4 Steps to Deciphering Your Firm’s Culture


“You can observe a lot if you just watch.” ~Yogi Berra

Culture gets blamed for a lot of things. Half of all merger failures, say the experts, are caused by cultural incompatibility. If business strategy is not aligned with corporate culture, corporate anthropologists expound, the strategy will lose – every time.

Corporate culture has clearly been established by many researchers as a major driver of organizational and individual performance.

Culture Clash

How does culture influence performance, stop change dead in its tracks, or derail a merger? And why should we consider cultural due diligence as seriously as we would financial due diligence?

Organization culture is an amalgam of assumptions or values created in response to business challenges that have worked well enough over time that they are taught to newcomers as “the way we do things around here.”

These values and assumptions don’t describe what tasks need to be done; rather, values provide guidance about how each task needs to be done.

When cultures collide, it is usually because conflicting values are driving different sets of behaviors.

Test Clash Dummies

Clash Test DummiesFor example, let’s consider a goal like “being the lowest price provider.”

Company ‘A’ may emphasize efficiency and cost reduction – e.g. just-in-time production, low materials costs – as the route to excellent customer service.

Company ‘B’ may emphasize quality – e.g. zero defects, 100% replacement guarantee – as the key.

Both are valid approaches. But, if the companies attempted a merger, the values would clash because, while both valid, they are potentially at odds with one another.

Ultimately, what people do (action) and how they go about doing it (behavior) define organization performance. So attempting to manage culture to create the right behaviors makes good business sense.

According to John Kotter and James Heskett, authors of Corporate Culture and Performance, “companies that actively managed their cultures in such a way that they were adaptive and flexible were able to outperform companies that had strong but rigid cultures.”

In fact, the authors wrote, “over an eleven year period, they outperformed them in a big way – revenue increases of 682% versus 166%, and net income increases of 756% versus 1%.”

Your 4 Steps to Culture Clarity

Culture is a type of shared mental model governing behavior. Examining I can be tricky, but you can maximize success by following these four steps:

Step One – Clarify Your Business Objectives

Culture only becomes relevant when it is viewed along side what you are trying to accomplish and in terms of whether it is helping or hindering progress.

The first step, then, is to clearly and concisely describe the business strategy or business change you are trying to achieve and how you plan to measure results.

Next, determine the behaviors that need to occur within specific employee groups to achieve the desired result.

Step Two – Examine Organization Artifacts

Convening a focus group or groups can be useful for this step and the ones that follow.

Examine things like:

  • Your company’s dress code
  • Policies and practices
  • How decisions are made
  • Whether relationships are formal or informal
  • Working hours
  • Formal and informal communication
  • Rituals
  • Work practices
  • Leadership and management practices
  • How disagreements are handled

Look for patterns that may illustrate underlying values.

Step Three – Determine Organization Values

Next, review the artifacts in terms of values they may represent.

What do these items say about your company’s value system? Make a detailed list.

Next ask the group to ponder how the company talks about values, and what the company does about them. If the organization leaders talk about a value, but do nothing to make it stick, it is probably not important.

On the other hand, if a given value has a lot of talk and a lot of action associated with it, it is probably a key driver of behavior. Company publications can also be analyzed to identify espoused values.

Look for the themes that are stressed and how much space is devoted to them over time.

Step Four – Identify Tacit Assumptions

Sometimes, organizations communicate values that just don’t ring true when you compare them with practices or the other artifacts noted in step two.

In this step, you compare espoused values with what really happens.

Does the organization practice what it preaches? If not, there may be shared, but unspoken, assumptions at work that are driving behavior.

Let’s say ‘Company X’ maintains that it “values employee ideas to improve work processes.” In practice, however, supervisors will not discuss an improvement idea unless it is accompanied by a supporting value proposition and some level of cost-benefit analysis.

In this case, there is a tacit assumption that could be stated:

“We value employee ideas to improve work processes as long as the employee can supply proof of its value.”

The Final Analysis

Understanding the espoused values and tacit assumptions that drive current culture and the behaviors required to make your change happen or to achieve your business results will help you determine the cultural helpers and impediments to change.

It can be both difficult and time consuming to change culture.

Rather than attempting to change it, you may be better off designing your business objective or organizational change to take advantage of those aspects of the culture that can be positive influences.

In the long run, by understanding your organization’s culture, you will be in a much better position to determine which initiatives will be culturally acceptable, which initiatives won’t, and what can be done to achieve success.

