Connecting Culture to What Drives Success

Connecting Culture

Culture is not about being cool or even being a “best place to work.” It’s about being more successful. Period. So while a lot of organizations may spend time trying to find the right balance of happy hours or break-room perks to try to bolster their culture and employee engagement scores, the companies that have the truly strong cultures—that run circles around their competition—actually take a different approach. They directly connect their culture to what drives their success. 

Quality Living, Inc. (QLI) is a healthcare company in Omaha, Nebraska that has come in first in their local “best place to work” award so many times, they’ve been effectively taken out of the competition and put in their own category in order to give some other deserving companies a shot at the top spot of recognition. How do they do it? Not through happy hours or foosball in the break rooms. They do it by being crystal clear on what drives the success of their enterprise and designing their culture around that.

Understanding what drives success
The trick, of course, is having a deep and clear understanding of what drives their success. In the case of QLI, they have done the work to figure this out in a very tangible way. It’s not just about lofty ideals like “customer service” or values like excellence and quality. It’s a granular and focused understanding of what drives success. QLI provides rehabilitation to people with brain and spinal chord injuries—not an easy task, by any means. Their work is not just about providing adequate healthcare: it’s more about rebuilding shattered lives. As such, they have realized that in order to be successful, they have to connect their healthcare services very deeply to the patient’s life, accessing the patient’s hopes, dreams, and aspirations in the process. It’s the only way to get the rehabilitation to really stick. That deeper, meaningful connection is what drives their success.

No Lines We Can’t Cross…
So they built their culture around that, particularly in the way they make decisions. Although they have a fairly traditional, hierarchical structure (on paper anyway), the actual practice of decision-making is really very fluid, morphing and flexing depending on who has access to that critical information about the patients’ hopes, dreams, and aspirations. If a particular patient was very passionate about boating before their injury, there is nothing holding back one of the healthcare providers from spending money to get that patient out on a lake to do their rehabilitation work. According to one employee, “There are no lines we can’t cross in terms of creativity and what we can do for our residents.”

You will even see people with higher levels of authority taking a lower profile in the conversation when they realize that the other staff—though lower in the hierarchy—are closer to knowing and understanding the patient in a deeper way. There was once a meeting where staff were discussing some specific patients where the CEO was a part of the meeting, yet took such a secondary role in the conversation that two brand new interns (who did not yet know she was the CEO) were unaware that the top boss was even in the meeting. When staff later asked them to identify who was the CEO (based on the conversation they observed), they both guessed wrong. When deep knowledge of the patients and their hopes and dreams is what drives the success of the organization, even the CEO will remain quiet in a meeting if she realizes the other staff people have what it takes to make the right decisions.

Making It Real
So once you get clear on what drives your success, you’ll actually have to start changing how you do things internally so you can align your culture with the success factors. Changing how you conduct and facilitate meetings, as QLI discovered, is an important part of this.

Get clear on who has the authority to make decisions (and why), and then make sure the processes you design end up rewarding people who behave in the ways that generate the most success. How you run meetings internally, how you share information across departments, and how you do the basics of project management—these can all be low hanging fruit that you can address in order start clarifying and reinforcing a culture that drives your success. People need to see the changes happening in real ways for the new culture to take root.

Making it Permanent
And once you make it real, you’ll need to transition into making it permanent. This will require even deeper changes, frequently in areas related to human resources—hiring, firing, and performance reviews.

Look at the famous culture “cool kid” in the business world, Zappos. They have become very clear that providing what they call “WOW” customer service is central to their success as an organization, so when you get hired there—no matter what your job—you go through the customer service training and then spend a few weeks in the call center answering phones. Even if you are the corporate attorney, you’ll spend that time on the phone. I once joked on a webinar that I hoped I didn’t get the lawyer the next time I had a problem with my shoe order at Zappos, but there was an employee of Zappos on the webinar, and she assured me that if I did get the lawyer I would get good service, because they only hire lawyers who also happen to care deeply about customer service. They have infused their success factors into their hiring processes to get those kinds of results.

Making it Clear
So when you start to work on your culture, don’t settle for a positive-sounding list of core values that will look good as posters on the wall. Make a clear case that those posters you have about collaboration or respect actually connect deeply to what drives your success. Actually start building those ideas into your processes, both at the surface level and within your HR processes. When the connection is clear, the employees will see it and behave accordingly, because deep down everyone wants to be successful. You’ll get that employee engagement you’ve been looking for while shoring up the bottom line in the process.

Now THAT is a best place to work.

How do you help your staff or client connect culture to what drives their success. Is it real? Is it permanent and infused at various organizational levels? Is it clear? Please keep the conversation going by sharing your comments below.

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Jamie Notter is a founding partner at Culture That Works, where he helps leaders create remarkable cultures that attract the best employees and most loyal customers, and thrive in the digital age. An accomplished speaker and author, Jamie has written several books, including Humanize and the 2015 release, When Millennials Take Over: Preparing for the Ridiculously Optimistic Future of Business.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • William Carpenter

    A really motivational article and will make me re-double my efforts regarding ‘Positive Cultural Change’ with our SME clients. Will Carpenter –

  • Ralph Colao

    It’s interesting that you mention happy hours and foosball tables. So mat employers that I have worked with over the years think culture is something that happens outside of everyday work activities. The organizations that get it, build intentional culture into HOW they do their work. Just from a semantics perspective, I believe that organizations can create an intentional work CLIMATE that they hope will foster a specific work CULTURE which is the individual and/or group behavioral response to the built CLIMATE. The organization can foster those desired behaviors through leadership modeling, work processes, policies and support systems ti name a few. While one would think this concept is fundamental, I am constantly shocked at the lack of attention organizations give to this area which is critical to business success.

  • Evelyn Moncayo

    Very interesting article. I believe culture is deployed from top leaders behaviors to employees that have direct impact on costumers. How do you manage to get the top leaders to change those behaviors that don’t help build the culture we need?