How to create a Future Proof Company Culture

Your company’s culture is not what you write down on your website or even in your Mission, Vision & Values statements. It’s how you put those words into action.

Stakeholders (employees, clients, partners) tune out what is said, especially if it’s corporate speak. Instead, they take away how your leadership team looks (is it inclusive?) acts (do they walk the talk?), what behaviors or performances are rewarded (are promotions and raises based on a fair/transparent system?); and, most of all, how a company makes them feel, especially during the challenging times.

Creating a strong company culture is not only a differentiator in today’s market, it’s a necessity as we continue to face economic challenges.

So why do some companies have strong, vibrant, and enduring cultures while others struggle? It comes down to three main factors.

Companies with future proof cultures:

  1. Craft strong Mission, Vision and Values statements that provide common purpose and serve as guidelines for behavior, and filters for all decision-making.
  2. Create a sense of safety and belonging for everyone at all levels within the organization.
  3. Recognize and reward teamwork, effort, initiative, attitude and other contributions that are not trackable on a spreadsheet.

Focus on actions not words

Anyone raising children will at some point realize that they tune out 99% of what you say. However, they are constantly absorbing and watching 100% of what you do. By the time they involve into teenagers, they will start calling you out on it. Employees and clients are much the same way, except, unlike teenagers, they won’t call you out, they will simply leave. This is why it’s not enough to have a strong Mission, Vision and Values statements, you need to put them into action every single day.

Many companies today list “corporate social responsibility,” “diversity,” or “sustainability” in their values, then relegate it to the marketing department, or worse, do nothing at all. Note that saying and not doing can be even more harmful to a company than if they never proclaimed that value in the first place. Stakeholders will view it as inauthentic at best, and “greenwashing” at worst.

A flagrant example of this is Facebook, which proclaims to have 5 core values: focus on impact, move fast, be bold, be open, and build social value. While I’ll give them the first 3, as a Facebook user, I’m not sure I would describe my experience as one that is “open.” Do Facebook users really understand how the algorithms work, or to whom their data is being sold? And building “social value?” Per their own words, “social value” is narrowly defined as connecting people: “Facebook was created to make the world more open and connected, not just to build a company. We expect everyone at Facebook to focus every day on how to build real value for the world in everything they do.” It seems their employees don’t always agree. See also more recent news.

It certainly doesn’t help when Facebook management leaks a memo that says this:

“We connect people. Period. That’s why all the work we do in growth is justified. All the questionable contact importing practices. All the subtle language that helps people stay searchable by friends. All of the work we do to bring more communication in. The work we will likely have to do in China someday. All of it,” VP Andrew “Boz” Bosworth wrote.

“So we connect more people,” he wrote in another section of the memo. “That can be bad if they make it negative. Maybe it costs someone a life by exposing someone to bullies. Maybe someone dies in a terrorist attack coordinated on our tools. And still we connect people.”

“The ugly truth is that we believe in connecting people so deeply that anything that allows us to connect more people more often is *defacto* good. It is the only area where the metrics do tell the true story as far as we are concerned”.

And while it does stick to the “connecting people” value, it brings into question whether connecting people at all costs is truly a social value by anyone’s definition outside of the Facebook leadership team.

At the other end of the spectrum is Etsy, a company that lists a “commitment to craft” in their values statement. Etsy has struggled with the appropriate way to embrace small manufacturers in additional to artisans and has tried numerous variations on the concept. Ultimately, they seem to have settled on Seller Restrictions that limit sales to only handmade items, no resellers. However, they have expanded the definition of “handmade” to “made or designed by an individual” allowing sellers to have a production partner, provided that disclosure is made on the site. Taking their values even further, they’ve incorporated them into the design of their HQ in Dumbo. When even your vendors know to follow the values, you clearly have a future proof culture.

No matter what your company values are, your leadership team has to believe in them and care about them to ensure authenticity.

Stakeholders can all tell (just like teenagers) when a leader or their leadership team really does not care — whether it’s about the mission, the vision, the values, or the people who work for them. A leadership team that cares will create the authenticity around your company values that is needed to future proof your culture.

