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There are almost as many ways to develop an effective corporate culture as there are companies that have them. For me, the key to building an effective culture began with an understanding of the people with whom I worked.
When I assumed the leadership of Hill+Knowlton Canada 18 years ago, the company had just come through a long period of internal instability, with many of the “stars” of the firm – those who were best known and had a reputation that went beyond the company – choosing to leave. In many cases, they were unwilling to invest their energy in a firm that did not put their individual interests first.
The people who remained were competent and highly skilled consultants, but were unaccustomed to leadership roles and inexperienced in business development. Faced with this reality, we built a culture around the strengths of those who remained, focusing on collaboration, high standards and constant improvement.
These quickly became the governing principles of the firm, as I soon learned that a team culture is much more powerful than one dominated by individuals. A diverse group of people working in collaboration can almost always produce a better-quality product than a firm that is driven by “stars.”
Once the foundations of our culture were articulated, there were five key factors that we found made the culture effective:
Consistent communication: The cultural principles of the company must be communicated consistently by the leadership and demonstrated every day. We knew that nothing would bring greater discredit to our culture than leaders who said they subscribed to the culture but behaved another way. Internal newsletters, business planning processes and company awards all needed to be structured around the principles we held.
Celebrate success: The key to maintaining cultural momentum has been providing all employees with a line of sight on every success the company achieves. Success needs to be celebrated throughout the organization, and the teams primarily responsible should be lauded across the company. A leader must have the good sense to make these successes about his people, not himself. Celebrating success drives the esprit de corps and a pride that enhances the quality of the work a company does.
Be transparent: Companies need to be transparent in their strategic planning and how they treat their employees. The more a company shares information, the more employees feel like a team and have a shared responsibility over the success of the company. This transparency should even extend to lessons about the failures that occur – because failure can be our best teacher, provided people learn from those mistakes. You should talk about them and not cover them up.
Respect everyone’s contribution: You need to be able to listen to your people, and accept their feedback and criticism. A good corporate culture also invests in the training and welfare of its staff and trusts what employees have to say. This rule of thumb must cascade from the most senior levels of the organization right down to the company mailroom. Everyone needs to feel that their contribution is respected in a meaningful way.
Continually benchmark your performance: Being a great place to work doesn’t happen overnight – it’s a process of continual improvement, where each year you try to do a better job of employee satisfaction and retention. There are a variety of benchmarking metrics you can use and you must survey your company annually – in good times and bad – to get honest feedback. Then you need to have a transparent discussion about the findings and put a plan in place to make improvements for all to see.
Over the years, we’ve adjusted and fine-tuned how we put our corporate culture into practice, but one thing we have never changed is our focus on collaboration, high standards and constant improvement – because it works.
Michael Coates (@MCoates_HK) is the president and CEO of the Americas region of Hill+Knowlton Strategies.