Have you ever had this happen? You ask an employee, “How would you describe our company culture?” They stare back blankly for a few seconds before mustering up, “Umm, family?” Emphasis on the question mark. I don’t know about you, but I have some pretty nutty family members who show up in all their dysfunctional glory for the occasional family gathering. Most families I know have a rogue niece, ranting brother, overbearing uncle, or passive aggressive grandma, to name a few. Now imagine that typical family running a business together and you’ll get my point. Maybe a family-like company culture isn’t exactly what we should be shooting for!
To be fair, the above-described employee is probably struggling to articulate the goodness they see in the culture. It’s a bit amorphous; they feel positively inclined but don’t know exactly why. That, my friends, is a huge opportunity. Every company has an existing culture, with certain attributes that have organically developed. Yet company culture is like a living organism – it continuously evolves. Companies can stand back and let that happen by default, or they can purposefully shape culture by respecting past contributions (how we got here) but focusing on future needs.
“Family” as a descriptor for culture can certainly connote positive feelings and is often a term used by long-term employees waxing nostalgic about a company’s early, startup days. But part of what makes employees bond and feel like family in startups is that those early times are also filled with chaos, blurred lines between roles, all employees involved in decisions, scrambling to get customers, and flying by the seat of your pants. You can call a “family meeting” to make quick decisions and get every employee on the same page.
When companies mature, the definition of roles, functions, and responsibilities helps elevate organizational performance. It may feel like the high adolescent energy of a startup has dissipated, but it’s just been repurposed, or redirected to better focus and deliver on goals. Kind of like growing up.
Seed, Water, Grow
As an HR professional, your job is to harness the good in the culture that’s currently there and actively seed it for growth, always being authentic. Seeding culture is a sort of exercise in subliminal messaging (minus the manipulation). Together with the rest of your C-Suite, you’ve got to determine the aspirational culture of your company that enables success, results, and employee satisfaction.
Hone in on resonating target words; some that authentically capture current (positive) attributes and others that convey desired future state. Collaborative? Scrappy? Innovative? What do you envision? Then communicate, communicate, communicate. Create a drumbeat of communication.
Have manager meetings and encourage managers to have team meetings to talk “culture.” Send emails, post videos on LinkedIn, share articles – focus on those traits that you want to define your organization and employee experience. Embed these into recognition programs, along with your company values. Your people will engage and start to share these things organically, because they make sense and they paint a compelling picture of a great place to work.
Get Others To Help You Paint the Fence
You’re going to need people to follow your lead on this one: You can’t do it alone. I understand many people in current and future generations have not read Tom Sawyer. Those of us who have likely remember the scene where Tom’s aunt tasks him to whitewash a fence. The job is pretty intimidating, so he inspires his friends to participate, using irresistible persuasion to create followership and get the job done!
You can do this with culture by making the concept and the possibilities so appealing that people want to enroll. You need people painting the fence with you, to evangelize how great your company is and how great it can be. This organizational pride will take on a life of its own. You’ll have people engaging in creative ways you’ve never thought of – speaking at schools, attending career fairs, posting videos online – evangelism begets evangelism.
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Pruning – Let It Evolve
It’s important to understand that company culture is never “done.” It shouldn’t be. As time passes, market dynamics change. The talent you recruit wants different things. Your customers’ needs transform. Making adjustments to culture isn’t a failure; it’s a natural part of a life cycle. Like a gardener, you preserve the good, prune the dead stuff, and thin out all the new offshoots that don’t work to strengthen your core.
If you don’t actively start talking about your company culture, you’ll be dealing with a flatline. The culture will be non-existent, or it will branch off in weird directions. And don’t forget – you’ve got to have at least one person who is relentless about this…and that’s probably going to be you.