12 Ways to Keep a Great Corporate Culture

By: Taunee Besson

celebrateHow to Improve Talent Management and Employee Engagement

Whether you are a job seeker or an employed manager, organizational culture is important to you. If you are looking for a new opportunity, you’ll want to find a company whose mission and values mesh with your own. If part of your responsibility is nurturing and reinforcing a supportive environment for your employees, you need to know what the key considerations are for developing and maintaining a great place to work.

As a career management professional, I help each of my clients identify the components of his ideal job description, including both what he will be doing and the working conditions which best support his effort. It should come as no surprise that people find their company’s culture as important to their satisfaction on the job as the activities they perform.

What are the keys to providing a strong and enviable culture? Here’s a checklist for you to consider:

  1. State a clear mission, then live it daily. How many times have you been through a vision-mission-goals process where the recommendations are neatly tucked away in a large blue binder? Or maybe your mission is displayed prominently on plaques around the office and everyone pays lip service to it, then ignores it in day-to-day business. Perhaps a framed/glassed mission statement suddenly appears on the wall. Neither you nor your employees had a role in creating it, nor any idea how to implement it. All of these scenarios chip away at morale and give associates the impression their ideas and feedback are not important.
    The Dawson Group, whose mission statement is “We will provide world-class human resource services and have a life,” makes sure its employees and contractors take their mission seriously. Many of them telecommute, work part time, flexible hours or volunteer at their children’s schools on weekdays. Kathy Dawson started her own business to flee from the 60-hour weeks and constant travel expected in corporate America. She and her fellow professionals reinforce an environment where people can work smart and lead balanced lives.
  2. Develop a strategic plan that’s understood and embraced by all levels of the organization. An org chart du jour and a direction as changeable as Texas weather breed both confusion and intellectual paralysis. People eventually tire of running in circles and decide to sit out management’s latest whim. Or they each form their own interpretations of what management wants, then run helter skelter trying to implement their assorted perceptions. If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.Vicki Henry, owner of Feedback Plus, has an open ledger policy for her employees. They can read the company’s financial statements any time they wish. Their compensation is based upon their work team’s and company’s performance in light of the annual goals and action plans they’ve collectively developed.While it may not be feasible for every company to have an open ledger policy, it’s important that, whatever the size of the organization, each employee knows where she is going and how she’s supposed to get there.
  3. Show me a company with great communication at all levels, and I’ll show you a great company. Great leaders set a clear direction, then constantly reinforce it. They are masters at involving people at lower levels in the decision-making process, because they know it encourages ownership of the results.Olivette Whipple is the Director of an IBM call center that employs more than 650 telecommunication specialists. Managers from companies around the world visit her center because it represents the venue at its best. What makes this center so special? The employees who work there designed it themselves. With management’s encouragement, they also take responsibility for making ongoing process improvements when they see a better way to get the job done.At TI, the CEO does quarterly broadcasts to all employees and encourages them to call him with their questions so everyone can hear the answers. The company also makes tremendous use of its intranet for communicating all types of information to every level of the organization.
  4. Build a culture where everyone is part of the team. In a recent survey of 14 companies highly respected for their exceptional cultures, every one of them mentioned the necessity of teamwork among employees, departments, suppliers, customers and stockholders. When a CEO lays people off to increase his stock’s price, he’s making opponents out of people who should be teammates. When a purchasing manager strong arms her suppliers into slashing parts prices, she improves the short-term bottom line while incurring long-term resentment.The age of pitting one star performer against another is over. Collaboration and cooperation are the names of the game now. With all the competition from bona fide competitors, who needs internal one-upmanship?Interstate Batteries has intentionally developed a system to reward achievement based primarily on team performance. After a particularly stellar corporate performance, the CEO invited everyone to a spontaneous party, gave them the rest of the day off and handed out $50 bills to use as mad money on their mini-vacation.
  5. Be flexible to change. The old cliché about change being the only constant is truer today than ever. These days, Generation Xers and Baby Boomers alike are looking for more flexible hours, continual training and the opportunity to make a difference. The implied contract between companies and employees is no longer valid. Companies must flex their policies to conform to employee needs or risk losing both good recruits and veteran associates.Technology and the global marketplace are also changing the way companies do business. Texas Instruments sold many of its defense and semiconductor business units to concentrate on digital signal processors. While pundits debunked its risky strategy, TI became the largest producer of DSPs in the world. The company has also ramped up its diversity programs to take advantage of the backgrounds of its employees worldwide. TI’s management knows that it must develop a strong global presence to continue its leadership in cutting-edge high tech products.
  6. Have fun. When business reporters ask executives which companies’ cultures they most admire, Southwest Airlines is invariably at the top of the list. This company can think of more reasons to party than any other I know. But they party for a purpose. The recruiting department recently invited Southwest employees and their friends to a soiree at a small city airport where they were having difficulty filling positions. Result: they hired a lot of their employee’s friends for a cost per hire of $3.50 a head!IBM’s call center plays bingo on Mondays and Fridays. Winners get immediate cash or movie coupons of their choice. This innovative game increases their concentration, cuts absenteeism and long coffee breaks and it’s fun. They even have free popcorn!
  7. Respect each individual’s desire to do a good job and give him the opportunity to make a tangible contribution. Theory X, where management assumes everyone is intrinsically lazy, has given way to Theory Y, where the company and its associates have mutual respect for one another. When management expects employees to do their best, allows them to develop their own work process, gives them flexibility and listens to their ideas, productivity soars. It’s the Pygmalion Effect in action.While Baby Boomers used to be willing to toe the company line, Generation Xers are not. They expect to be treated as professionals who can make an important contribution. They are much more independent than the previous generation and never think of themselves as “company men.” To attract and keep them (and their now-jaded parents), employers have to cede some power and give them the respect they expect.
  8. Provide training, training and more training. Another characteristic of companies with great cultures is their commitment to offering employees the opportunity to continually improve their skills. While training to increase specific job skill proficiency is a part of the package, it’s not the only type of training offered. Learning more about computer software, customer service, communication techniques and other ancillary issues promotes associate productivity and increases their likelihood for staying on the job.On-the-job training is important as well. People who are cross-trained to do more than one job, serve on a company-wide task force, act as project manager for an ad hoc program or mentor a fledgling teammate enjoy the challenge of trying something new, adding a new achievement to their resumes and becoming more valuable to their employer.
  9. Catch people doing something right. Then celebrate. Reward systems are vital to promoting a great culture. The Imprimis Group, a consortium of temporary agencies based in Dallas, rings a bell every time someone gets a job order during a phonathon and rewards the winner with a certificate to Starbucks. Feedback Plus gives Plus-bucks to its employees on an impromptu basis when they catch them doing something right. Then they auction prizes paid for with the Plus-bucks.Interstate Batteries “loves to give things away.” They have a Crystal Award Luncheon every quarter to honor employees who have made outstanding contributions to the company. The company gives out t-shirts and movie certificates for good deeds and runs regular promotions to reward team effort.
  10. Shape an individual development plan to grow each employee. Several companies mentioned this practice as one that attracts and keeps great employees, because it says the organization values them and is willing to spend time and money to help them grow. While this process takes time to plan and implement, both the corporation and its associates gain tremendous benefit from it.
  11. Employees share in company profits. So often we read in the Wall Street Journal or Business Week about the size of executive compensation packages and how they keep increasing, primarily due to stock options. Many companies are providing these options or profit-sharing plans to all their employees, usually based upon team and company performance.  Employee ownership creates a powerful incentive to improve productivity while acknowledging the important contributions made by everyone on the payroll.
  12. Focus on customers. A company with a great culture isn’t in business primarily to make money. Its main goal is providing outstanding products and superb customer service. Southwest Airlines particularly prides itself on its quick turnaround time at the gate, its exceptional record for on time arrivals and its unusually low incidence of lost luggage. It has a tradition for doing whatever it takes to get the job done.

