Culture is one of those catch words that everyone uses to describe those intangible things that every business should have in order to succeed. I have read many articles that speak about the need to develop culture and how vital that is to a company with regard to giving it an edge over the competition. At times the idea of developing "culture" takes on almost mythical dimensions.
But lets stop and think about this for a minute and bring that conversation back to reality. Every company has a culture. The question to ask is this, is your culture intentional or accidental? Collins sums it up with this statement in his book "Good to Great" by saying "if you don't like what you see on your team or in your company, look in the mirror." Every company gets exactly what it values and those values are reflected by the senior leadership team. If that team cuts corners, or gives each other a "pass" on company policy from time to time or if the senior leadership team holds itself to a lower standard than they expect from the rest of the company you will see evidence of that throughout the company. In short what you ignore (don't deal with) you permit and so many aspects of company culture are formed in those non-written permissions.
The now well known story of Paul O'Neill and his transformation of Alcoa by focusing on safety as a priority gives us some good insight into what happens when leadership sets culture intentionally. If you have read the story O'Neill came into the company when it was struggling and against all the common wisdom of the day said, he would turn the company around by focusing on safety. When he retired 14 years later the company was worth 5x what it had been when he started. But the focus on safety was only one aspect of what he did to create the culture he wanted at the company.
When you look at the list of company values which they state they "live" everyday you get a better picture of just what happened. Here are the values that they had established;
We are open, honest, and accountable.
Environment, Health & Safety
We work safely, promote wellness, and protect the environment.
We creatively transform ideas into value.
We treat all people with dignity and provide a diverse, inclusive work environment.
We relentlessly pursue outstanding and sustainable results.
O'Neill knew that changing one aspect of the culture around safety would in fact lead to a domino effect that would impact many other areas of the company but all of this would have been for naught if the leadership of the company had failed in those first two values of Integrity and Safety.
What often is not written about is the fact that after putting safety as the key emphasis at Alcoa a safety incident occurred that happened under the watch of one of the companies star managers and someone who was a strong supporter and friend of O'Neill and these initiatives. What’s more it was discovered that this individual knew about the potential issues and had not reported them. This was a crucible moment for O'Neill and he did not flinch, the manager was let go and as difficult as it was for him to do that the message that was sent to the rest of the company was that they were not just paying "lip service" to these values and the leadership team would be held to the same or higher standard as the rest of the company. It transformed the culture at Alcoa and everyone from the front line to the CEO lives by those values.
So what is key for culture? As a leader, whether it is a small group or a company, you must know what you want and expect to get it - every time. Whether that is safety or team work or honesty or respect it is your role to identify what you want, know what that looks like on your team and drive those behaviors by acknowledging them when you see them and dealing with the issues when those values are broken.
So what is key to culture on your team or in your company? You are.