Foster a Healthy Corporate Culture

5 October 2009 Bob Prosen

In an exclusive excerpt from Kiss Theory Good Bye – Five Proven Ways to Get Extraordinary Results in Any Company, author Bob Prosen explains why creating and maintaining the right corporate culture is any leader’s greatest challenge.

Unfortunately politics are unavoidable in business, and the bigger the company, the more politics are present. But politics are the archenemy of a healthy culture. More quickly than anything else, politics will kill the spirit of teamwork and divert the focus from the company’s primary objectives. Therefore, a superior leader must root out politics wherever and whenever they arise and call a halt to political behaviour in a pointed and public way. Let everyone know that you won’t tolerate political manoeuvres.

Some of my clients respond that politics are inevitable, that people are political and you can’t do anything about it.

Sure I can, and so can you. People are social, but they aren’t necessarily political. A true leader can shape an organisation’s culture so that politics are minor and teamwork to reach shared goals is paramount.

Here’s a typical scenario: you’re in a meeting, trying to reach consensus. You finally unite everyone in agreement. Then, after the meeting, you begin to hear hedging. Some of those who agreed in the public venue are privately expressing doubt.

The solution is to immediately recall those who were in the meeting and bring dissenting opinions into the open for debate. Then when everyone is realigned, make it clear that when you leave the meeting you expect everyone to unilaterally support the decisions in every conversation with every employee. A healthy culture grows from honest, open communication, not closed-door, behind-the-scenes politics.

I always ask leaders if they are willing to do what it takes to ensure that all of their employees are focused on meeting or exceeding the leaders’ most critical business goals. Sounds impossible to do, right? But it’s doable with an all-out commitment to a healthy corporate culture. The most important aspects of a healthy culture are establishing clear objectives, effective communication, implementing an accountability-based leadership model focused on results instead of activity, eliminating victim mentality, minimising politics, proactive teamwork, establishing effective measurements and rewards, and mastering personal involvement in day-to-day aspects of the business.

"A true leader can shape an organisation’s culture so that politics are minor and teamwork to reach shared goals is paramount."

When it comes to executing for results, accountability is your primary driver. Profitability and results start by assigning clear ownership to every aspect of the business.

A superior leader is direct and forthright with people in every conversation, letting them know where they stand, what’s needed from them, and when it is needed. Often good leaders can become great leaders by reshaping the way they talk.

When you make a request of someone, take a little extra time to explain why you are making it. Put it in context and explain why it’s important to the goals of the business. Then the person can provide a more robust solution because she understands the purpose of the task and how the information will be used. Ask what the person needs to complete the task. This approach removes excuses, reduces rework, and is a great way to build relationships. It’s also a great way to develop future leaders by increasing responsibility and encouraging decision making and creativity. By holding others accountable, you are teaching them to accept responsibility.

When you follow an accountability-based leadership model, based on clear objectives and clear measurements, it exposes the effectiveness - and ineffectiveness - of your company at all levels. Results speak for themselves, and they speak volumes. Those who achieve their objectives and treat people fairly along the way can be targeted to play increasingly important roles in the business.

It’s easy to determine whether your organisation has an accountability-based culture. Just listen to the conversation going on in meetings. Is conversation directed toward commitment? Are individuals talking about what is important and what will and won’t get done? Are they making requests of one another and asking for commitments? Or do conversations stray to generalities, vagueness, rationalisation, and missed expectations?

Do you have people who constantly talk about how hard they work, how many hours they put in, how little vacation they take, yet you wonder what they actually produce? If so, most often these people are focused on activities instead of results. They will continue to do this as long as your culture condones this behaviour.

I know a group is performing well when they talk about actual results, not the activities and hurdles along the way. When team members hold themselves accountable, you hear responsibility in their conversations. They ask one another for help in order to get on track. There are no victims, excuses, or concerns over a lack of knowledge. Instead they are searching for the knowledge and support they need from everyone around the table to reach the company’s goals.

Superior leaders work diligently to maintain company-wide focus on management’s most critical business goals and to see these goals become results.

To maintain this type of focus on a company’s critical path to results and profitability, leaders must first provide clear direction that is concise and easy to understand. Do you want to dramatically increase the probability of success while reducing mistakes, rework, and unnecessary expense? If so, then clearly state objectives and make specific requests based on those objectives. As a result, employees will know what’s expected of them, because you have told them directly and unambiguously.

It’s easy to determine whether or not the company is focused on the most critical business goals. Just walk around and ask individual employees what the company’s top business goals are and what they are doing today to accomplish them.

If one of the top goals is to increase profit by 2% over the previous year, you should expect to hear responses similar to the following when you ask how a particular department is helping the company accomplish its goal:

  • Human resources: We are revising the commission plan to increase sales of higher-margin products by 20%.
  • Finance: We are refining the labour-reporting system to more accurately calculate individual product margins by the end of the first quarter.
  • Sales: We are training our salespeople on the new customer credit screening process to help reduce bad debt by 10%.
  • Customer service: We are determining the root causes of all warranty claims to reduce the amount by 20%.
  • Manufacturing: We are reducing the cost of waste 15% by selling production by-products and scrap to the secondary market.

Simply listen to their responses.

Superior leaders must also provide measurement tools required to keep the company constantly moving toward its top objectives. With proper measures in place, every employee should be able to answer yes to the question; did my actions today move the company closer to achieving our most critical business goals?

Master communicators

A first-rate leader must clearly communicate and integrate company objectives with the culture and then delegate responsibility. Micromanaging is often evidence of the need to delegate more effectively and strengthen trust and accountability. Here, the lesson is to keep important information flowing. Have you ever worked in a company where employees said they were given too much information?

"Superior leaders work diligently to maintain company-wide focus on management’s most critical business goals and to see these goals become results."

I once worked for Fred Lawrence, executive vice-president for Sprint, who was a master communicator. He made sure everyone was informed by holding regular all-management meetings to discuss status and important updates. Whenever he would discuss a topic that involved your area of responsibility, he would ask you to elaborate and participate directly in the discussion. He would also call you up to ask for your advice before making key decisions.

Fred made himself very visible to employees by holding skip-level meetings and by travelling to remote locations to speak directly with field personnel. He made you feel like an insider, and he trusted people with important information. He also shot straight and offered encouragement even when delivering bad news.

There are too few leaders like Fred Lawrence. Instead, I continually hear employees say they don’t know the company’s top objectives, and exactly what they are supposed to do to accomplish them, or they don’t understand why management asks them to focus on one aspect of the business as opposed to another.

In fact, top management rarely visits with employees to discuss issues and communicate objectives in order to find out what is really going on.

If the questions, why did I have to read about it in the paper? and why was I the last to know? sound familiar to you, then you aren’t sharing enough of the right information with your employees. The most important aspects of effective communication are the following:

  • Members of management who view themselves as teachers
  • Clarity, honesty, candour, and the ability to listen
  • Prioritised objectives that focus on the significant few versus the many
  • Relentless communication of the company’s top objectives
  • Refusing to allow the company to be run by the rumour mill
  • Management that remains visible and interacts with all levels of employees

When you believe you are communicating enough, communicate more. Successful companies are filled with great people making commitments to fulfil objectives, all linked through effective communications.