Uncover your company’s true values.
By Ann Rhoades, president, People Ink
Many leaders start with a belief that their organizations have already identified their values. “Look, we’ve painted them on the wall!” But could the random employee in the hall give you a coherent answer if you asked what your company’s values are?
Your company’s values and culture are either actively attracting customers or driving them away. Your employees are either productive or just getting through the day. I often talk to business executives who tell me they are having business problems but cannot believe these are related to culture.
Consider it an iron law of business: Culture develops, regardless of whether or not it is defined. So is your culture one that needs tweaking? Trust me, you won’t know for sure until you perform an assessment of your culture gap. To establish a blueprint for change, you have to understand the current state of the culture and the effectiveness of systems you already have in place. Changing culture is really no different than retooling a plant, except that the tools are people and systems rather than people and machinery.
Assessing Your Current Culture
Assessing the “is state” of a culture can be one of the most mentally challenging tasks of the whole culture change process because you are so close to it and so emotionally invested. Culture cannot be interrogated directly, however. “Asking employees to describe their corporate culture is akin to asking a fish to describe what water is like,” say Chris Edmonds and Bob Glaser, senior consulting managers for The Ken Blanchard Companies. “Neither the employee nor the fish can do it properly because they are both immersed in it.”
Many employees—and management—may be fearful that the information gathering will adversely affect their jobs or eliminate them. Others will be disdainful of what they perceive as yet another initiative that will only delay or disrupt their “real work.” Therefore, the essential first step in the assessment process does not involve assessment at all. This is the time to lay your cards on the table and talk about exactly what you are up to.
Action Step 1: Fanfare! Communicate to everyone in the company that you are beginning a journey to refine the company’s values and culture and make this a better place to work. Use vivid stories about stellar work being done in your company (name names), as well as some of the serious problems that have caused you to take this action. A frank message from the leader will prepare everyone for what lies ahead.
Action Step 2: Nominate an assessment team. Include people from all levels of the organization on your assessment team, from the front line to executive suite. People of influence throughout the organization, representative of all areas, should be considered for the team. To enhance trust in the results, members of the assessment team should not be primarily executives or HR. The team will decide on the survey, interview, and focus group questions, as well as procedures for processing, analyzing, reporting, and acting on the results of the assessments. The number of people on the team can be as small as five or as large as 30; the number varies by the size of the company.
Action Step 3: Gather existing survey data. Recent employee and customer satisfaction surveys can tell you a lot about the values gap, as long as you look at them with new eyes. Exit interviews are also a potentially eye-opening source of information. Search for recurring themes: Are certain kinds of failures (or successes) mentioned repeatedly? Is there any difference between the responses of current employees and those who leave? Use existing responses to create targeted survey, interview, and focus group questions.
Action Step 4: Create an anonymous survey. You’ll want to create a survey specifically designed to determine the values your employees currently are living. Anonymous surveys encourage people to tell the bad news they might otherwise keep to themselves. Ask general questions about how systems in place now—such as hiring procedures, work rules, and total rewards—help or hinder the implementation of stated values in the workplace. And ask directly about values, too. For instance: Can you name our organization’s values from memory? Are you rewarded for displaying the organization’s values? How would you respond to [specific difficult customer situation]?
No survey on values should be longer than 25 questions; shorter is preferable. Set a short deadline for people to return the surveys. The answers will inform your next step.
Action Step 5: Evaluate current values and behaviors with interviews and focus groups. Conducting one-on-one interviews and focus groups will give you the opportunity to peel back the onion and get to the whys. With a preliminary bead on trends gathered from the online surveys, you can start delving into potential problem areas with targeted questions. You may want to use focus groups for rank-and-file employees to encourage active participation. At the very least, a representative or two from each functional area should be included, with a good cross-section of job experience. Include those known to have negative opinions. Your most valuable information could come from them. You might even want to invite customers to participate. One of our hospital clients included a patient who didn’t have the best experience at the hospital. Later, the CEO said, “Having this patient here made the lightbulb go off for me in terms of the importance of values.”
Each participant should be informed of the purpose and confidentiality of the interview or focus group. Employees need to feel it is safe to express negative views about leaders. And be sure your executives don’t try to sabotage the process. In one focus group, the COO came waltzing in and sat in on the meeting.
The questions your team will ask should be primarily open-ended and speak to actual values or behaviors, not ideals. Some suggestions: Can you name our company’s values? What do customers really like about us? What is the single most important thing that could be done to help your department provide better service or improve financial performance?
For the survey to be statistically valid, 10 percent of the workforce must be included, although we typically get good results if we include all of senior management, a majority of middle managers, and a good sampling of employees. In practice, if you are hearing the same things over and over, you have probably asked enough.
Action Step 6: Look for key words and trends in the data. Make sure your team summarizes their notes daily. Then assign one or two people to pick out compelling quotes, trends, and themes from the notes. Also look for “one-off ” issues that haven’t yet emerged in the corporate consciousness, such as small failures in customer satisfaction. Significant factors then can be compiled in the familiar SWOT analysis form (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats).
Comparing focus group results and prior employee satisfaction surveys can be enlightening. A mismatch warrants a lot of thought. Perhaps your company really does need a culture change.
Ann Rhoades is president of People Ink (www.peopleink.com), a culture-change consulting firm, and the author of “Built on Values: Creating an Enviable Culture that Outperforms the Competition.” She was one of the five founding executives of JetBlue Airways; Chief People Officer for Southwest Airlines; and Executive Vice President of Team Services at Doubletree and Promus Hotel Corporations.