In 2021, what unites your traditional office workforce with your WFH team scattered around the world?
What connects your local headquarters with your growing international operations?
What makes employees who have only seen the CEO on their computer screens for the last 12 months continue to feel motivated to achieve that leader’s vision?
In a word, culture.
As companies become more and more decentralized, your culture has to be strong enough to keep a diverse and dispersed group of workers focused on a limited set of key tasks. This is the four-step process I’ve used in my career as a serial executive to rebuild broken cultures into powerful engines for transformation and exponential growth.
1. Agree on what “culture” means.
A common problem I’ve witnessed at companies with weak culture is that the CEO and his or her leadership team can’t clearly articulate a definition of culture. If I bring up the topic with a struggling entrepreneur coaching client, I’ll hear things like, “We want everyone to feel like family,” or “We always put the customer first.” Those are nice ideas, and important even. But when top companies think about culture, they’re digging much deeper than that.
The best firms have established a set of shared values, goals, attitudes, and practices that characterize “how we do things here.” In essence, it is about what behaviors and rituals are hard wired into the fiber of the organization. Everything from the office dress code to how the company approaches hiring decisions stems from these cultural principles and the best practices the company sets to reinforce them. Your culture influences the way your employees feel about the work they do, where they see the company going, and what kind of effort they’re willing to put in to reach that destination.
2. Analyze your current culture.
It’s hard to imagine a successful CEO saying, “Our company’s culture is 100% financially driven” or “I want a culture where one half of the company blames the other half for every problem.” And yet even some of the biggest companies in the world experience these cultural issues.
In high-flying success or serious crisis, what is or isn’t working in a company’s culture might be obvious. Otherwise, it might not be that obvious to see what cultural issues are preventing the company from taking its next BIG leap. These firms might benefit from understanding their employee net promoter score and putting the company’s culture under a microscope through anonymous polls to their employees.
For example, Eastman Kodak was for years in a downward spiral of business results and no one seemed to know “where’s the bottom.” This led to a potentially fatal identity crisis. The film traditionalists and the digital innovators were endlessly pointing fingers as to which side of the divide was to blame for the company’s struggles. This distrust and insecurity permeated every level of the organization. It negatively impacted both anxious employees and confused customers.
At Goodyear, the company was lagging behind in the most profitable segment of the market. Although a market leader, the results were considered “unpredictable” and consumers were indifferent to the category and brand. I saw a company with a clear “top down” decision making culture that relied on past successes, rigid hierarchies and layers of compliance that hamstrung employees from taking real ownership over their work.
And at International Meal Company (IMC), concerns about negative same-store sales, sagging profits and stock prices had completely overshadowed the need to excel in the core business drivers of food quality and service that were causing this drag in the first place.
3. Identify the results you want.
Often, there is a disconnect between what a company thinks it’s doing to achieve desired results and what it’s actually doing. Kodak, for example, believed it was in the business of selling the means to take and process pictures. In reality, Kodak’s consumer business was about storytelling, by capturing and sharing memories. Ultimately, this lack of alignment drove the inability to transition beyond its traditional “device selling mentality” – despite creating the world’s first digital camera in 1975.
We needed to revert the several year profit downward spiral into an economic balance. To that end, I wanted to create a united culture that would allow us to manage the inevitable decline in film sales while also growing our digital business profitably.
At Goodyear, we wanted three things. First, to win and be a leader in the most profitable market segments. Second, to earn the right to a sizeable investment to upgrade our manufacturing park. And last but not least to position ourselves as a dynamic challenger company with a rich history that was still innovative and whose products were still the best in the industry.
For IMC, we wanted to create a company that delights its guests with delicious food and service with passion. The desired result was to double share price and allow the private equity a successful exit.
An effective culture should make your key stakeholders feel good about working for you or buying from you. But, more importantly, that culture should be pointed towards specific, measurable results.
4. Align your culture and the results you want to achieve.
Now that you know what you want to accomplish, you and your leadership team can start building out the how and making everyone accountable to deliver.
And this is how the stories unfold… At Kodak, we focused on the most critical 5 specific and measurable strategies and created a “play to position” playbook. This unified the team and within a year brought the company back from the cliff’s edge and added hundreds of millions of dollars to the bottom line. We achieved every single success metric we targeted and the so desired economic equilibrium, with a 5-year streak of a profitability and a leading digital business prolonging the livelihood of the company.
At Goodyear, we created a challenger culture of innovation and employee engagement. We trained all 6,000+ employees on why we needed to change and the importance of operational excellence. We hardwired innovation and execution discipline into the company’s processes. Within 3 years we earned the badge of “Best place to work” and with that, we were awarded $1 billion in upgrading infrastructure, team members, and product lines. We became leaders also in the high-value-added segments while receiving broad market recognition for innovation.
At IMC, we simplified our strategy into one-page building blocks and empowered team leaders to take ownership over getting those blocks stacked up. We also narrowed our focus to a smaller group of key metrics that we tracked on accountability visual dashboards, with a culture of fail small, fail fast. The result? We were awarded “The best turn-around story of the year” by a prestigious bank, we ultimately doubled share price behind same-store-sales growth, and we received rave consumer reviews for our innovations.
Accountability is a particularly important cultural value for any CEO to consider. Any size company can create a culture of accountability with simple steps like setting clear expectations, improving your company’s meeting rhythm, and coaching your leaders to bring out the best in every employee.
To successfully navigate the unprecedented challenges of the last year, CEOs had to be flexible and adaptable. Culture, however, is one of those non-negotiables that transcends where your people work or where you’re reaching your customers. Centering your company around your bedrock values and practices will help you complete this pivot stage of your journey, keep innovating, and keep growing.
Jaime Cohen Szulc is a coach at CEO Coaching International with extensive experience launching transformational strategic initiatives, achieving operational excellence and turning failing divisions into growth engines. He has managed from $20M to $4.5B businesses and up to 12,000 employees. He has served in roles including CEO, President, CMO, COO and Chairman in his 30+ year career at firms including Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company, Levi Strauss, Eastman Kodak, and International Meal Company.
About CEO Coaching International
CEO Coaching International works with the world’s top entrepreneurs, CEOs, and companies to dramatically grow their business, develop their people, and elevate their overall performance. Known globally for its success in coaching growth-focused entrepreneurs to meaningful exits, CEO Coaching International has coached more than 600 CEOs and entrepreneurs in more than 40 countries. Every coach at CEO Coaching International is a former CEO or President that has made big happen. The firm’s coaches have led double-digit sales and profit growth in businesses ranging in size from startups to over $1 billion, and many are founders that have led their companies through successful eight and nine figure exits. CEOs and entrepreneurs working with CEO Coaching International for three years or more have experienced an average EBITDA CAGR of 59% during their time as a client, more than five times the national average. For more information, please visit: https://www.ceocoachinginternational.com