By Bridget McCrea
As a corporate culture “guru” who speaks often about the value of a strong corporate culture, DeEtta Jones’ favorite definition of the term comes from a book called Mirror for Man by Clyde Kluckhohn, in which he describes culture as, “The sum total of shared values, beliefs, meanings, symbols, attitudes, languages, patterns of thought and expression, products, artifacts, aesthetic standards, and styles of communication—all of which have been created by a group of people, which have been transmitted, learned, and internalized.”
Jones, a keynote speaker and consultant with DJA Consulting in Chicago, says companies that have effectively harnessed this definition (or any of the other hundreds of definitions that are out there) of culture and made it their own are reaping the benefits of their efforts. “There’s a direct correlation between an organization’s internal culture and what people are saying (externally) about their experiences with that company,” says Jones. “When a strong corporate culture is in place, customer satisfaction shoots up significantly.”
In addition to raising the customer satisfaction bar, a strong culture also brings out the best in people and helps them channel their creative energy. And while the typical distribution firm may not always be keyed into such strengths, Jones says all companies and industries can leverage strong cultures. “It allows people to bring their ‘whole selves’ to work and to have a higher degree of ownership of the products and services that your distributorship sells,” Jones points out, “and all in a more meaningful way.”
It Won’t Happen Overnight
Culture doesn’t happen overnight. In some cases, it takes generations of family ownership, decades of business success, and/or years of effort to create a strong culture. “It’s shaped, created, and influenced over time – sometimes intentionally, and sometimes unintentionally,” says Jones. “Either way, culture will have a significant impact on your organization’s internal capacity.” And while the introduction of a new leader or manager can serve as a perfect backdrop for “righting the ship” on the cultural front, Jones says existing leaders are also good candidates to lead the charge.
First, Jones says distributors need to think about the kind of culture that they want to create for the company, its employees, its customers, and its business partners. Consider what core values are driving the firm, she says, by focusing on the top 2-4 values (not a laundry list of 20 “possibilities”) that matter most. Popular online shoe distributor Zappos, for example, singles out, “Deliver WOW Through Service,” “Embrace and Drive Change,” and “Create Fun and a Little Weirdness” as the top three core values that set it apart from its competitors. In a more “traditional” example, L.L. Bean uses the core values statement: “Sell good merchandise at a reasonable profit, treat your customers like human beings, and they will always come back for more.”
Once you’ve come up with a short list of core values, it’s time to figure out how to demonstrate those values through actions. “Look at how you can take those values and turn them into behaviors and actions that can be measured,” Jones advises. L.L. Bean, for example, offers a trademark satisfaction guarantee and places a card in each hand-crafted pair of boots they ship. At Zappos, new hires sign contracts acknowledging that they understand the values, “agree to be reviewed based on them, and understand that they can be fired if they fail to live up to them,” according to a recent Fortune article, 7 core values statements that inspire. It’s about leveraging those core values and turning them into corporate strengths,” Jones says.
Sending the Right Message
In today’s busy, information-rich world, sending and receiving mixed messages that don’t always hit on key points is fairly normal. Unfortunately, when this issue creeps into a distributor’s culture-focused initiatives, it can wreak havoc on the firm’s overall goals, customer service efforts, and even its bottom line. “It’s definitely possible to send out wrong or mixed messages around culture,” says Jones. For example, a company may be saying one thing in its training and new employee manuals, but its managers may be incentivizing other actions.
To overcome this challenge, Jones says distributors should draw clear lines between espoused values (i.e., those corporate values and morals that are important to an organization) and the actions, risks, and rewards that are associated with those values. “Make sure there’s a close relationship between what you stand for and what you’re actually doing,” Jones says, “realizing that values influence managers’ and leaders’ coaching, hiring, rewarding, and communication behaviors.”
And speaking of the C-suite, Jones says there are several ways a distributor can help managers and leaders infuse the firm’s core values into everything they do. This, in turn, helps spread the cultural message across all employees – from the manager to the outside sales representative to the warehouse worker, and everyone in between. “Research shows that senior leadership modeling is a very effective way to recruit organizational support for cultural initiatives,” says Jones. “When a senior leader says, ‘This is what we stand for’ and when he or she consistently behaves in a way that reflects that assertion, it encourages others to follow suit.”
And make sure that your leaders and managers “walk the walk,” when it comes to corporate culture; and that the messaging isn’t just lip service (that’s not supported by actions and behaviors). “They have to reinforce the messaging on a regular basis,” says Jones, who sees the use of coaching, mentoring, and performance metrics as good ways to keep managers on task with this point.
“Managers and leaders need to actively provide feedback to the entire team – and not just when something has gone wrong or when an error needs to be corrected,” Jones points out. “On a regular basis, give people positive feedback about the way they’re contributing to your organizational culture and they’ll want to do more.”
All in the Family
Family-run distribution firms face an interesting set of challenges when it comes to creating and maintaining a strong corporate culture that not only reflects age-old values, but that also incorporates new-age strategies, methods, and considerations. A third-generation firm that hasn’t “kept up” with technology or that’s fallen behind on good hiring and recruitment practices, for example, is probably in need of a cultural overhaul to bring it into the new century.
“This can definitely get tricky in a family business where leaders are often family members who ‘learned’ the culture from their parents or other family members,” says Jones. The fact that family and business roles are interconnected (i.e., when a son works for his father and the two are interacting both on a personal and business level) adds another layer of complexity to the situation.
Jones says a good strategy for offsetting these challenges is to think very carefully and intentionally about the messages that you’re sending to your team. Consider how these messages are being interpreted, she adds, and what impact they’ll have on both family and non-family employees. “Even if you and your immediate family are managing the company, it’s still important to create and share your internal corporate culture,” says Jones, “and that you serve the external constituents that will help your firm to grow and be profitable.”
And even if you and your family plan to stay in the business, you’ll want to make sure that it is able to meet the demands of the rapidly-changing business environment. “Customer satisfaction correlates directly with a strong internal corporate culture,” Jones reiterates. “Even if it’s your own family, you’ll still need ways to incentivize and motivate, and to ensure that employees find it rewarding to work inside of your corporate culture.”
McCrea is a Florida-based writer who covers business, industrial, and educational topics for a variety of magazines and journals. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit her website at www.expertghostwriter.net.
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