Corporate culture has become an increased focus for companies looking to differentiate themselves in competition for both customers and talent. Companies that historically lack a focus on culture are now faced with the challenge of transforming the organizational mindset. Transformation efforts of any kind are difficult to manage, but culture is especially challenging. It’s impossible to fully anticipate how experiences will alter employee perceptions and ripple through the organization, but it is possible to create a solid foundation for success. When managing culture transformation initiatives for clients, we’ve leveraged a few key concepts to drive success:
1. Keep it simple: Avoid trendy, but confusing, jargon that lacks formal definition. Instead, clearly set the tone in day-to-day interactions.
Dan Pierce, founder of SEI, had a simple goal: Create a work environment where he enjoyed being surrounded by his colleagues. From that basic premise, he developed an infrastructure that would attract and retain high-value consultants who prioritize team success. Our operating model and hiring practices were established to sustain his vision. Every employee is expected to uphold these core values in our daily actions. When making business decisions, we always return to his core concept to ensure we are upholding the original vision.
2. You can’t do it alone: A vision is only beneficial when you have employee buy-in, and employee buy-in is only valuable when they know how to help. It’s easy for employees to feel powerless, so it’s essential to help them understand how each individual can contribute. To cascade a culture strategy at a global asset management company, we established a progressive training program customized to senior management, middle management, and staff employees. We ensured every course concluded with explicit actions employees could take that were:
A. Appropriate to their level of authority
B. Applicable to their day-to-day activities
C. Clearly connected to the larger strategy of the organization
Structuring education in this manner established confidence and clarity of roles and responsibilities.
3. Recognize a defining moment: Inevitably, you’ll be faced with a difficult decision that tests your commitment to the cultural standards you’re communicating to your team. It comes in different forms – a high ranking manager violates a corporate policy, reports surface of business partners engaging in unethical labor practices, or high paying clients push you to provide them unfair advantages. These dilemmas typically have compelling business/financial reasons for compromising your aspirational goals. Expect news of how you handle the defining moment to quickly ripple throughout the company. Embracing the challenge, recognizing it as an opportunity to catalyze your transformation, and role modeling the behaviors you preach can dramatically accelerate your transformation efforts.
4. Know your audience: Transforming the culture of an organization on a global scale requires intricate planning and an understanding of local customs. Risk culture is currently a focal point in financial institutions in response to the financial collapse of 2008. A core component of the Financial Stability Board’s guidance for establishing a risk culture is establishing a culture that promotes effective communication and challenge — employees must be willing to openly challenge the ideas and opinions of management. It’s a basic concept, but it doesn’t always align with local cultures and customs. Tactical execution plans need to adjust for regional considerations. As observed at one of our clients, office dynamics in Asia don’t mirror those in North America. To overcome cultural barriers, we sent senior leaders to meet with key stakeholders in Asia to brainstorm methods for achieving the end goal. By engaging the employees at the frontline, the team was able to develop an implementation plan that adapted to local customs instead of dictating the method with a US-centric mindset. Adapting to cultures and customs is critical to successfully rolling out a program globally.
Culture must be at the core of corporate strategy and not an afterthought. SEI’s culture focuses on addressing the negative expectations associated with consulting (e.g. extensive travel, bureaucratic hierarchies, up-or-out competition, wide ranging performance abilities). We often praise the culture achieved within our organization, but it is only possible because we recognize that maintaining the culture is an ongoing endeavor that is always at risk as the company expands, management changes, or the lure of exponential revenue tempts us to change our operating model. At SEI, it’s everyone’s responsibility to ensure our organization continues to uphold a positive working environment, a team-oriented approach, and a relentless focus on preserving culture above all else.