Shaping Company Culture in the New Normal (Opinion)

By Dan Hawkins, Founder and CEO; and Todd Fryling, PhD, Partner, Summit Leadership Partners

There is a popular saying that “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Company culture has become a top priority for CEO’s and their teams as they become increasingly mindful of how to set the right tone for the culture of their company. We define organization culture as a set of expected and demonstrated beliefs and behaviors across a company. But what happens to company culture when the very idea of a “workplace” has gone away, when colleagues might not see each other in person, when almost everyone is working from home for the foreseeable future?

The bad news: Traditional levers for driving and building culture are no longer the most effective. Remote work requires a new approach.

The good news: Building a strong culture is more possible than ever before, but it requires leaders to take a more intentional approach. And if you do it right, you will likely find that your company culture is going to emerge from this crisis stronger than ever.

Amidst the crush of day to day firefighting associated with companies’ responses to COVID-19, we are seeing three big trends happening with our clients, related to their corporate cultures:

  1. Management teams are meeting more frequently, making faster decisions, eliminating organization silos, and galvanizing themselves and their employees in response to the pandemic.
  2. They are taking time to reassess and challenge existing assumptions—what do we really value versus what we say we value? How do we make better decisions, faster? What truly matters, versus what is nice to have?
  3. They are communicating more. Most clients have their typical quarterly townhalls; now they are connecting with staff virtually every week giving employees the opportunity to ask questions. As a result, they are feeling like a “smaller” and more cohesive organization, they are working faster, and staying more aligned.

Employees are looking at what leaders are doing, not what the vision statement and core values on the wall are saying. More than ever leaders and their actions are setting the tone. Company leaders are commenting that their organizations have never been more aligned on critical priorities and simple, but important, ways to in which to work.

Culture is a powerful competitive differentiator and driver of performance. Boston Consulting Group (BCG) reports in its COVID-19 BCG Perspectives study that employees feel three times more likely to succeed when culture, strategy, and purpose are linked, and companies deliver two times higher total shareholder return when culture is aligned. Toxic or misaligned cultures often lead to failure, while high performing culture are focused on winning together.

So, the big question is “how can CEO’s and their leadership teams shape culture remotely?”

Building Culture Remotely

Forget management platitudes and posters on the wall. Culture is not established as a “workplace” in the new normal. The most important factor in shaping culture is leadership behavior. Culture is about relationships, connections, and shared purpose. Management teams must be very intentional about culture.

Now that more organizations are working remotely, CEOs are challenged to lead and shape the company culture. But what many CEOs and management teams are finding, sometimes to their surprise, is that remote work can actually make their culture stronger. These lessons should be considered as company leaders intentionally shape their culture.

  • Focus on your mission: Ensure your company mission is simple, clear, and understood by all. A technology company that we work with has been rallying to help small businesses with extra support and value-added services – at no extra charge. Their employees are locked in and fired up, everyone is on the same page, and they are enjoying the new sense of focus.
  • Speed up decision making: If your purpose is clear, management teams should be able to make and communicate decisions faster than ever. Employees will understand and embrace the sense of urgency. Indecision creates misalignment and confusion. One client has prioritized what matters most in its organization and places time limits on all important decisions.
  • Up your communications game: Eliminate the formal newsletters and scripted townhalls. Allow for more frequent video updates and speak openly without the PowerPoints. Foster 2-way dialogue, if possible. Hold line managers accountable for doing the same. This is a moment to create new rituals to reinforce the culture and values that you want to have.
  • Stop old routines and rituals and start new ones. This a great time to evaluate your reports, meetings, metrics, leader behaviors, and communications that are misaligned with your aspired culture. How do we manage work? How do we react when something goes wrong? How do we hold people accountable? What are our traditions in our company? CEO’s and management should be clear on how they really want people to work together in the future.
  • Hit the reset button on what matters most: If your company had some cultural challenges before the pandemic, why not use this moment to “reset” your culture and get a fresh start? We heard from a management team last week who said, “We’ve made the most progress in strengthening our culture in the last two months than we ever have before.” Be clear as a management team on what behaviors you will reinforce and extinguish, starting immediately.

In a surprising way, this crisis has been a galvanizing moment for many leadership teams. We are seeing a lot of optimism and creativity happening at all kinds of companies right now as people rise to the occasion and find innovative ways to stay productive and create more value, even while working remotely. The opportunity for CEOs and managers today: use this moment to make your company culture stronger and be intentional about it. This crisis is not only creating stronger leaders, it is serving as an impetus to create healthier company cultures for years to come.

Dan Hawkins, Founder and CEO, Summit Leadership Partners
Dan is the CEO and Founder of Summit Leadership Partners. He advises boards, CEO’s, investors and business leaders on strategy execution and value creation through leadership and organization performance.

After a successful corporate career, Dan founded Summit Leadership Partners to help growth-oriented companies and business leaders scale and improve performance.

Under Dan’s leadership, Summit has become the industry leader for PE investors and mid-cap companies in leadership and organization assessment and performance. He partners closely with clients to catalyze change and is an expert in leadership, strategy, assessment, executive and organization development. Dan is practical, insightful, highly focused on outcomes and is appreciated for his direct, courageous and well-informed insight.

Previously, Dan’s worked with leaders at top global public and private companies such as Asurion, Ingersoll Rand, MagneTek, and Hoechst Celanese, and has worked across a variety of industry sectors, such as life sciences, chemicals, technology, consumer products, retail, industrial and financial services.

Dan is a member of several industry and professional organizations, such as the Bloomberg Breakaway CEO NetworkForbes Coaching Council, the International Coaching Federation (ICF), the Society for Industrial Organizational Psychology (SIOP) and the American Psychological Association (APA).

He serves on the boards of Clemson University College of Business, and the Belk College of Business, University of North Carolina Charlotte. Previously, Dan served on the board of Aquesta Bank, Best Practices Institute (BPI), Center for International Business and Economic Research (CIBER), Central Indiana & Central Carolina United Way, and the Purdue Krannert Business School. He also served as an active member of the Charlotte Business Innovation & Growth Council (BIG) and the Nashville Healthcare Council’s Leadership in Healthcare.

Dan has authored and presented numerous topics on leadership, organization change, strategy, leading in global contexts, and strategic talent management. He is regularly featured in top industry publications, such as Chief Executive MagazineHR ExecutiveM&A and Middle Market Growth.

Dan is a Board-Certified Executive Coach (BCC) and holds a bachelor’s degree in Psychology and Management from Clemson University and a master’s degree in Industrial and Organizational Psychology from University of North Carolina, Charlotte.

Todd Fryling, Partner, Summit Leadership Partners
Over the course of his 20+-year career, Todd has consulted with and coached C-suite executives across a variety of industries and stages of growth – from start-up co-founders to Fortune 100 senior executives. In that time, Todd’s work has spanned strategy development and deployment, M&A integration, and organization and leadership capability development, all with the common objective of strengthening leadership and organization performance.

Prior to joining Summit Leadership Partners, Todd held senior-level talent and organization development leadership roles with Asurion and Mars, Inc, following his early career in management consulting at KPMG LLP and Parametric Technology Corporation.

Todd holds a Ph.D. in organizational psychology and an MBA with a concentration in strategy from Claremont Graduate University and a BA from Bucknell University.


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