Getting Clear about Culture: Four Lessons from Remarkable Companies

Erin Walter 274.88A few years ago, our Center conducted a small study to identify the values publicly held by companies on the Fortune 500 list. We found a wide range, and yet also a significant amount of overlap. Frequently cited values included:
  • Accountability
  • Commitment
  • Diversity
  • Excellence
  • Innovation
  • Leadership
  • Loyalty
  • Mutual respect
  • Openness
  • Partnership
  • Passion
  • Professionalism
  • Quality
  • Reliability
  • Respect
  • Responsibility
  • Safety
  • Service
  • Social Responsibility
  • Sustainability
  • Team work
  • Transparency
  • Trust

That’s a great list. It’s an inspiring list. It’s also a long list. It would be foolish to attempt to adopt all the world’s admirable values as your company’s own: that’s not the basis of a culture; it’s the foundation of confusion.

In the last few months, our Return on Values research project (ROV) has taken us deep into the cultures of remarkable companies – companies that are quite clear on the short list of values they hold and the culture they shape. These are companies where the average employee, when asked, “Tell me a story about value #2,” doesn’t stumble to find her words: instead, she struggles to choose between three different stories that come immediately to mind.

It’s not always this easy to have a clearly defined culture. My colleagues Kim Cameron and Robert Quinn, in their book Diagnosing and Changing Organizational Culture, remind us of an African proverb: Fish understand water the last. Often the people working within an organizational culture are the last to be able to define it – but not at the organization’s we’ve interviewed as part of the ROV project.

So how do you get exceptionally clear about your culture? Here are a few lessons taken from our first ROV case studies:

Repeat, repeat, repeat: Employees at Tasty Catering start every meeting by reciting, from memory, the organization’s values and mission statement. This practice takes a few minutes, but the dividend is huge: it gives employees a shared cultural language.

One example: in deciding whether the company could manage an especially large catering contract on an already-overbooked weekend, one employee reminded others, “We can’t be sure we’ll live up to #4 (high service standards) if we do this.”

Boil it down: Another remarkable food service company, Blue Plate Catering, describes themselves as “Happy people trying to make other people happy.” This short-cut language is a motivator, and sets high expectations for employee behavior and customer outcomes. And who wouldn’t want to work in a culture like that?

Live it out: BerylHealth’s business model says that engaged employees lead to loyal customers, who drive profit. With employees as their starting place, it’s no wonder the culture is strongly employee-focused. The company lives out this value in big and small ways. When a new employee’s young son was struck and killed by a car, the Beryl staff donated vacation time to give the single mom months of paid time to recover emotionally. Staff members made sure her surviving children had school supplies, warm meals, and an abundant Christmas. “Beryl means family to me,” she says.

We also heard multiple stories of much smaller examples of living out Beryl’s people-focused organization. Data specialist Susan Anderson told us about her first week at Beryl. CEO Paul Spiegelman greeted Anderson a few days into her training and asked how things were going.

“I said it’s great except I can’t find any chocolate in this forsaken place,” Anderson told the CEO, laughing. Five minutes later Spiegelman returned to the training room, tossing Anderson a full-size Snickers bar. “I thought man, that’s a great thing that he heard my need and filled it right away and it was just a great first experience,” Anderson says.

Tell the stories: In all the companies we’ve visited, we’ve been surprised at how different employees tell the same stories. Often the story occurred before that employee even joined the firm, and yet they know the details, they know the outcomes, and they know why the decisions were made. These stories are powerful tools in organizations, because they give teeth to values.

  • At the consulting firm Integrated Project Management, over half of the one dozen employees we interviewed mentioned a specific story involving a tough decision made by the firm’s CEO, Rich Panico. The decision required holding to the firm’s high ethical standards, even though it meant losing a client. When word reached the staff, they applauded Panico’s decision making; and though this happened years ago, the staff still tell the story today as a reminder that in IPM’s culture, making the right decision is more important than making the easy decision.

Values vary from organization to organization. Culture is specific to an individual company. But what these remarkable organizations have in common is a depth of understanding of their own values and culture. That doesn’t happen coincidentally. Building a deep culture requires an intentional effort, but the rewards are worth it.

Jim Ludema
Principal Investigator | Return on Values
Director | Center for Values-Driven Leadership | Benedictine University


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