what is your culture telling you

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What is Your Culture Telling You?

by Lisa King

I had the opportunity recently to attend a technology conference where Kate O’Neil, consultant, keynote speaker, author, and experience strategy expert, delivered a fascinating speech about strategies for human-centric digital transformation and the future of meaningful human experiences. I was intrigued by Kate’s expertise and point of view on how to create engaging human connections. In fact, one simple yet profound statement deeply resonated with me. Kate said, “Experience at scale IS culture”. Wow. Sounds pretty obvious, right? There are various definitions of culture in business and views on its importance and value to organizations.

I felt this simple statement cut right through to the basic truth about what business culture really is – actual employee and customer experiences at scale.

I reflected on Kate’s quote quite a bit after the conference. Having spent most of my career as a brand strategist and marketing leader, I believe that having a clearly defined Purpose, a brand Promise, and guiding Principles are very important to an organization’s culture – that is, if they are lived and more than just statements in a handbook or posters on a wall. These are supposed to be statements that embody the soul of the brand and the experience of what it’s like to be a part of the organization. Over the course of my career, I’ve worked for organizations where employees were encouraged and empowered to “live the brand” and I’ve also experienced a “comply or die” culture.

My experiences taught me a great deal about the true impact that experiences at scale have on a culture.

In the “live the brand” cultures, the CEOs consistently conveyed the vision. Executive leaders were in sync and supported each other, respecting the position each held on the team. Leaders at all levels clearly understood their roles and the rules of engagement with employees and customers. Employees knew where the company was going and could not only articulate, but delivered on the brand Promise. The guiding Principles meant something and they created a sense of pride and camaraderie. The experience at scale was consistently delivered by all levels of leadership and employees were engaged and aligned. There was a ripple effect across the entire organization. Employee engagement was high. Customer experiences were positive and a direct result of the efforts of the strong culture. It was very clear what mattered and these were high-energy cultures.

My experience in the “comply or die” culture was very different. The CEO led by fear, micro-managed, and encouraged competition among executive leaders. The vision was ever-changing, non-negotiable, and always a reaction to the latest customer opportunity or competitive threat. Executive leaders were forced to comply and deliver the ever-changing messages to employees. This style of leadership, and the resulting experiences with employees, directly and indirectly conveyed uncertainty and angst about the future. Conversely, the external message delivered to customers was one of collaboration, camaraderie, and high performance. Some employees felt the external face presented to customers was a joke because the actual experiences they were having were dramatically different. An employee survey revealed many issues of inconsistency with actual experiences versus the touted Purpose, Promise, and Principles. Leadership reviewed the survey, but felt they “knew better”, so little changed. Although the culture was intense and fast-paced, employee energy and engagement were low. Clocking out at 5:00 on the dot was the norm for most. Leadership was baffled as to why.

Most companies have good intentions when they set out to create a powerful culture.

Many begin by creating a Purpose, a brand Promise, and set of guiding Principles based on an aspirational view of how employees will love to work there, customers will knock down the doors, and as a result, the company will grow and flourish. But sometimes the work gets in the way and before they know it, employees and customers are experiencing something far different than what was originally intended. When the scale is much larger it might seem difficult to course correct, but it’s not impossible. It’s at this point that it becomes critical to understand what matters to you as a leader, to the employees, to customers, and to organization. The experiences that are in conflict will become more apparent once there is clarity on what matters. But you have to do the due diligence to really understand how employees and customers feel about the experiences they are having. It is then that the opportunity emerges to reignite the energy, improve engagement, and charge toward a common purpose. Changing experiences at scale takes time and a deep commitment, but it is worth the effort.

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