Use the culture to keep your employees

Use the culture to keep your employees

In the boss' shadow

It’s an old saying that employees join companies but leave bosses. Still true, but today I suggest they leave cultures as much as individuals. The dreaded matrix organization has contributed to this. The implication that the ‘pool of talent’ is only available to those with a dotted line is patently absurd. There is also a growing sense that organisations are there to serve a wider cohort than the shareholders. This is a big factor in an organisation’s style.

The culture of an organisation is less about what it does, more about how it does it. Even criminal gangs have distinct, sometimes remarkably loyal, cultures. Religions, which should aspire to decent cultures, have demonstrated they can be as dysfunctional as anyone. The culture of an organisation is the lengthening shadow of the person who runs it.

Whether employees seem to want to engage with a business is irrelevant; they will not be happy unless they do. So an employer has a major self interest in teaching them to. I was recently given lunch in Auckland by two former colleagues. They worked for me 25 years ago. Both of them, and their wives, said how much they had enjoyed working with me because of the culture of the business they had helped to grow.

Around the same time I met up with a young client. She is senior, secure and well paid. She just can’t stand the culture of the business she works for. She is going to quit. Her commitment to the business was total when she joined. Her support for the mission and purpose of the company is without question. But she has found the business gossipy, back-stabbing, uncooperative and mean-minded. The worst cultures are micro-managing ones.

Anyone, even if they have no major university background or high-level qualifications, can create a good culture in a business. It is done by caring for those who work in the business. That is demonstrated by moderate generosity, common sense before process, trust and the risk that accompanies it and behaviour that shows that we are here for a life not just a profit.

There should be very few rules – but those there are must be rigorously enforced. There will be forgiveness for non-malicious mistakes but a ruthless weeding out of even a hint of sabotage. There must be mentoring and coaching for everyone who will benefit from it, and not all paid for by the company. Freebies are seldom appreciated. Above all performance judgment must be fair. Employees who say a boss is fair are paying the biggest compliment.

These broad principles are easy to accept. Their execution through the smaller details of day-to-day management are more difficult. They require very perceptive bosses. Having your ear to the ground is critical in business but having your eye on the opportunities to engage and encourage staff is even more important. Persistently relating what is happening to the culture you are developing requires a high level of creative thought.

Culture is not a PR exercise, nor is it an option. Your organisation will have a culture whether you design it or not. As with all good designs it is better when planned and intended.

That way your lengthening shadow brings prosperity and loyalty.