The Most Powerful Cultures are Aligned with What Drives Success


Company 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. 
The trick, of course, is having a clear—and nuanced—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 “makes or breaks” them. 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 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.
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 sailing 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.” 
At QLI, people with higher levels of authority take a lower profile in the conversation when other staff—who may be lower in the hierarchy—are closer to knowing and understanding the patient in a deeper way. They tell the story of a meeting where two brand new interns were unaware that the CEO happened to be in the meeting – and when asked if they could identify 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. 
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.
From there, organizations doing this kind of thinking about culture almost always start to focus on deeper changes related to human resources—hiring, onboarding, firing, and performance management. 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 kind of results.
At the software company Menlo Innovations, collaboration is so critical to their culture (their coders work in pairs and share one computer and one keyboard) that their interview process mirrors what it’s really like to work there. They pair up applicants, and assess them on how well they collaborate on mini-projects – and how well they help their partner pass each round. To get to the stage of a week-long test project in house, the staff decides whether they would be willing to be paired with each applicant.  And all of this is given a higher priority than their specific coding skills. 
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. If your core values are “customer focus”, “excellence and quality”, “innovation”, “collaboration” – I would argue that they are meaningless. Why? Because everyone else has those same core values. Instead, 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 connect culture to what drives the success of the enterprise?
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