Fast-growing companies want to quickly hire and onboard people who are not only smart and capable but also a good “culture fit” for the organization. The question is, what does “culture fit” mean, and how do we communicate company culture in a way that is both clear and tangible?
Define the Culture
Company cultures have been described as “the way things get done around here” or “the water in which we swim.” Neither of which are particularly helpful when talking with applicants or onboarding new employees as they dive into the deep end. Leaders must explicitly define and set expectations for the company culture they want to create.
One of the key ways to communicate company culture is through a company’s vision, mission, and values. Unfortunately, some companies create lengthy vision and mission statements or have a list of core values a mile long. The result? None of it is useful. These cultural artifacts may be displayed on a website or flashed across a screen during meetings, but often people don’t even know where to find them, let alone how to embody them. Three things must be true to communicate culture effectively: Head-Heart-Hands.
Head – Are the vision, mission, and values so clear and concise people can easily explain them off the top of their head? Our brains haven’t changed in thousands of years. We may have a vast amount of storage space, but we have a very small working memory to process and retrieve information. Why is that important? If we can’t easily remember the vision, mission, and values of our company, then it’s unlikely they will influence our behavior.
Heart – Are the vision, mission, and values inspiring? People want to feel motivated by the purpose of the organization and connected to the values. They want to feel energized by the vision for their future and proud to belong to a successful work community.
Hands – Are the vision, mission, and values actionable? Culture is not just an idea. Culture flows through people’s “hands” in the actions they take, the work they do, and the relationships they build.
We must be able to know the culture in our Head, so it can inspire our Hearts, and be delivered through our Hands. Through this integration we connect with culture as a whole person, and this connection distinguishes true commitment from passive compliance. True commitment means we authentically give our time, attention, and talent to achieve results, and those results are aligned with the company culture we aspire to create.
Explicit communication about mission, vision, and values is important, but it is not sufficient in how we communicate culture. As the old saying goes, people may pay attention to what we say, but they are far more likely to pay attention to what we do.
Live the Culture
Anyone can slap words on a wall and call them values. Organizations have “espoused values” (what they say their values are), and they have “values in practice” (the values they live day in and day out). How closely aligned an organization’s espoused values are with the values in practice is a measure of cultural integrity, and it is palpable in “the way things get done around here.”
Leaders must actively seek feedback about where organizational values are aligned and where there are gaps. This takes courage and candor, both from the leadership who ask the questions and the people who provide feedback. Creating a culture of courage and candor is the topic for another blog post (and many, many leadership books). We can start by asking a few simple questions:
- “What are examples of how we live our values?”
- “What are examples of how we are not living our values?”
- “What is at least one thing we could do differently to close that gap?”
If we really want ongoing honest feedback, we must do at least three things:
Create Safety – People must feel safe providing honest feedback. Some leaders have created trust and safety among their teams. However, even more leaders think people feel safe when they don’t. Rather than assume everyone feels safe, assume everyone does not feel safe, and solicit feedback accordingly. One of the easiest ways to solicit “safe” feedback is through a brief, anonymous survey with open-ended questions like the ones above. Surveys are not a perfect mechanism for feedback, but they’re a start.
Acknowledge Input – Acknowledge people’s feedback and summarize the resulting themes. This helps people feel heard and connect the dots between their input and the feedback from the overall team or organization.
Take Action – The only thing worse than not soliciting feedback is soliciting feedback and not acting on it. Sometimes the actions we need to take are clear. Other times, we may not know how to solve a problem, and we have to ask for help. It’s not about finding a “perfect” solution. It’s about taking action to experiment and try new things, so people see that we genuinely want to live the values we espouse.
Grow the Company Culture
As companies grow, the culture naturally changes. The core values are still fundamental, but the diversity of perspectives and how those values are lived will grow and expand. Like an acorn that grows into a towering oak tree, values are the seed that will guide authentic growth. So, how do we grow a culture as we scale a company? One of the best ways to grow and keep people connected to the culture is to encourage stories about how people are living the values.
Human beings are natural storytellers. We have passed on knowledge and understanding through stories for generations, especially knowledge that may be difficult to define, such as culture. Encourage people to tell their stories about how they are living the values, how they see others living the values, and the impact these experiences have on them, both large and small. Integrate a diverse range of voices into what the values mean to different people. Diversity of thinking and perspectives is critical to creating a strong, sustainable culture and overall organization.
Culture is not just something that happens around us, it is something that connects us and becomes a part of us. As a result, the way a company culture is most effectively communicated is not through slides in a presentation or a list of values on a wall. The most effective way to communicate culture is through the thoughts, actions, and experiences of the people living it.