A High-Performance Company Culture is Built on 5 Pillars
A high-performance culture uplifts strategy and is precursor to business transformation. In my three decades of consulting, from the Fortune 50 to the Fortune 5000, I've never witnessed sustained business growth or successful business transformation without a high-performance culture.
While strategy delivers a roadmap to move the organization from vision to action, culture delivers the informal ethos and norms to move the organization from the status quo to something greater.
And while strategy is precisely measurable, culture is implicit in the shared values, unspoken behaviors and social norms that recognize what is encouraged, discouraged, rewarded and penalized. But despite the imprecise measurement, most leaders recognize culture is far more powerful than strategy. In the infamous words of Peter Drucker, "Culture eats strategy for breakfast."
There is no single path to a great culture, however, there are five pillars that collectively contribute to high-performance cultures.
The first is ideology, which begins with a unique identify that stands for something. Companies may have identities as innovators, pioneers, disruptors or even outliers. These cultural identities create an image that people want to be a part of and an energy that permeates the organization. It's not the content of the ideology that inspires, motivates and galvanizes staff. It's the authenticity, meaningfulness, conviction and alignment throughout the business.
The second culture pillar is purpose. The goal of a purpose statement is to affirm your overarching dedication. It broadcasts who you are, what you consider to be most important, and why you do what you do. It shapes what you do and how you do it.
Purpose and mission statements are different, but for many companies are substitutable. Purpose statements are more focused on your reason for being. Purpose creates a goal that is bigger than any person, and thereby shifts the culture from paycheck to principle, instills pride and creates an emotional staff experience.
A company mission statement is a concise and inspiring declaration of what your company does for others. Your company's beneficiaries may include employees, customers, stakeholders, community or the world.
In the absence of a clear purpose, most staff will believe the company’s purpose is to make money. Making a profit is a business essential, but it's not a purpose that contributes to a high-performance culture. Company profits do little to inspire staff because profits are somebody else's money, and at best indirectly linked to staff motivation.
The third pillar is a clear vision of the company’s destination. The company's vision is its true North. Leadership communicate the vision frequently and management ensure staff understand how they contribute to the journey. A good vision is clear, compelling and inspirational. It instills pride and creates an emotional staff experience. Most visions are aspirational, such as solving a complex problem, doing something that has never been done, doing something better than anybody else or arriving to a destination.
According to Gallup's most recent State of the American Workplace research, only 22 percent of employees agree that leadership has a clear direction for the organization, and only 15 percent agree that the direction makes them enthusiastic about the future.
Core values are essential and enduring guiding principles. They align to the company's ideology, inspire actions, influence choices and sometimes incur consequences.
Clear values create the social norms that give staff safety in their interpersonal communications, confidence in their decision making, and alignment with the company's ideology and vision.
Values without clear descriptions or management reinforcement are left to interpretation and considered optional. A lack of values results in poor behaviors, inconsistent actions, less productive teamwork, slower decision making and an overall wild west operational culture. While the few staff that navigate undefined or unclear expectations may be unaffected, the majority will incur anxiety and missteps.
Values are the most visible evidence of your culture pillars. Values are deeds, not words. If you can’t physically see them in the workplace, they don't really exist.
Companies with high-performance cultures generally have 3 to 6 core values. If you have more than 6, you risk they are not really core.
Ideology and core values are generally the only things the company doesn't change. In fact, most high-performance business cultures seek to change everything in the company but their core values. High-performance cultures thrive on change and leverage it for continuous performance improvement.
Behaviors bring clarity to personal accountability. They guide how we work, and provide confidence that we're doing the right things right.
You can't manage attitude, but you can manage behaviors, and that make behaviors a powerful management tool.
Behaviors may directly align with values, but don't have to. Frequently used values and behaviors include things like integrity, hard work, professionalism and respect. However, many top performers exclude these basic conducts as they are more of a cost of entry than something to aspire.
Instead, the top performers focus on behaviors that are not so obvious and create unique strengths, often in the areas of engagement, collaboration, productivity and a rewarding work environment. I refer to these types of behaviors as signature behaviors. They become behaviors the company is known for, are embedded in the daily operations, and provide powerful support for the mission and strategy.
Management By Action
Remember, corporate culture is what you do, not what you say. Culture ideology, without living and reinforced values and behaviors, do not create a growth culture. The all too common approach of drafting the components of a company culture in isolation and then delivering them as a proclamation, sometimes called Management by Announcement, results in certain failure. Unless you support your ideology with frequent and vocal executive sponsorship, and management communicate, model, measure and reinforce values and behaviors, the effort serves no productive purpose.
When the company's culture advances from words to actions, the culture pillars provide norms to give employees safety, lenses to view opportunities and obstacles, levers to manage company growth and guardrails to maintain operational governance.
A Growth Culture is Intentional
Every company has a culture. Most low performance cultures are the result of unplanned actions, unforeseen behaviors and random outcomes. In contrast, high performance cultures are proactively designed and in a continuous state of awareness and improvement.
High performance corporate cultures and sustained business growth are inextricably linked. If you want to see some real-world examples, just read the business magazines in your industry. These companies have stories of impressive growth, market dominance, customer success and the conquering of competitors.
At first glance it can look like their success is the result of a product, service or charismatic leader. But these companies are normally the first to admit that products and services are easily copied and charismatic leaders are over-rated. A deeper look will show how these companies subscribed to some or all of the five characteristics of high-performance cultures, and as a result created their future by doing something unique and bigger than themselves.