Jim Connor: is a former CEO of several public companies, and served at C – level positions in Fortune 500 organizations. He is viewed as a change agent and a common sense executive that feels as comfortable on the plant floor as in the board room. See Author at end of this article.
It seems apropos that Merriman-Webster named “Culture” the Word of the Year” in 2014. They concluded that there had been more interest in the word, either through look ups, internet searches, speeches, published articles, etc., than any other word. In our more limited field of business and organizational behavior, certainly nothing could be more true. The word probably has led the popularity list for years in the business world, although the definition has tweaked a bit over time. There’s reason for this. A company’s culture is the heartbeat of the organization. It is the way things get done, it is the culmination of ideas, it is the process through which they are generated, the creativity that is exercised, the methodology deployed providing these ideas to the leadership team and the way they eventually get implemented. There are almost as many books written on culture (organizational behavior, processes, whatever you want to call it) as there are on strategy. And that is not a small number! We could easily argue that a company’s culture is the most important factor that should be considered as organizations strive to be a successful company.
Culture to a company is like the bun of a hamburger. (I eat too much fast food.) The base of the burger supports all the meat in the sandwich along with all the extras, the lettuce, the pickles, the tomatoes, etc. The top of the bun covers the sandwich completely and is the force which holds it all together. Everything inside depends on the bun to be effective and make the sandwich work. No bun – no sandwich. A big, fresh baked bun (a great culture) can make that sandwich very tasty and distinctive from other burgers. The big fresh bun means lots of room for extras that can make a plain sandwich (i.e. the company) far better. The meat can be premium or low cost just as a company’s product line offering can be. The hamburger could have a great cheese (technology) or it can be kind of mediocre processed stuff. You get the idea by now. Just as in the sandwich, there is always a culture present, but a great culture can make a great sandwich. I mean company!
Great! Done, check the box on culture, the management team got it done. Sounds silly, but how many times have you seen this kind of thing happen? Perhaps not this obviously but too many times CEOs and management teams think of a cultural revolution as a task. Something to be resigned to an excel spreadsheet, a project management template, with action items and checklists. It has a completion date and accountability assignments. It becomes managed like a new product launch, or a capital investment, and since the finance people are normally pretty good at project management, and these tasks can easily be incorporated into the budget process, the Finance department now has the lead. The bun starts to crumble.
But culture is an evasive beast. It is not always easy to identify ineffective cultures, and very difficult to change them. In the spirit of continuous improvement, no matter how good our bun, we do need to improve it. But improving a culture is tough work.
To our valued associates:
The management team has developed the guidelines for a new company culture at our recent management meeting in Cobo San Lucas. Attached are the guidelines that we embraced as the leadership team. Posters on the new culture will be placed throughout the plant in the near future. Please implement these guidelines immediately and talk with your supervisor if you have any questions.
The Leadership Team
It is not always easy to identify ineffective cultures, and very difficult to change them. In the spirit of continuous improvement, no matter how good our bun, we do need to improve it. But improving a culture is tough work.
Great! Done, check the box on culture, the management team got it done. Sounds silly, but how many times have you seen this kind of thing happen? Perhaps not this obviously but too many times CEOs and management teams
Nothing against finance people, I’m a card carrying member, but culture is not a quantitative exercise. It’s not even a task to accomplish. What we’re after is an emotional series of events that is sustainable within the organization. We want to embrace, breathe and live that coveted “High Performance Culture”. One that has enthusiasm, beyond just motivation, one that spurs creativity with honesty and trust of fellow workers. It fosters a spirit of success and positive attitudes. There are no financial metrics to measure success, you have to be a believer. It will come. In a great culture, employees willingly and fearlessly sign up for challenges and initiate them because they believe in the mission. …..Wait a minute….. The mission? Indeed, the mission statement. Culture is the causatum of the mission. It is the base bun in the hamburger. The sandwich falls apart without this solid foundation. Put together a mission that employees can be part of, believe in, and point to as guidance every day. A mission you can constantly drive through communication, communication, communication, actions, actions, actions– now you have the solid foundation of a culture. Trying to generate a high performance culture without a rock solid mission statement is like trying to eat the hamburger without the bottom bun. Good luck with that, might as well have the salad.
