Previously published on Forbes.com.
Culture is the invisible force that shapes your company’s success and allows you to keep your star performers. And that’s why intentionally curating culture is one of your most important jobs as a leader. The challenge is that most leaders don’t even know where to start. It’s easier to work on the stuff you know how to do and avoid the amorphous terrain of the intangible, elusive culture.
Perhaps because of the “soft” and somewhat murky nature of culture, a lot of leaders will decide to outsource culture-building to HR. But as Lisa Kay Solomon points out in her recent article in Chief Executive Magazine: “All too often, culture is treated transactionally and delegated to the human resources team. But we can’t build generative and trusting work environments merely by hanging “values” posters or hosting fun off sites and happy hours. Creating vibrant, enduring culture requires an intentional and authentic connection between the people who work there and what the company stands for, strengthened through explicit and implicit reward systems, daily interactions and informal exchanges.”
Here's what you need to know: Talented people are looking for more than just a place to work; they’re expecting a great experience, too. And guess what? They’re in demand, so they get to be choosy. If they don’t like the work or the culture, they can easily pick up and go somewhere else.
This helps explain why more than 50% of the companies in Deloitte’s 2016 Global Human Capital Trends survey are attempting to change their culture in response to shifting talent markets and increased competition. The bottom line is that high performers want to be part of a winning team, working with brilliant teammates and making a difference. The work of leaders is to create environments where this is possible. A healthy culture is what keeps people doing their best work together.
But just what is a healthy culture? Some businesses concentrate all of their energy on creating a "fun" and "cool" environment, but they neglect the parts of the culture that make a genuine difference in the employee experience. No amount of free beer or on-site massages will make up for an environment where employees are burned out or a workplace filled with coworkers they don’t like working with.
You Are the Chief Culture Creator
No matter how much leaders try to delegate culture-building to the HR department, leaders ultimately are responsible for the culture. They set the standard, whether overtly or not. And that means a culture already exists in your organization. Culture is communicated in everything you say and do as a leader. When done right, it can give you a competitive edge. When done wrong, it can undercut your work.
So where do you look to find your culture? It’s kind of like looking for interesting things under rocks on the beach. You have to want to see what’s under there. Your culture is most visible in the high performers and those who don’t make it. Think about the “best” performers in your company. What behaviors are rewarded? Who gets promoted and who gets ignored? Who gets fired?
Using Culture to Achieve Operational Excellence
Once you uncover the culture that’s in place today, you can get clear and intentional about the kind of culture you want to sustain going forward. One of our long-time clients, kidney dialysis company, DaVita, did a brilliant job of intentionally creating their culture. When Kent Thiry joined the company as CEO in 1999, the organization had serious operational, financial and morale challenges.
“The company was technically bankrupt,” Kent Thiry reported in a Stanford case study interview. “It was being investigated by the SEC, sued by shareholders, had turnover at over twice our current levels, was almost out of cash, and, in general, wasn’t the happiest of places.”
By 2005, the new management team had achieved a turnaround. The company’s market capitalization had grown from $200 million to more than $5 billion, the clinical outcomes had become the best in the industry, the company’s organic growth was the highest in the industry and employee retention had improved dramatically with a 50% reduction in turnover.
It's a remarkable transformation that started with a simple, driving question: How can we use the culture to achieve operational excellence?
DaVita’s leadership team focused on creating a values-based organization where all levels of the organization had an emotional commitment to its success. The mission and values were first created by 700 of the company’s managers in 2000 and are now widely known and practiced throughout the company. The company’s rebirth strategy was based on the belief that they had to create something larger than themselves in order to be successful.
They begin employee forums by sharing the vision, “To be the partner, provider and employer of choice.” This vision was short enough for people to remember and repeated so frequently that everyone could recite it. And remarkably, most teammates do remember the bigger idea of what they are doing every day - working to become the partner, provider and employer of choice. Leaders share information widely, communicate frequently, and celebrate big victories and small wins. Traditions and symbols anchor the most important elements of their culture. “One for all and all for one,” is shouted at every large meeting in DaVita.
Great Cultures Aren’t a Fluke
DaVita did not develop its culture by accident. They engaged in what Kent calls “purposeful actions” that “articulated and demonstrated” what a company could be.
And what about your culture? It’s time to stop thinking about culture as something that happens to us, and instead take responsibility for designing inclusive environments, collaborative ways of working and incentive systems that bring out the best in everyone.
As organizations continue the shift away from the old-school hierarchical, patriarchal company to more networked, decentralized organizations, creating a remarkable culture is even more important. Curating culture is one of the most important investments you can make as a leader – it nourishes and unleashes stellar performance.