Five questions to ask about corporate culture

Forget meaningless blather about ‘core values’ – you need the people factor

For truly great leaders, the people factor is just as vital as the technology or money factors. Photograph: iStockphoto

For truly great leaders, the people factor is just as vital as the technology or money factors. Photograph: iStockphoto

 

There aren’t many leaders who would disagree with the idea that a healthy, productive culture is a defining element of business success. Yet I’ve seen many companies with lofty-sounding “mission statements” and “core values” that have the most toxic workplaces imaginable.

I’ve met many leaders who are brilliant when it comes to product design and capital structure but who treat the people in business as an afterthought.

What follows are five hard questions about the “soft” side of business that leaders must be able to answer if they hope to build a workplace that works.

1. Is your talent strategy rooted in your business strategy?

Culture can’t just be an assortment of well-meaning human resources practices; it has to grow out of distinctive business practices. There can be no talent strategy without a compelling business strategy.

2. Does your company work as distinctively as it competes?

A great culture allows clever organisations to be more human, to make everything they do more authentic, real, memorable. That’s the real connection between culture and strategy: If you want to energise and elevate how your organisation competes, you have to energise and elevate how your people behave.

3. Can you capture what it means to be a member of your organisation?

The most enduring cultures are built on language and rituals that are designed to create a palpable sense of community – which, in many cases, only makes sense to people who are part of that community. Leaders of companies with powerful cultures devote enormous time and imagination to devising small gestures and little symbols that send big messages about what it takes for everyone to be at their best every day.

4.Is your culture built for learning as well as performance?

The better an organisation performs, the more ingrained its culture becomes, and the harder it can be for executives and employees to stay alert to big shifts in markets, technology and culture.

That’s why the best cultures and the most effective leaders keep learning as fast as the world is changing. They’re constantly scanning for a new sense of what’s possible in their own fields.

5. Can your culture maintain its zest for change and renewal, even when the company stumbles?

It’s a lot easier to maintain high levels of energy and morale at a company when sales are booming and the stock price is soaring. But the reality of competition today is that long-term success is virtually impossible without short-term stumbles.

That’s why the most enduring cultures are the most resilient cultures. Colleagues at every level embrace the power of creative ideas, deep convictions and confidence in the face of missteps.

For truly great leaders, the people factor is just as vital as the technology or money factors.

Copyright Harvard Business Review

Bill Taylor is the co-founder of Fast Company and the author of Simply Brilliant: How Great Organisations Do Ordinary Things in Extraordinary Ways.

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