10.05.2011

Your Organisation's Heartbeat

Few things can have such a powerful impact, both good and bad, on the potential success of an enterprise than 'the way we do things around here'.
Yet many people leave this to chance ... as brand strategist & speaker Gary Bertwhistle says 'Marketing is what happens in a potential customers mind when they hear your name. The goal of marketing is to influence what things are correlated with your name in the minds of your customers". The same is true for culture. In a sense your brand is what people outside the company think of you, your culture is what the people in your company think of you.

So how do you build a successful culture? Most people start by drawing up a value statement that reflects the type of place they want to run. Often this is driven by bad experiences at earlier work places and a desire to build a "better place to work". This can be a very powerful document but if, and only if, you succeed in creating something that is unique and compelling.

The trap that I see too many companies fall into is to write a values statement that echoes a broader moral view on what a company "should" be like to work in. Teamwork, respect, integrity, commitment etc are all words that show up time and time again. All of these are vital to a good workplace but ask yourself this "what behaviour does this really capture? and will I fire someone for not displaying it?"

True values are the behaviours and skills that we value above all else. Force yourself to think really deeply about what really matters to you in your workplace - and it needs to be something that you can live every day, not something that you aspire to on your best days. The reward if you get it right is a document that will automatically resonate with the people you want working for you. This will also translate into your customers - people don't buy what you sell, they buy why you sell it.

As a great example of this philosophy in practice see Tony Hsieh's book 'Delivering Happiness' on building the online shoe retailer Zappos - and see the incredible lengths that they go to in preserving their company culture as the long term driver of their success.

Your company values should not change very often so the second part of creating a strong culture is building into your organisation a cadence that brings that culture to life. Cadence is a musical and cycling term that means 'a balanced, rhythmic flow'. Your cadence is your heartbeat and it is how you integrate the day to day with your longer term plans.

The trick to making it work is to create a regular rhythm that you use to discuss issues at the appropriate horizon of focus. Obviously all organisations are different and casual, or flexible arrangement, staff can make this more difficult but the core idea is as follows:

  • Once a week meet with the people that report to you for a 30 minute operational review. Get them to bring to that meeting 3 lists. What they achieved, what is working well and what is not. Spend the first 10 minutes just listening to them explain their experiences for the week (this step alone will transform many managers relationship with their staff). Spend the next 10 mins discussing some of the issues arising out of their experiences. Spend the last 10 mins agreeing on some things that you can both take away from the meeting. Require the people who report to you to have the same meeting with any people that they look after - and ask them how they are going with it during your meetings with them.
  • Once a month, at the same time (this is a really important point) follow on from the 30 min operational review with another 30 mins spent looking entirely at their development. This is essentially a 'coaching' session. The idea here is not to focus on what they need to do in the business per se - but instead purely on what they need to learn or develop to become better at their chosen career path. Even with staff who are not necessarily "career" staff the results of giving people a forum in which to talk about their own development can lead to enormous leaps in motivation as people see their work as an opportunity to develop further as an individual.
  • Once or twice a year replace the coaching session with a "checkin" where you step back and assess what the individual has been able to contribute to the organisation. Prior to the meeting ask them to rate themselves on contribution to results (what has been achieved) and relationships (how things have been achieved), and you do the same. Then compare your ratings and discuss why they are aligned, or not. This step essentially provides a "calibration" for expectations and understanding what is happening over the longer term.

One of the key elements that makes this plan work is sticking to an agreed time for all three meetings. This is what creates a rhythm - regular meetings with regular intervals where the horizon of focus shifts up as required. At first you will find it very difficult to find the time and will struggle to keep the meetings consistently, but persevere. It takes several weeks to build up trust and allow people to bring real issues to the table. If you stick to it though you will find it becoming easier and easier and it will work as a really effective catch process for issues that used to arise during the week and catch you totally unprepared. Once people know they have a reliable place to discuss issues they will simply make a note and raise it with you at the right time. And you will be amazed what you learn from your people ... in almost every business there are opportunities for improvement sitting right in front of you - just waiting for a forum to take advantage of them.

Put in place a clear, and compelling, set of values that you back up with a cadence built on regular focussed meetings and you will find your company culture beating strongly at the heart of everything your people do.

This is something that we've embraced at Culture Amp and is one of the core ideas behind our continuous feedback and people development software - cadence.

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