Once upon a time there was a small business owner with aggressive growth goals. Her product seemed plenty good to compete. She had a couple top lieutenants that she believed in. The market was strong enough to support the growth she envisioned. And she’d increased staff to handle the expected surge.
But the growth wasn't happening.
As I prepared to make a company visit, I heard rumblings from third parties that the place was a bit “odd”. Capable enough people, but something just wasn’t right.
It’s hard to explain what I experienced that day. The words that come to mind are jello, adrift, anarchy.
The more people I talked to the less I understood what the place was about. Just a couple employees embodied the owner's stated core values. And her trusted managers weren’t those couple people.
As best I could tell, standard operating procedure was to do whatever the hell you wanted. To ignore all directives you didn’t agree with. And not to worry about being reprimanded because it’s never happened.
A recipe for chaos, finger pointing and frustration. Debating the same crap year after year with zero progress. And, most eye-opening, extreme disrespect for fellow employees and management. Plus crazy high turnover.
Now, don’t take this the wrong way. Maximum freedom, individuality, and even conflict can be part of strong culture. But there has to be something the place revolves around. Some shared values. Some core beliefs. Something.
Nope. Adrift at sea. Hollow core.
And here’s the kicker - Ms. CEO kind of saw it. But she was unwilling to reign it in.
- Maybe it was because she was a 2nd generation owner - didn’t feel empowered to make it hers.
- Maybe it was a lack of confidence.
- Maybe it was fear of confrontation.
- Maybe she didn’t know what she believed in so she couldn’t put a cultural stake in the ground.
- Maybe she was making OK money so she didn't want to rock the boat.
I have no idea the real reason or combination of reasons. But she had a mess on her hands. Her high heels were stuck in concrete.
WEAK CULTURE EQUALS LOW TRUST
If the basis of your firm's identity is shifting sand, what can your employees rely on and trust?
And that’s the challenge that companies of all sizes face. They get so busy running the business that they lose their identity.
There was a recent study done by respected PR group, Edelman, that puts some numbers on this problem. They found that only 48% of rank and file employees trust their employer.
Ouch! If your rank and file employees don’t trust your company…
What are the odds they’re doing their most productive, creative work?
What are the odds they’re helping customers build trust in your organization?
What are the odds they’re spreading positive word in the community about your business?
What are the odds they’re telling their most talented friends that they should come work for you?
What are the odds they’re sticking around if someone offers them slightly higher pay?
The answer to all these questions is ZIPPO. Would you do your best work for, and provide positive word of mouth for, a person or company that you didn’t trust? I wouldn’t. And neither will your employees, customers, or partners.
EVERY BUSINESS HAS A TRUST PROBLEM
I’m sure your business isn’t as lost as the one I just described, but that doesn't mean you're off the hook.
Everyone has a trust challenge every single day at work, at home, and in the community at large. You can NEVER take trust for granted. Consistency of behavior and consistency of personal message is hard. Especially when you're a business owner. People are watching.
Your employees, customers, and partners interpret your words and actions via their own needs, interests, insecurities, experiences, etc. And then those interpreted messages get passed to others. Which means things can get cloudy in a hurry. It’s a real-life, high-stakes, adult game of telephone.
So even if you're on point at all times, which no human is, your message will still get muddied.
Which, left unchecked, leads to question marks and eventual mistrust. Which further leads people to question your fairness and ethics. The Edelman study I referenced above echoes this finding. They found that only 24% of employees believe their CEO exhibits highly ethical behavior.
In other words, 3 out of 4 of your employees are potentially questioning your ethics. Which means you have permanent trust-building work to do.
This article, which elaborates on the Edelman survey I referenced above, shines light on how to close this trust gap.
“Our study shows employees want to really understand who their CEOs are at a personal level, including the values that drive them…Employees want to know their CEOs as people.”
The article also points out that employees want to know about the obstacles the CEO has overcome and they want to hear the CEO’s personal success story. In other words, they want to know as much as possible. They want transparency and consistency.
Corporate trust, strong culture, all begin at the tip top of the org chart. The leaders authentic core must be the engine that drives the persona of the business.
Which means your top job as the business leader is to turn your business into flesh and blood. To make it an extension of your self. To expose a well-defined container, and to DEMAND that your associates FIT it.
Employees will appreciate this well-defined container. Even those that don’t FIT, as I wrote last time, will eventually thank you for making it clear that they’re not a good match. So be kind and generous as you help them find a better FIT elsewhere.
Then, when your core is clearly defined and the place is stocked with people that FIT, get ready to experience something pretty cool. An energy-filled place where you all can achieve maximum growth with minimum interference.
I've lived this. It's amazing. It's worth fighting for. It will turn you, your employees, and your entire business into a powerhouse.
As a business owner you’re in a privileged place. You get to dictate culture for an entire organization. If you do it well you can change lives and make money at the same time.
That’s a huge responsibility and an amazing opportunity.
(This site is all about building a Map that will help me do work and life better. So at the end of each post I check in to see if any changes / insights come to mind.)
From a map perspective, this one is easy. The CEO must do the work to create an authentic SELF map. Then he or she must use it to drive the WHY/ME/IF/CAN of their business.
Here's my updated WORK map that reflects this addition.
The obvious change is the addition of a foundation underneath the businesses WHY/ME/IF/CAN. I used a cement block because I think it represents the concept of "foundation" well.
Inside the cement block you see the pieces of the CEO's SELF map. Point being that the company WHY must be built on the WHY from the CEO's SELF map. The company ME must be built on the ME from the CEO's SELF map. Same for IF and CAN.
Any daylight between the CEO's SELF and WORK maps is an opportunity for confusion. As I mentioned earlier, it leaves room for inconsistency. Which creates doubt, mistrust, and noise. Which further confuses the game of telephone that's played every single day at every single business. A cycle that you can minimize by aligning the core of your WORK and SELF maps.
As a powerful testament to my genius, I would love to tell you that I convinced the business owner in my opening story to follow this path. And that she took my advice and kicked serious butt.
Nope. I’m not a private consultant or coach or advisor. Remember my WHY - to learn and share. Notice it doesn’t mention convincing or pushing. I put my stuff out in the wild and you latch on and use it if it rings true for you.
You can’t force this stuff. The inertia of weak culture is too powerful to be overcome by hobbyists or part-timers. It takes real soul-searching personal commitment to get it moving - and that comes from the inside. And I respect that few people are interested in prioritizing this work. Heck, if I hadn’t lived and benefited so greatly from this stuff, I’d be a skeptic myself.
So, sadly, as best I can tell from the outside, her business continues to limp along. Isn't that what you'd expect from a company that lacks a core? Go deep, get personal, or go home!
That all for today.
I hope to see you next time when I dive into that game of telephone I talked about. We'll look at why it's so hard to tame and what you can do about it.
***Note: This site works best when you read the posts in order. So please head to the ARCHIVE to get started.