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How Do You Manage Corporate Culture When the Dynamics Change?

“How Do You Manage Corporate Culture When the Dynamics Change?”

CEOs share their trials, tribulations, successes and lessons learned.

Culture across the miles

Last summer Callie McDowell made an alliance with a technology solutions firm in Westminster, Colo. She now faces the challenge of maintaining a culture while employees are in offices 2,000 miles apart. President of AED Inc., a $3 million, Woburn, Mass.-based company specializing in change leadership and custom learning, McDowell has 17 employees and manages a network of affiliates and industry experts.

Our culture is a piece of our brand. We have brought on a new group of people, and we are working to transfer what that brand really means.

If I see something happening that doesn’t align with our culture, we talk about it. It can’t happen by telling people; they have to see how it runs.

I can reach out and touch everybody in my organization. Yet you have to rely on other people to help transfer that culture. People who have worked with you a long time must become the teachers and recognize that they model the culture.

We have joint staff meetings and utilize conference calls and Web conferences. Each time I go to Denver, I take another staff member out there. We’ve gotten good at using the phone. But I also make sure we have times where we are physically together in the same office. Keeping in touch by phone works because we’ve gotten to know each other in person.

I am preaching one company. Every employee is critical to our culture, and there is a close connection between our culture and our brand. We want our customers to believe in our brand, so we need to believe in it ourselves.

A life outside the office

Tim Berry has watched his Eugene, Ore.-based company, Palo Alto Software Inc., grow from four to 30 people in eight years. Despite internal changes, the $6 million company has a culture that supports family and a life outside the office, says Berry:

We’ve minded the culture very carefully. My wife, Vange Berry, took that over early on. As we started to take on employees, it became clear that culture was important; we were building community.

In a small business setting, it’s critical to have people who are compatible with each other. We have tremendous diversity, and we’re always looking for the best people for the job — but we’re also looking to see how they fit in.

We don’t push people to demonstrate loyalty or hard work by putting more hours in. I have five kids, and I don’t think I’ve ever missed one of my kids’ games. We respect that employees have a life, and we don’t expect them to stay on “Silicon Valley time” until 7:30 or 8 p.m. every night. We also pay for our employees’ broadband connection at home. If they want to work extra hours, they can do it from home.

Corporate culture is important in a 15-20-person company — and it’s also more volatile than that of larger firms because it isn’t spread over as many people. If it goes bad, it goes bad very fast. If it’s good, you benefit more.

Passing the torch, culture

Ann Herrmann-Nehdi’s challenge is to maintain corporate culture despite management changes and employees located across the globe. CEO of Herrmann International, a $2 million, family-owned training and assessment company in Lake Lure, N.C., Herrmann-Nehdi shares her thoughts:

Leadership has a lot to do with how culture plays out. We experienced the passing of the company’s founder, my father. He created a culture based on who he was as a person. My challenge is to maintain parts of that culture, but also to align it with who I am as a leader.

Culture extends to dress code as well as to things like how you handle recognition. It always ties back to your values. You can have your values printed on a card, but if that culture does not reinforce those values, they mean nothing.

Celebrations are one symbol of our culture. We believe work can be fun. We also have recognition awards where everybody votes; every six months we share a meal and celebrate what the person has brought to the company. They get a little time off and a cash bonus.

This is not an immaculate-conception thing; it takes time for someone to understand and experience the culture.

When you are running a relatively small organization, your plate is so full that the culture is sort of built in, but also easy to forget. It’s important for the leader to stay clear on what the culture is and how to model it.

Communication is Job 1

Scott Corwin recently closed up shop early on a Friday and took his employees to the movies. Those who work off-site and couldn’t join the team received a couple of movie tickets in their paycheck. It’s part of team building and fun, says Corwin, president of Future Technology Solutions, a $1.6 million IT firm with 30 employees in Chicago:

For your business to succeed, you must have the same corporate tone. Employees come in with different backgrounds; you have to determine their expectations and explain yours.

Part of corporate culture is that “rah-rah” session or the option of wearing jeans on Friday. The other 80% is about knowing where we are, where we’re going and how we’re getting there. My No. 1 job is to communicate that vision.

I would describe our culture as relaxed, participative, aggressive and fun. Never have I sat down and directed things. I simply have a vote. It’s the last vote, but I get input from my managers, and they get input from their personnel, and we go from there.

To create a culture, take your captains on a retreat. Get their input: How would the office be in a utopia? Start with perfect and go from there.

A cultural evolution

When Marguerite Davis took over as president and CEO of General Learning Communications, the culture began a dramatic shift. Though there was a time when staff had little input, employee participation is now key. Based in Northbrook, Ill., General Learning creates health and educational materials and employs 44 full-timers and about 100 contract workers, says Davis:

You have to give the culture some time. It’s not created by motivational speeches. It’s formed, in part, by values and contact with customers and also shaped by your employees. To some degree, culture will happen on its own.

In the interview process, I look for individuals who don’t want to do just one thing, but have a more lateral perspective. They have to be able to interact with the customer. In the past, that role was left up to fewer people.

To shift our culture, we first had to officially identify our business mission and values. In the old environment, people weren’t empowered; they were afraid to make decisions. We’d have staff meetings and nobody would talk to each other. Now we’re trying to create a culture where we’re always evolving.

Some of the steps we’ve taken:

  • Adopted a management-by-objective process.
  • Created an employee-incentive program.
  • Host a monthly employee meeting where we serve lunch, showcase employee contributions and recognize an employee of the month.
  • Established an employee-management advisory committee that plans everything from new benefit structures to parties.

We’re biting off these things as we think the corporation can handle the changes so that it doesn’t seem trite. You have to do things when people are listening and can absorb it. I think that’s what changes culture. It just takes a little time.

Consistency is key

Consistency is crucial to developing and maintaining corporate culture, says Scott Olsen, CEO of Olsen and Associates, a Portland, Ore.-based sales and executive-development consultancy:

Employees want consistency. They want to understand what the values are — and they don’t want those values to change from week to week. To develop a culture:

  1. Define the culture as you see it.
  2. Ask employees what they think the existing culture is.
  3. Determine what is currently leading the culture.
  4. Continuously communicate the culture.

You may have to remove individuals who are hurting the culture and bring in others who can help you change or maintain the culture you desire. If CEOs don’t create the corporate culture, it will be created for them.