Just a word on that “no metrics to measure success” comment above. Certainly we’re not doing this for sport. The bottom line and cash flow still are the fundamental scorecard of success. We get that. The point is you can’t start with the scoreboard. I once heard a CEO give an impassioned plea to employees for continuous improvement, asking them to always push the goal post back so it was always harder and harder to score. An employee asked the CEO “When will you ever be happy? When do we claim we won?” The CEO’s response was surprising – “I’ll be happy when everyone of you go home and tell your buddies, your neighbors, your relatives that ‘this company is a great place to work. I wish I could get you a job here, they treat you right. You work hard but they care about you and try to give you the support to do the best you can.’ – That’s when we win, this is our mission, this is how we define success.” That type of passion and commitment, a belief really, is the foundation of a High Performance Culture. That is a premium bun for the hamburger.
So to begin the journey to a High Performance Culture –
STEP ONE – BUILD A SOLID MISSION STATEMENT
No matter the size of the organization, EVERY employee ought to have a chance to contribute to that Mission Statement. We cannot emphasize this enough. Let everyone contribute. That kind of effort also means you will need help. You should solicit help from a qualified outsider. I know that sounds self-serving, but it just works better. You need a barbarian to move things along. Someone that can fearlessly challenge the status quo without any fear of reprisal. He can challenge the CEO just as easily as he can the maintenance crew. He needs to draw out comments from the team. This isn’t a bully, he’s a fearless facilitator.
It takes a while depending on organization size, but I’ve seen it successfully done with Fortune 500 companies, and company’s doing business globally with a dozen manufacturing sites including
Asia, South America, Europe and North America. It takes time and patience, but if employees have buy-in by building the mission statement you’re a lot farther ahead. A qualified barbarian to facilitate this is a necessity.
STEP TWO – FIND A Chief Human Resource Officer, CHRO.
This may be the person you have in-house but facilitating this move to a High Performance Culture falls to this individual. He/she draws out the CEO and his team, facilitates discussion sessions, meets with employees as small groups, large groups or individuals. He/she is knowledgeable and most of all trust worthy. Often, the best CHRO is someone outside the HR field. If you can find a technical person, an engineer or an operations background, all the better. They command a certain respect of “being in the trenches” and have a ton of credibility to employees. The employees know that this culture stuff is not their usual cup of tea, they must truly believe it. This person after all is the “chef” in cooking our burger. They need to take out the ingredients that don’t go well, adjust the number of other ingredients and add new items to truly make the output premium.
At this point in the process you have three of the necessary elements 1.) an involved employee base, they helped build the mission, and 2.) a trusted facilitator at a high level in the organization that will show you’re serious about a cultural shift and finally, 3.) you’ve chosen your barbarian. A shift to High Performance Culture is now all teed up. Everybody now has the bit in their teeth. The hamburger is ready to be assembled! Now what?
You can’t ask employees to change things, to be creative, to take calculated risks, to advance the organization unless you give them the ability to do so. We need to train and guide them to make decisions. We need to raise thresholds in approval levels for decision making (reasonable of course) and guide them as to the responsibility of the decision making process. We need to push decision making down multiple levels. Committees could be developed as a way to share the empowerment without making it overwhelming. The empowered employee has to understand their responsibility will increase. The organization is counting on them to make the right decisions and get them implemented. Fundamental skills training needs to be deployed on topics as conducting effective meetings, problem solving, communication, team building, etc. Yes, the next step in the process is
STEP THREE – EMPOWER THE EMPLOYEES
This one will be tough we’ve got a lot of work to do in empowering the people.
Many of you are now clutching your heart, saying OMG are you serious? Let these people decide stuff? It will be chaos. We’ll lose complete control; this will be crazy! Our response to that fear can be told through 100’s of success stories. Why was cellular manufacturing so successful in the 90’s? Because you gavemanufacturing cell teams the ability to make decisions on matters that, quite honestly, they knew more about than management. We have now seen cell teams, blue collar “factory rats”, running their production, securing material, hiring new employees, etc. far, far more effectively than the plant management teams ever did. Were mistakes made? Certainly, but the team made them work because they owned it. So, absolutely, let people make more decisions, increase responsibility. EMPOWER THEM!
