Steve Jobs did not personally invent the iPhone. Or the iPod or iTunes. Others within his company did. Instead, Steve Jobs created a culture of innovation and unflinching standards. He developed an environment where questioning the status quo was not only expected but celebrated. And Apple’s people and products responded in kind. As Peter Thiel described in Zero to One,
“The greatest thing Jobs designed was his business.”
The mark of great leader isn’t based on individual accomplishments but the level of accomplishment they create through others. It’s this force multiplier that accompanies those we see as truly influential. As Simon Sinek wrote in Start with Why,
“The role of a leader is not to come up with all the great ideas. The role of a leader is to create an environment in which great ideas can happen.”
We often refer to these environments as a company’s culture. Environments that help people see their own potential so well that they’re inspired to achieve beyond that level. Environments that help people see that they belong to something greater than themselves.
And not only do they have the potential to inspire, but a high quality culture can become our greatest competitive advantage. In the words of Herb Kelleher, co-founder of Southwest Airlines,
“Given enough time and money, your competitors can duplicate almost everything you’ve got working for you. They can hire away some of your best people. They can reverse-engineer your processes. The only thing they can’t duplicate is your culture.”
But in recent years the notion of culture has become blurred. Replaced by visions of ping pong tables, open floor plans, and in-office yoga, as well as whatever other perks are currently in vogue.
We visualize these superficial conveniences and forget that none of them make people truly proud to work somewhere. And few reinforce the behaviors that will provide the competitive advantage we’re looking for.
We focus on these perks because they’re easy. Easy to implement and easy to promote.
And in doing so, we sacrifice the opportunity to develop cultures of real substance. And create those environments where our people will truly excel.
Culture Cannot Be Mandated
“The beatings will continue until morale improves.” – Unknown (at least to me)
We’re conditioned to want short-term results. So we focus on things that will bring those results.
When companies (and parents, for that matter) want to have an immediate impact, they focus on rewards and punishment. Methods of control. Because the best way to get immediate results is by mandating actions.
But this is rarely sustainable. And the person doing the mandating rarely knows all the answers.
Instead, we need to recognize that cultures can’t be procedurally mandated or the result of a company memo. They can’t be driven by superficial perks that encourage entitlement over innovation. Or worse, trying to punish anyone who doesn’t toe the line.
Steve Jobs didn’t need to bribe people into creativity. He offered them the chance to do great work with great people. And high quality people flocked to the opportunity.
We can try to shortcut the process with perks and create a shallow environment that only demotivates in the long-run. Or we can invest in a culture that will provide the sustained benefits we need. Which, in my experience, comes down to mission, systems, and behaviors.
Mission – Give People a Reason to Care
“A team aligned behind a vision will move mountains. Sell them on your roadmap and don’t compromise — care about the details, the fit and finish.” – Kevin Rose
Do your employees understand why they do the work that they do? Do they recognize the importance behind their daily responsibilities?
Everyone wants to feel valued. Everyone wants to take pride in the work they do each day. So one of the most critical responsibilities of management is to define the organization’s purpose. And help people see the direction and meaning behind the work they do each day.
True, most companies do have a mission statement. And you’re likely to see some inspirational posters tacked to the walls. But great cultures take their mission and make it personal. They develop guiding principles to help people make the decisions aligned to the mission. They individualize it in the work that every employee does.
Try this: Ask the first three employees you see about your company’s organizational principles. If they can’t define them, then management has fallen short of giving people a mission that’s specialized to their role. As Captain L. David Marquet wrote in Turn the Ship Around!,
“The guiding principles needed to do just that: provide guidance on decisions.”
Otherwise, they’re just some empty words on a poster.
Systems – Infuse the Mission in Everyday Actions
“If you can’t describe what you are doing as a process, you don’t know what you’re doing” – W. Edward Deming
The biggest reason that most cultures fail is inconsistency from leadership. When people preach one message and then behave a different way, people notice. And they lose confidence in the message.
How many companies preach technical excellence, but then ship out poor quality product to meet delivery goals? Or how frequently do we hear about companies that preach innovation and then punish employees that are willing to take risks?
This isn’t always deliberate. But when people are under pressure, they often fall into old habits. And they don’t always make decisions that align with the culture we’re trying to promote.
If a company’s culture is the result of 1,000 tiny decisions, then each of those decisions needs to align with the culture. And if we’re expecting every manager to consistently make the right decision, we’re setting ourselves up for disappointment.
Instead, great leaders design their business systems to reinforce the culture. In this way, the principles within the culture are embedded throughout the organization.
Whether it’s hiring, talent development, performance assessments, or rewards systems, each area needs to be developed with the culture in mind. As Grandmaster José Raúl Capablanca described it, “you must study the endgame before everything else.”
Steve Jobs didn’t run an innovation initiative. He ran a company that was centered around innovation. Howard Schultz didn’t draft memos on inclusion and then go back to business as usual. Every facet of Starbucks was designed around his principles.
Does your hiring process look for cultural fit or cultural contribution? Does it encourage managers to find candidates that fit in or does it ask what’s missing and find someone who fills that need?
Does your recognition system recognize people who take risks or just those who have mediocre success? Are people promoted for accomplishments aligned with the values of the organization or for short-term success that runs counter to the guiding principles?
People will behave as the environment dictates. As the great Dr. Phil Zimbardo once put it,
“If you put good apples into a bad situation, you’ll get bad apples.”
Behaviors – Set and Reinforce the Expectation
“We can change culture if we change behavior.” – Dr. Aubrey Daniels
At the end of the day, behaviors determine a culture. The daily things that people do, and the methods by which they execute their jobs, will do more to develop a culture than any amount of management preaching.
But before we can expect people to behave accordingly, management needs to set clear expectations, and then take steps to reinforce those expectations with timely and frequent feedback.
Do your employees understand the expectations for success? Every employee I’ve ever managed would happily trade their so-called perks for clear expectations. People generally do want to do good work. It’s management responsibility to help them see what that success looks like.
How many managers complain that their people aren’t performing yet haven’t taken the time to make their expectations clear? And how often do we see managers criticize someone in their performance appraisal without giving them that feedback in real-time, when they have the opportunity to do something about it?
Do your employees understand what it takes to be successful? And are there mechanisms in place to reinforce those expectations?
If we aren’t doing this, why would we ever expect things to improve? As Tony Robbins put it,
“It’s not what we do once in a while that shapes our lives. It’s what we do consistently.”
Culture Eats Strategy
“A company’s culture is the foundation for future innovation. An entrepreneur’s job is to build the foundation.” – Brian Chesky
As we’re pushed towards a culture of immediacy, it’s easy to fall into the trap of trying to shortcut a culture with perks and punishments. But these superficial aspects won’t build the solid foundation that we need. And any short-term gains we make through this method are difficult to sustain for any real length of time.
We repeatedly see empowerment initiatives and innovation programs fail because they’re developed as temporary fixes. Few companies take the time to cement these mindsets throughout their organization, so it’s inevitable that they eventually fall back into old behaviors. And return to being mediocre.
The alternative is to invest in developing a foundation. One that encourages people to bring their best self to work and reinforces the principles we want our companies to represent.
It takes time. And discipline. And process. There are no shortcuts. But given the possibilities, doesn’t it seem worth it?