Joel Harris Head is Managing Partner of Headwinds Ltd
He helps clients build more engaged and accountable teams and stronger leaders
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Image Sources: forwearemany.files.wordpress.com, prlog.org

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3 Ways to Kill Your Employees

See Ya

How many ways, leaders? How many ways?

  • How many ways can a leader go through the day and put a dagger in the heart of their employees?
  • How many ways can a leader suck the very life out of their team members?
  • How many ways can a leader snuff the life out of the esprit de corp at their organization?

I count 3…

Disengagement in The House

Out-dated hiring and orientation practices can create disengagement before the employee has a chance to learn about the firm. Do not commit these three blunders: Speed Dating; Poor Hiring; and Death by PowerPoint.

The Story of The unVictor

Consider the plight of my real-life acquaintance named Victor. A friend for many years, he arrived for his first day of work with a consulting firm in Chicago only to discover that no one at the front desk knew who he was. His supervisor, he found out, had not planned for his arrival. Hired, ironically, as a communications consultant, he had no telephone, no computer, and his “office” was a small desk located in a busy hallway.

His supervisor could not fit him in to her busy schedule his first day so she set up his orientation for . While my friend did not quit on the spot, he immediately questioned his own decision to join the firm and later resigned a month later.

It is relatively easy to pick out the mistakes the supervisor made. It is also not hard to come up with lists of the steps she could taken to begin effectively assimilating Victor into his new job. Most of it comes down to planningtwo-days later, communication, and an effective on-boarding process.

On-boarding is the entire process of recruiting through firm orientation and assimilation.

The data shows that an effective on-boarding program reduces turnover in the long run, gets the employee up to speed and productive in a shorter time frame, and encourages employee engagement. Most firms do not have a formal on-boarding process and thus botch their first opportunity to build employee engagement and commitment.

The old saying holds true; “you never get a second chance to make a good first impression.”

Daggers, Vacuums, and Pillows

Here are the three biggest errors that leaders do in snuffing out their employee’s engagement levels.

1) The Business Version of Speed Dating

Like speed dating, research shows that, on average, the decision to hire or not hire is made in the first three minutes of an interview. Typically, in a 30 minute discussion, the decision to hire is reached based on the prospect’s appearance and demeanor. The manager uses the remaining 27 minutes to rationalize that the decision was based on solid, objective fact.

Based on research by Profiles International, a 30-minute interview will yield an average success rate of only 14% after the first 12 months. Considering that a $50,000 per year employee over 20 years represents a $1 million investment, you may want to consider how throughout the screening process should be. Research illustrates that a comprehensive, in-depth, behavior-based interview coupled with pre-employment assessments and background checks will produce an 85-90% hiring success rate after 12 months.

2) Hiring for Knowledge and Skills

Knowledge and skills are not the best predictor of success on the job. The best predictor based on studies by the Wall Street Journal is “job fit.” In other words, will the person fit in with your culture, direction and your values?  Will they be accountable and work well with the rest of your team?

While the better firms also look for knowledge and skills, the search doesn’t stop there. They also test how the candidate applied their skills in a comparable job and firm and examine the individual for fit. This approach requires that you establish criteria in each area important to successful performance based on a sampling of current employees doing the same job well.

Success also requires a behaviorally-based interview. Using the hiring criteria you develop, set up a pre-employment screening process. Research by the Droste Group illustrates these three examples of what happens when an effective pre-employment screening process is used:

  • A health care organization reduced first-year turnover by more than 40%
  • Medical costs associated with on-the-job injuries at a theme park were reduced by 43%
  • Top-scoring employees for a distribution company were seven times more likely to have outstanding attendance than low scorers.

3) Death by PowerPoint

Employee orientation is a critical step in the on-boarding process and can easily be done badly. In many firms, it resembles an assembly line of forms and benefit jargon presented by a low level HR administrator in dire need of a new personality. In large firms you may have to sit through a boring two-hour ordeal better known as “death by PowerPoint.”

Orientation should be viewed as an opportunity to introduce your firm in a way that helps to acclimate the new recruit to your strategic direction, firm values, and most critical of all, culture.

The experience should be entertaining and fun to engage the new employee from the outset.

Employees who are involved in orientation programs that do more than just present benefits and forms to be completed report feeling better about their new firm and their decision to join.

In the long run, a solid on-boarding process in which you screen for job fit, the willingness to be accountable, and a proven, behaviorally-based ability to do the job will help your firm to build an engaged and committed workforce.