Nordstrom has built its culture on war stories that illustrate customer service far beyond the call of duty. One of the reasons the chain has been so successful is the trust it places in each store employee to make the right decisions. Instead of having to find a manager to deal with an unusual situation, the sales associate is empowered to handle it himself. Consequently, the customer, the sales person and the store all benefit from the immediate resolution of the problem and the long-term relationships it nurtures.


Taunee Besson headshotTaunee Besson, CMF, is president of Career Dimensions, Inc., a consulting firm founded in 1979, which works with individual and corporate clients in career change; job search; executive, small business and life coaching; college major selection and talent management.

“One of the smartest minds in the career field,” according to Tony Lee (VP of CareerCast Operations at Adicio and former publisher of the Wall Street Journal’s Online Vertical Network), Besson began writing for the Dallas Times Herald in the early 80s. Having read several of her columns, Lee asked her to contribute regular articles to the Journal’s National Business Employment Weekly (NBEW) as well. Since then, she has been a triple award-winning columnist for CareerJournal.com  and Senior Columnist for CareerCast.com, as well as WorkingWoman.com and Oxygen.com. At Lee’s request, Besson authored five editions  of NBEW’s Premier Guide to Resumes and three of its Premier Guide to Cover Letters. She has also written articles and/or been quoted in The Wall Street Journal, The Dallas Morning News, Business Week, Time, Smart Money and Yahoo among others.

Taunee has worked on community nonprofit boards and committees for over 30 years including Girls Inc., Women’s Center of Dallas, Girl Scouts and Dallas Women’s Foundation, The Volunteers of America and Mortarboard, among others. She was a member of the Leadership Dallas in 1987 and Leadership America in 2003.

In 1994, the Dallas Chapter of the American Society for Training and Development chose her as its “Professional of the Year”. Her NBEW columns were selected for the “Ten Best Article Award” in 1990, 1994 and 1997.  
In 1999, Alpha Gamma Delta, a 200,000 member fraternal organization, named her as one of three “Distinguished Citizens” at its biannual international convention.

Published by Conselium Executive Search, the global leader in compliance search.  

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