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Creating a Winning Culture in 3 Steps

In Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy famously mused that “happy families are all alike; every unhappy family, on the other hand, is unhappy in its own way.” Could the same be said of the organizations we live and work in?

In my experience, yes. Winning work cultures tend to embody the same core characteristics and are driven and shaped by the same fundamental DNA. And although every dysfunctional organization may be dysfunctional in its own way, it’s entirely within our reach to identify and understand what works for high-performing organizations, and to model our own work cultures off of these same principles.

So How Does One Begin?

Here are three simple questions that you and your management team can ask yourselves; questions which get at the root of cultural dysfunction and can reveal a path forward:

  1. What is the mission of your company? (If your management team can’t answer this, there’s a problem)
  2. How is the work that each of you does, day-to-day, tied to the ultimate business success of the company? (If each associate can’t answer this question, there’s work to be done)
  3. What do you want to be when you grow up and how is the work that you do, day-to-day, helping to advance you, personally, in that direction? (If each associate cannot answer this question, there is more work to be done).

What is the common element that ties all three of these questions together? The answer is… ‘Why’. If the WHYs are clear, the HOWs will work themselves out. Why are we doing what we are doing, as individuals, day-to-day (paying bills is not a valid answer)? How is this work tied to the ultimate business success and sustainability of the entire enterprise (top line and bottom line considerations would be valid here)?

Why do we exist as a business, and what is our relationship to the world at large, our communities, and the future (making money is not a valid answer here)?

If a company can get clear on all of this, you are well on your way to establishing a winning culture.

A winning culture is one in which, among other things, individuals are engaged and able to operate autonomously. On the personal level, this means that the work your associates are doing, and the challenges they are undertaking, are helping to advance them on their own professional journey of becoming (this is a much more powerful incentive than simply earning money and one which encourages complete engagement and psychological involvement). On an enterprise level, it means that your associates see at all times how the work they are doing as individuals is tied to the ultimate business success of the company, and this deepens their sense of meaning and purpose in relation to the organization as a whole.

Finally, it means that everyone in the organization is aware of how their collective business success is tied to a transcendent function of the enterprise within the community or the world at large.

Hallmarks of a Bad Culture:

  • Individuals are unclear about why they do what they do, from an individual perspective (besides earning a paycheck) and they don’t have a plan or future state career objective that they are aspiring towards (besides doing just enough not to get fired).
  • Individuals do not have a clear idea of how the work they are doing is meaningful from an enterprise perspective; they don’t understand how the projects they are on are ultimately tied back to high-level strategic objectives, or to top line/bottom line revenue objectives. 
  • Individuals do not have a clear sense of how the business success of the company as a whole is tied to a higher collective purpose, other than helping owners or managers get wealthier.

How Do You Enable a Winning Culture?

  • The highest levels of management must constantly communicate the company mission to the entire organization — while supporting and fighting for it (although to be sure, they should probably get clear on it first…)
  • Mid-level management must be encouraged by upper management to adopt a policy of transparency with regards to strategy and business objectives. That means that mid-level managers must understand how every project they manage is tied back to high-level objectives and they must be encouraged to communicate these connections and links regularly back to the associates they manage.
  • Upper management and HR must encourage mid-level managers to adopt an individual-centric development style whereby managers can consult with their associates to help them develop their own career paths, figure out where they want to be in the future, and help them find the mentors, learning, or work experience to bridge those gaps.

If you focus on your people and help them find greater fulfillment, they will never leave you.  There’s an often-quoted joke about this:

Too many organizations fail to develop the individual and end up with a stagnant workforce that is neither self-motivated nor ‘autonomous’. In fact, according to research, 72 percent of the US workforce is disengaged. As an owner or a high-level executive, this statistic should terrify you.

But the good news is this: now you know where to apply your efforts.

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