Podcast 86 – Building Corporate Culture

Management consultant Mark Wardell shares the five ways to build a corporate culture that boosts profitability

Written by ProfitGuide Staff

(Ian Portsmouth: Ian, Mark Wardell:  Mark)

Ian:       Welcome to the Business Coach Podcast, an advice-oriented series that tackles the top issues and opportunities facing Canada’s small businesses.  I’m your host, Ian Portsmouth, the Editor of PROFIT Magazine. And we’ve developed this podcast in cooperation with BMO Bank of Montreal.

What is corporate culture other than a very popular buzz word within modern management circles?  Although its definition varies, it is widely agreed that corporate culture is a crucial variable in the formula for business success.  The challenge for business owners then is to control that variable.  Mark Wardell is founder and president of Wardell Professional Development, a management consulting firm specializing in growth oriented companies.  He joins me on the line from his office in Vancouver to share his ideas on the five ways to create a corporate culture that will drive growth and profitability.  Mark, welcome to the Business Coach Podcast.

Mark:   Thanks Ian, great to be here.

Ian:       Mark, was is a company or a corporate culture?  You know, what does that term actually mean?  Because we hear it bandied about a lot and the definition seems to vary.

Mark:   Yeah, I mean, I think of it as a set of shared values and goals and behaviours that ultimately I guess, characterize an organization or really any group of people or in our case a business.

Ian:       So people talk about companies having great cultures.  Is there a best kind of culture for a company to have?

Mark:   No and yes.  There’s a large number of companies in the world that we would consider highly successful.  And yet, many of them appear to have quite different cultures I think.  If you think of Intel for example, it is different from Wal-Mart, which is different from Ritz Carlton, again different from Toyota.  So, on the surface, it seems as if there is no best kind of culture but if you look more closely, I have come to see there is a common thread that I believe runs through all of these great companies.  It is almost a magic ingredient that turns a culture into what we really want in business which is an effective culture, a business that moves the company forward in some kind of proactive way.

Ian:       So, what kind of culture should all companies aspire to?  We’ve heard about cultures of innovation, cultures of customer service, are those things that people want in their companies and can you have more than one of them?

Mark:   Absolutely.  Underneath it though, I think there is a piece that drives all of that and I call this a culture of continuous improvement.  This is an environment where everybody is encouraged to look for small or large ways to make the company better.  We call this a culture of excellence, and we use that term because continuous improvement based cultures have this effect of making the company better and better and better as time goes on.  And I don’t think it has to necessarily have anything to do with foosball tables and free coffee.

Ian:       It sounds to me like a culture of excellence is something that you apply in order to achieve greater innovation, better customer service.  Is that right?

Mark:   Absolutely.  Through a culture of excellence, we produce more innovation.  Through a culture of excellence, we produce more profitability.  Through a culture of excellence, we produce greater strength in sales and so on and so forth.

Ian:       Now, in all of my years as a business journalist, I have encountered countless entrepreneurs who say that their companies have terrific cultures but when I push them for details on how the culture got that way, they often struggle to answer that question.  And I think that’s largely because, in many companies, especially small companies that are still run by their founder, the culture is basically an extension of the founder’s personality.  So my question is, when the company starts to grow, can you do things that actually maintain culture or create culture?

Mark:   Well every business has a culture of course, a culture simply exists whenever there is a group of people working together doing anything in a social setting and a culture emerges.  And if their leader is charismatic, then they may shape that culture not even realizing how or why they do it.  But if you really look at it, there are tools that all great businesses use to shape culture, in fact all throughout society we use to shape our culture.  And research has got me to look at 5 different influencers or ways that we shape culture and these are the environmentlanguagestoriesrituals

Ian:       So let’s go through that list and get a little bit more detail on each one.  So, what do you mean by the environment?  Is this the physical environment?

Mark:   Yeah.  Our physical environment influences our emotional state, influences the way we behave.  If you think about if you are in a clean, organized, orderly work environment as opposed to a chaotic, dirty environment, your productivity is going to be affected.  Probably the world class example of that is Toyota, they are well known for their fanatical attention to order and cleanliness and it helps to encourage and promote this systematic and orderly behavior in their people.

