HOW TO BUILD A CORPORATE CULTURE OF EXCELLENCE

By Willis Amach

‘Excellence is never an accident; it is the result of high intention, sincere effort, intelligent direction, skillful execution and the vision to see obstacles as opportunities’—anonymous

It has been presumed that leaders never aim for mediocrity.  The expected norm is that every business leader is naturally inclined to the desire to utilize the full potential of his resources, chase hyper-growth, build an effective organisation and create lasting positive change. In order to achieve this, the business needs to have a winning war chest comprised of fantastic products with superb deliver systems and superior customer experience. This last factor is the most important of the three. However superior customer experience is only possible when the company has an inbuilt culture of excellence.

The reality on the ground however is that the staff members do not always read from the same page as the business leadership. Employees are not always enthusiastic to meet the set business objectives, more often leading to missed deadlines and lost growth opportunities not to mention the rampant customer complains that often results in negative market perception and eventual loss of business. This apparent handicap is addressed by building a corporate culture of excellence.

The following are eight essential building blocks that are critical in building and sustaining a corporate culture of excellence regardless of the industry involved:

1. Compelling Vision

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead teach them to yearn for the vast and endless immensity of the sea.” – Antoine de Saint-Exupery

If a leader is to inspire and enlist others to their cause, they need to have a compelling vision. A company vision is the mental image of the desired, future and attainable state of affairs for an organization.  It is compelling if it is both stretching and distinctive and can move people to action by engaging both their minds and hearts. Compelling corporate vision goes beyond the corporate one liner slogans often known as vision statements. These slogans at best are a way to communicate the vision but often come short of achieving the aim of a vision, which is to inspire, challenge and provide direction.

A Vision essentially answers the question of Where? It serves to give the direction of the business or the company. A compelling vision is essential for leading as it provides the compass by which teams navigate in these increasingly turbulent and uncertain times. They help the teams to make the right and timely decisions without having to check with the executive every time a decision needs to be made. Compelling vision gives clarity of direction needed for leading the team into the desired future. Compelling vision motivates the team to achieve and focus their efforts on the big picture. It rallies the teams to follow the pathway of the leader. It also helps to differentiate the company from its competitors.

2. Clear Purpose

“Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose. He who has a WHY to live, can bear with almost any HOW.”—Viktor Frankl

Purpose is the reason why something exists or is done. Purpose answers the question of why? A company’s purpose is the clear reason for doing business or the reason why the company exists in the first place. Purpose is the mission of the business, its most fundamental reason for being. By stripping away the layers of what a business does and what motivates it, any company will discover a deeper purpose that unifies and motivates. The question of purpose can be answered in retrospection; you need to ask, ‘Why does this business exist?’

In building a corporate culture of excellence, it is important that you not only articulate clearly your purpose for doing the business but also communicate the same purpose to all members within your organization. Everyone within your organization needs to know why your company exists; they should be very clear on the purpose your business serves in the market place.

The power of purpose is a huge key to building a successful business (and a corporate culture of excellence). Most successful entrepreneurs can clearly articulate why they’re doing what they’re doing. When an organization is clear on its WHY of existence, the members invariably derive meaning in their in their work as they perceive that they are making contribution to something worthwhile and bigger than themselves. This positive connection to worthwhile causes serves as a source of inner motivation for employees to give their best.

It has been noted that people derive meaning and value for their work and lives when engaging in ventures that serves greater purposes beyond just making profits. Employees in particular tend to be committed to companies that have clear purpose that positively impact lives and livelihoods or those that work towards making the world a better place to live and thrive in. Customers likewise no longer flock to brands with the most expensive labels or the most popular name; on the contrary brands win customers over with their purpose and commitment to something greater than just seeking profits. Business consultant and author of bestselling book Start with Why, Simon Sinek made a very compelling point:

‘People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it’—Simon Sinek

Consequently, companies that have a powerful purpose do better than companies that don’t. Their customers become fiercely loyal and don’t shop elsewhere. They become loyal fans who only buy certain products or services from you.

3. Determining shared core values

 Articulating your company core values is the next crucial step in creating a culture of excellence. These core values are the fundamental beliefs that are meant to guide behaviors and decision making within the organization. The shared core values of every organization are the heart of that organization’s culture. These values must be shared by all the people within an organization, right from the C-suite down to the janitor.

The shared values will only serve their intended purpose if they reinforce the core beliefs of the leader; anything short of this will only be lip service and therefore pointless. Since the shared values will inevitably determine the micro and macro experiences of the employees, vendors and the customers alike, their import should be to uplift the spirit of service excellence and enhance cordial working relationships among the employees themselves and the external customers.

4. Modeling Servant leadership

“Every CEO is in fact a Chief Cultural Officer. The terrifying thing is it’s the CEO’s actual behavior, not their speeches or the list of values they have put up on posters, that defines what the culture is’’—Scott Berkun  

Building and sustaining a corporate culture of excellence requires that leaders must model the way and show the way. Culture is generally more caught than it is taught. People will observe you and see what you value; you are the greatest influence in your company. The best way to model culture of excellence is through continuous servant leadership toward employees and customers alike.

