Companies that find themselves at the top of Glassdoor’s Best Places to Work not only provide an in-demand product or service. They also foster a culture that inspires innovation, dedication, and enthusiasm among employees.
Conversely, companies that experience a major downturn or fail to adapt to a changing market, can often tie that decline back to a toxic culture that was anything but motivating.
So how do you create a corporate culture that has talent lining up at HR and customers lining up in the stores?
The answer doesn’t lie in sky-high salaries, fancy physical spaces, and flashy perks like catered lunches and game rooms, says Lorne Rubis, chief culture and transformation officer at NorQuest College and instructor at Harvard Professional Development Programs.
The answer lies with successful leaders who focus on creating a culture that encourages those within the organization to believe in the mission of the organization.
Following are six powerful tips that will help you build the foundations of a corporate culture that will help your organization, and employees, thrive.
1. Define your values
In general, people want to believe that they are part of something meaningful, that they are contributing to a common purpose.
Corporate culture, therefore, must be deeply rooted in your company’s core purpose and values.
“People—customers and employees—are not going to line up [to become part of your company] only because of the product and the services. Your culture should offer an experience that they want to be part of. You know you have created a positive corporate culture when people say, I really want to be part of this institution.
In other words, Rubis says, “Your employees have to feel good about what they do.”
Articulate your values explicitly and intentionally.
As a chief culture officer, Rubis says he will often gather top executives together for several days to create a single value statement. To be effective, that level of dedication is required if you truly want to change your culture for the better.
If you are starting the process of changing your culture, your value statement should represent your vision for what you believe your company should represent.
“You can create an aspirational story of what the desired journey of a team member should look like, looking out X number of years into the future. That aspirational story should imply all kinds of things for that journey, such as a sense of contribution, a sense of belonging, great productivity, flexibility, all the things you can think about what it would be like for you, as a human being, to work in that organization,” says Rubis.
2. Be authentic
Rubis also notes that “buy in comes from authenticity.”
Your purpose and values will only create a solid foundation for culture change if you truly believe them. The process must be genuine.
Corporate leadership—at every level of the organization—must be, as Rubis states, “fiercely and personally accountable.”
Only by committing yourself to act within the values you define will you earn the trust of your employees and help people buy into the process.
“If, as an employee, you genuinely feel that there’s integrity in what’s declared from the top of the organization, if you believe that the top of the organization deeply, deeply believes in and reinforces those values, then you will feel that you’re genuinely advancing a purpose for a good reason.”
To create real cultural change, your leadership team must be prepared to communicate those values across the organization, and to act on those values themselves.
3. Create listening posts
According to Rubis, listening to your organization is absolutely critical.
By creating listening posts throughout your organization, you can gather anecdotal and quantitative data about your culture. If you are listening carefully, this data should confirm that your culture is motivating your employees, or alert you to signs that you may need to make a change.
Surveys measuring engagement, trust, and culture, for example, can be powerful tools for collecting honest feedback from your teams.
Quantitative data such as low employee turnover, high retention, ease of hiring quality talent, high productivity, and high customer engagement can also be leading indicators that your culture is working in your favor.
It’s important that you don’t rely solely on indirect listening posts, however. Effective and meaningful direct communication must be an ongoing part of the process as well.
One-on-one meetings, working groups, workshops, and conferences enable you to communicate values from the top down while simultaneously taking the pulse of teams across the organization.
4. Build psychological safety
Listening posts are especially critical for alerting you to a culture that is trending in a negative direction. As Rubis notes, “If you’re a listening organization, there are always canaries in the proverbial coal mines.”
High employee turnover, for instance, is an obvious sign that your corporate culture isn’t working.
Yet whatever the outward signs, the root problem is the lack of psychological safety. Your employees do not feel safe to express concerns, report problems, be proactive or creative, promote innovation, or take risks.
And one of the most powerful indicators that people in your organization do not feel safe is silence. According to Rubis, “The most dangerous organization is a silent one.”
“You have to listen to the criticism. You have to be open to not being defensive about it. And you have to stand back and have the courage and the honesty to say ‘something is wrong here.’”
It’s easy to write off the criticism you hear as nothing more than opposition to change or the bad attitude of a disaffected employee. Successful leaders must rise above that gut reaction.
Building psychological safety requires rebuilding trust and ensuring that your actions are in line with your corporate values, Most importantly, you may need to acknowledge that your words and actions may be part of the problem.
5. Accept and learn from mistakes
“Mistakes are true vehicles for learning and enable your teams to want to experiment and innovate,” Rubis says.
How your leadership team handles mistakes will reinforce or undermine your culture.
A great place to start is openly acknowledging that mistakes will happen. Executives should be able to admit that even they will make mistakes. As Rubis notes, employees have a right to expect great leadership, but not perfect leadership.
When a mistake is made, examine that mistake in the context of your core purpose and values. Reviewing how a particular error occurred within that context will enable you to learn the right lessons.
Only then can you truly promote a culture of acceptable risk-taking, creativity, and innovation.
6. Watch trends
Corporations are never static, and neither is the process of creating a culture change.
“It’s iterative and it’s messy,” says Rubis.
The goal is to create momentum in a positive direction.
“Because what happens is that each small action you take becomes systemic, and you start to create a movement. And every small step starts to reinforce all the other steps, moving you forward. And the reverse is true as well, that if you aren’t careful, movement can trend toward toxicity.”
Once you create your listening posts, never stop paying attention to what they’re telling you.
If you are creating momentum in a positive direction, your engagement surveys, trust indicators, retention and hiring numbers, for instance, should confirm that. While there will likely be false starts and missteps, the key is to look for trends that you are moving forward.
Always be on the lookout for the “canaries in the proverbial coal mine” as well, because momentum can snowball in the wrong direction just as easily.
Part of the iterative process must include frequently revisiting and revising your value system.
“And just be relentless, like a dog on a bone, about storytelling. Be relentless about your communication system. Never stop talking about everything you do.”