Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Selecting the Corporate Culture

If you can't tell from other posts, I have a particular bias towards the type of corporate culture I believe leads to success. I've seen it work in many organizations. The business press has picked up on it in the past decade with books like Servant Leadership (Robert Greenleaf).

The moral principle is treating others as you want to be treated: honestly, with respect and dignity, and with fair (not necessarily equal) treatment. When you're dissatisfied with the current culture, how would you describe the way you want the organization to look, feel and sound like with a different culture? Remember the ripple effect: you can affect change by being the change you want to see.

Me? I want to see cultures where the boss is not king, not even a benevolent dictator (which assumes the boss knows our needs and motivations better than we do). The boss is there to provide the tools, education, and resources (including cash) that the everyone else needs. The boss is to make sure the "engine is humming along" with the right mix of people and skills on the team. The boss sets the vision for the future and defines the journey. The boss has to "walk the talk" by practicing the level of engagement, he or she wants to see throughout the rest of the organization. The boss realizes that the journey is never done.
You could be the boss of your shift team, work group, your little task force, your truckload of people, your department, your business unit, your branch, your plant, your company. No matter what level you are, I suggest you operate per the above.

Ephesians 6.9 says, "...masters, treat your slaves in the same way [serving wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not men, because you know the Lord will reward everyone for whatever good he does, whether he is slave or free (v. 7-8)]. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him."

How do we threaten, and how do we show favoritism and how do we focus on "them" serving us instead of the other way around?

CEOs are often tempted to ask for favoritism. For example, sometimes they ask for favoritism by breaking a policy because "they work hard" or they ask for special favors ("please get me a cup of coffee", "mail this package", "don't start the meeting till I get there", special parking spots or types of offices). Favoritism is also shown in our reward systems--e.g. performance appraisals that are more subjective/qualitative than objective/quantitative, commissions and bonuses based on organizational results but given to a certain class of employees only.

When the business is not quite as strong as you'd like, who gets hurt the most--CEO or the lower ranks who are often furloughed? What message is created when results aren't happening? "We can't provide any more benefits till...." Doesn't this sound like a threat? Passive threats can happen when merit increases are promised for certain behavioral changes.

Do you provide for your organization's needs before your own? The organization should be king (see Breakthrough Company).

One company I was involved with, during a slow period, reduced hours for the production staff. We had run out of other projects. People were frustrated trying to figure out how to contribute. We reduced hours but offered to make up the pay if they volunteered at a non-profit organization (school, food shelf, etc.) The company could afford the hit in profits more than the employees' families, so we made the decision to help them in a way that benefited lots of people.

A lot of leaders have trouble describing the culture they want. They just want more engagement from the staff. My belief is that engagement goes two ways. If you show care for them and are concerned for their needs, they will care about what's important for your organization. If that's the kind of culture you want, then start the journey. I've described five (5) steps. Get started, have fun...and repeat. (Call me if you need help.)

I know there are engagement surveys out there, but think about the results of the survey before you issue it. Are you prepared to take action on the results? If the answer comes back that leadership needs to change, will you change in a significant way that's demonstrable to the rest of the organization? Will you trust the results if the organization has low levels of trust now? And a corollary question, will the employees trust that their responses on the survey will be valued, in a low-trust organization, and therefore will be apathetic with regard to their level of honesty on the survey?

If you desire a high engagement culture, you as the boss need to be highly engaged and mindful of the needs of the organization. I quoted Christian scripture above, and we have an extreme example of servant leadership in the person of Jesus himself. There are also numerous examples in the Jewish scriptures. These are enduring "organizations" and successful by many measures, surviving and thriving through persecutions (worse than any economic recession). Most of the functions of these institutions is voluntary with no tangible compulsory efforts for favoritism or threats (can you "fire" me from the church or synagogue to the point that I cannot participate anywhere?). (Collins' book Built to Last has no benchmark comparable to the Jewish and Christian institutions and their longevity. I am less aware of the Islamic culture of servant leadership so I cannot speak to the reason for its endurance.) Therefore, pick a servant leadership culture and bring honor to those who are working to bring in the results. Remove the hindrances (see steps 1-5, again), and watch the organization accelerate beyond your dreams.

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