Image courtesy of Kolya via Flickr

The Kim Kardashian way: 6 unusual tips for creating a sought-after company culture

Want to see a CEO’s eyes glaze over? Just utter the words “corporate culture,” says employee engagement expert Alex Somos, co-founder of Guelph, Ontario-based Juice Inc.

“There are still some less-progressive leaders who don’t understand that a strong corporate culture – having your company and employee values and goals aligned – is a competitive advantage.”

According to Somos, a healthy culture leads to higher employee job satisfaction, less turnover, higher productivity, and improved customer relationships and loyalty. Plus it enhances PR when employees proudly talk up their organization and products in the marketplace.

And all of this, of course, fuels the bottom line.

How can your small business build a strong corporate culture or perk up what’s already in place? Here are six tips.

Find it before it finds you

If a company neglects to consciously take steps to create its culture, one will arise accidentally by default, says Toronto-based Carol Ring, author of the upcoming book The Culture Connection.

Without strategic planning, a company culture based on confusion and blame is just as likely to emerge as one based on teamwork and respect.

“To drive their organizations forward successfully, business owners need to create an environment where people feel energized, not where they feel the energy being sucked out of them,” says Ring. “When there’s a good match between company and employee values, people can’t wait to get out of bed each morning and go to work.”

Keep it real

You’re courting trouble if your professed company culture can’t deliver your brand promise, say the experts.

Customer service, for example, is an area where consumers are starving for the real deal, not lip service, says Somos.

So if your brand shouts, “Our customers are No. 1!,” be sure your employees are measured and rewarded for solving problems, not for the number of phone calls they handle per hour.

Ring cites the BP oil spill as a classic example of a PR disaster resulting from a misalignment of customer brand — “we are environmentally responsible” — with company culture — emphasizing cost reductions to the point of safety problems.

Start at the top

While culture is a company-wide matter, it has to be driven from the top by CEOs who set the tone with their own attitudes and behaviour.

For example, in a hospital with a slogan ‘we care about our patients and people,’ it’s critical that the CEO support and demonstrate this by being highly visible, and by interacting with patients and staff, says Ring.

In this example, a CEO who holes up in his office, or one who introduces a labour-intensive reporting system that prevents nurses from spending time with patients, sends a mixed-message that is debilitating to culture building.

Think like Kim Kardashian

Once your values and culture are defined, spread your message everywhere.

It should be evident in your marketing, advertising, office environment, selling practices, office or storefront design, the way your people interact with each other and your customers, and even in your voicemail messages.

Don’t consider culture a program with a beginning and end. It should be a part of everything that employees say and do on a constant basis.

Don’t rush out for a pool table

Unless a beer fridge, pool table and free massages are carefully thought-out pieces of a bigger plan, presenting them to employees unannounced will likely just confuse or annoy them.

Instead, company leaders need to establish clear business goals, and then, with their employees, determine the systems, policies, procedures and perks that will help achieve these goals. This can be done through focus groups, surveys, one-on-one meetings, executive lunches and other engagement initiatives. But actually engaging employees is key — Somos recalls one group of employees who, when surveyed, asked their employer for more respect. The company responded by buying staff picnic tables, and later discovered staff really just wanted a friendly acknowledgment when they crossed paths with the executives.

And don’t let your research findings sit in a binder.

“It’s the follow-up strategies that energize them and lift them off the paper,” says Ring.

Forget Undercover Boss

Maintaining a strong culture requires a continuous conversation between management and employees.

Company leaders should skip the weather niceties and instead go for a refreshing blend of directness and inquiry. They can get a handle on reality by asking employees helpful and meaningful questions about what matters to them most, whether it be a new system, idea, product or problem.

And leaders and managers shouldn’t be afraid to delve into feelings.

Somos suggests asking questions like, ‘How’s the new time-off policy working for you?’ or even the more point-blank, ‘Do you feel appreciated and recognized?’

“Some leaders think that feelings aren’t related to results. But employees who don’t feel valued, inspired and supported will never have a great employee experience, and therefore won’t create good customer experiences,” he says.