Sep 26th, 2019

Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast

Company Culture - Palaise FerstlWhile at the recent Home Care Association of America annual leadership conference, several sessions again reminded me of the importance of culture in advancing the values and mission of a company. Culture can be an overused word, describing anything from the most negative scenarios to the best aspects of where we work, live, and who we associate with. When it comes to company culture, too often we think of it as “how we do things around here.” If company culture is too heavily focused on the “how”, the culture will be in constant flux and employees are susceptible to feel that any change shifts the fabric of the company itself. To help prevent this, we can focus our attention on building company culture around the “why we do what we do.” Given the rapid pace of change in our world and the ever-shifting needs of all the stakeholders at any company, how things are done should be in a state of constant adjustment. A company will quickly ‘keep’ itself into obsolescence if it rejects changing procedure or practice under the mantra of not changing the culture. 

For example, as a company grows, how it interfaces with its employees will likely change. When a company has a single location, it’s common for employees to know each other well and do things like eat lunch together – an enjoyable practice presumed to be inherent to the company culture.  Simultaneously, most employees wish for the company’s success and greater personal opportunities associated with it but may not realize they are wishing themselves into change. When the company opens a second location the sense of everyone knowing everyone and the practicality of getting together to eat lunch starts to slip. Some will proclaim the culture of the company is starting to slip as well. Is it?

I suspect the company culture these individuals loved wasn’t about lunches, rather the sense of connectedness with their colleagues. Connectedness is the desired cultural element (the ‘why’). The expression of that element was a tradition or practice of getting together for lunch which helped facilitate connectedness (the ‘how’). However, as anyone can tell you, a shared meal isn’t the only way to create connection or relationships. For a company to maintain their culture then, they simply need to explore different ways to foster that element through new traditions or practices. 

For a company that’s expanding, the test becomes how many of its existing employees embrace the new and celebrate the rising success of the company and the benefits that come with it. Others may outwardly support the idea of change and growth, but still hold dogmatically to the “way it used to be.”  These individuals longingly wish for the “old days when…” (fill in the blank). If the culture isn’t clearly defined around the why, the attachment to the how becomes self-defeating. A why culture can help align employees to cultural elements, often referred to as values, and embrace all possible expressions of that value to achieve the same outcome. When employees are overly attached to the old way of “how things were done”, they miss opportunities to enjoy the same outcomes they always valued or, even better, to help preserve the cultural elements they love by creating or promoting new ways to express them.

Don’t get me wrong here. I’m not suggesting that maintaining, honoring or remembering elements of our past isn’t important. I fully celebrate the legacy that each person and company build over time.  The “why” portion of this legacy is usually worthy of maintaining but often the “how” is the past – and it belongs there. If a company holds on hard to past how’s and fails to change with the needs of the organization of the present, it will not have any future in which to hold onto the past. Feel free to quote me on that. Companies as well as people need to understand this careful distinction to really understand the driving forces behind company culture. Those who embrace this principle will flourish amidst change, while those who don’t will be left in the wake.  

These principles have become clear to me as I’ve tried to hold onto our company culture as we have grown. Often, I’m asked something like, “Aren’t you worried that your company won’t be the same as you grow?” My answer is NO. Emphatically no. I am not worried. Why?  I’ve discovered what to hold onto and identified specific ways to manifest our key cultural elements to advance what matters, even as we expand. Companies like Apple, Google and others are behemoth but manage to maintain a great reputation for their company culture. We will be a successful home care agency as we grow by grounding our culture in the why and enthusiastically welcoming new ways to do things. This is our chosen approach and the way our leadership leads. People who understand and embrace this will succeed with us. All others need not apply. We’re going somewhere amazing and the right people will choose to go there with us.

 

[photo credit: a7m2 Palaise Ferstl via photopin (license)]

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