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Creating a culture of excellence: the Goldilocks approach

two different people with different skills are creating culture of excellence

At Fingerprint for Success, our core belief around leadership and culture-building rests on the importance of empathy and being understanding of each other’s unique circumstances, while coaching for performance and wellbeing. 

The way we look at the culture of excellence topic is a bit different from some other approaches, then. You will occasionally hear/read that a culture of excellence is about universal positivity in the organization. While it’s no doubt great to work at a highly-positive place, overly-positive cultures can become smothering with time, and real change (which often emerges from understanding and navigating conflict) can be hard to come by. 

As noted in this article on “the dark side of engaged cultures,” “the last 30 years have been littered with companies that were deeply proud of what they were doing but not dissatisfied or paranoid enough to stay ahead of the competition — Nokia, Kodak and Yahoo! are just a few examples. Needless to say, progress is generally driven by people who reject the status quo and are dissatisfied enough to seek to change it.”

At the other end of the spectrum, some founders and executives want a highly-competitive culture, akin to almost a Fight Club-style situation where employees are always out-working and out-hustling each other, and the best ones rise upwards in the hierarchy. These cultures can drive and sustain growth for a period of time, and revenues may rise as well, but they also drive and sustain burnout and turnover, and overly-competitive cultures don’t tend to last very long. 

We look at building a culture of excellence with a Goldilocks eye, then: the overly-positive porridge is too hot, and the overly-competitive porridge is too cold. You need a happy medium for your culture, and you want to ultimately achieve this culture of excellence idea. 

But how?

Table of contents
Statistics on the importance of company culture
Culture of excellence: The big factors you need to be considering
For those that struggle with the term: What is “culture?”
Get tactical: Build a culture of excellence
About this “revisiting” idea for a culture of excellence
The bottom line on building a culture of excellence

    Statistics on the importance of company culture

    • 88%: Of job seekers cite culture as a factor of large importance in their search. [1]
    • 35%: Of hired candidates have turned down a job because of culture fit issues. [2]
    • 26%: Employees are 26% more likely to leave their jobs when the culture doesn’t encourage teamwork and collaboration. [3]
    • 4x: Employees with poor relationships with their manager are 4x more likely to take outside interviews. [4]
    • 32%: Of employees would take a 10% pay cut for more purpose and a greater culture where they work. [5]
    • 58%: Of employees would take a lower-paying job for the opportunity to have a great boss. [6]
    • 88%: Of employees believe a strong culture is core to a company’s success. [7]
    • 43%: Of employees leave their job because of a lack of opportunities in the future. [8]

    Culture of excellence: The big factors you need to be considering

    By now, you’ve probably read enough business articles that you know some of the words coming here, but the big buckets include:

    • A vision and purpose that make sense, and are clearly articulated to all levels of the organization.
    • Opportunities for collaboration, teamwork, and teams developed along the idea of “psychological safety.”
    • Clear and consistent communication between all levels, including taking into account each employee’s preferred approach to communication (platforms, channels, etc.)
    • Opportunities for growth both in terms of responsibilities and compensation if performance warrants those new opportunities.
    • Accountability and recognition from leadership down, and from regular employees up.
    • An opportunity for all employees to understand the end user/customer, and have experience interacting with them, so that they can craft ideas related to customer experience and satisfaction.
    • While work does not have to be fun, and in fact the very word “work” is not typically associated with fun, there should be a spirit of fun or connectedness among teammates. This is admittedly harder during COVID, although still worth striving for.
    • Repeated opportunities to revisit the culture and reimagine what exactly it is.
    • Flexibility in working hours/conditions relative to children, aging parents, other life needs, etc.

    For those that struggle with the term: What is “culture?”

    It can admittedly be an amorphous word, and it means a lot of different things to different people. For some employees, free tacos and beanbag chairs might be a “good culture.” For others, it might be the opportunity to get a raise every year. For still others, it might be their interactions with teammates and other functional teams. It’s important to meet each person where they’re at -- manage to the one, not the many -- but we still need an overarching definition of “culture.”

