.

Employment is not all about the “win,” it’s about the employee’s overall experience within a particular organization. So, when it comes to performance reviews and goal setting, these targets need to express flexibility while allowing a favorable growth experience along the corporate journey. In essence, successful companies recognize those goals:

  • Must be fluid and not locked into particular elements
  • Must have a constant ebb-and-flow, with transparent communication of good achievements and areas that need improvement
  • Have targets that are always moving

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 3. Tell Employees Where They Are, Where They Can Go, and How to Get There.

Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO, encourages employees to look past the traditional career ladder because it no longer exists. Instead, she says to “. . . look for opportunities, look for growth, look for impact, look for mission. Move sideways, move down, move on, move off. Build your skills, not your resume.”  This flexible approach to career growth requires a flexible approach to employee goals.

We can accept that the career ladder is a jungle gym—it makes perfect sense. But that doesn’t help an employee who doesn’t know what rung of the jungle gym they sit on. How does that impact an employee who isn’t sure where they currently stand or know the opportunities available to achieve the next advancement level? Their frustration grows because of a lack of knowing what additional skills are needed for advancement. Similar to Alice’s inquiries to the Chesire Cat, if they don’t know where they are going, it doesn’t matter which way they go.

Employees need to understand exactly what skills and behaviors are required to move on to the next level. They need clear “position levels” so they can grow incrementally, fueling motivation that brings recognition and rewards.

Employees need a clear illuminated advancement path, so within our organization, Sparkhound created the Career Pathways Matrix. A good template to create this matrix can be realized by following our steps to establishing a Career Pathways Matrix, which includes:

  • Identifying and developing standardized, cohesive titles across the company; including adding levels to each position i.e. Consultant I, II, III, Senior Consultant I, II, III
  • Creating job descriptions that fit within the marketplace
  • Conducting a compensation study to create a competitive, standardized pay rate
  • Streamlining annual performance reviews from 33 questions to 3 questions, moving the focus from the mechanics of the process to the meaningful conversations that celebrate the previous year’s successes and build a plan for the following year
  • Creating a process that offers a clear progression plan for employees to advance within the organization

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HR professionals need to realize that it is not possible to improve corporate culture overnight. It’s a process that involves understanding a company’s “why” as well as its employees’ concerns, by establishing a feedback loop of honest opinions backed by positive reinforcement. The “winning” attitude has been replaced with the need for personal development and growth, e.g. a sense of purpose. Establishing clear guidance to personal career growth via a well-thought-out pathway will not only help to ensure employee longevity, but also company prosperity.

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Benefits managementcareercompany cultureEmployeesJobperformance reviewpersonal developmentreinforcement
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