“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” — Peter Drucker
This is the beginning of my 5-part series on building a winning culture that’s bespoke for your organization. Before you begin, check out this quick video that answers the question, “what is corporate culture?”
Have you noticed that when there’s a high-profile corporate scandal or large financial loss, it’s usually the person on top who gets fired? That’s because the leader creates- and must answer for- the company’s culture. Culture informs how teams behave even when the leader isn’t looking. So when things go south, it’s generally because the culture enabled it to happen. I’ll give you a quick example:
I spent almost 7 years in the Navy as a submarine officer and after my first 2 deployments, we brought our submarine in for maintenance. A big part of that maintenance was work on the reduction gears- essentially the transmission of the submarine. The reduction gear maintenance was extremely sensitive, with numerous controls in place to prevent anything from getting inside them that could cause damage. Something as small as a screw could wreak havoc on the gears. The maintenance was conducted and inspected, but when it was time to leave port the unthinkable happened. The crew heard a strange noise from inside the gears. Flash forward through a series of poor decisions informed by a“complete ignorance of “standard operating procedures and common sense,” and the boat had suffered over $2 million of damage… from something that was completely avoidable.
In the end, junior crew members were disciplined, but the senior Engineering leaders were fired. The leaders allowed a culture with a lack of standards and discipline to permeate a nuclear naval organization known for the very opposite- neither of which could be tolerated.
Culture Can Make or Break an Organization
The bottom line is that culture is super important to an organization’s success. Research by Bain & Co found that 68% of business leaders acknowledge that culture is a company’s greatest source of competitive advantage. However, the research also found that only 10% were able to actually build a winning culture in the first place.
In today’s post, part 1 of 5, we’re going to dig into how you can lay a strong foundation for a winning culture.
Identifying the Culture You Want
First, let me explain what I mean when I say “culture.” Your organization’s culture is the set of beliefs, values, and behaviors that dictate how employees behave- especially when their leader isn’t around and no one is looking. It also informs how teams solve problems.
Many companies post their mission statement and values on their website, promote them occasionally at employee meetings, and expect the culture to simply fall into place. Unfortunately, it’s not so easy- it’s not a “set it and forget it” kind of thing. It’s something you need to continuously work into the fabric of the company. And in order to do this, you need foundational principles that you can go back to time and time again.
“Identifying the culture you want is hard: you have to figure out not only where your company is trying to go, but the road it should take to get there.” — Ben Horowitz
The Foundation- 9 Virtues
Culture isn’t one-size-fits-all and needs to be as unique as the organization it inhabits. However, I’ve identified 9 principles that are commonly shared among the highest-performing organizations. These foundational virtues should serve as the base for any winning culture.
Trust is the cornerstone of a winning cultural foundation. This is the one attribute that holds up all the others. Some refer to this as psychological safety, but without it, everything else breaks. It’s simple and relates to an inversely proportional principle: the more trust you have, the less communication is required. The less trust, the more communication is required. Every employee must trust the organization and its leadership to ensure the free flow of ideas. Otherwise, no amount of conversation can make up for the lack of trust. Communication will grind to a halt- stifling innovation and any progress towards your goals.
Mastery is a person’s desire to own their domain. It’s having an appetite for knowledge, seeking to learn more and improve skills with practice. You need to implement a powerful learning and development framework so that you can learn from mistakes. This will enable your organization to handle the unexpected and work through downturns by using lessons on what worked and what didn’t.
Autonomy is the need to be your own director. It means controlling what you do, how you do it, and who you do it with. This allows maximum flexibility to think creatively without needing to conform to professional boundaries. We are all built with an innate need to explore. How can you instill a culture of autonomy? Instead of giving specific directions, provide your employees with real-time feedback on what they’re doing. Give them the freedom of choice and provide the encouragement and support they need to accomplish their goals. This allows the organization to align its own strategic thinking with your long-term goals.
With trust comes communication and collaboration. To solve the hardest problems and tackle the biggest challenges, your organization must be able to circulate good ideas. Remember, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. What’s the best way to encourage collaboration in your culture? Encourage small talk and chit chat to strengthen the fibers of the workplace community.
5. Moonshot ideas
In my experience, the most enjoyable and fulfilling workplaces are those with high-performance cultures with great aspirations. Think less about short term performance and more about building something truly special. Push to be better and go farther- to be world-class.
6. Put clients first
It’s hard for an organization to exist without clients. We have to pay the bills after all. If you want a successful organization you need a culture with a client-focused mindset. When you care for clients, you can beat competitors.
7. Act like an owner
All high-performance cultures instill a sense of ownership within the organization. Everyone should think like the owner or founder- taking personal responsibility for performance, striving to do the right thing for the company, and putting aside office politics.
8. Bias for action
Nothing drives me crazier than incessant talking and no action. After all, what’s more fulfilling than tackling the hard problems and seeing things through to the finish line? If you want a high-performance culture with an edge over the competition, you need to get things done. You need an organization of doers, not talkers.
9. High energy and passion
High performance requires a lot of energy. And the only way to sustain high levels of energy is a passion for what you do. This one is hard to manufacture so you should look for it when making hiring decisions. You need an organization that will give 110% to the mission and what you are trying to do. You need a team willing to go above and beyond, bringing enthusiasm to executing the organization’s objectives.
Now that your cultural foundation is laid, it’s time to add the extra stuff that’s unique to what you’re trying to accomplish. This is where you add the trimmings to your culture and really make it unique. Check out the next post in this series where I’ll dig into exactly that.
Jared Chaffee is a US Navy Veteran, ex-Submarine Officer, and founder of Chapters & Interludes and First Principles Leadership. He currently works in financial services for a large bank. His writing is based on his extensive leadership experience- from operating a $420 million submarine to catering to multi-million dollar hedge fund clients. He’s passionate about leading and mentoring others, using his mistakes and lessons from past failures to answer all of your leadership and strategy questions on life and business.