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I’m probably not alone when I say the strength your company culture is really tested during times like this. It is not that difficult to sail the calm seas. Our physical and mental strength won’t be challenged on a sun lounge!

This corona pandemic is the stormy sea and your business is the ship struggling to survive. Whatever you deposited in your company culture before is what you are able to withdraw now. Is it enough or is it going to be your life boat?

Over the recent weeks, as companies have had to lay off people permanently or temporarily (as we are able to here in Finland), I’ve read countless social media posts where people have been pinpointing organizations who seem to have over-promised and are now under-delivering. I of course talk about the values as the basis of your company culture.

Building a Modern Employer Brand podcast #17 How corona weighs the strength of our company culture

In this episode of Building a Modern Employer Brand -podcast, I’m going slightly off the plan and talk to you about the importance of building a strong company culture. Because, when the s-h-i-t hits the fan, you need your employees by your side fighting for your mutual goals. It seems, many organizations would like to make withdraws now, but never bothered to deposit in the bank of a strong culture.

What you’ll hear is my thoughts and feelings when I had to withdraw from our company’s culture account because of the corona pandemic.

Episode-length: 19:27 min

Listen to this episode on Soundcloud >>

Listen to this episode on Spotify >>

What is company culture?

I explain company culture as the norms and rules relating to our behavior, actions and how we treat each other in a group setting called the work place. However, there are more than 150 theories about company culture, which can make the whole concept very abstract.

In essence, a company culture is the how we do things here.

I used to work heavily with cultural nuances when I was a startup entrepreneur developing a software for company culture driven hiring. During that time – supported by my own first time experiences as a CEO – I was struggling to convey my own team what mattered to us as a business and how everyone should prioritize their time, decisions and actions at work.

When you first start your company, especially when developing your own software, it is financially very heavy. The investment required is huge and it’s eaten away very fast. This puts an enormous pressure on the team an on you as the leader, because you are running against the clock.

In such a setting, what you really value is a team who is able to finish your sentence, read your thoughts and proactive lead their own work and time towards your vision. But how can you achieve this? I found, with a clear, strategic company culture.

I came up with a pretty drastic manner of dividing “the 150 theories” into two baskets: those that only confused me more and those that seemed to clarify how I should use company culture as a tool to translate the business strategy into ideal organizational behavior. Even though I ended up burning myself out with this business, it was not because of my team.

Later on, when I worked with a law firm about their culture, their CEO asked me if the opposite of this strategic culture I spoke about was then the “fun culture”. That’s when it hit me. Yes, exactly! Fun culture is the perfect name for the type of culture most companies seem to end up developing. While there is nothing wrong with fun culture, it won’t be your life saver when the going gets tough and all the fun runs dry.

“From the fun and benefit’s culture to strategic culture” >>

Why is company culture measured during hard times?

Company culture reflects our behavior: yours, mine and that of our superiors. I believe any culture is “ok” as long as the people part of the culture are aware of and supportive of the rules, norms and behavior accepted and expected in the culture. It’s amazing how smart a human being is. When we know what the rules are, we are truly capable of making our decision about whether we accept the rules and join or find another place with more suiting rules.

I once read that even if your boss was like a tornado going on an impulse, that would be ok if you just knew what to expect. You’d simply just stay away when the storm arrives. Further more, if your tornado boss suddenly behaved totally sensibly, but unlike themselves, that would be likely to cause more stress to the people around them.

The challenge with company cultures come when the members of that culture get confused about what exactly is our culture. Correct if I’m wrong, but in my experience there are two typical routes to developing company culture:

  1. The HR & employee route
  2. The business route

The HR & employee route on how to develop company culture

Often times it seems, when the HR & employees take lead in the development of the culture, it means the management has no real interest. They finally caved in under pressure and because it sound holy to mention the “culture is important”. So they give HR a mighty budget of 5-10 € / employee to “develop the culture”. The budget is real. That’s what seems to be an average handout.

The HR pulls in the staff and they do a workshop. In this workshop they ideate and plan what would make this workplace a fun place to work at [keyword: fun]. The outcome of this workshop or workshops look something like:

  • a plan of how to redecorate the office (usually including a pool table, fancy coffee machine, an inviting lounge, cool and colorful wall paper in the meeting rooms and maybe a swing),
  • a list of suggestions how the company could (should) financially support the ideated after work hobbies and clubs,
  • a new set of values that were super important to the employees and HR who participated in the workshops.

Before anyone gets upset, there are some wonderful exceptions to this rule!

The management route to developing company culture

Leaders who genuinely want to develop company culture do it because they know how much business value a strong company culture can deliver. Some of these leaders are into it, because someone who they aspire to be has said that’s what cool companies do. But many of them are serious about building the culture as an asset and a competitive advantage to their business [key words: an asset, competitive advantage to their business].

Some of them sign up for well known culture assessments and development frameworks such as Great Place to Work. Others use consultancies specializing in organizational cultures (there are 150+ theories to consult from!).

When management works with company culture, they want to link culture to business, work with goals and metrics and see the return on investment in for example employer brand, better success in hiring and a more engaged and committed personnel.

So what’s the problem here?

The problem is when our culture has loose ends. When we spoke so highly of the importance of culture, but now that it’s being tested, we find out we were sold short.

Our culture is nothing more than nicely sounding mumbo jumbo that has nothing to do with how we actually do business here now that things got rough..

“People come first” sounds like a great asset for our business when we don’t really have to put the people first.

“Empathy” sounds like a cute characteristic until we should really express empathy in our verbal and non-verbal behavior.

“Great Customer Experience” is a winning value until the customer asks for something out of the script that is likely to take a bite out of our profit.

What makes us behave different?

There’s this thing with Key Performance Indicators. They make or threaten to break the careers of the management.

At the end of the day, the only thing that matters and drives the management decision making are the strategic KPI’s. And if there are a lot, I can guarantee you, what really matters are financial KPI’s, such as revenue and profit.

No matter how many times “People come first” are written on our website, culture handbook, employee value propositions and customer promises, when the thunder strikes, it’s a numbers game.

What good is a culture is you cannot withdraw your savings when you need to? Don’t make culture claims you cannot deliver when it matters the most. You will only be shooting yourself in the ankles.

We behave different when we are not connecting our values and cultural expectations with our business drivers. This causes mixed messages and conflict, leads into lack of trust and lack of commitment especially during the hard times. And that’s exactly when we need the trust and the commitment! What good is a culture is you cannot withdraw your savings when you need to?

Businesses are organs with transactional goals and drivers. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. When you hire and lead people consistently towards the same business goals with the same morals and values, regardless of rain or shine, you have a proper chance of having a culture that works as an asset.

But when you make claims you are unable to deliver when it matters the most, you are shooting yourself in the ankle.

A culture used to create transparency between strategy, key performance indicators and the every day work of each and everyone at the company is what creates competitive advantage. And that’s when you’ll have your employees backing you up from the hurricanes of the operating environment.

About Building a Modern Employer Brand -podcast

Building a Modern Employer Brand-podcast is a weekly podcast bringing you a modern breath of air into HR marketing and employer branding. 

This podcast is dedicated to all modern growth companies and modern employer branding practitioners who want to really influence their talent audiences and add measurable value to growing and scaling modern businesses with HR marketing and employer branding.

The Building a Modern Employer Brand -podcast is sponsored by Employee Experience Agency Emine and scripted & hosted by Susanna Rantanen.

Find this podcast currently on Soundcloud and Spotify.

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