Corporate culture. The way we work. It’s that powerful feeling when everyone is in sync, rowing in the same direction. Culture wields a unique power, enabling leaders to build and sustain an organization that can scale and endure over time.
What happens to your culture when turnover is at an all-time high? When the Great Resignation forces you to replace 20%, 30%, or maybe even 50% of your workforce, what kind of impact does it have on your culture? At a bare minimum, it can put a chink in the cultural tenets that you took pride in pre-COVID. And for some, it may even create an all-out assault on your organization’s history and institutional memory, leaving an unintentionally fractured culture right under your nose.
Senior leadership teams are so busy responding to important business pressures, working hard to just fill orders and remain profitable, that they may be taking an eye off the culture ball. This is worrisome.
I was compelled to write this article after speaking with the chief HR officer at a large global manufacturing company. He was filled with melancholy as he described the hiring pressures they are under. Their average yearly turnover is 65%, with one newer plant at 90%. I have always respected the leaders of this organization as long-term thinkers implementing many of the best people practices.
However, they now are literally hiring anyone who applies just to keep the plant floor running. They can no longer be discerning with candidates by only choosing ones that fit their culture. Instead, they’ve been forced to adopt an “If you can fog a mirror, you are hired” approach. These wide-open hiring parameters have had a ripple effect: three-month, one-month, and even one-week turnover spikes because the jobs didn’t fit the expectations of the new hires. Hire after hire, this cycle is chipping away at the culture the company took so many decades to cultivate.
When all the dust settles, what kind of culture will they be left with?
Culture is always evolving. Each decision builds upon the next—sometimes slowly, sometimes rapidly—to signal to the organization and its members what is valued, rewarded, and therefore, repeated.
While I believe that the senior leadership team is ultimately responsible for corporate culture, my personal leadership experience has shown me that culture is created through every employee’s shared experiences. The good news for busy executives is that they can leverage this distributed ownership characteristic. When following the suggestions I offer below, leaders can work on their culture and other key elements of the business simultaneously.
To refocus your post-pandemic corporate culture, consider implementing this six-step approach:
1. CREATE CLARITY
I believe this is the most important work that a leadership team needs to own. Spend time with your senior team and all those important for the success of your long-term business to clarify your culture. If you have already done this work and have a clearly espoused culture, review it. Don’t just rubber-stamp it, hoping to get back to the good old days. Critically evaluate it using what you know about today and tomorrow’s workforce. Take inspiration from the famous Netflix Culture Deck or many of the other great examples of well-run growth companies.
2. COMMUNICATE CLEARLY AND OFTEN
I believe this is the second-most important executive-driven area in culture building. And it takes some time. But when done well, you can create or reenergize an army of people who can keep the momentum of this effort. This is not a one-and-done exercise. Keep “the rule of seven” in mind. Delivering a key message seven times (to the point when you are overly saturated and feel like you’re repeating yourself) is just about the time when others start to get it. Let your communication and human resources professionals lead the plan and bring their skills to this work, but executives also need to show up, role-model, and signal the importance of this work.
3. BUILD SKILLS
When employees don’t have the skills to live the culture, your plan can fall apart. Have your team map the skills and competencies required to execute your culture. For example, if your culture is about candor and passionate debate, ensure your leaders and employees have strong communication and conflict-resolution skills. In your recruiting process, seek out candidates who have high self-esteem and are driven to engage in passionate debate.
4. ALIGN YOUR PROCESSES
Empower process leaders to do an audit of your processes and ensure they align with your espoused culture. For example, an egalitarian culture doesn’t work when executives have assigned parking spots. You may catch some COVID-driven process changes that don’t support your culture. You may need to rethink and get creative about your plans to create work-life alignment.
5. MEASURE IT
Once you know what you’re looking for, take time to measure your culture’s impact on colleagues. The organization I mentioned above has started conducting stay interviews. If they had initiated a discipline of listening to employees through the lens of their culture and how it impacts them personally, they may have been able to forgo such a large turnover problem that spiraled out of control.
Once your culture effort is back on track and you have everyone in the organization engaged as a culture champion, sustaining it can be easier. But like any other organizational process, such as budgeting or inventory management, the system should be regularly reviewed and given appropriate attention.
Don’t let the Great Resignation take your culture and your people. With focused attention, the new people you hire, the new working relationships you have created, and the new focus on well-being can help you distinguish yourself as the ideal post-pandemic employer.
Steve Dion is Founder and CEO of Dion Leadership, a leadership and organization development firm that builds strong leaders and cultures.