By Ron van Haasteren
Many organizational leaders believe success breeds culture, and that's easy to understand, but that's a trap that far too many people fall into. After all, if you have a positive result, your culture and decision making must be good, right?
In short, no, not necessarily. I talk with colleagues all the time who fail to resist the temptation to equate the latest result with having a positive culture. Maybe the culture is good, or perhaps you were lucky, or your client was desperate. You can't control luck or how your clients react, but you can build a positive culture that puts your business in a position to have more success.
When asked about our culture at TOPdesk, I tell people that we take it seriously. For us, culture is not something on the first page of the new hire manual, but something we incorporate every day into every interaction, communication, and transaction.
Historically our values have been summarized as trust, freedom, and responsibility. As there is no one correct definition of these values, the interpretation is up to the individual. One interpretation might be the following:
- Trust means I can do it.
- Freedom means I can decide how to do it.
- Responsibility means I will do it.
These values also are interdependent: remove one of these values, and the other two don’t function properly. Let’s look at these three values in more detail.
There’s a significant business benefit when customers know your organization won’t sell them something unsuitable or unnecessary. However, trust must go both ways; we are telling our clients that we believe their stated numbers and that we trust they’ll let us know when the situation changes. This highlights a significant benefit of this approach: that it judges our customer relationship less on profit and more on their growth.
Typical definitions of trust include the following:
- You do your best and to take initiative.
- You're trusted to do what's best by the organization as much as possible.
- Be honest about your weaknesses.
- Find your vision and how to fill the hours.
- We don't operate on a system of just hitting targets.
- You rely on your colleagues to do their best.
It’s worth noting that no organization can be blind to the inherent risks of trust, which is why responsibility is also one of the tenets of building a winning culture (see below).
As we talked about above, the three values that make up our culture are interconnected. Freedom is not granted, but earned, and made possible by trust and responsibility. It is worth acknowledging that while the automatic response is to check up on your employee's activities, the risk of someone taking advantage of the situation outweighs the positives that result when you don't.
Typical definitions of freedom include the following:
- You can initiate new ideas, undertake those as projects.
- You find ways to add value to the company and take the business forward.
- You're empowered, know your opinion counts, and can speak your mind.
- We tear down walls, meaning you can work with anyone.
- You manage your time and prioritize your tasks.
- You have the freedom to find your methods.
- Deciding what the best path forward to reach organizational goals.
This is an integral part of building a culture, as employees quickly understand that they have permission to fail, if the focus is on improvement. This differs from many organizations, who may talk about trying new strategies or pay lip service to innovation, but whose employees quickly learn that trying something new isn’t encouraged by management.
Responsibility is the direct counterpart to freedom. In terms of building a winning culture, responsibility is defined as the following:
- Taking responsibility for your day-to-day work and self- and team management.
- Taking responsibility for understanding your areas of proficiency.
- Taking your tasks seriously.
- Taking responsibility for your life.
Yes, "responsibility for your life" is one of our definitions. We can't control our employees, but we encourage them to be aware and responsible, as well as develop a healthy work/life balance.
One aspect of these values that I have grown to appreciate is that they put into place a system where every employee is empowered. There’s a countless number of experiences and interactions happening with our employees every day. These can’t be micromanaged.
It’s more productive, and ultimately more profitable, to hire and empower employees who have embraced our culture rather than trying to force them to conform to artificial standards. However, the point of the first interview is to ensure the individual is a fit for the organization’s culture. I can almost see some of you shaking your heads, but we can make a strong case for the value of culture in nurturing a winning team and organization:
- Culture helps build a movement, not just a company. Culture is a strong differentiator between organizations.
- Culture helps ensure that a team/company stays on track with its values. It is the difference between talking and walking the walk.
- Culture creates an atmosphere of growth and “can do.”
- Culture helps with the alignment of work toward a common goal.
We work to avoid culture from becoming an abstraction. We want it to be something genuine that is experienced by every employee in every branch. It's clear that once a business grows past a specific size, maintaining the same decision-making process becomes impossible or impractical if the company wishes to grow.
Building a culture is not an easy or quick process. If you are thinking beyond the next quarterly report, a culture of growth and responsibility can become a virtuous circle for your organization.