Core Values Drive A Thriving Culture

core values on wooden blocksThe Fearless Organization is built on three fundamentals:  Fearless Leadership, Dynamic Strategy and a Thriving Culture. Where building Fearless Leadership works on the individual and their influence on success, and Dynamic Strategy was about keeping everyone on target while learning and remaining flexible,  today we’re talking about Thriving Culture, which is the collective ethos of the organization – its heart and soul.

Most of us understand leadership, or at least think we know it when we see it, and strategy is bandied about so much in organizations, that practically everyone has touched strategy, been told what a strategy is, or even built a strategic plan for their organization, team or company.  Culture, the third leg of our Fearless Organization stool, is more nebulous for most people.  How can we define culture, particularly in terms of a company or organization?  And what makes a culture “Thriving”?

First of all, a culture is really a core set of values, translated into behaviors. It is an expectation of how things will be done, and which priorities to follow in making any decision.  In our practice, we find that it is a strong culture that allows organizations to live without bureaucracy (and who would want more bureaucracy?).  The culture of an organization is what tells you what the “right” thing to do is when there is no rule, and no authority to ask.  Do you do whatever it takes to make the customer happy?  Or do you focus on the profit margin on the transaction and limit what you will do for unprofitable customers?  Do loyal or large customers get priority, or is every customer treated equally?  Do you err on the side of over-communicating, or do you wait until the next staff meeting to bring up a new challenge you are facing?

There are no “right” or “wrong” answers to these questions, only right answers in the context of what your organization values and which behaviors are expected, rewarded, and recognized in your culture, and this is driven by your core values.

Values are not statements to hang on the wall next to your mission and vision (also misused strategic tools we love when used properly – more on that to come).  Values statements are examples of your core values, translated into action or behaviors.  One of our favorite examples of this is Skooba Designs who put their values right on the website.  They have too many (in our opinion you can’t really “live” more than about 3 core values), but they’ve done a good job articulating what those values look like when they are acted out at their company.

For values to really mean something and represent your culture, you need to articulate your 3 core values (values that define who you are and without which you would not be the same organization) and perhaps 2 “aspirational” values – behaviors you think are important to stand out and compete in your marketplace in the future, but which you don’t yet really have in place.  Then you have to define specific behaviors, rituals and artifacts that symbolize these values in action – the annual award for the most outrageous effort in service of the customer, the 5-minute all hands daily meeting in the lobby, the bell ringing for days over a certain revenue number, or for over-the-top positive customer reviews, or even impromptu surprise rewards for a job well done (as defined by your values).

Perhaps the clearest way to institutionalize your values and give birth to a thriving culture, is to build your human systems around your values.  The ways in which you hire, fire, reward and recognize people, team and project should be directly driven by your values.  You can teach skills to people who fit culturally, but it’s much harder to create a cultural fit where it doesn’t exist with someone who has the right skills.  If “Collaboration” is a core value in your organization, what happens to individuals or teams who refuse to collaborate?  If they are still there, you are sending a signal that it’s ok to not collaborate in your organization.  If you don’t walk the talk and do the hard work of making your values come to life in behaviors, from the top leadership all the way through the organization, your culture will be dilute and not thrive.

A thriving culture focuses on what is working, maximizes it and weeds out what is not working.  A thriving culture is deliberate, articulated in behaviors and reinforced by your processes, policies and procedures.  A thriving culture allows for creativity and innovation in every corner of the organization, because the core values are clear and decisions can be made that always honor those values first.

A thriving culture empowers everyone with decision-making authority, creates flexibility and scalability, and quickly moves out people, products or processes that simply don’t fit or undermine those values.

What are your organization’s core values?  What behaviors are you encouraging, demonstrating, and rewarding?  Where are you tolerating behavior that undermines your culture and when are you going to step up and stop it?