Seattle Managing Director Matt Howe is passionate about culture. His travels around the world have given him a unique perspective on how “global” culture relates to “organizational” culture. We sat down with Matt to ask him five questions about culture, and to find out what he thinks are important opportunities for companies to use culture to drive success..
1. HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE CULTURE?
When I think about culture— I like to think in a broad sense— it’s about people and heritage. Why I mention that, and why it’s important, is because when we speak of culture broadly or historically, it is generally accepted that it is a collection, or fabric, of traditions, language, and behaviors that are born and cast over an extended period of time.
Let me share a story. My wife and I have traveled to many places around the world. On several occasions, we have had the good fortune to travel and spend a significant amount of time in Kenya. One such trip found us sitting for dinner in a small village at a family’s home. We were treated to a traditional Kenyan meal of rice, beans, goat meat, chapati (flatbread), and Ugali (Ugali has the consistency of a grainy dough and the heaviness of a brick— not my favorite). As dinner progressed, one of our hosts asked me an unusual question. He said, “How do you greet your mother-in-law?” I told him that I usually give her a hug. Stunned, he said, “You hug her? We would never do that here!” In Kenyan culture, there is a strong sense of reverence toward the mother-in-law and greeting her with a hug would be disrespectful, which of course is quite the opposite here. Rather than debate who was right or wrong, we accepted that our differences made us unique, and embraced the opportunity to learn from each other. The entire evening was spent trading stories of tradition and behaviors which often resulted in great surprise and laughter.
Ultimately, culture represents a rich assortment of different experiences, different beliefs and understandings— this is true whether we are talking about culture more broadly, or within an organization.
2. WHY IS ORGANIZATIONAL CULTURE IMPORTANT?
If a culture is thriving, the organization is thriving. Culture is critical in influencing employee satisfaction, and ultimately bears a relationship towards the achievement of business results. In many ways, organizations with healthy cultures are more adaptable, because they embrace differences and new ideas, rather than clinging to tradition or individual job security. When it’s all working well, people enjoy one another, contribute to work openly and effectively, and feel valued.
If you’ve ever witnessed a “closed culture” in a company, you know that a common thread is often a lack of trust between employees and leadership. Culture cannot thrive, let alone survive without trust. In closed organizations, communication is often difficult, stagnant, and lacks fluency, thereby hampering the overall effectiveness of the company.
Culture is also a reflection of values. When there is a strong set of adhered-to values, individual employees have collective agreement on how to operate. By way of example, here at Strong-Bridge one of our core values is “Clients First” — meaning, we consistently put the needs of the client first, we hire for people that understand and agree with this principle, and we talk about it as a firm regularly. It’s a part of our culture. We even award individuals who passionately demonstrate this and other values. The natural result of this is that we retain business. If clients are satisfied, business is good.
Then, there is the employee upside. When a company’s culture is defined by values, there is a sort of compass to define actions, and a guide for hiring that helps organizations create a unified culture. This generally results in happier employees, and happy people are more likely to stay. Not to mention, happy employees are simply more fun to work with.
3. WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR COMPANIES LOOKING TO IMPROVE CORPORATE CULTURE?
Dynamic, engaging, effective organizational culture is employee-driven and supported by leadership. For your employees to drive culture, you must do two things really well. First, you have to hire the right people — people who share your values. Second, you must model the expected behavior. There is no doubt that culture goes awry when leaders don’t embrace or model it; it immediately creates an environment of skepticism and distrust. We all know it, but the actions must follow our words for trust to be earned.
A healthy organizational culture isn’t just about performance in the good times; it is also how you persevere and even thrive through the more difficult times. Take time to think about how you’ll behave and how you’ll communicate, doing so through a lens of your values, and how people want to be treated.
4. WHAT IS ONE MISTAKE YOU THINK COMPANIES MAKE WHEN IT COMES TO BUILDING ORGANIZATIONAL CULTURE?
If you thoroughly research this topic, virtually every article will say something about transparency. And that’s great. But I think it is easy to say and much harder to execute than is readily acknowledged. People want truth in the sense that they want you to be honest in your dealings with them. But honesty doesn’t always mean 100% transparency. This is where wisdom comes in. Be sensible, in terms of your organizations principles, about what and how much you will share. Certain things need to have guardrails around them, because it’s the right thing to do. Be clear about what you’re going to be transparent about. Be mindful about protecting the privacy and trusted relationship that you have with each and every employee.
5. IS CULTURE SOMETHING YOU CAN MEASURE?
Absolutely. There are both hard and soft measures. One of the biggest and most impactful measures is attrition. Happy employees are more likely to stay, even if a recruiter calls on them. It’s not always about money. And, there are real savings in keeping people — it is expensive to lose employees. To re-hire a position means expense in training and on-boarding, interviewing, and advertising for the role. A CAP study cited that the cost of rehiring a role can be 16% of annual salary for hourly roles, 20% for midrange salaried positions, and up to 213% for executive roles.
For me, qualitative measures and the impact of an organizational culture come alive simply by observing teams and people. You begin to appreciate the day-to-day impact and power of a healthy culture when you take a look around. Observation and recognition are powerful forces in establishing culture as a key contributor to organizational health. If you’re looking for signs of an emerging healthy culture, there will be subtle indicators of progress first. For instance, a healthy culture is willing to share information liberally and openly across people and teams. A healthy culture finds teams recognizing not only their own accomplishments, but more importantly the accomplishments of their peers. When you start to see that happen… the magic begins.