The strength of the culture is executed through exemplary leadership. Your culture is only as good as the values come to life. Do we live the company values? Do the values show up in the employee and customer experience? If the answer is yes, then you are on the right path. If you the founder of the business, it is important to always re-evaluate your level of commitment to excellence and attention to the little things that you were committed to as you started and that were pivotal to your growth. If you are hired from without to lead the organization, you still need to pay close attention to your daily actions and decisions as they serve to reinforce your true values.

5. Select the right talent

“Shaping your culture is more than half done when you hire your team”—Jessica Herrin

This is by far the most important job leaders are supposed to do: selecting the right people. This is because the success in executing any cultural change depends first and foremost on having the right people. Your people represent the culture of your company. The importance of selecting the right people to be part of your culture cannot be over-emphasized. It’s the behaviors and actions of each employee that collectively define the company culture. Selection and hiring is in the fine details. More and more successful companies are highly intentional about the selection process and insuring to get the best talent to enliven their culture.

There are many variables that are plainly outside the control of an organization such as the state of the economy and the actions of the competitors. However there is one cardinal variable that a business can have absolute control over—the quality of your people, especially the leadership team. Their attitudes, judgment, experiences and competences is what ultimately determines the kind of culture an organization shall have. A leader cannot afford to be uninvolved in the people selection.

Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan in their ground breaking book Execution—the discipline of getting things done, put it this way:

‘If you look at any business that is consistently successful, you will find that its leaders focus intensely and relentlessly on people selection. Whether you’re the head of a multi-billion dollar corporation or in charge of your first profit center, you cannot delegate the process for selecting and developing leaders. It’s the job you have to love doing’

There are certain individuals who for some reasons just cannot fit in the culture of excellence you want to build and sustain; you would consider replacing them with new talent.  A leader should be very deliberate and intentional in hiring decisions to ensure he gets the right talent for company’s culture fit.

 6. Sharing

“Growing a culture requires a good storyteller. Changing a culture requires a persuasive editor”–Ryan Lilly

Every company has a history and stories that are unique in shaping that history. As a leader you should do more than modeling—share your stories, company history, what set you apart, what challenges you the company encountered and how you overcame the same.  Whereas it is true that culture is caught, it is also taught. Do therefore have stories to teach and reinforce your culture, they are pertinent part of culture building.

Always keep in mind that vision leaks every day, therefore keep telling stories of excellence, in as much as is practically possible—let your people know what excellence looks like and what it doesn’t look like. Your stories will reinforce what you care about; it communicates your key focus areas.

When I joined Equity bank in the year 2005, the bank was still a little known financial player in the market, having transformed from a building society just a year prior (2004), the management went to great lengths to share inspiring stories of its humble beginnings as a village financial player in the then central province of Kenya, serving tea and coffee farmers and the small, micro and medium entrepreneurs who had largely been shunned by the then major players in the industry. Stories of unparalleled humility, courage and passion that were the hallmark of service by the founding employees did more than psyche us up. Our hearts and minds were won by these success stories. We abandoned ourselves to this cause that we envisioned to be both noble and worthwhile—and the result was the meteoric rise of Equity Bank to become a leading international financial player.

Both positive and negative stories properly communicated will serve the same purpose—the positive ones will communicate what is expected of the employees while the negative ones will communicate on what is not expected of them. The stories can also be picked from the competition

7. Train and continue to develop your team

“Train your staff well enough so that they can leave, treat them well enough so that they won’t”—Richard Branson

Many companies unfortunately leave training and staff development to chance. Orientation alone is not sufficient to inculcate the required culture of excellence. If you want to keep the superstars you brought in to the organization, then you must continue to develop and sharpen the saw. It helps leaders on all levels to reach their potential and perform at a higher level. If you want people to be more engaged, help them with their roles and aspirations that also support your culture.

Apocryphal conversation between a company CFO and the CEO on staff training and development that illustrates a corporate dilemma on this vital issue went on like this:

CFO asks the CEO: What happens when we invest in developing our people and they leave?

The CEO answers: What happens if we don’t and they stay?

8. Enforcement

“The Culture of any organization is shaped by the work behavior the leader is willing to tolerate”—Gruenter Whitaker

Lastly you need to actively reinforce your culture of excellence. This is where the rubber meets the road. Enforcement communicates your level of seriousness in seeing your ideals realized. Beyond the cozy talks, your employees need to see how serious you take your words. You get what you are willing to tolerate. Culture of excellence is always enforced on the little things not the big things. You don’t have to be a tough person, you just need to call people on the little stuff and you will get excellence on the big stuff as well.

In conclusion, we would like to note that to successfully build a corporate culture of excellence; you need to work with all these building blocks in tandem and not in isolation.

The writer is an author and a partner at Hezma Ventures Consulting—a Management and Leadership consultancy based in Bungoma. He can be reached via email info@hezmaventures.co.ke or willis.amach@gmail.com

 


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