I’ve shared before how, in the early days of my career, I thought culture was warm, fuzzy HR fluff – more entertainment and social club than a strategic driver. Probably because I was so obsessed with achievement and not overly concerned about environment. That perspective has definitely changed over the years.

Building a strong culture can align your team, especially when that culture is crystal clear and reinforced on a regular basis. Without clear guidelines for how to behave in your company, your culture will become the average of what your more influential people think or believe. And, as your company grows, you’ll hire people who are off culture, especially senior leaders.

Here are four things to do in 2021 to ensure your culture gets better and stronger:

[1] Avoid wallpaper syndrome

This is when your culture disappears with neglect. Even companies with well-defined core values and purpose need to breathe life into the culture – again and again and again.

Research about enduring, great companies – and our own experience with companies around the world – shows it’s not so much what the culture is – it’s about having a common culture. Similar to an operating system, it allows people to row in the same direction, with less friction, and makes it easier to enjoy their work.

Figure out four, six, eight, ten or twelve things you can do to continually breathe life into your culture in 2021 – here are some ideas:

  • An annual kick-off event talking about purpose and core values.
  • Core value awards.
  • Ask everyone in the virtual room to note one core value they consistently live the best – and one they need to work on.
  • Create a physical piece that reinforces core values: a coin, a t-shirt, a card.
  • Hold a contest for the best video that articulates your core values, for others in the company and new hires.
  • Make a list of what the core values aren’t.
  • Ask for and share customer feedback about how they experience your core values.
  • Mine stories from the company’s history about when people did or did not live the core values.
  • Review your purpose and core values in the first minutes of every meeting and in every CEO address.
  • Ask all managers to write notes of appreciation acknowledging their staff for core values lived well that year.

And I’m sure your awesome team can up with 347 other ideas

[2] Remove the plaque

Think about the analogy of good oral hygiene: we brush our teeth and floss, on a regular basis, to keep teeth and gums healthy. But you still have to go to the dentist every six months for a check-up and to scale off additional plaque that builds up – no matter how often you’ve brushed.

Consistent behaviours become culture, and processes, strategies, beliefs and people get in that need to be checked and removed. Like having too many meetings or always starting or finishing late. You have to pay attention and consistently clean up what doesn’t work, in all levels of the company – from senior leadership to the front line.

Everyone needs to be given consistent, powerful reminders and opportunities to reflect on what are unacceptable and acceptable behaviours.

The critical step is to decide to remove unwanted things – activities, processes or behaviours that need to change, stop or get back to what was initially intended.

Hiring or promoting someone who doesn’t get your culture is equivalent to saying your culture doesn’t matter.

[3] Pull the weeds

In an amazing garden, weeds still pop up. This can be toxic to the aesthetic and a detriment to what you are trying to grow. Removing those weeds – people who are not a fit with your culture – can be a tough decision.

Most of our clients use a quarterly talent review, starting with the executive team to look at performance and values of the team and their direct reports.

The process reveals an action item to address those who are not a fit with the culture:

  • Toxic As (high performers who aren’t a cultural fit)
  • C-Players (low performers who aren’t a cultural fit)

Ideally, both can be given a chance to get back on culture and support to help them thrive. If, after a quarter or two, they don’t, a decision may be needed to give them an opportunity to go a company that more suits their natural way of thinking and behaving.

The key is to make sure you always look for what’s best for the company and the culture overall – and the individual. People who don’t fit simply aren’t happy and, although change can be hard, it’s better to have an adult conversation to encourage them to look for another opportunity, and to help them to move on with dignity.

One of the greatest ways to lose credibility as a leader is to hire, keep or promote someone who isn’t a good culture fit.

[4] Get regular 360 feedback to executives and key leaders

Sometimes, CEOs or senior leaders have blind spots and miss where their behaviors are off culture. Some people can work exceptionally well with us but are a nightmare for others. These may not be bad people – they may just have bad habits.

360 feedback makes it crystal clear who is really on or off culture and why. It also provides the data we need to improve. Our 360s ask 10 short questions related to living up to core values and leadership effectiveness. It’s a great way to make sure that everyone knows where they stand. In addition, it helps create a plan for what needs to be done to create a more effective team.

In summary, keeping a vibrant culture is no different to keeping your teeth healthy or your garden beautiful. It’s work that requires ongoing thought, energy and maintenance. Otherwise, deterioration will set in, requiring seriously expensive or painful rehabilitation. You want to respect and honour what you have and continue to enhance it.

The Challenge

  • Develop a list of 6 to 12 things that you’re going to do to enhance your culture next year.
  • Decide you you are going to work with to help you with this.

Let us know if we can assist you if…

  • Your values and other mechanisms of your culture aren’t crystal clear
  • Your culture (purpose and core values), system for 360s or quarterly talent reviews aren’t as good as they can be.

Check out this episode of The Growth Whisperers podcast for more on this topic.