Spirit Guide to Creating Corporate Culture

Many people today spend more time at work than they do at home. This modern work style has sparked employers in all industries to provide on-site daycare facilities, flexible hours, employee stores, exercise facilities, internal coffee shops, employee play centers, even overnight sleep areas to help care for the hearts and minds of their crews.

Some companies even hire personal coaches (also known as executive or life coaches) for their executives, to better align work and soul.

These physical manifestations–the result of a work ethic summed up as “24/7/365”, points not only to functional employee benefits, but to a corresponding search for meaning inside the work place; a quest for soul in work.

The deeper objective for leaders today is to create a community inside the company body that people can believe in. The result can be amped up employee morale, increased retention, better performance, and improved, mission-driven organizations.

Designing organizational culture.

Organizational culture becomes more important than ever when your company is under siege. Financial firms like Citibank, Morgan Stanley, Credit Suisse, Deutsche Bank and others have taken blows to the body corporate that have resulted in public humiliation, layoffs, decreased profits and lost employee morale. The corporate psyche has suffered.

Looked at holistically, organizational cultures are not simply functional operations. They are supportive internal communities that provide vision, trust, empathy and relevance that resonate far outside the corporate campus. They attract others who share your beliefs. How? By creating a belief system (and way of thinking) that motivates your employees and inspires others.

“Org-pride keeps workers committed to the firm when the pay is low, the bosses are stupid and the company’s stocks are hitting bottom,” quips one recruiting firm blog.

All over the world, people are dedicated to creating the next software advance, the next genetic leap forward, new financial tools, new design ideas, political battles, or the next advance in everything. These men and women are willing to sacrifice meals, sleep, social life, family time, even their own health in order to create the next next thing.
Why? Because they are driven by a higher ideal. They want to earn a paycheck, certainly, but they also believe in their quest so fervently they will give up all else in that pursuit. Today, it’s not enough that customers enjoy the products our company makes; it’s also important that we enjoy making the products our customers want.

What it boils down to is meaning.

“When you ask people what’s important to them, and really ask it,” says Gary Hirshberg, CEO of Stonyfield Farms. “You find out that most folks are looking for meaningful work–and meaning in their life, because they spend so damn much of their time at work.”

Fact is, even 9 to 5 employees who invest themselves in what the company is about become better people on the job. They have more positive interactions with co-workers, figure out how to perform tasks more efficiently, work better with customers and suppliers, exhibit less stress, and are more motivated to engage themselves in the success of the organization.

Today’s corporate leaders find themselves asking the question, What kind of company would we have if the people who worked here actually believed in what they were doing? Would our company be the same as it is now, or would it be better? For most executives, the answer is the latter.

Creating cultures that work.

Companies that people believe in have an inherent belief system that halos everyone around it. These companies have create resonant, sought-after cultures where people love to work. Belief systems have a construct of seven elements called the primal code. Those companies that have these seven assets become vibrant, resonant cultures. Those that do not, are not.

This is a simple outline of the seven pieces of primal code:

1. The creation story. In the beginning, there was someone with an idea that ripped apart the way things used to be. It was better, cheaper, faster, stronger, cleaner, more powerful. They made it in their garage, in the basement, they started in a hotel room. Even the largest companies in the world today, from Microsoft and IBM to Google, started as small businesses facing enormous odds. The creation story of these companies becomes the ur-legend as the company grows and is filled with hundreds, even thousands, of new employees who arrive each morning wondering why they are there.

“Teach org history,” counsels one placement firm. “Make admiration for the founders part of the company culture. Make workers feel part of a noble tradition.”

2. The organizational creed. The question, “What are we doing here?” is one that people ask themselves each morning, at every meeting, at the end of every workday. “The strategies change and the purpose changes,” says UPS CEO Mike Eskew in a New York Times profile. “But the values never change.” Whether the mission is to provide a synchronous global supply chain like UPS, legendary customer service like Nordstorm’s, or an information resource like Google, the creed sums up the organizational vision, values, and reason for being. (The problem at some financial firms these days is surely that their creed of providing wealth and financial acumen for customers has been demonstrably violated.)

Employees who do not understand their purpose will never be motivated, efficient, or highly productive.

How the company got its start and what the company is all about are crucial and elemental pieces of the primal code. But they are only the beginning.

3. Icons. Company icons are quick imprints on your customers and employees. The company logo and corporate identity system are obvious. Other icons include the physical environment, products, even company leaders.

Architecture has become a powerful icon. Whether company headquarters has been designed by Rem Koolhaas or Enzo Piano today has tremendous meaning. Look at central London. New skyscrapers there defy the traditional 18th Century London urbanscape. Why? “People working in today’s downtown [London] tend to be highly paid specialists,” says Architectural Record. “An amenable office has become part of what attracts talent.” The location, size and status of the headquarters building, what the main lobby and reception look like are also to be considered. If you’re a retail organization, what your stores, banks or restaurants look and feel like is critically important.

The company leader—think Richard Branson, Stephen Spielberg, Bill Gates, Sandy Weill—is also an important icon.

