What Do You Want Your Culture to Be?

organizational culturePatrick Lencioni, author of several books on culture and teams, describes a fictional company in his book The Four Obsessions of an Extraordinary Executive: A Leadership Fable. In this company, the owners have described their culture in three words: “Hungry, humble, and smart.” They decided that anyone coming into the company needed to have drive (be hungry), needed to be respectful (be humble), and needed to be the best at what they do so they could think on their feet (be smart). The owners then looked at all their people to make sure everyone fit that culture, and they made changes with anyone who did not. They knew that one exception could take their company in a wrong direction, because one negative has more impact and influence than five positives. Next, they evaluated all of their processes to make sure those too were hungry, humble, and smart. In doing all of this they also found that their best customers fit that description as well.

Although this process takes place in a fictional company, the same exercise works very well in real companies. I’ve given this assignment to CEOs, and, more often than not, the ones who can describe their culture in three words and identify those traits in their employees as well as in their company’s processes are the most successful. They are the ones who continue to grow their businesses and make it look easy.

I’ve noticed a lot of firms adopting three words to describe themselves in marketing materials, and I’ve been curious about how that works inside the organization. Are those three words intentional culture or just a catchy tag line? A tag line is good for show (it looks great on marketing materials) but living the meaning of those words inside the organization as well as in your interactions with the outside world is what your company needs in order to grow. Make sure the words you choose reflect and describe your intentional culture. You can use any three words as long as you are very clear about what those words mean to you and your company. If you can’t reduce it to three words, use four or five, but keep in mind that it’s harder to create systems and processes that have more than three purposes. You might find it helpful to prioritize, and then pick the top three.

As with your mission and vision, identifying and implementing your company’s culture is essential because your lived values will drive so many of your key decisions. We’ll talk about this in more depth in Chapters Four and Five, but I’ll give an example here to illustrate the importance of this. A financial services firm I worked with was having trouble recruiting and hiring a second-in-command to eventually replace the CEO. Instead of continuing to examine applicant skills, I had the CEO come up with three words to describe his company’s culture. He decided that “accountable” (responsible for one’s actions, reliable for results), “smart” (able to think independently and of above average intelligence), and “dedicated” (devoted to getting the best results for his clients) best described his company’s intentional culture. Once he was able to define this, his vision about who that person was became clear and within three months he had located and hired the person who fit the position. Defining his company’s culture so succinctly allowed him to successfully communicate his company’s intentional purpose to a candidate and identify those same traits in the person he ultimately hired. Just as this CEO used his three-word intentional culture statement to make hiring decisions, yours can act as an overlay to everything you and your employees do within your company.

Excerpted from my book, “Putting Together the Entrepreneurial Puzzle: The Ten Pieces Every Business Needs to Succeed.” Available here on Amazon.