Leadership Advantage: The formula for company culture

December 7, 2022 -  By
(Photo: Jacob Ammentorp/iStock / Getty Images Plus/Getty Images)

(Photo: Jacob Ammentorp/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images)

When we look under the hood of market-leading companies in competitive industries, we look for the differentiator that propelled them to that position. Overwhelmingly, we find that culture is the key. 

A strong, unique and compelling culture that drives a good client experience and creates a positive experience for employees is the formula for success in environments where price and product quality are not hugely distinct from one provider to the next.

This isn’t new. Anyone who eats at Chick-fil-A, flies Southwest Airlines or goes to Starbucks is doing business with an organization based more on the quality of the experience than the price or quality of the product. Not that their products are subpar, they’re just not overwhelmingly superior for the price. These companies aren’t perfect at propagating uniqueness, but they do it well enough that culture represents a competitive advantage and strong differentiator.

What makes a strong culture?

What are the characteristics of a differentiating culture, and how do companies develop it? Strong cultures seem to have a split personality where there’s simultaneously a very strong employee commitment and a strong customer focus. It’s often not as simple as “take care of your people, and they’ll take care of your customers.”

Customer care in these organizations is mandated, not hoped for. The employee experience tends to be disciplined and rigorous, built around processes, procedures and policies intentionally designed to ensure a good customer experience. This is part of the secret. Documenting processes and procedures and enforcing them is where many organizations fall short, but not the ones with differentiating cultures. Once an organization commits to standards in writing, behaviors and expectations become clear. Enforcing the rules is a means to express good leadership.

Strong cultures tend to value employees in tangible ways; however, compliance with policy and responsible character is the expectation.

In organizations with strong cultures, the operation doesn’t tolerate bad behavior. The operation calls out bad employee behavior and poor customer behavior. Strong organizations walk away from abusive customers in keeping with respect for their employees.

Not every organization with a superior culture has an articulated statement of values. However, it’s there more often than not. This statement provides an anchor point on which to base the characteristics of the business and embed these values into the core messaging in the hiring, onboarding, training and development, discipline, celebrations and planning practices.

Supporting culture

Documented systems and a noble statement of values aid, support and propagate strong culture. However, these will not “stamp” an organization with a differentiating experience. There is an organic component that can only come through leadership.

Leadership is never perfect, but the character, courage and vision of leaders will either validate great culture or nullify it. The inexhaustible commentary on leadership is a testimony to its importance. There’s no need to try and define great leadership here other than to say it’s a necessary element in the culture equation.

An operation can develop a strong, unique and compelling culture through a commitment to values, documented processes and procedures, and leadership that emulates the characteristics that define the better parts of the organization. Perfection doesn’t exist, but differentiation does, and market leadership follows.

— Ben Gandy, principal, Envisor Consulting. Reach him at bengandy@envisorco.com.

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