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A real-world account of effective workplace culture

Joe Romello

The culture of an organization refers to the shared values, beliefs, attitudes, behaviors, and practices that shape the way people interact with each other and with external stakeholders in the workplace. It is the "personality" of the organization, and it reflects the collective identity of the people who work there.

Organizational culture can be defined in many ways, but some common elements include the following:

  1. Values: The core beliefs and principles that guide decision-making and behavior in the organization.
  2. Norms: The unwritten rules and expectations for how people should act and interact with each other.
  3. Symbols: The visible artifacts, such as logos, slogans, or dress codes, that represent the organization's identity and values.
  4. Stories: The narratives and anecdotes that convey the organization's history, successes, failures, and values.
  5. Practices: The routines, rituals, and procedures that define the way work is done in the organization.

The culture of an organization will have a significant impact on its success or failure, as it shapes the way people work together and how they respond to challenges and opportunities. A positive culture can promote innovation, collaboration, and employee engagement, while a negative culture can lead to low morale, high turnover, and poor performance.

In every organization the culture is the image of its leader; from a single member entity to the largest organizations on the planet – the culture of the organization is an image of its leader’s ethics, morals, values, communication methods, transparency and ideals.

Look at the governments around the world, or companies like Twitter, Facebook, Apple, IBM, Microsoft, Salesforce … to entities like the Danny Thomas, Jerry Lewis or Maya Angelou foundations. Look also catastrophic failures in leadership which totally destroyed not only the culture but the companies themselves: Arthur Anderson, Blockbuster, Radio Shack, ToysRUs, Bernie Madoff and Sam Bankman-Fried.

Using these examples, good and bad, what would be a litmus test of a effective workplace culture? What KEY elements are tested on that strip that we “dip” into the workplace for 15 seconds and then read the results?

Will Rogers said, “You never get a second chance to make a good first impression”. So, let’s look at culture assessment from OUTSIDE the organization, where the first impression is just that. In today’s world you would look:

  • Probably first at the organization website:
    1. Can you identify the core beliefs of the organization?
    2. What symbols are used to convey the organization and its mission?
    3. What stories, testimonials, collateral is provided to illustrate the organization?
  • Then something like Glassdoor for less than objective employee reviews
    1. Average sentiment
    2. Messages to management
    3. Churn of staff
  • Then a search on news about the organization – positive and negative
    1. Charitable PR
    2. Lawsuits, past and on-going, if any
    3. If a regulated organization, some required documents filed
  • Then a search on the executive(s) of the organization
    1. Time in the leadership position
    2. Pedigree and positions leading to this organization
    3. News on the executives
    4. Organization affiliations (board positions, associations, etc.)

From the above data, you will form an opinion of the organization and some idea of the culture. Look at the recent Twitter transition by Elon Musk. Look at this style, methods, and patterns. How would you describe, based solely on public information, the culture today of Twitter? Is that attractive to you?

Culture of an organization is not codified in a set of processes, HR documents, on-boarding and off-boarding interactions, performance assessments, etc.; these are the practices that an organization utilizes to maintain order and they directly speak to transparency of the organization. However, none of these are the culture of an organization. Think of the routines you use in your everyday life to maintain order over your time and activities. Do any of those speak to your moral or ethical beliefs or, your values?   The routines you use in your everyday life are set based on your values.  You prioritize and schedule your time based on what matters to you.  For example, you may schedule time each day for exercise.  However, you often skip exercise to put in extra hours at work.  What does this tell you?  It tells you that you value work over exercise, possibly your physical health.  

In every instance the leader sets the direction and pace and lays the ground rules, which has direct and consequential effect on how the culture will ebb and flow. And, as a direct result of the leader, the culture will be embodied in the employees, vendors, suppliers, partners and clients of an organization.

Warren Buffet said, “It is good to learn from your mistakes. It’s better to learn from other people’s mistakes”. Dennis Waltley improved on Buffet's wise words when he said, “The primary success factor is knowing what to learn from others and rely on yourself”.

The message of this blog is to understand that the culture of your organization is already formulated – it is you: your beliefs, your values, your actions, your behaviors, your communication style and how you treat others. The moment you have another person on your team, the culture of the team and organization will directly reflect you. Learn from others mistakes and successes to improve yourself so that the culture of your organization is a attractive to others, be they employees, vendors, partners, suppliers and, most importantly, clients.

Look at the history and biographies of Steve Jobs, Madeline Albright, Margaret Thatcher, Nancy Reagan, Martha Stewart, Eleanor Roosevelt, Dr. Martin Luther King, Bill Gates, Lee Iacocca, Jack Welch, Mary Kay and others. All of these names, and others for sure, learned from others and then relied on themselves to become names with recognition. In each of the organizations, and some had many, their personal character traits became the organizational culture. All of the cultures they created were effective and arguably had a net positive effect not only on their employees but on the consumers of their products/services.

You may be wondering how does this apply to my micro or small organization?  Even the culture of a solopreneur’s (solo entrepreneur) or propreneur’s (professional solo entrepreneur…think lawyer, CPA, finance manager, etc.) organization will have a significant impact on its success or failure.  The one-person organization still sets a culture by how they interact with their clients/customers, contractors/1099s, vendors, strategic partners, community, etc. 

For example, I have seen many one-person consultancies set the culture of “following” rather than “leading”.  What I mean by this is that instead of focusing on and following their own ethics, morals, values, communication methods, values, transparency, and ideals, they morph into the culture of their client’s organization.  Many of these consultants have multiple clients, so every time they interact with a different client, they adopt a different culture.  However, what if the solo consultant dreams of building a boutique consultancy that can be eventually sold to fund their retirement?  The solo consultant has not established a culture for their consultancy that reflects the essence of their beliefs and values.  What the clients know is that they are getting the solo consultant as a third-party member of the team.  Unfortunately, you cannot sell yourself to fund your retirement.  Therefore, by not creating a unique culture for the solo consultancy, the consultant will not have a consultancy to sell to fund retirement. 

Remember Peter Drucker’s quote, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”  If culture is set by the leader based on their ethics, morals, values, communication methods, transparency, and ideals and the culture is ineffectual, toxic, or hard to define, the good news is that you, as a leader, can make the changes necessary to turn the culture around.  However, that means putting ego and fear aside and taking the time to self-evaluate and work hard to course correct. 

I leave you with this quote from Scott Berkun, Author and Speaker, “Every CEO is in fact a Chief Cultural Officer.  The terrifying thing is it’s the CEO’s actual behavior, not their speeches or the list of values they have put up on posters, that defines what the culture is.  Without these four powers (hiring, Firing, Promoting, Punishing) any employee at the company is along for the ride in a culture driven by someone more powerful than they are.”

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