Of course, you just don’t turn them loose, you have to train and provide some guidance, support and resources. Again CHRO has a big job. But the naysayers will soon find that better decisions are made and implemented if you get the heck out of the way. The outcome won’t be completely the way you would have done it, it may take longer at first, or a bad decision might evolve, but, ownership by the employee or the team will overcome this. They will make it work, and in the end, they will be thankful for the opportunity and the trust you gave them. Remember these are not monumental decisions. We’re not closing plants or discontinuing product lines. We are providing employees with the support and authority to take actions within their scope of work and slightly beyond. By trying to control things management will lose control of everything. The result will be disgruntled, ineffective and unmotivated employees. For all you executives that pride themselves on being “detail guys” – bad news. The micromanager gains a very false sense of security by making nitpicky changes, or delving into detail that should clearly be the responsibility of subordinates. Employees are demotivated and see no reason to take initiative since the micromanager changes it anyway, so why try? The organization is effectively choked and any hope of a High Performance Culture is gone.
Take the leap of faith and empower your people. Do not waiver in this, they’ll see through you in a heartbeat and all will be lost. Reward the success you see, and remember one, “AWE SHXX”, is the same as 100 Atta boys. Trust us on this one if you have difficulty. In the end, there is no place for a micromanager in a High Performance Culture and the CHRO has the responsibility to remedy this.
Step Three is much more involved than we put forward here. It is a long arduous exercise. The practical side of this step revolves around training, communication and leadership. It requires a well-qualified CHRO to develop and implement this empowerment, along with the barbarian, of course.
With the empowerment step in process, you will start to see some victories. The enthusiasm from the employees will grow if you sustain the movement. One very good way to sustain the movement is to celebrate even the smallest of victories. The employees have to see it working. So thus comes STEP FOUR – CELEBRATE THE VICTORIES. Everything works here. It’s the recognition to the employee or the plant that is important. Remember the High Performance Culture empowers and gives responsibility after employees receive the proper training. We’re developing a compelling need for action, to move outside the four walls of your comfort zone. Let the people know we’re happy they took the risk, embrace the change and reward, reward, reward.
The celebration should be well publicized. You don’t achieve much by calling an employee to the plant manager’s office and telling him great job, and give him a check of a nominal amount. You want the
world to know of your success. In one operation the President gave a cowboy hat at a plant wide meeting to the employee with the best success. The cowboy hat was from the story Will Rogers tells of two cowboys trying to find their way across a river in the open range. One stopped on his horse and wanted to go back. The other took his buddy’s hat and flung it across the river saying, “Stop complaining, now we’re going to get across this river!” The President had asked that the employees “throw their hats across the river” looking for new ways to do things on the plant floor. The cowboy hat was a small token of appreciation but highly visible and gave real recognition to the employee. Just one example of celebrating the victories.
After the organization has put together a series of victories it becomes a lot of fun. The management team challenge now faces a sustaining exercise which needs constant refreshing. You never, ever, ever stop making it different, never, ever, ever stop training, never, ever, ever stop moving forward.
We invite you now to look back at the article and note that not one time did we ever suggest that we start the move to a High Performance Culture by announcing it. The culture is the outcome of our actions, it is the way the company is organized, the way people are treated, how we handle problems, opportunities, the entire process of conducting business. It is the way the processes come together, the way the employees act to make things happen, the way problems are solved and decisions are made. Culture is the heartbeat in any organization. Whether defined or undefined there is a culture present and active in every organization. You can’t “build a culture”, you can change one certainly, but recognize that one already exists. You’re not starting with a blank sheet of paper.
What triggers the need to take a look at culture and determine if a change is indeed needed? We point to the glassy-eyed CEO, adrift in the sea of “organizational culture resources” that says to himself – “Do we need to change?” What do I change and how do I do that? What is the next step? We point out that culture is merely the by-product of the efforts and effectiveness of the organization. A High Performance Culture is one that draws upon motivated employees, treated fairly, respected by all, that are trained, given the resources, the authority and the responsibility to make effective decisions.
The hamburger bun is the key for a great sandwich. A poor bun will not let you build a burger with adequate meat, cheese, lettuce… the burger just falls apart. You largely waste your money and time trying to make that hamburger premium. Spend your time and money on a great bun, then start making your burger.
Sound hard? It’s not.
About the author: Jim Connor is a former CEO of several public companies, and served at C – level positions in Fortune 500 organizations. He is viewed as a change agent and a common sense executive that feels as comfortable on the plant floor as in the board room. His career has spanned over 42 years of management experience. He has led international organizations through successful turnaround efforts, inspired management teams to achieve their “Quest” for continuous improvement, been a friend, a counselor and an advocate for teams around the world. He has always been passionate about employee involvement and is viewed as the ubiquitous CEO. He is now Managing Director at Alderney Advisors, llc a financial, operational, strategic and general consulting firm located in southeast Michigan.