In many companies, corporate culture takes a backseat—until something goes wrong. When I sit down with CEOs to help them deconstruct the question “How did we get here?”, one simple regret is uttered every time. With the benefit of hindsight, that wise CEO says, “I wish I had paid attention to our culture from the start.” By contrast, those who lead top companies understand the power and impact that a dynamic workplace culture can have. There is no substitute for assembling awesome people aligned with your goals, who believe in you and your company. It is this supportive culture that separates the good enterprises from the bad, and the great from the aspiring. But it doesn’t happen by accident.
Those executives who see the errors of their ways understand, albeit too late, that a company’s placement in the market directly correlates to its culture. At this moment of reflection, however, savvy CEOs realize that a well-functioning culture can hack their performance issues. And this is where they make their turnaround.
Despite having a great product or service, it is your people who are charged with driving profit. Therefore, their performance and productivity are always at risk. Here, the approach is important. Companies that start out building a grassroots culture intentionally gain as much control as possible over those variables. Those that work on culture in a piecemeal fashion have less effectiveness. If you read a few business books, or a random article like this one, some good advice can come your way. This is sometimes called the “Crawl, Walk, Run” approach, based on the thinking that we can’t start to walk before we crawl, and we need to be able to walk before we run. Sound advice that seems totally practical, right? But, in my experience, it is dead wrong.
This safe approach might work in some isolated situations, but in general, it seems to push leaders into a very slow and conservative cycle in their business operations. If this is the tack you want to take, you are free to pursue it. However, a warning: your competition will soon pass you in the market-share race, and possibly crush you.
Most start-up businesses do not proceed in a conservative manner. They take risks, perhaps doing more than they should, but they go for broke to reach their goals and dreams. This is the opposite extreme, and while it, too, can work, it still shortchanges the importance of building an intentional culture. Whichever tactic is employed, as businesses change, grow, and experience some success, adding more employees and fixed expenses, the perspective changes.
So what should you do? Should you move fast and try to jump-start performance? Or take the slower, crawl-walk-run route?
I advocate for organizations to take giant leaps—starting from the ground up, by deliberately building a culture that will support your business throughout its evolution. This gives your people the tools to be flexible, yet bold, in their decision making, all in line with the company’s goals. It means developing major changes to your process to dramatically improve or impact your offering. This is also called Innovation—and it’s really hard to do.
Why is it hard? Because we hire people to keep things going, to maintain the status quo, and to make more money on solutions or products we already have. Which is fine, until someone else comes along and invents a new way to put you out of business. Great companies, on the other hand, build a group approach, a culture that works together to ensure that their next move is not just enough to keep going, but huge.
In a smaller organization this could mean that you take directed time away from your normal work to have deep discussions. For example, using Friday afternoon once a month to talk about new and crazy ideas. Or to foresee scenarios that might put your current operation (and, thus, your competitors) out of business. People need the space, and permission, to think about new ideas and to dream bigger and better. Otherwise, they will stay in their safe worlds, keeping to the status quo. Large companies may need to remove this activity from general company business. They might set up think tanks, or even separate innovation companies, that are charged with finding the next big thing, without having to worry about the concerns of the core company.
A good friend of mine once asked her entire workforce to come together for a multi-day, all-staff meeting. This brought about 500 employees together in one place. As a remote organization, it was the first time many of her staff had ever been in the same room with their coworkers. Instead of giving them a boring speech, she asked them all to spend the next few hours dreaming up answers to one question: if you had a million dollars to spend on anything in the business, what would you do with the money to make us better?
Immediately, the staff self-organized into groups and brainstormed. In a few hours, they came up with some amazing and inventive ideas. By implementing the best suggestions, my friend was able to radically transform her company, doubling its sales in the next two years. The best part was that nearly every new idea cost nothing to implement. Only one step required an investment of $25K to implement, but it saved them hundreds of thousands of dollars in the long run. The return on investment was astronomical—all because, in one day, they took a giant leap in their thinking.
So, your options are clear. You can crawl to walk, and hope to run—or you can entrust your people to take a giant leap. By remembering your organization’s size and choosing the right approach, you’ll be able to find the jumping-off point for monumental gain, not gradual progression. Dream big, and focus on what will have the biggest impact on your company. Find pockets of time or target groups to pursue your next big thing. An innovative culture could save your company, keep it on top … and maybe even change the world.