Imagine that you want your entire staff to be really good at math. You announce that everyone should have good math skills and you ask your management team to begin teaching math to those who report to them. Most likely, some would teach algebra, others might teach geometry, perhaps some would teach calculus, and undoubtedly others would teach the most basic math skills. Math ability throughout your organization would vary pretty dramatically. In fact, unless you create a very specific curriculum from which you teach, there would be virtually no way to bring everyone to the same place. I’d like to suggest that organizational culture works much the same way.
What I’ve observed in working with many different companies who want to build an effective and consistent high-performance culture is that nearly all of them lack any consistent definition and, just as importantly, curriculum. In other words, they have a vague notion of the kind of culture they want, but they can’t describe it precisely enough for anyone to understand it or to teach it with consistency. They know it has something to do with math, but they don’t know what kind of math, and they have no curriculum or lesson plans.
As obvious as it sounds, the starting point for driving a consistent culture is the clear description or articulation of exactly what that culture should be. What are the behaviors you want to promote? How do you want your people to work with customers? How do you want them to work with each other? How do you want them to approach their work? What are the most important values and beliefs that you want to drive your company? These are the types of questions you need to ask yourself in order to be able to explain your culture.
One of the best ways I’ve found to help people think through and give voice to these issues is to picture yourself sitting across the desk from a new employee. What are the most important lessons you want them to learn? What do you most want them to understand about how you want them to “be” in your organization? Of course, this isn’t limited to new employees. If you were coaching any of your employees, what would you be teaching them? These are the lessons we want to formalize into a set of values/behaviors. It’s important that the ideas are “real” and meaningful to people’s daily lives — not some esoteric or abstract idea that looks good on the wall but has little relevance to what people do every day of the week.
When we formalize these ideas into a specific list of values/behaviors, we are now giving true definition to our culture. In my former company, we had a list of 30 such practices that were called our “Fundamentals.” We taught these Fundamentals every single week through a series of practices and rituals that I’ve described in previous articles. I’ve helped many other companies to create their own set of Fundamentals. These Fundamentals give an organization a clearly articulated curriculum from which to teach. And when everyone is teaching the exact same lessons, we develop and common understanding and we create consistent performance.
Do you have a curriculum for your culture?
David Friedman is the former President of RSI, an award-winning employee benefits brokerage and consulting firm in the Philadelphia area. The author of Fundamentally Different: building a culture of success through organizational values, Friedman is a sought-after consultant, guest speaker and seminar leader on organizational culture, leadership, and values.
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