Mistake #6 (Part 1): Thinking a good culture is something that just “happens”

The hiring of an employee is a huge investment for a company. And an obligation. Some CEOs think that by providing someone with a paycheck, they have dispensed their obligation. This couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, a paycheck is just the jumping off point if you truly want to create a successful company.

An organization spends a lot of money to hire superstar employees and it should make the most of it. A CEO’s goal should be to motivate and excite employees about both their role and the company at large. She needs to truly engage them in a meaningful way such that the company is  making the most of their skills, talents, and abilities. And an organization needs to lock their employees into the company so that the investment in them pays off.

To do this, you need the right company culture. You can hire all the superstars that you want but if you put them in the wrong environment, they’ll quickly become liabilities. Successful HCM means not only getting the right talent with the right skills but it also means getting it in the right place at the right time. By “right place”, I mean both the right culture and environment, as well as the right organizational design.

Superstars are not de facto superstars. They are superstars because in the right culture and with the right support, they have the tools, talent, and personality to make an enormous contribution. I recall a project manager, Juan, who was terminated for performance when he was at a company at which I also worked. He joined another company shortly thereafter and later called to thank me for his firing. Juan was thought of as a superstar at his new company and had a promotion to Director to prove it.

The company I was with at the time talked a lot about process and discipline but, in fact, they rarely had use for either. It relied on (and celebrated) as part of its culture last minute heroics by employees to get jobs done and meet deadlines. People saw what was rewarded there and acted accordingly.

Juan, however, was extremely rigorous, disciplined and process oriented. Because of the mismatch between his skills and the company culture, he kept running into brick walls every time he tried to advance a project in a thoughtful, methodological way. His low-key personality also hindered him from being able to influence people from following his lead.

The new company, on the other hand, was world re-known for its process discipline and rigor. This discipline had been well inculcated into the culture and clearly shaped the way all of its employees thought and acted. In this environment, Juan thrived. He was in his element. He was a superstar.

There are many lessons in Juan’s story, the most important of which is that the culture of a company is vital to the success of each and every employee. Talent and capability alone mean nothing if that talent is wasted in the wrong environment. It is therefore imperative that every employee hired into company be a fit with that particular company culture. The problem arises, however, when no one can actually express with any certainty exactly what are these cultural characteristics.

Management specialist John Reh defines company culture as “the term given to the shared values and practices of the employees”. These shared practices help influence an employee’s actions and behaviors. The CEO’s behaviors create this culture. All employees will follow her signals, consciously or unconsciously, and mimic her behaviors.

In the absence of any action on the part of the CEO, a culture does indeed, just “happen”. Her behaviors and actions, good and bad, simply become the culture. And that is unfortunate. Chances are it is not the culture that you either really want or really think will help you succeed. But now it exists.

The good news is that you have the power to change the culture at any time. But it is a lot harder to change an entrenched culture than it is to be thoughtful about its creation from the very beginning. This is one of the reasons why it is important to hire a senior HR leader from the beginning to help you think through culture creation and shaping.

Your HR leader can help you in a number of ways to go through the process of culture diagnosis and creation. He can help be your thought partner in determining the appropriate cultural characteristics, help to facilitate an offsite with the executive team where the culture is discussed, and take the lead on implementing plans that signal to the company that the culture is shifting. He is also the culture watchdog, ensuring that the agreed upon culture is followed throughout the company in people’s thoughts, actions, and deeds.

While ideally a culture is resilient enough to be self-correcting, a strong HR leader is imperative to help prevent unwanted changes in the culture from occurring. And while the CEO calls the culture, it is the HR leader who is responsible for holding up a mirror to the CEO so that she sees and understands both her behavior and the impact of that behavior on the culture.



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