Every company has a culture, whether they “created” it or not. The truth is, you can either let culture grow on its own or you can create it with intention. Another way to say this is that culture either grows from the top down or grows from the bottom up.
If you ignore culture, it will naturally grow from the bottom up. That means a culture of snide comments, greediness, bad service, unhappy employees, and un-loyal customers. The hardest culture to turn around is one you’ve accidentally created by not paying attention as it evolved.
Before I started my own business, I had to turn around the culture in a few companies as a manager. I know from experience that this can be a challenge. In one case, it required firing some-one who was truly committed to the old (bad) culture I inherit-ed. That was actually the first person I ever fired.
She knew that she was a key team member and probably the most knowledgeable person on the team, so she was also defiant and refused to change. I went to the general manager of the company when I decided that this person needed to go. The GM asked me if I understood the impact on the team. I said yes, but assured her that the impact would be temporary and everything would get better fast without this poisonous attitude on the team.
I don’t recommend firing someone as a sacrificial lamb just to start turning your culture around. It could certainly backfire if you do it wrong. But in this case, we had a team of about twenty-five people and we’d had many meetings about changes that need to be made. When I fired the trouble-maker, everyone knew that we were serious, that we’ll do what it takes, and there’s no turning back.
If you have a newer company, or are just starting to hire people, there’s an important lesson here. You create culture from the top down by doing what you say and being what you want others to be. You literally lead by example. If you are calm, rational, and respectful, your employees will be as well. If you yell and scream and drive fear into others, your employees will as well.
The other big example of turning around a culture was less dramatic but also more difficult. I inherited a culture of laziness. People on the team would not take on difficult jobs. They ignored the parts of a job that they didn’t like. They did lots of things just a little below their skill level. They did not stretch and did not attempt to excel.
In this case, I simply announced that we were putting a premium on fixing everything with the first touch. In other words, people were applauded for closing a service ticket with one visit and zero re-work. The initial response was a lot of “what if” questions about exceptions to the rule and how to move for-ward when you don’t know what to do.
That was actually a lucky reaction for me. It allowed me to start putting in place a series of procedures in response to the various objections. You need to escalate to someone with specific skills? Here’s how to engage them. You hit a problem you don’t understand? Here’s how to get assistance. And so forth.
My response to all objections was to create processes and procedures that showed everyone how to push through and complete the task under any circumstances. The result was that their attitude shifted from seeing only obstacles to seeing fixes.
In the end, that attitude shift raised the technical ability of everyone on the team. They learned better troubleshooting skills, better documentation skills, better skills for working with others who had specialized knowledge. And as they learned to call on each other for various challenges, they grew together as a team.
Before the shift, people tended to think of themselves in terms of “Me against the system.” Now it became “Us against the problem.”
Next up: The Elements of Culture
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