4. If icons are the physical manifestations of the organization, company rituals are the organization in motion. Annual meetings, staff meetings, project reports, team checkpoints, factory recalls, trade shows, sales meetings, even interfacing with the receptionist become repeated interactions that are crucial cultural touchpoints and sum up who you are as an organization.

How people shop is a ritual. As financial blogging sites like wisebread.com demonstrate, there isn’t just one way of connecting with consumers anymore. (Social personal finance site Wesabe lets customers call their CEO four hours a day, seven days a week in their “Talk To Jason” program.)

Another word for ritual is process. “That’s how we do it here” and “that’s not how we do it here” are telling phrases that can set up the success or failure of the organization. What processes best deliver your mission to customers? Which processes prevent you from fulfilling your mission?

Rituals happen. Step into Best Buy headquarters at 10:30AM any weekday morning and you will find the main lobby congested with Best Buy employees. These people are many leagues from their legitimate workstations. Why? The Caribou coffee shop located on the first floor is the morning watering hole. Staff endure a line often 20-deep to enjoy the rite. Cell phones vibrate. Interviews are held. Meetings–planned and unplanned–take place. Ritual helps build resonant buzzing communities.

5. The sacred words. Every organization has a lexicon that distinguishes it from competitors. Some words are ingrained in processes, technology and words that surround our product or services. Others become co-worker catchphrases that bond and unite us (“Iced grande skinny decaf latte”, “QSR”, “TLA”). Every new employee spends their first few weeks learning and understanding your terms of art, anecdotes and processes. They must adapt your lexicon into their vocabulary, or they never quite “fit in”.

6. The nonbelievers. For every trend there is a counter-trend. While we try to identify people willing to work with us, there is great power in knowing who we do not want to work with us–who we do not want as part of our community. Even as employers providing equal opportunity, we can still decide which persons are skilled, qualified and best fits for our culture. There is power in understanding who we do not want to become. Think Target vs. Kmart. Porsche vs. Oldsmobile. JetBlue vs. American Airlines. Understanding who we are not, helps define who we are. It also helps us define new market opportunities: if we discern people who do not like sugar, we can create sugar-free. If we identify a group of talented people who do not (or cannot) work 9 to 5, we can create flex hours.

7. Leaders. Understanding who the leader is within your organization is critical for the people who work there. Not all heads of corporations are front page leaders like Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Oprah Winfrey or Steve Jobs. Nevertheless, employees need to know who is steering the boat. Not having clear-cut leadership—whether it is top leadership, or a department or team leader, can lead to confusion and loss of morale. Confused employees are not motivated employees.

The primal code gives leaders the ability to manage the intangibles of an organization: the ways people feel, act, think and motivate themselves to success. Leaders can create a community (call them employees, staff, co-workers) who are committed to the ideals, mission and opportunities of the organization. Nowhere else is quite so right for them. Because employees thrive, the company thrives. This is what Whole Foods CEO John Mackey calls the “virtuous cycle”. Happiness begets happiness.
Once leaders look at their organization through the perceptual lens of the primal code and see their company as a belief system, they can bring new levels of commitment, trust, relevance, and opportunity into their workplace.

Culture counts.

Companies with vibrant brand narratives seize imaginations. They become compelling places at which to recruit, work and invest. This is especially important when attracting new talent.

“Culture is huge,” says Mark Jaffe, head of recruiting firm Wyatt & Jaffe. “Is this a club you want to be a member of? For a lot of people, it’s the number one thing.”

“Corporate culture is important in any situation,” agrees Bernadette Kenny, executive vice president at Lee Hecht Harrison, a human resources consulting firm in New Jersey. “If you’re at the senior VP level, culture should be first on your list–who’s on the management team, what are the vision and goals of the organization.” Having a vibrant culture not only attracts new hires, it resonates with new customers, vendors, and investors.

When competitors encroach on your territory with new technologies, new products, sales initiatives, or other means, companies with vigorous cultures have a better chance of survival. Employees, customers, vendors and lenders stick with them, because the community they have created resonates outward.

Merging colliding cultures.

Mergers are an incredible opportunity for establishing culture within organizations. When companies with different people, places and philosophies merge together to form the Wachovias, Altrias, Interpublics and AOL Time Warners of the world, they bring with them inherently disparate cultures.

People working within the blended organization are faced with sweeping change on the fly. The traditional Monday morning meetings have been moved to Thursday afternoon. Loyal, long-time employees complain, “it’s just not the same here anymore.”

The clash of differing beliefs, different ways of working, even opposing views on how best to create their services and products results in a confused sense of mission, blurred motivations, loss of leadership, disgruntled employees, apathy and work by rote.

Rather than letting “things sort themselves out”, using the primal code can help level-set merging cultures. They can redefine the creation story, icons, creed, ritual and other pieces of primal code to create a revitalized belief system and a blended, cohesive workforce. People suddenly find themselves “feeling OK”. There is a renewed sense of commitment, trust, empathy, vision, and the potential to create an even stronger company than existed before. Which is why you merged in the first place.

After working with a technology firm, an employee stopped us in the hallway. “That was great what you did here,” she said. “It’s better here now.”

Understanding and managing a belief system using the primal code means CEOs, HR and other managers can manage the intangibles of their brand, enhance employee spirit, and make 24/7/365 a better place to work, play and succeed.