Build It Right

December 31st, 2009 by admin

Just as a house has a foundation, so does a company. The foundation of yours will be built at the beginning, through actions and words. What you do, from day one, will have a profound effect on the direction the culture takes. How you communicate—from mission statements to your casual conversations—will as well. You need both to build your culture, but you also need to build it right. Make sure that what you say and do on the outside is rooted in ethics and moral business principles inside.

If you build a foundation for a one-story rambler, it’s hard to then build a three-story English Tudor estate, so establish your foundations with forethought. When WordPerfect was a new startup company, its executives built a rewards system into their culture. As a perk, they would give all their employees all of the soda and popsicles they could possibly consume. When employees had been with the company a certain length of time, they qualified for even greater rewards. After a series of successful years, WordPerfect actually sent the entire company to Hawaii together—with spouses and partners!

As you can imagine, people loved that aspect of the WordPerfect culture and a high sense of company loyalty ensued. However, not long after, the company ran into financial difficulties that required a little belt tightening. The free soda and popsicles disappeared. The trips to Hawaii were replaced with free movie tickets.

Many employees who had enjoyed WordPerfect’s culture for so long did not like the sudden change. The changes in the company’s fiscal policies were easy to make—management simply cut out the perks it couldn’t afford. But changing the cultural expectations of the employees was far more difficult. The employees had bought into a culture of free soda pop and popsicles, and those perks were at the heart of why many were there. When this aspect of the culture disappeared, loyalty to WordPerfect diminished.

The past several years, I’ve had occasion to work very closely with Google. A stroll through its campus reveals the company’s perks policy: employees and visitors enjoy free Naked Juice (usually five dollars a drink), unlimited candy (dental hygienists everywhere love this aspect of the Google culture), as well as free breakfast, lunch, and dinner made by chefs flown in from exotic locations. I wonder what is going to happen to the Naked Juice and flying chefs the first quarter Google misses its number?

Don’t get me wrong. We stock our fridge and shelves with lunches and snacks. I love rewards systems. But our perks come from Costco. Whatever perks you provide, you want to make sure employees are buying into the goals of the company, not just the goodies. If employees are invested in their work and the planned outcomes, they’ll understand if a time comes when everyone needs to tighten their belts. They will feel involved and appreciated not because of gifts and food, but because they understand their contribution to the company culture and they feel vested in the success that grows out of that culture.

Writing and living a mission statement can sometimes help with this aspect of instilling your culture into your company. Writing mission statements was the big hype of the early ’90s. Everyone had a mission statement, including me. Companies displayed theirs someplace conspicuous, proud to be motivating their employees and serving their customers. Even so, no matter how great the words, those statements need to be backed up by what your company actually does. Mission statements are only hype if nobody internalizes them. You and your team must internalize them by following them. Words are nothing without actions.

Action establishes culture. Unfortunately, inaction does as well. If you don’t provide the leadership to create your culture, someone else will. If you don’t act, the culture will define itself based on the dominant personalities of those on your team. Greatness needs direction. Writing down and sharing goals is a good place to start, but you must take the lead and establish your culture through your daily actions and interactions.

Porter’s Points – Build it Right

  • Your cultural foundation is established early and pretty much stays put, unless you get hit with an earthquake. Make sure your foundation is built on the traditions, values, and ethical practices you choose. You might be able to  build a buzz with popsicles, but you wouldn’t build a house that way.
  • Words are a tool to reinforce your actions. Don’t think that writing a mission statement makes a culture. It can help, but don’t write what you’re not willing to live. Once you write it, live it, and help others do the same.
  • Include a rewards system as part of your culture, but be careful of creating expectations that can’t be sustained through lean times. Also remember that rewards are no substitute for a solid, leadership-centered culture.

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