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Rebecca SchalmI once sat with a small group of business owners who wanted to talk about culture. For each of them, culture ranks as one of their key human resource worries – how to shift their culture in a meaningful way, or maintain a culture they see as critical to success. One of the advantages – and responsibilities – of being a business owner is that you have the final say on the culture in your organization.

Too often we talk about building culture as though it were a knob you turn. In fact, culture is an output – the observable manifestation of a myriad of factors that interact and coalesce to create a unique imprint. Inputs that shape culture include strategy, structure, decision-making rules, rewards, customers, values, who you hire, policies, mission, and so on. You can see culture in how your lobby is decorated, and you can feel it in how employees treat each other. It usually takes outsiders only a few words to describe the essence of your culture.

I do not understand the mystique that surrounds culture change. To me, tackling culture requires the same approach you apply to any other business problem: What is your goal? Where are you now? What is your plan to close the gap?

You begin with a vision for your culture; then you take a hard look at what your culture is today. If there is a gap, you systematically look at the key inputs that shape and influence culture and assess which of these you need to address to get a different output.

For example, if you envision an egalitarian culture where everyone has a voice, decision-making processes that include some and exclude others will not support your cultural vision. If you aspire to a culture of innovation, a reward system that punishes failure will quash that dream.

The important thing is to look at all of the inputs that can shape culture and determine which are most critical to shaping the culture you want to build. Those are the ones you will want to target to align with your cultural vision. You also want to ensure your inputs are not in direct conflict and sending mixed messages. That only gets you the reputation of saying one thing and doing another.

There are six things you can do to fast-track your culture-building efforts:

  1. Don’t try to build a culture that doesn’t reflect who you are. As the owner and key stakeholder in the business, the culture will always reflect your values, personality and style.
  2. Do a reality check. It can be hard to get an objective, accurate read on your culture when you’ve been in it for so long. One quick and easy strategy to help you gain perspective is to talk to new employees – what is their take on what your organization is all about?
  3. Establish your three key values and promote them. Your values should get to the essence of what is important and be so obvious no one needs to memorize them. I once worked for an organization that had six values. I could only ever remember five on any given day. The human brain loves threes.
  4. Make every hire count. Nothing screams more loudly what is most important to you than the decision around who you hire.
  5. Drive from mission and explain, explain, explain ‘why.’ Answering the question ‘why’ is the most powerful way to communicate culture. People want to live up to expectations. If you invest time in helping employees understand why processes exist or decisions are made, you will help them act in ways congruent with the culture you expect.
  6. Embrace the power of storytelling. We learn best through stories. If you are Zappos or the Four Seasons, you want to circulate examples of heroic customer service. Find and repeat stories that highlight key aspects of the culture you are trying to promote.

Bottom line, if you really want to drive change, don’t carry a megaphone. Stealth is vastly underrated as a change management strategy. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need to start with a mesmerizing communication program that tells employees what is wrong with them and how they must change. You need to start by doing things differently. Quietly, consistently, differently. Trust me; people will catch on.

Rebecca Schalm, PhD, is the founder and CEO of Strategic Talent Advisors Inc., a consultancy that provides advice and talent management solutions. For interview requests, click here.

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