Culture has become a buzzword over the last several years, with numerous books and blogs written about what a healthy culture should look like and how to create, implement, and maintain it over time. Organizations spanning all industries, sizes, and locations use culture as a marketing tool to attract potential team members. But the real-life, day-to-day experience for most people joining those organizations is toxicity and a lack of leadership and management support. While we will never claim to have all of the answers, we have had four years of testing and defending our established culture with great (GREAT) success. It has not been without challenges and painful conversations. But if you are willing to lead with vulnerability, transparency, and accountability, the process of creating, launching, and protecting your organizational culture will be one of the most rewarding undertakings you’ll ever experience. It will certainly be the most impactful initiative for your company and your team.
This first installment of a three-part series will describe the steps we took to define our culture. Part two will focus on how we launched it with our team, and part three will share how we teach, protect, and defend our culture on a daily basis.
Steps to Define Your Organizational Culture:
Developing a culture is very different brain work than developing a process or person. If you’re doing it right, there will be mental wrestling involved as you determine what is crucial to the success and health of your organization. It takes courage to make an honest assessment of the current culture. Make this process a team activity. Involve executive leadership to get valuable perspectives and insights. If you don’t have multiple leadership roles yet, involve key team members who you respect and trust to lean into the success of the organization rather than their own agenda. While we don't follow the meeting cadence suggested by Gino Wickman, reading Traction as an executive team was influential to our culture-setting process and helped trigger important conversations.
Mission and vision statements play a vital role in clarifying what you do and why you do it. At OMG, we often compare what we do to playing a game. The analogy isn’t perfect, but there are a lot of parallels that can be made between sports and business. Our mission statement defines what game we’re playing. It identifies a measurable goal (accelerate our clients’ growth), the standard we expect it to meet (world-class), and the method we’ll use to achieve the goal (digital marketing with measurable results). Our vision statement clarifies why we’re playing the game, the overarching purpose of our existence as an organization (accelerate our client, team, and individual growth). It also sets the foundation for how we relate to each other and our clients (through transparency, vulnerability, and accountability).
When we sat down to define our culture, we already had a mission and vision statement. The problem was that they were generic, created by a consultant for a digital marketing agency in its infant stage, not yet certain what its long-term purpose or goal was. This presented us with an opportunity– the ability to take something vague and transform it into something specific and meaningful. Don't be afraid to break something you already have so that you can rebuild something that will have an even greater impact and influence.
The purpose of core values is to clearly express how you play your game. What, at a high level, are the most important standards to you in terms of character and behavior in your organization? These may include things that come very naturally and instinctively to you personally, but it’s ok to select attributes that you have to put effort into meeting as well. I could put the culture values of OMG on the walls of my own home, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have to actively, intentionally work to reflect some of them in my words and actions.
We started our culture-defining process with three core values: care, fun, and constant improvement. What we had come to realize through multiple onboarding experiences is that single, individual words are not enough to educate new team members about our values. They also aren’t enough to hold people accountable throughout their employment. I knew someone who said “word usage denotes meaning.” Single words can imply many different things to various people and, without clarification, can be twisted to fit any agenda, regardless of if it is actually in line with our intentions. It was clear to us that we had to be very clear about what we did and did not want as part of our everyday behavior as an organization.
Evaluate not only what is broken in your business and what the root causes are, but also what IS working so that you can understand why. Think about past experiences that you never want to go through again or that worked exactly the way you want. What caused the circumstance, what was involved during, and what resolved that situation? Think about your organization’s great successes, great failures, and what elements were instrumental in each. Those are the elements you either want to protect or defend against. Then, use your findings to inform what you value and how you want your team to handle themselves and their work. Clearly identify what you DO and DO NOT want to be part of your culture.
Remember that what other organizations prioritize as culture values may not be your ideal values. It is important to consider what is relevant to your industry, but this is YOUR business. You can break the expectations and norms and develop a culture that fits your unique personality and personal values. In doing so, you’ll be able to more easily attract people that value the same things and build a team that works cohesively in the values you desire.
Use clear language that is or can be used in your organization’s everyday activities. Don’t try to make it sound impressive by using fancy words that people struggle to remember or relate to. Incorporate the phrases that you want to become the constant chorus in your break room, individual check-ins, and team meetings (or syncs, in OMG terms). An impactful culture is one that guides decision making and behavior across all of your services, roles, and teams, and requires a balance of clarity and simplicity so it can easily permeate every area of your business.
Taking time to follow these steps will be one of the most valuable ways you’ll spend your time, whether you’re in the beginning stages of building your business or revitalizing a culture that doesn’t fit your ideals. A successful culture will be realized by reduced churn (voluntarily and involuntarily) and increased employee satisfaction. These results will save significant amounts of time, energy, and money, and are so worth the investment of the time spent defining your culture.