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How company culture can make or break your business

Sharon Florentine | April 4, 2017
If you don't build a strong culture in your organization, one will appear anyway -- and it likely won't serve your company well.


Culture and business metrics

That's a lesson Greg Besner learned early on, first at Goldman Sachs and then as an early shareholder of ecommerce site Seeing the importance of a focus on culture and how it helped build employee engagement, loyalty and employer brand was key when he founded culture management software platform CultureIQ, and it's the foundation of the entrepreneurship courses he teaches at New York University's Stern School of Business.

"Watching Zappos grow from 70 to 5,000 people while still maintaining that inspiring culture focused on great service and wowing customers gave me great insight into how important culture is as a leader. And how important it is to branding, employee satisfaction, attracting and retaining talent -- and the huge impact it has on business metrics," Besner says.

If you're not intentional about your culture from the very start, it can quickly become a major liability instead of an asset, like what happened with Amazon last year or Uber more recently, says Besner. And that can affect a company's business performance, morale, engagement and its ability to attract great talent.

"In our opinion, if a damaged culture leads to bad press, most likely this isn't news to the company's current employees -- we don't see a mass exodus from Uber. The real concern is the potential new hires who may not join Uber given this negative information. The only way to combat this is to change the culture as quickly as possible. Leadership must be intentional, active, transparent and potentially drastic about culture change," Besner says.


All the way to the top

Culture can't just be relegated to the human resources department, it has to be "a top-down, bottom-up, across-the-board, no-exceptions, everyone's involved initiative," Besner says.

"So many people mistakenly think of culture as just an HR problem, but when we speak to our customers today, we are speaking with CIOs, CEOs, CHROs, CLOs (Chief Learning Officers), CTOs -- this is a leadership topic, not an HR topic, and that is what can make or break a company's culture. It can't be siloed," he says.


Can you fix it?

While leadership should identify a desired culture early in the company's growth and ensure that hiring and performance process are aligned with this desired culture, all is not lost if you're looking to change toxic elements of an established and/or existing company's culture, before it lands you in an Uber-like situation, says Blue.

"Have an outside professional survey company conduct an anonymous survey and ask every single employee in complete confidence what they think the company values are. You may be astounded by the results. Second, if you find your underlying values are not the same as the 'bumper stickers,' find out why. What is driving the difference? Chances are you'll find operating managers are the root cause. Or you might be the root cause," Blue says. One example he offers is that many operating managers don't care about anything other than results. Of course results matter -- no company can prosper without positive results. But results without appropriate values are often temporary, or in the case of Wells Fargo, only illusory.


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