Ian:       Let’s go to the second item on that list, language.  I guess every company has a vernacular that employees use and you’re saying that that vernacular can shape the culture or the behavior of the people in that company.

Mark:   Absolutely.  Look at society for a second.  Think of different generations, think of geographical regions, think of sporting teams, people use acronyms, vernaculars, key phrases, invented words, they use gestures, all these different things, even gangs, right, use all kinds of things like that to subtly indoctrinate people and encourage certain types of behavior.  You know, I have a big sports background, so people give high fives to each other to say hey, great play in soccer or something to support each other.  And that promotes team work and encourages people to work harder, that sort of thing.  And then titles, we use Mister and Misses and Doctor and companies do a good job of that.  A classic example that I can think of is WestJet, they refer to their employees as the WestJet owners, so that encourages people to treat the company and the customers in a certain way, it promotes a certain kind of behavior.

Ian:       How about stories, that was number three on your list.

Mark:   Stories I love, it’s one of the strongest influencers and most common.  We all through society, we use stories.  I think about the stories I read to my kids.  Every story I read them contains some kind of moral.  The films I go see are promoting some kind of value.  And businesses do that or can do that quite well.  I think one of the most famous examples that I really love is the Nordstrom example.  It’s a story it’s on their website, they promote it and it has become part of their folklore in many ways.  So, long ago an employee gave a refund to a woman for a set of tires, except that at the time, Nordstrom didn’t even sell tires.  Stories like this have driven down to the culture of Nordstrom and teach and promote certain kinds of customer service behavior amongst their employees.

Ian:       The key is to keep repeating those stories over the course of time and finding ways to tell those stories within a formal setting.

Mark:   We have our clients actually constantly on the lookout and then writing down stories every time something interesting happens, they capture it, write it down and then retell it to new employees over and over and over again.

Ian:       Another way to create culture that you mentioned is through the use of symbolism.  What does that mean?  I remember Grade 11 English and I don’t think and I ever quite figured out what symbolism was.

Mark:   Symbols, we use in so many ways.  We use them as rewards, so an Olympic medal is an example, it means something to the athlete that won, it means something to many people in society.  Red roses that I give my wife when I am in trouble, diamond ring that we give when we’re getting married.   All these kinds of things communicate information.  The traffic lights even, these are symbols but there is a whole bunch of stuff behind them that’s really important.  1-800-Got-Junk out here; if you go into the bathroom, they have a little blue wig on the head of a stickman and the stickwoman figures on their washroom doors.  And these wigs were originally part of this hockey related publicity stunt    where they all wore these great big bright blue wigs.  But they’ve got this much deeper meaning in the company right now.  It reminds people that the company was founded on this out of the box thinking especially related to PR and it keeps this concept alive inside the company.

Ian:       And finally Mark, rituals.  What are they and how do they foster culture?

Mark:   So rituals are routines that we follow in any particular given situation, but primarily for their symbolic value.  So, when we shake hands when we meet people socially or in business, going down on our knees when we propose, waiting for your host to eat before eating, these are all sort of classic examples in our society.  And our lives are guided by these things continually, weddings, Easter egg hunts, all these things are built on rituals.  So business can use this and many do as well.  Wal-Mart have their company cheer for example.  So this cheer is encouraging employees to take ownership of their work and put the customer first, that sort of thing.  Even at Wardell, one of the rituals we have, Monday morning meetings, a small item on the agenda that says what have you learned and people bring forward things to educate each other at the company, not just business but even how to bake great cookies or something, you know.  So it’s part of a continuous learning culture that we are trying to build in our company.

Ian:       Mark, thanks for joining the Business Coach Podcast and sharing those tools for building culture.

Mark:   My pleasure.

Ian:       Mark Wardell is the founder and president of Wardell Professional Development, a Vancouver-based management consulting firm.

That’s it for another episode of the Business Coach Podcast.  Be sure to check out other episodes which you can download from BMO.com/coach, profitguide.com and iTunes.  For other tools to help you build your business, visit the small business resources section on BMO.com.  Until next time, I‘m Ian Portsmouth, the Editor of PROFIT Magazine, wishing you continued success.

Originally appeared on PROFITguide.com