Culture is the new Competitive Advantage

Every company has a culture, just like every company sells something–a product or a service. However, just as in products, there is a wide variety of cultures. The two most important categories are purposeful cultures and default cultures. If you don’t have one, you definitely have the other. Based on observation of hundreds of small to mid-sized businesses, few companies have a purposeful culture and even fewer understand its power as THE new competitive advantage that can’t be copied.

Let’s get clear on the definition of culture. Culture refers to an organization’s values, beliefs, and behaviors. In general, it is concerned with beliefs and values on the basis of which people interpret experiences and behave, individually and in groups. Essentially, it is unwritten behavior that guides employees’ actions. Most often in a default culture behavior is the result of the leaders’ values and modeling, combined with the behaviors of the dominant and most influential employees. While the leader may have given thought to culture and tried to serve as a good role model, posting values and one person’s behavior doesn’t provide the consistency or consequences necessary to drive a purposeful culture.

A respected staffing company that I work with has three partners with similar values but very different styles and behaviors. They had no value oriented hiring, on-boarding, training, recognition or reward systems in place. They couldn’t understand why their partnership faced regular conflict, challenges in decision-making, and their employees were constantly churning. What was the issue? They were clear on their values.

After spending time on developing a strategic plan, aligning values operationally and determining clear accountabilities and specific criteria for decision-making, the partners found themselves operating in a much more aligned and consistent way. It was the beginning–creating an environment for a purposeful culture. Next, we defined the culture that was desired and crafted statements of expectations of employees and business philosophy so employees had clarity regarding what was expected and what would be rewarded. Next, we changed the hiring process to ensure that new hires “fit” in skills and values. At each progression, culture improved.

Today, 6 months later, I just finished a strategic review with them. The three partners know there is much more work to be done. One of the valued leaders at the retreat spoke up and shared how much change she has seen and the significant impact it has had on the organization. When grading culture as a capability, what was once a troubled area has turned around in short time to become a purposeful culture. With each step they are able to define the next phase in the journey and how they can bring the culture along with them. This change has enabled enviable growth and they are just getting started.

A purposeful culture aligns employees against a common goal; it is an environment of clarity regarding organizational focus and how to contribute to company success; it provides a pleasant, even enjoyable, work environment because values are consistent; it enables greater productivity as people find more value in their work and feel good about their contribution and their team. A work group functioning as an aligned team in a purposeful culture maximizes the collective brain-trust of the organization and creates momentum, accelerating performance and achieving results–not just accomplishing activities.  This often is what separates the growing companies from those that aren’t–especially in mature markets where products and services are seemingly the same.  A purposeful culture, uniquely designed for a specific company with specific leaders at a specific time, is often not a “best practice” that can be easily exported to other companies. It would have to be adapted to their leaders’ strengths, and company needs in order to be  genuine and therefore effective.

Does your company have a purposeful culture? If not, you are missing what might be the best opportunity to accelerate profitable growth.

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