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  • Neil Kilby

Green Blood & 5 Lessons in Culture


At one point in my life my blood was green. I had E-Mares. And if I would have had time for a girlfriend she would've been an E-Widow. A few old colleagues reading this will know what I’m talking about it. To the rest, I should probably explain myself.

The period in question was when I worked for Enterprise Rent-A-Car. I’d bleed green because that company ran through my veins. The E-Mares refers to the sleep patterns, the presence of work in dreams and the worry of how you’d get through 50 reservations in two hours when you only have 2 cars parked outside the office. The E-Widows? The jilted partners of ERAC employees who had no time for anything other than ESQI scores and talk about daily rates and occupancy.

It was like a cult. The culture of the company was strong and omnipresent. That has its drawbacks (ask the E-Widows) but for the most part, it’s an example of how a common set of customs, beliefs and behavior can motivate and inspire a workforce. And that led to success. It’s not perfect. But it works and works very well.

Never since have I encountered such a strong company culture. And the subject fascinates me. I believe company culture to be generally misunderstood, often disregarded and normally ignored. It is paid lip service by CEO’s and Board Members who are aware of the need to do something about it but can’t see it on a spreadsheet so in their minds it doesn’t really exist. But when done right, nothing can be more powerful. Take Thomas J Walter. Thomas is the CCO of Chicago based Tasty Catering, recently named as a Forbes Best Small Company in America. Thomas is also a revered speaker and co-author of the award-winning book ‘It’s my Company Too: How Entangled Companies move Beyond Employee Engagement for Remarkable Results’. Thomas knows exactly what effect a culture can have on a workplace.

What follows is from our recent conversation. I’m aware this may be a little long for an article but I believe what Thomas is saying is too important to paraphrase or manipulate. Please read and enjoy:

I am not aware of a single company in New Zealand that has a Chief Culture Officer. They may exist, but it is certainly not a recognized position. What is it and what do you do exactly?

About 7 years ago, a 25 year old young lady, who was our marketing person, gave me new business cards. The title listed was Chief Culture Officer. I asked her “what does that mean”. She said that we have our employee created culture statement in place – with Values, Vision, Mission and Purpose – and it was now my job to enforce the culture statement. She said “we all decided, if you enforce the culture, and focus on the behaviors, we will not need a President or CEO. Everyone will know what to do and how to behave.” Or something close to that. Erin has since founded a creative agency that is our sister company www.nuphoriq.com

Later I found out that her idea had scientific support. A basic tenant of Organization Behavior, is Antecedents>Behaviors>Consequences or A>B>C. Our culture statement is our Antecedent. If I focus, as Chief Culture Officer, on our Behavior, the Consequence- or Outcome, should be excellent. Peter Drucker said that the Outcome (or Consequence) of every company is directly related to its Behaviors. He also said that every company has a culture perfectly suited for that organization.

Every organization has a culture. Every relationship has a culture. But are those cultures toxic or are they healthy?

Two young people (24 and 23 years old) led an organizational revolt in 2006. They said that I must change my leadership from command and control to culture driven. That was the beginning of our staff designing our culture statement, without input from my two brother/partners or myself.

My mission is to focus on people and their behaviors. Do they follow our culture? If so, I recognize their efforts, if they do not, I confront them. By being Chief Culture Officer, they know that it is not Tom confronting them, but instead the CCO. Then they focus on the business product and the business model instead of me. Wow, does this approach work well.

Chief Culture Officer is beginning to pick up traction as a title.

How can you tell what is right or wrong about a company culture? Could you tell by walking into my office?

The first sentence answer: is the employee engagement number high? If it is, there is a strong positive culture. If it is not, there is a poor company culture. A company culture aligns values, vision and mission so everyone understands expected behavior. A great company culture has venues for voice which allows people that have an issue about adherence to values to speak. A great company culture has steps in place to confront those who do not follow the agreed upon values, vision and mission.

I believe a positive company culture, or a negative company culture, can be visible in the work place. Study the non-verbal communication indicators. Do people make eye contact? Is their default expression a smile? Do they interact with each other using eye contact? Do they stand upright when they walk? The list is quite extensive.

The body secretes a “love” hormone called oxytocin. In a positive culture setting, the oxytocin seems to linger in the air. You can ”feel it”.

If it is wrong-how do you go about changing a company culture in a company that has long-term employees who may not react well to change?

The young people who led our change, told my brothers/partners and I that we could not participate in the creation of our culture. Tim said “if it is theirs, they will follow it”. He was right

Everyone, except those with severe mental issues, have a natural bent to follow ethical behavior. Understanding that, let those who may not react will, to lead the change. This will allow them to control their destiny.

Suggest you follow Kotter’s Eight Steps of Change. It is a scientifically proven methodology.

Can you measure a cultural effect on profitability?

You can measure employee engagement. A simple tool is the Gallup 12 questions. Employee engagement is grounded in culture. High employee engagement can only be achieved in an organization that has employees following an agreed upon culture.

As our employee engagement increased from the mid-forties to the mid-nineties, our profitability curve followed the same trajectory.

What are the small but significant things that can help develop a culture? Stand-up desks, open plan seating etc. If there is a culture playbook, of tricks, that help – what are they?

The answer to this question would take hours to construct. The following may be the most important.

Edgar Schein, Ph.D. is recognized as the leading authority of how to maintain a strong culture. In short, he states the following is the way to build a culture:

1. Artifacts. Artifacts include any tangible, overt or verbally identifiable elements in an organization. Architecture, furniture, dress code, office jokes, all exemplifies organizational artifacts. Artifacts are the visible elements in a culture and they can be recognized by people not part of the culture.

2. Values. Espoused values are the organization's stated values and rules of behavior. It is how the members represent the organization both to themselves and to others. This is often expressed in official philosophies and public statements of identity. It can sometimes often be a projection for the future, of what the members hope to become. Examples of this would-be employee professionalism, or a "family first" mantra. Trouble may arise if espoused values by leaders are not in line with the general assumptions of the culture.

3. Assumptions. Shared Basic Assumptions are the deeply embedded, taken-for-granted behaviors which is usually unconscious, but constitute the essence of culture. These assumptions are typically so well integrated in the office dynamic that they are hard to recognize from within.

The three levels refer to the degree to which the different cultural phenomena are visible to the observer:

I have spoken at conferences with Dr. Schein. During a break at one conference, I explained to him my disagreements. First must be agreed upon Values. Then Artifacts that support those values. These two will lead to Assumptions, or assumed behaviors. Or:

1. Values 2. Artifacts 3. Assumptions

The values must be posted in common areas. Insert numbers in front of the values. This allows someone to call another person out for not following a value. For example “is this #2?” Our 2nd core value is to “treat all with respect”. If I don’t treat someone with respect, they will ask that question.

Repeat the culture statement before every meeting. Eventually the culture passes the conscious to the sub-conscious to the subliminal and becomes an assumed behavior.

We like open plan offices. We use wireless noise – cancelling headphones when we need to concentrate. This approach removes isolation or segmentation of teams.

No culture will grow to its potential without three elements:

1. Stated culture

2. Hiring and firing based on the culture

3. Authentic leadership that follows the culture without exception

Finally, in case you are curious, the secret to producing 50 cars for rentals when you only have 2 parked outside is...magic. Green magic.

Thomas J Walter is an author, speaker and the Chief Culture Officer of Tasty Catering, a multiple award-winning Chicago based corporate caterer and event planning company and one of the best small companies in America (as awarded by Forbes) and one of the best workplaces (as awarded by the Wall Street Journal).


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