the impact of connection

March 16, 2018

Early in my time as an entrepreneur, I knew company culture was important, but I did not bother to learn about and appreciate its deep complexity. It was not until the 2009 United States recession that I was forced to look at it more closely. I knew I needed an edge in order to survive the economic siege. This sent me head-first into research, reflection, and bit of awakening. There must be a new way to run my company, and the change had to come from within.

When I stripped away all of the daily pressing demands and protocols, what remained was our corporate culture. But it was ill-defined. I sensed that it should demonstrate what we stood for, not just the nuts and bolts pre-employment screening and other services we performed. I learned that culture is an intricate mix of personal styles and commonly held values—elements that can be nurtured and brought to the forefront. As mentioned in my book, The Power of Company Culture, I now define culture as easily articulated ideas such as vision statements and values combined with harder-to-see norms, behaviors, and beliefs.

The market leaders that we know and love wield strong culture like a mighty sword in the battle they wage with competitors. They are worshiped and feared for how well they maneuver their teams to greater growth and profit. Some of their success comes from the product or service they offer. But their ability to stay on top and innovate over the long-term springs from great corporate culture.

Intentionally, grooming culture takes effort, planning, and bravery, but in most cases cultural support costs very little to implement and maintain. Given the vast amount of money companies spend on hiring, product development, insurance, and marketing, it is shocking how little many of them allocate to their biggest asset.

culture breakdown

Corporate solidarity is more nuanced than one blanket culture, however. What we term company culture is the wide-angle lens we use to see everything in the picture. Something called community culture, though, covers the smaller, more localized interactions happening at one corporate location, within a close-knit team, or among the people with whom you work the most. Community culture is the microscope lens we use to see a specific part of the overall whole, and it is by default more diverse and fundamental. The interplay between corporate and community culture is what gives a business its unique identity.

An overriding corporate culture allows the company to set the norms, values, and purpose of the organization—a macro template, if you will. The bulk of time and resources should be used to bolster this shared mindset, so that both company and people get the most out of the work experience.

Yet, just as important, community culture provides opportunities to engender respect, recognition and the day-to-day human connection we all crave. This micro culture is directed by the local leaders and teams. Imagine a British firm with an American office. The main headquarters should establish the corporate ethos, but we would expect to see it played out in different ways between the two locations. How we greet one another, the holidays we celebrate, and our local politics will always be different. But, corporate HQ can nudge each micro culture toward its overall goals and purpose, while still preserving distinct community personalities.

How? Many companies provide training on how to conduct meetings, provide acknowledgement, and use a distinct set of terms—or ‘tribal speak’—to describe products, clients, and meetings. The more the overarching culture can positively shape the community culture, the more aligned employees and leadership will become. This in turn has a direct impact on how effectively staff interact across all locations and on the consistent experience of your clients.

A great example of this is Disney. The company has locations in the United States, France, Japan, Hong Kong and China. Disney is well known for its overall corporate culture. Its parks and resorts division also use specific strategies to impact the community culture. Customers are ‘guests,’ employees are ‘cast members’. If you are in the amusement park with guests, you are ‘on stage’; if you are taking a break in the employee-only area, you are ‘back stage’.

Disney’s long list of proprietary terms brings a sense of community that is replicated from country to country. An individual can still drastically impact a micro culture, good or bad, but the company at large can also provide structure and support to help each community feel closer in nature. As Disney’s example shows, when corporate culture and community culture are aligned, the best firms leverage this power to see incredible results and value.

the value

Here are some immediate ways that aligned culture can give your business the upper hand:

retention: The more well-defined your culture is, the more ‘unpoachable’ your staff will become. Your best employees are constantly being contacted by recruiters and offered jobs in new areas, for more money, and more prestigious titles. We cannot keep all of the best people forever, but we can institute some protections by ensuring the place they work is so good that they will not want to leave. Companies that retain their staff longer spend significantly less in recruiting, onboarding, and training. Retaining your institutional knowledge, spending less on finding replacements, and eliminating the constant queue of new employees needing training can spell the difference between market domination and going out of business. If for no other reason than this, culture should be top of mind.

performance: An environment where leaders can feel safe to lead, and employees feel safe and excited to do their jobs will always positively impact performance. Teams that trust each other and their employer work better, communication flows faster, and progress is constant.

productivity: Although productivity and performance are similar, they have distinct significance in how they affect cultural value. Performance is often based on individuals or small groups. Productivity is the result of a larger benefit for larger groups or teams. If you work on a factory line, better performance by everyone, yields productivity gains for the entire plant. If you are designing software, supporting clients, or any other business activity, the same is true.

profits: Culture exists to support the purpose of a company, which is separate from profit, but must be aligned with profit outcomes to ensure enduring success. Clearly, enhanced performance and productivity should increase profits in the long run.

customer loyalty and branding: When employees and clients understand the culture and know what they can expect from a company, its value is increased. We marvel at Google, Facebook, Disney, Amazon, and so many others because their culture and services are clear as we decide to spend our money with them.

From the small shop in a busy town to the mega-conglomerate impacting world economy, culture has a similar impact and importance. Be clear and design your overarching approach, but intentional and engaged within the community where people do their work. Each part can make the other better, and our lives and work more rewarding.