the building blocks that make a great culture

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Why are we here? What are we doing? Who are we doing it for? What is our heartbeat? Who are we?

These questions and many more rest in the heart of the sometimes elusive concept of organizational culture. In recent years, focus on culture has risen with radical comments from iconic business and leadership gurus such as “culture is everything” or “culture trumps strategy every time.” The challenge, though, is to answer the question, what is culture? And then, to answer the question, from a practical standpoint, what makes a great culture at work?

As an expert in leading in the creation, development, and implementation of culture, I’ve devoted my professional (and personal) life to helping others maximize their potential and achieve the greatest success possible. Foundational to the accomplishment of this objective, which is understandably unique to every individual, company, and organization, is to answer the question, “Who am I and what is my unique heartbeat?” This is the core of culture. By first knowing who we are, why we’re here, what success looks like, and how we are thinking, feeling, and engaging with others on the journey, we’re able to define culture.

There are five building blocks that make up culture.

Mission: The first is the mission. A mission is the purpose of a company or organization—its reason for existing. The mission statement should guide the actions of the organization, spell out its overall goal, provide a path, and guide decision-making. It provides the framework or context within which the company’s strategies are formulated.

Vision: Next, the vision of the company or organization spells out in crystal clarity what we will look like when we are achieving our mission. Vision clarifies concepts such as: who will we be serving, what will we be doing, where will we be doing it, what is our footprint, what is our target customer, what will we be demonstrating to our employees, customers, vendors, stakeholders, and the market when we are successful.

Values: Values are an expression of a company’s core beliefs. Companies develop values to establish the foundational principles that each employee should live and work by in the context of the organization and what each customer should expect to see demonstrated by the company as a whole and each employee in particular.

Norms of Behavior: Norms of behavior are actions within an organization that are generally accepted and adopted by all employees. One example of a company norm for my organization is to be five minutes early is to be on time. I believe timeliness shows respect; so being early is a norm that is not just learned but experienced.

Beliefs: Finally, beliefs are thoughts within an organization that are generally understood by all employees. One common belief for many companies and organizations is “The customer is always right.” If all employees embrace this, it should be easy to see behaviors demonstrated that support this belief.

Mission, vision, values, norms of behavior, and beliefs form the foundation for crystalizing culture and the bedrock for high-performance organizations to build on.

Knowing the components of culture is just the start. To truly unleash the power of a strong culture, every team member must understand, embrace, and align with the culture.

Understand

The concepts of culture aren’t necessarily difficult, but understanding and awareness build over time. I make it a point, for every organization I consult with or lead, to review the building blocks of culture at every leadership team meeting and every formal meeting with our team members (i.e. Town Hall meetings, etc.). Repetition of the concepts that make us who we are is key. Ultimately the goal is to move an understanding of culture from the head (“Look, I’ve memorized the mission, vision, and values statements”) to the heart (“I deeply understand and live our culture every moment of every day”). This degree of understanding develops over time, however, and often for companies and organizations where culture has not been a core focus it’s best to begin with socializing the concepts and building a common understanding first.

Embrace

Once the concepts of culture are understood, next comes embracing. Often this comes by telling stories of the culture to show what the culture looks like in living color. Celebrating the successes of employees who behaved in a culture focused way is key. For example, one of the values in the Addiction Campuses “HEARTBEAT” values statement is “hope and healing.” At the last Town Hall meeting, stories were shared about how team members across the company demonstrated hope and healing, not only for our external clients but also for our internal team members. It’s important to note that every employee has a part to play in living the values.

Align

As the ideas of culture are understood and embraced, the third step is alignment. Helping employees see clearly how they make a difference to the achievement of the culture is at the heart of alignment. Culture is not just for the leadership team or a select few key employees—it’s for everyone. With this in mind, it’s critical to help team members see how their actions directly and powerfully impact the living of the culture and success overall. Another value from Addiction Campuses is “Accountability for results.” In this value, we lead employees to answer the questions: What do results look like for my role? What will I be doing to deliver results? What do I need to do to demonstrate accountability for results? By aligning all team members in the same direction, with the same focus and commitment to doing their part in creating the culture, it will deliver powerful results.

We all know amazing organizations that have strong cultures. In my experience, however, the vast majority of companies, regardless of publically or privately held, size, industry, etc., still have not cracked the code on culture. They take a passive stance and just let culture develop as it comes. There is a lack of clear focus, continuity, or direction. Unfortunately, this passive approach to culture ultimately leads to confusion, lack of employee engagement, impaired performance, and not being as successful as possible.

The reality is that every company has a culture, but only very few have a culture on purpose. Intentionality in building a crystal clear picture of the organization you want to create through mission, vision, values, norms of behavior, and beliefs and then inviting all employees to be part of the building of the culture over time through understanding, embracing, and alignment creates the strongest culture and success for the future.

By dr. jason brooks
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