Your personality is the sum of your psychological characteristics that discern you as an individual from others. It is influenced heavily by your core values - your fundamental beliefs that you build up over time - that dictate how you live your life, the decisions you make, the actions you take, and what you consider as "right" and "wrong".
The same principle applies to companies. They too have "personalities" - characteristics that set them apart from other companies in the eyes of the individuals they touch. Every interaction that your organization has with its prospects, customers, partners, employees and job applicants slowly forms the character and personality that those groups of people perceive your organization to be.
We commonly refer to a company's personality as it's "culture". In the context of a business, its personality, or culture, encapsulates the company mission, the work environment, core values, ethics, expectations and goals.
What's the advantage of a strong culture?
Employees tend to enjoy working in companies where the company's culture aligns strongly with their own values. They will feel more engaged and committed to the company and they are more likely to want to stay with the company for longer.
It is therefore advantageous for leaders to try and develop strong cultures, since it is a clear way to improve employee engagement and therefore increase productivity and staff retention. But that's not all: according to Glassdoor, company culture is among the top five factors that prospective employees consider when looking for a new job - so it can also be a great way to attract talent.
It starts with a vision
Trying to change the culture in an organization is not easy. You could liken it to someone deciding to change traits of their personality. It can be done, but it is a gradual process and has to be authentic. However, whatever the size of the organization, it starts at the top and it starts with a vision. Leaders have the most influence on an organisation's culture and it is incumbent on them to deliver that vision in the clearest and most authentic way possible.
For instance in the 1980s, Jack Welch - CEO of GE, set about influencing a dramatic change in the culture of the company designed to alter how the company and its employees operated at all levels. He used the mantra of "speed, simplicity and self-confidence" as the beacon of his transformation in stark contrast to the bureaucratic and hierarchical culture that already existed. He communicated those values clearly and repeatedly and, most importantly, he reinforced his messages with actions.
Everything he did was aligned with the core values that he preached. He led by example and this made his employees believe that his desire to change the culture was authentic, which encouraged a much higher level of buy in.
His vision and his success in communicating the vision made it very clear at every level of the company what people had to do in order to make GE successful. As a result, GE grew in value by 4000% during Jack's tenure.
A culture should encapsulate core values
The importance of clearly defining and communicating the desired behaviours is critical when building a culture. Many companies articulate those desired behaviours in a set of Core Values, which they publish and continually reiterate to their employees in the hope that those values will be adopted.
But people don't change overnight. They become used to a certain way of working or a certain manner of thinking and simply communicating a different way of behaving to them is not enough to make them do things differently. Leaders must also integrate those core values into their HR processes such that employees are evaluated and rewarded based on their successful adoption of those core values.
The hiring process should also incorporate the core values ensuring that candidates are evaluated and assessed not just on their abilities but also on cultural fit.
Is it just for large corporates?
It is easy to think that defining and cultivating an organizational culture is something just for large enterprises, but this really isn't the case. Every business, however large, has a unique personality and a set of beliefs on how it should do business - it's just that smaller companies tend not to articulate them.
Smaller companies, especially start ups, are heavily influenced by the personality of their founders. Founders seed the initial culture and they influence and maintain it by having direct and daily contact with their employees and also by being involved in hiring decisions. But as a company grows and the founder or CEO takes on an evermore strategic role, they begin to lose the amount of direct contact they have with each and every employee.
Their direct influence can therefore weaken and the culture that the founder wanted to instil can waver. It is at that point that it must be reinforced by articulation, communication and reward.
A culture should include a purpose
A company's culture is more than just its core values and beliefs. It should also encapsulate and communicate its core purpose - why it is in business doing what it does and ultimately what it wants to achieve.
An effective way to bring clarity to this core ideology and to inspire the people that will help it get there is by setting bold long term goals that articulate vivid descriptions of what it will mean to achieve them. For example, Henry Ford set the goal of democratizing the automobile, and then told the world, “When I’m through…everyone will have one. The horse will have disappeared from our highways”. This was quite a revolutionary thing for people to imagine at the time.
Jim Collins, the renown leadership consultant and author of Good to Great, coined a term for such a long term goal. He named it a BHAG, which was an acronym for "Big Hairy Audacious Goal". A BHAG should be a goal that is inspirational in its endeavour, clear in its articulation, yet achievable in a longer term time frame of anywhere between 5 and 20 years.
A great example of a BHAG was John F Kennedy's proclamation on May 25, 1961 that "this Nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth."
When is the right time?
So how large does a business need to grow before it becomes necessary to start formally articulating its vision of its own culture and how it wants to do business? My belief is that this should happen as soon as the founder or CEO loses direct daily contact with any of their employees or as soon as they stop being directly involved in any hiring decision.
But founders should define a BHAG and start communicating their core values and rewarding and hiring based on them from day one.
Simon Bates is CEO of Workteam, an OKR-based Goal Management System for businesses of all sizes with a focus on growing employee engagement. Visit http://workte.am to find out how it can benefit your organization.