Future Proof Bottom line: Future proof cultures have a goal (mission and vision) but lead with values, because situations and personnel will change, values do not. They also have leaders who care.

Bring everyone into the same circle

Another factor in building a strong culture is that everyone must experience a sense of safety and belonging. How do you do this? There are three basic rules: (1) maintain a safe work environment for everyone; (2) create room for vulnerability, initiative and failure; and (2) institute the same levels of belonging for every member of your team.

First and foremost, in today’s COVID19 world, future proof companies ensure that their employees feel safe in their workplace both physically and mentally. This means safe from COVID19 as well as safe from harassment and discrimination. Teamwork, productivity and innovation will be compromised if even a single one of your employees does not feel safe.

Beyond the physical and overt mentally safety concerns, when an employee perceives that a company’s culture punishes failure and/or does not reward initiative, they will stay in their comfort zone until deciding to leave for companies that will let them run with their ideas. This stifles productivity and innovation, but also creates the potential for a toxic work environment, where office politics eclipse productivity. How do you create a company culture focused on innovation and free of failure shaming? It starts with leaders who care about their entire team and are able to share their own vulnerabilities. See Daniel Coyle’s book The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups for more information.

Companies further undermine their culture when they institute different levels of belonging. For example: their salaries, benefits and promotions are inequitable and/or illogical; they have an ivory tower leadership team; there are no onboarding/employee engagement programs; and they have no diversity and inclusion plan.

Start your future proof culture building plan with these 4 steps.

1. Future proof companies institute logic, transparency and clarity around promotions, pay scales, bonuses and benefits. Be consistent where possible and provide clarity when it is not.

2. Future proof leadership teams to go to the edges and interact regularly with all levels of employees. In today’s workforce, the demise of middle management means that there are a lot more lower level workers with no communication bridge to the leadership team. See my recent review of The Meritocracy Trap for more info. It’s also likely that leadership didn’t come up through the trenches at the same company but jettisoned in from an outside company and/or MBA program. Effective cultures have leaders who understand, experience and honor what every member of their team contributes.

3. Future proof companies make employees feel like they belong from their very first day. It can be as simple as a welcome lunch or a T-shirt with the company logo, but once they are on your team, you need to continue to engage them and leadership can do that by going out to the edge to meet their team on the ground level. This is especially true with remote workforces.

4. Future proof companies have a diversity, inclusion and belonging plan. Too many firms treat this as a “check the box” item. But that means it’s just a diversity program. A diversity program without inclusion is ineffective and will not create any feelings of belonging.

Future Proof Bottom Line: Belonging, like culture, is something you feel. It can’t be dictated or implemented by a pledge or statement. It’s where actions once again speak louder than words.

Recognize and reward different types of talent

No team wins a World Cup if they have only strikers, because no striker can score without someone to pass them the ball. No one can pass them the ball, if there aren’t defenders who get the ball from the opposing team. And without someone to get the balls to the field, or the coaches, managers, team staff, supporters and fans, no team would exist whether they are in the World Cup or a local youth soccer league.

Future Proof Bottom Line: Your “superstars” can’t be superstars unless they have teams with diverse skills and talents to support them. This is not an argument to say everyone should be paid the same or compensated in the same way, but whatever your system is, it needs to be transparent and logical and allow for skills that might not have a direct ROI. And it doesn’t have to be about salaries and bonuses, but can simply include some form of public acknowledgement and/or recognition of contributions.

Conclusion

To simplify — if you want to build a strong, future proof company culture:

  1. Use your Mission, Vision and Value statements as the company’s playbook so that every stakeholder can look to it for guidance and accountability.
  2. Build a leadership team that believes in and cares about the playbook.
  3. Ensure that the company playbook is open to all and inclusive of everyone at every level.
  4. Provide constant clarity and communication around what’s in the company playbook.
  5. Implement the playbook consistently and equitably across all departments and employees.

In today’s new world, we add an additional cultural challenge of running remote workforces. But a strong, future proof culture can still be developed remotely through training, engagement, communication, and most of all, action.

Remember, especially in challenging times like COVID19, employees, clients and all stakeholders will remember not what you said, but what you did, and how you made them feel.

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