Written by Jill Krumholz and Susan Kreeger
When Ginni Rometty was appointed CEO of IBM a few years ago, she was tasked with adapting the successful global brand to remain at the forefront of the next decade of computing advances. Overhauling a company as large as IBM was a massive undertaking, but as Rometty herself said, “You can engineer change.” Central to her strategy for doing this was a revamp of the company’s culture.
As she pared away less relevant sectors of the company and started new initiatives, she also thought about what kind of culture would foster the innovation and productivity necessary to secure the company’s future. She came up with a list of key traits and values she felt exemplified IBM’s new direction and distributed them on ID-type cards to every employee in the company. She used these values to guide her own decision-making as well, creating a model for thought and behavior that began at the very top of the organization.
Rometty’s view that “Culture is your company’s number one asset” is one widely shared by top executives at some of the most successful, relevant companies worldwide. CEO’s are coming to see cultivating culture not as an amenity or a secondary concern but as a critical factor in business success or failure and the glue that binds together strategy, innovation, leadership, talent development, customer service and excellence in execution.
The famous management consultant and author Peter Drucker once pointed out that culture is one of the most underappreciated essentials in business: no matter how visionary, brilliant and far-reaching a leader’s strategy might be, it can all come undone if it is not fully supported by a strong and spirited corporate culture.
Strong culture does not happen by accident or overnight. Rather, it is created by a number of practical tools and techniques designed to change the way an organization thinks and acts. Here are some recommendations of steps you can take, as CEO, to build and foster a rich cultural identity that will have impact on your company’s performance:
1. Zero in on your company’s core values
Identify what is already working well and emphasize it. If there is a lot that needs to be changed, keep it simple and sustainable. Pick a few values and practices you’d like to encourage, and focus on them.
2. Lead by example
If you want to encourage greater energy and collaboration in your organization, you will want to consistently exhibit these traits yourself, and get your senior staff on-board as well. People will pay as much attention to what you do as what you say, and as the CEO you have the best platform to demonstrate what you want to see.
Seek out employees who exemplify the characteristics you are looking for, as well, and encourage and reward them. The rest of your workforce will take notice and align themselves with what is clearly expected and rewarded.
3. Reinforce innovation and change
Employees feel empowered when they are encouraged to be creative and when their thoughts and ideas are valued. Create an organization that promotes and rewards entrepreneurship and a degree of risk-taking.
In addition to impacting organizational performance, it will boost employee confidence and feelings of increased value, as well as build loyalty to your company.
4. Hire people who get it
Part of leading the culture of your company is deciding who will best contribute to it. Hiring people who show an understanding of the kind of ethos you are fostering is an important step in reaching your goals.
If your company is small you may be more directly involved in the hiring process. If not, you will want to influence recruitment and on-boarding practices in a way that ensures the selection of the best employees for your company culture.
5. Make an emotional appeal
When laying out cultural goals and practices for employees, keep a balance between the rational, business-oriented reasons (productivity, attendance, etc.) and more emotional arguments that will appeal to people on a personal level. Your ultimate goal may be for better statistics and higher returns, but for your employees, it is more immediate and relevant to understand how corporate culture will affect their quality of life on the job, their identity within the company and their personal relationship to the brand.
Business culture originates with the philosophy and behaviors of the people in charge. As Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft said “Everything I do is a reinforcement or not of what we want to have happen culturally.” As CEO, you are in a prime position not only to direct corporate culture but to personally implement and enforce it through your own actions and leadership style.