Cultural Definition: Creating a Culture on Purpose

What do you want to be when you grow up? That’s most likely a familiar question for most of us-”one that we’ve been asked in our younger days, or one that we are asking children today. As leaders in our organizations, however, perhaps the question we should be asking is “WHO do we want to be, NOW?” We may be clear on our vision, mission, and goals-”but do we know who we want to be from a cultural perspective? Culture will happen-¦but will it be by accident or on purpose? The following is a brief recap of our experience as we set out to create our culture on purpose.

Our CEO is a leader who has always believed that if “the culture is right, the results will come.” Cultural definition is a worthy challenge for any organization, and ours is no exception. Within less than 12 months, we divested from a parent company and acquired two additional companies, resulting in an organization of 200 people, three U.S. locations spanning three time zones, and an office in India. Post acquisition, we immediately established combined goals and metrics, communicated them through scorecards, and held company-wide town halls to discuss our progress. It was at one of these meetings that the journey of cultural definition was sparked.

We were discussing with the CEO our objectives, successes, challenges and our shortcomings. Excited by the opportunity ahead of us, but perhaps concerned by the apparent hesitancy to take action, our CEO suddenly stopped and asked if we felt “empowered” in our roles-”to do whatever was within our skills, talents and abilities to achieve objectives, with or without permission. The silence in the room was deafening.

Immediately, the CEO had us “count off” into groups. Each group was to take the next few weeks to discuss 1) whether they felt empowered, and why or why not, and 2) what should we STOP doing and START doing so that employees felt free to take action, rather than wait for direction.

A few weeks later, the CEO and I re-grouped with the teams to hear what they had to say. The discussions were candid and at times tough, and it was an extremely interesting and eye-opening day. We immediately shared the findings with the leadership team, and it didn’t end there. We worked with these same groups to discuss other key cultural attributes: Learning, Results, and Innovation. How were we, the leadership team, supporting this desired culture? More importantly, how were we standing in the way? We pushed, prodded, and explored these cultural attributes and their associated behaviors, involving every employee in defining who we want to be and then holding each other accountable to that behavior.

The organization has continued to evolve, and so have our cultural attributes. Regardless of the changes, however, my key learnings are as follows:

1. ASK: “Who do we want to be?”

2. ASSESS: “Who are we today?”

3. DEFINE appropriate behaviors and expectations: “What needs to stop and what needs to start for us to become who we want to be?”

4. INVOLVE employees at every level, including the CEO.

5. EDUCATE employees (and leaders) on the cultural attributes and expected behaviors. Share examples and success stories, and model appropriate behavior.

6. HIRE according to the culture: ensure that candidates are assessed not only for skills and experience, but for cultural alignment as well.

7. ACCOUNTABLILITY: hold people accountable to the culture. Don’t expect that everyone will think alike-”we absolutely need diversity in thought–but expect that people behave in an agreed upon fashion.

8. COMMUNICATE, COMMUNICATE, and COMMUNICATE. And if something changes (and it will) communicate some more.

Since we’ve begun this journey of cultural definition, can I state that we are all perfectly aligned and flawlessly executing our goals? Of course not. Can I state that all employees were thrilled to be a part of this process and fully understand the value of the many hours spent on this endeavor, when they could have been working on other competing priorities? No.

However, I CAN state that we have established an environment in which we understand not only our strategic objectives, but the desired behavior, providing the needed framework for further discussions, direction, and debate. We’ve established five core values, communicate them consistently to existing and prospective employees every chance we get, and they are incorporated into scorecards, evaluations, and both formal and informal communications. With cultural unity, we are actively building bridges across locations, functional areas, and even across the ocean.

Now, if I can just figure out what I want to be when I grow up.

Bonnie Schirato is Vice President of Human Resources & Administration at Physicians Interactive in Libertyville, Illinois, one of Chicago’s 101 Best and Brightest Companies to Work For. She can be reached at [email protected].