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How’s your corporate culture going? Is it maybe time for an audit?

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”

In the best of times, achieving and maintaining a highly functioning corporate culture –- where teams perform, values drive behaviour, output is mission-driven, customers know the difference -- is a fine balancing act. As with children, it means offering « part roots, part wings, » but always under a watchful eye. This is true, no matter the size of the company, the category, the markets or geographies the company operates in.

But these are NOT the best of times. The pandemic has not only disrupted output and supply chains the globe over; it has also put enormous strain on companies themselves, internally and across their workforces, to continue to produce their goods and services through uneven, totally uncharted circumstances. We venture to say, there is not one company in the world that has not, in one way or another, positively or negatively, been affected by the global pandemic: so many walloped as corporate cultures may not have been so throttled and thwarted since events like world wars.

We also venture to say, with employees often on their own and self-reliant for great parts of the workday, that clarity of the company’s vision; embrace of the company’s mission and values; and surety about their contribution to the company’s overall success, have never been more important. And perhaps never more in question, or in peril.

Take a moment:  

After nearly a year of lockdowns, Zoom meetings, isolation, temporary returns to the office, required returns to working from home (charmingly called “tele-travailler” in French) -- how do you personally evaluate your corporate culture today? How are things going? What do you hear? What do you yourself see and feel?  Do you foresee fixes or changes to your culture in the near future to accommodate, e.g., hybrid work situations? If you do anticipate change, how will you know what to change in the first place?

Importantly, isn’t it time to find out? Isn’t it perhaps the moment to conduct a corporate culture audit?

What gets measured gets improved:

Initiating your corporate culture audit

In far less stressful times, corporate surveys or audits are routine means for Management to keep a handle on the state of their company’s morale, enthusiasm, embrace of objectives, etc. Nothing new here.

Given the monumental changes to all aspects of business life and work that the pandemic has created, however, it is highly likely that fresh audits – think of them as health checks, reality checks, even sound checks—are in order for the majority of companies and certainly for those that will emerge from the pandemic in the strongest possible shape and positions.

As for the next audit that you conduct of your corporate culture, we recommend that it be deeply probing, robust and comprehensive; and that it span three levels of input: your Management Team, Employees/Workforce and Customers.

  1. Management Team: Running the company is on their shoulders ; their voices count; their insights will be critical to assessing how things are going, positively and/or negatively. To capture their hopes, aspirations and concerns for the company’s culture, we recommend one-on-one interviews with each member, following the same discussion guide with each.

We recommend that you construct this discussion guide to be open-ended so they are free to reflect on concerns, e.g., about the effectiveness of online meetings, or any gaps that they see in the culture or the business, e.g., shifts or pressures brought on by pandemic requirements and restrictions. Try a SWOT format to structure your discussion with them: probe strengths and weaknesses of the current culture, explore opportunities and threats to an evolving situation. Don’t be surprised if you get some wildly differing perspectives.

  1. Employees/Workforce: All input is important, but arguably the primus inter pares is employees: the arms and legs, hearts and minds, the literal force behind the work and the sine qua non of any company. Everyone, all functions, needs to be included in a company-wide survey. These are the core questions they all need to be asked (scale of 5); feel free to add your own questions and be ready to follow-up on details and specific suggestions:
    1. Are you clear where the company is headed?
    2. Do you understand how, where your role, your division’s role, fits into the company’s future?
    3. Do the company’s values help you in your daily work? 
    4. Do you know the company’s values?
    5. Are you equipped with the right training, tools and support to do your daily work?
    6. Do you see your management « walking the talk » when it comes to vision and values?
    7. How well have you personally adjusted to new, pandemic-generated requirements for daily working?
  2. Customers: Their loyalty, reference and preference keep you in business. Through a bespoke, quantitative survey, ask them their impressions of your products, services and delivery, and explore their experiences of your quality and reliability, during the past year. Ask them to be frank. Match these results to data over the same period emanating from your tech stacks, e.g., on buying behaviours, special requests, or complaints, and evaluate any particular deltas of note, positive or negative.

It goes without saying, formally evaluate each research stream individually and prepare to present your integrated, combined results to your Management Team. Be prepared for findings, implications and recommendations that point to changes ahead.

Navigating the audit and beyond:

3 things to keep in mind

The audit of your corporate culture is arguably one of the most important tasks you will undertake in 2021. But the process requires you and your team to keep eyes-wide-open – with equal measures vigilance and valiance in the face of vicissitudes-- to significant upside potentials as well as downside risks. Three things to keep in mind:

  1. This audit is very important!

The real value of a highly functioning corporate culture does not stop inside the company, behind the front door, but rather fully manifests itself externally in success, leadership, competitive advantage and market dominance. Your customers see, feel and value the difference your strong corporate culture makes to their experience, even in part to their success.

Understand that your corporate culture is a huge reason for your company’s success. It is not trivial, or a nice-to-have. It is a sine qua non for any serious, competitive player. This is what Lou Gerstner meant by “culture is the game.” And this is why getting your culture right, and getting this audit right, is so important.

  1. All roads lead to Advocacy

The Engagement Journey (chart below) harbors an important insight. For all the complexity involved in assessing and managing corporate culture, there is in essence one, single-minded goal applicable to every company, every employee: all roads should lead to advocacy. As the Engagement Journey advances from awareness and interest through desire and action, classic AIDA, it arrives at advocacy: meaning, everyone in the company can say, hand on heart, “I know, I believe in and I recommend what we do”.

The Engagement Journey is really a powerful tool. It at once provides direction for assessing the status of employee adoption; for training and on-boarding by levels; for defining how a culture can function as a united, cohesive community of like-minded individuals; and finally, for acting as a score-card to measure success and ROI over time on corporate culture trainings and initiatives. Make sure to incorporate the Engagement Journey in your planning and thinking.

engagement values

This is NOT easy!

Achieving company-wide advocacy is very difficult. Take heed of the continuing wise words of Lou Gerstner:

The thing I have learned at IBM is that culture is everything. Fixing culture is the most critical − and the most difficult − part of a corporate transformation… In the end, management doesn't change culture. Management invites the workforce itself to change the culture. 

This is why employees, the workforce, is primus inter pares among your interlocutors. Gerstner implies that corporate culture change requires dialogue, collaboration, community, and cooperation among all levels in a company. And this is great.

But change will also, necessarily, require mindset, attitude and behaviour shifts across the board, and this is never easy. In my experience, I have always found that “change” and “new” are two great words, so long as they don’t apply to you!

As the chart below suggests, change has to run right through the organisation, touching everything from competencies, systems, engagement, and communication to management alignments. The chart also reveals another important aspect of truly dynamic, functioning corporate cultures. They are alive, they need nurturing and there is no finish line.

Valiance and vigilance, indeed.

mindset and behavior change

A few observations:

  • Be prepared to work hand-in-glove with HR and your CEO on the audit, with your role being master of the internal brand.
  • Be prepared to find that it is not just a matter of changing/fixing your culture: you may need to back up and reset Vision, Mission, Values, Business Objectives.
  • There is nothing wrong with this, this is a critical finding, but it is not a quick, over-night fix.
  • Resetting the business and re-launching the brand would naturally precede work focused on the corporate culture alone.
  • Getting started: First things first. Begin with creating the discussion guide for your Management Team. What do you want to hear from them, learn from them? What do you need to understand better to assess the overall situation? Think of a SWOT format.
  • Next blog: What to do if what you find is, in fact, about relaunching the company’s strategy, business objectives and brand. Because it probably is.

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