So how are you doing in keeping your employee engagement alive? What are you doing to make sure that you do not kill the joy, love, and positive practices that keeps your organization green and growing? How can you do better in making sure that you update your leadership game to keep your them engaged? I would love to hear your stories!

Joel Harris Head is Managing Partner of Headwinds Ltd
He helps clients build more engaged and accountable teams and stronger leaders
Email | LinkedIn | Twitter | Web | Blog

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Steps to Being a Leadership Storyteller


How do leaders influence people to adopt their point of view?  They make change happen by adopting the language of leaders. Recent political events provide an important clue.

Facts, Figures, and Imagination

In the last U.S. Presidential contest, it appeared that Hillary Clinton was destined to become the Democratic Party nominee. She had name recognition, had lived in the White House, and had a well-oiled political machine. But as events unfolded, then-Senator Barrack Obama won the primary, and ultimately staged a dramatic win of the Presidency.

While the two Democratic candidates’ positions on the issues were similar, their manner of speaking about them was not.

Telling Stories

StorytellingObama told stories – about his early childhood, his mother, his time at Harvard Law School, and his time as a political organizer working the old Chicago neighborhoods.

Clinton spouted facts and figures, and she had an amazing grasp of the facts behind the issues.  But it is this contrast, facts versus stories, which made the difference. Obama’s stories allowed him to connect with voters at an emotional level; Clinton’s facts appealed to our cognitive side.

To get people to change their mind, however, you are better off using story-telling and a three-step presentation order.

The Storytelling DNA

In his book, “The Secret Language of Leadership,” Stephen Denning argues that both the order and manner in which you give people information greatly influences how they think.  He suggests that excellent leaders use a powerful model that first connects them with listeners emotionally, through stories, and then presents them with the reasons for change.

Here is what he means:

In a traditional presentation model – which we were all taught as children – you define the problem, analyze the impact, and recommend a solution.

But if you want people to change, the traditional model often does not work.

The reason lies in what behavioral researchers call “confirmation bias.”  When we think we know something to be an objective truth, we automatically conclude that if opposing evidence is presented there must be something wrong with the source.

Checking the Facts

In 1979, a psychologist by the name of Charles Lord ran experiments to determine what happens when people are presented with conflicting information. He assembled 24 proponents and 24 opponents of capital punishment and presented each group with research that refuted their beliefs. He found that both sides found arguments to support their original thinking.

So how do you get people to think differently?

Denning found that effective leaders construct presentations in a distinctive three-part pattern:

1.    Get their attention.
2.    Stimulate a desire for a different future.
3.    Reinforce the desired future with reasons why it will work.

Steps to Leadership Storytelling Influence

Step One

Getting attention – is necessary because people will be preoccupied with their own thoughts and activities. The best way to get their attention is to personalize the message through stories with which they can identify emotionally. Stories about people in similar situations who found a better way are the right kind of stories.

Next Step

Help people see a new future — one that is desirable. Martin Luther King was a compelling story teller.  In perhaps his most famous address, the “I have a dream” speech, he invited people to come along as he explored his vision for the future.

MLK Jr. said “‘I have a dream,’ not ‘I have a plan.'” ~ Simon Sinek

To see the future you describe, people have to believe it is attainable. The proof is best that illustrates how it has been done before, or why it is possible to create for the first time.

Final Step

Reinforce the vision with reasons.  The decision to change is an emotional one – a mental mindset to look at strange ideas with an open mind – but the ideas must still be supported.  If you provide the reasons first, you risk that people will question your credibility and tune you out.  If you garner attention, illustrate a compelling future that people want, then illustrate how it can be realized, then — and only then — will the intellectual reasons for the change and its benefits make sense.

To do this well, you have to master the audience’s story – understand exactly where they are coming from. You also have to cultivate narrative intelligence and commit to telling authentically true stories.

Once you do that, you are on your way to making change happen – maybe even running for president.

So how are you communicating with your teams to bring them the ideas needed to change in your organization? Do you blind them with facts and unload a “data dump” on them? Or do you take the steps needed to open up their imagination with the powers of stories? I’d love to hear your tricks of the trade!

Joel Harris Head is Managing Partner of Headwinds Ltd
He helps clients build more engaged and accountable teams and stronger leaders
Email | LinkedIn | Twitter | Web | Blog

Image Sources: s2.hubimg.com, getyourleadershipbigon.files.wordpress.com


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