Company Culture: Why Authenticity is Sexy (and the Key to Success)

Rich Berens
Rich Berens,
President,
Root Inc

Have you ever dated someone and come to the realization a few weeks into the relationship that the actual version of the person you’re dating is actually quite different than what was advertised upfront?  I am not talking about forgetting to put down the toilet seat sort of thing, but he seems like an entirely different person. Chances are it didn’t last very long! The same holds true when employees or companies pretend to be something they are not.  Authenticity is key to a great relationship and something you just don’t find with every Tom, Dick, and Harry who sidles up next to you at the bar and tries to buy you a drink.  It is also not something that you find within every organization. However, authenticity is key if you want to have a long and meaningful relationship with your employees.

Regardless of size and industry, culture exists in every organization. When it comes to corporate culture, authenticity is sexy for people; it’s attractive and appealing. Not first or second date kind of sexy, but the sexy that keeps a couple going for the long haul. Culture is the ever-present granite foundation that solidifies the relationship between employee and company. And that needs to come out not only on day 1, but even before day 1 when you’re in the courting or wooing process. People want real.  They want the truth. Sadly, 82 percent of people don’t trust their leaders to tell them the truth (Edelman Trust Barometer 2013 Annual Global Study) . But, what leaders believe to be true and how they convey that has a huge impact on an organization. When you are authentic in your interactions with employees, and in how you live the company culture, people are more likely to be engaged, and your brand is more likely to be disseminated and received in the way it’s intended.

As your company’s very own corporate DNA, your culture is the sum of your organization’s behaviors and practices. It reflects how you think you should do things in a way that’s meaningful to people. It is there to connect employees, to drive performance, and to help achieve your key business outcomes. You can never underestimate its impact and how it sets you apart in the market. So, how can you turn on the faucet of creativity to develop a culture that engages people and enhances performance? How can you harness the power of your culture and unleash it as a competitive advantage? Here’s some of the “secret sauce” for establishing a culture of authenticity to get results, which we’ve witnessed in some of our best clients over the past 20 years.

  • In dating terms – Pretending you are something other than what you are never ends well.  The sooner you can get to “real,” the better and the more fun it is. That starts by knowing yourself and being honest with yourself.  It is the same with corporate culture.  To create a standout, yet functional and effective, company culture you have to first get an honest assessment of where you are as a company. Not only where your warts are, but what gives you an edge?  What are your unique opportunities and strengths? Don’t make the mistake that many companies make by approaching the whole “culture thing” backwards. Instead of saying this is the kind of culture we want to have, get in tune with what’s really there and work from that place.  Be honest about it, even if it isn’t perfect. If you want a culture that best exemplifies your company and the people who make it up, start by looking at where you are versus where you want to be and build from there.
  • In dating terms – Envision you can see yourself enjoying conversations with this person every day for at least a few years, if not the rest of your life. Be clear on the unique personality of your culture. What are the things you celebrate?  What is special about what you have to offer as an organization? This is less about creating the culture and more about identifying the spirit that exists and letting it thrive. Talk to your people about the parts of the culture that make the company most unique and interesting, the aspects that are hard to find in other places, and what they are the most proud of. People might even get to love some of your cultural idiosyncrasies and they further add to your companies personality,
  • In dating terms – It’s all about give and take and compromise. Relationships can’t be mandated or  prescriptive. It has to be adjusted based on the personalities of the two people in the relationship. The same is true with company culture.  It’s an amalgamation of what works for that organization. We all have different strengths and various ways we bring our best to work every day. The key is to let personalities shine and find their own voice. Hampton believes that the world needs more people that are friendly, authentic, caring, and thoughtful. They assert that authentic connections with guests are not created through a prescriptive process, but by making sure individuals embrace the culture and have the freedom to find the best way to bring it to life in their role. At Hampton, that starts with Phil Cordell, the leader of the multi-billion dollar Hampton brand. Phil has climbed into washing machines with associates to have fun, will start singing unannounced to kick off a meeting, or write a personal thank you note to a frontline team member for doing a little thing that lived the spirit of Hampton. The point is: your leaders need to embrace and live a culture that gives people the permission and inspiration to be their best selves. (Not entirely coincidentally, Hampton has been voted the best franchisee for owners in America for three years running by Entrepreneur Magazine. They credit the culture they have created as one critical differentiator that results in superior returns.)
  • In dating terms – It’s the little things that matter most. “Hello, gorgeous” is a great way to start off a fabulous date. It’s also the little things in a company culture. Create forums for celebrating unique (and often little) things that people do to reinforce your cultural ideals. Foster that behavior, reward it, and set it up for others to model.

Often, organizations set up processes that reduce variability. Typically, the focus is on consistency and automation regardless of who is working a given shift, role, position, or location. By doing that, however, companies have created experiences devoid of unique and differentiating elements to which enlightened employees can contribute. And it is those type of experiences that customers expect these days and that can create a competitive advantage.

Just as in life, people are drawn to others who are comfortable in their own skin and true to who they are. The same applies to culture. If you own it, live it, and display it in every aspect of your work, you will create an energy that draws people in. As a leader, you set the tone that is going to trickle down and across your organization. When you send the message that it’s okay for people to safely be themselves and embody and personify your culture their way, you will start tapping into their discretionary energy. They become excited to go above and beyond the call of their duties because they feel they’ve been empowered to do so in a way that feels true to who they are. Not only does this build a stronger and more authentic culture, but this is also an approach that is much harder for the competition to replicate.

A winning culture comes from within. Make your own super-secret-sexy (and authentic) sauce from all of the greatness that’s already inside your organization. The ingredients are likely there. Your people will thank you!

 

Six High Performance Behaviors From Big-Culture Companies

In a 2006 study, Rogers, Meehan, and Tanner at Bain & Company conducted a survey with 365 leaders across Europe, Asia, and North America about the importance of culture.

Their findings:

  • 68% of leaders believe their culture is a source of competitive advantage.
  • 76% believe it is changeable.
  • 65% believe they need to change it.
  • 81% believe that an organization that lacks a high-performance culture is doomed to mediocrity.

Yet, only 10% of the companies in the study succeeded in building a new culture.

In addition to this survey, more than 200 businesses and three dozen case studies were used to identify the key components of winning cultures. Each had a unique personality and soul – something inherently in the company’s DNA that can’t be duplicated. Here are the six high-performance behaviors. Any of them sound familiar?

1. High aspirations and a desire to win. For employees in high-performance cultures, “good” is never good enough. They are always pushing to go farther, better, faster. It’s not just about short-term financial performance. It’s about building something truly special and lasting.

2. External focus. Companies with high-performance cultures focus their energies externally on delighting customers, beating competitors, and caring for communities. They don’t get caught up in internal politics or focusing on themselves alone.

3. A “think like owners” attitude. A hallmark of a high-performance culture is that employees take personal responsibility for overall business performance. They strive to do the right thing for the business, putting aside issues in the way.

4. Bias to action. People in high-performance cultures are impatient to get things done. They are doers, not talkers, keeping an eye on where the value is to ensure that their actions will enhance the business.

5. Individuals who “team.” Winning cultures encourage people to be themselves and help individuals develop to their full potential. They also recognize the importance of teamwork, being open to other people’s ideas, and debating issues in a collaborative way.

6. Passion and energy. Everyone in a high-performance culture gives 110%, striving to go beyond adequate to exceptional in the areas that really matter, bringing an infectious enthusiasm to everything they do.

These six behaviors do not, in a vacuum, create a winning culture. Rather, the power of these components comes alive when combined with a company’s unique personality.