    Wharton (UPenn) defines it in an article on “the workplace culture chasm:”

    Culture has been a real focus for many years. I think organizations are realizing that, while we describe culture a lot of different ways, it really boils down to the nature of the relationships between the people in the organization.

    That’s the essential nature of it, yes: the relationships between all the people in the organization. 

    Emma Seppalla, who is a Stanford professor and Director of their Compassion Center, has a “positive culture” focus which we don’t completely agree with (see above), but in this relationship context, she notes six attributes of cultures of excellence:

    • Caring for, being interested in, and maintaining responsibility for colleagues as friends.
    • Providing support for one another, including offering kindness and compassion when others are struggling.
    • Avoiding blame and forgiving mistakes.
    • Inspiring one another at work.
    • Emphasizing the meaningfulness of the work.
    • Treating one another with respect, gratitude, trust, and integrity.

    In short: the culture comes down to the people and the relationships between them, which don’t need to be overly-positive but do need to be supportive. 

    Caveat to all this: there is sometimes a belief, because of the importance of the overall mission of the company to the subsequent culture, that missions need to be displayed everywhere, ideally in some graphic way. Many leadership experts have noted this idea over time. While there is certainly nothing wrong with a giant spray-painted mural of your mission statement, that alone is not “your culture.” 

    Culture is something that is lived and breathed every day; it’s the experience of working at that organization, with those people, in that time frame. If you had a job at a place in 2015, and boomerang’ed back to that organization in 2020, the “culture” would be different, because the people would be different, their relationships would be different, and the markets they compete in would be different. The spray-paint of the mission might be the same on the wall, but the culture is more than that. It’s about relationships.

    Get tactical: Build a culture of excellence

    Some ideas:

    • Do not necessarily let HR own “culture:” It’s a dichotomy because HR is typically the department that manages the termination of people, and can sometimes be viewed as the office cop. Most employees don’t want the same department who polices them to manage their “culture.” Culture should come from the founders, owners, executives, and ideally be co-created once/twice a year with a new set of rules developed company-wide. 
    • Ban the phrase “That’s not in my job description:” Nothing infuriates people at a job more, and cracks the culture faster, than “I can’t do that because I need to stay in this specific lane.” While we don’t want people to take every project thrown at them (creates burnout), people need to be willing to help others when the situation demands it, especially in high growth ventures.
    • Coach people, especially managers: Being a manager is not just a promotion; it’s an entirely different job role which requires new skill sets, specifically “softer” skills like empathy and successful communication. Coaching leaders, managers and employees leads to massive ROI gains, and a happier, more productive team.
    • Align strategy with execution: Strategy is typically set at the top levels and filters down. While that’s the easiest way to set strategy, typically, the strategic parts need to be aligned with people’s day-to-day work, or you create a culture of Facebook-surfing and confusion. Brief thought challenge for you: if you could make $120,000/year but came to work and did nothing of importance, would you? What if the other option was $80,000/year where you felt really good about your accomplishments?
    • Care: Most effective cultures begin here. If the top of the hierarchy doesn’t care and doesn’t revisit the culture periodically, it’s not a culture of excellence. It’s just a static set of words that aren’t being lived and tweaked. 

    About this “revisiting” idea for a culture of excellence

    Once or twice a year, bring employees together, ideally in-person. Go over:

    • The mission statement
    • The purpose of the org
    • Who you serve customer-wise
    • Core tenets/values

    Have an open discussion. Are these still the same as the last time we convened? What has changed? What’s the same/different? Are the values alienating to any newer employees? What needs to be added or subtracted?

    If you do this twice a year, you create culture discussions, and mission/purpose discussions, that are living, breathing things, and you move much closer to a culture of excellence.

    The bottom line on building a culture of excellence

    Care about people, care about what you represent to the world, care about the relationships within your organization, lead with empathy, coach and train individuals (especially managers), and foster psychological safety. Those are the building blocks for a culture of excellence.

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