It has been said that organisational culture is implicit in the personalities and values of the first employees and founders. When headcount is in single digits, the business founders, partners and the first employees have the opportunity to sit and talk through decisions together. Communication and prioritisation is generally clear. However as businesses grow, it isn’t always clear how to communicate and how to prioritise and sometimes the level of shared context is lost. As Todd McKinnon, CEO of Okta says, “As your company grows, culture exerts its powerful effect on people by steering them to act or to behave in a certain way, when the path is otherwise unclear”.
Just as organisations put great effort into building a compelling product or service, so too is it critical to put the same amount of effort into culture, particularly as organisations grow. This is largely because a strong and clear culture can give everyone the framework to work within.
Some companies are more successful at this than others and turn their values into something that means something to all staff and end up with an inspiring culture. Others not. But why is that?
- Is it that the best organisations set out the passions and the commitments that define them?
- Does the very act of crafting a mission and value statements anchor every aspect of the business into a set of commonly held beliefs and actions?
- Do documented statements become the ingrained principles that guide employee behaviour, organisation decisions and actions?
- If so, then why do we hear so often about a laminated set of values with no real meaning?
- What is the most powerful force that drives business excellence?
We have heard much about mission and core value statements playing an active role in business practice and fostering confidence and happiness in the employees who work with the values every day which begs the questions:
- Could the simplicity of ‘words’ on laminate really have this tremendous power and bring about focus and purpose?
- Isn’t creating value statements simply putting a name to what‘s already happening in the organisation?
- Or is it something more, like highlighting some new behaviours or a new emphasis to help the culture along or the organisation to change?
More questions than answers!
Perhaps the simplicity of memorable words sharpens the sword
Not everyone agrees that documenting values statements makes a difference, and that statements can be restrictive. However some of the best companies to work for from the top 100 companies from around the world, all have a clearly documented mission and core values statements that play an active role in business practice and foster confidence and happiness in the employees who work to the values every day.
Consistently, the language used by these top companies, seems to be well thought out and very important. Organisations with strong values based cultures tended to make their values memorable, simple and challenging (aspirational). Perhaps it is the simplicity of their words that sharpens the sword.
However getting to memorable and simple isn’t so simple. It can be convoluted in itself.
Discussion on values – a binding action
What matters most would appear to be the discussion that is held when creating or refreshing the values, which is in itself a binding action. This has the consequence of breathing more light into them and gaining collective ownership. Exploring what values look like in practice, guides behaviour, decisions and actions – the behaviours the company and employees expect of themselves.
Consistent among organisations with “desirable cultures” is that core values are a key tool for hiring well and cultivating employees. Training for technical work is relatively easy compared to ensuring that someone fits into the fabric of what a company is based on. These organisations tend to hire on values, and reinforce the values to the employee when they are first hired and model the values in leadership behaviour and policies.
These organisations support their values with a clear and inspiring vision, and create environments that encourage innovation, breathes life, confidence and creativity. Their leaders create a shared vision, a sense of ownership and excitement and inspire their people to achieve more than they may have dreamed possible. They create ‘can-do’ attitudes and make business fun. They inspire, energise and move people, building corporate communities in which people feel valued, capable, confident and strong. For those effective at establishing a culture of innovation, (while requiring a sustained effort), the spirit of growth tends to keep fresh ideas flowing and reinvigorate them.
On the flip side, discouraging cultures tend to be those who have no shared values, lack trust, tend to blame, focus on problems rather than opportunities, don’t tolerate failure and do not celebrate diversity. In these environments people lose confidence in their leaders and in the systems and processes.
Of course there is so much that can lead to success but if you can give soul to an organisation, it tends to inspire confidence and commitment. In organisations where values are understood, embraced and lived, people are much more likely to feel inspired to innovate and act. Who we are determines how we will do, and why values make or break organisations. Organisational culture is proven to be a powerful force that drives business excellence and long-term success.