Company Culture: If You Ain't First, You're Last!

By Barry Pruitt

dateTue, Jun 23, 2015 @ 09:00 AM

In the movie, Talladega Nights, actor Will Ferrell incessantly cries, “I wanna go fast!” If you aren’t familiar Winning_Company_Culturewith the movie, just imagine a young boy who had a daddy that drove fast, and then grew up to be a racecar driver. Think of a culture that included phrases like, “If you ain’t first, you’re last.” It’s not hard to imagine the story line given that framework. And although imaginary, it underscores that your company culture or team culture will produce reasonably predictable outcomes. Let’s keep it simple. Over time a generally good culture produces generally good results, and conversely, a generally negative (or bad) culture produces undesirable results.

John Maynard Keynes was a famous economist in the 1930’s who predicted that his grandchildren would have a three-hour workday. He was wrong. In fact, some would say that it’s the opposite – work more and work faster in the same time seems to be the business culture - and the pace of our work is increasing. Whether this is a positive or negative may depend on your view. For example, more communication at a faster pace may support text over phone (great for those who prefer not to deal with people), or it may support more meetings (great for those who prefer relationships). More office space with no walls may invite interruptions or may support better collaboration. Without direction, culture can be a tricky thing.

I recently connected with author Jack Daly who said, “YOU CAN SMELL culture.” After consulting with companies around the world I can confirm that Jack is spot on, you can smell culture – or, your culture can smell. Jack wrote this:

How does your culture smell? Does it smell good, or does it stink? Do you have a culture by design, or by default? At times, it can be difficult to identify your culture, since you are part of it. Spend 30 minutes at a company, and you can describe the culture. Every company has a culture, so identify the key factors you seek and manage them accordingly. When I think of leaders and culture, Herb Kelleher and Jack Welch come to mind. In Southwest Airlines and GE, we have two companies where the leaders established a culture and worked to ensure it permeated the enterprise.

While both leaders and companies were effective in establishing their respective cultures and delivering solid bottom-line results, their cultures were different in design. But, designed they were. Culture headliners at Southwest have been fun, empowerment and teamwork. At GE, we see training and communication as the headliners. Companies that “manage their cultures well” over time consistently outperform companies that don’t. Here are the numbers:

  • Revenues increased 682 percent versus 166 percent
  • Stock prices increased 901 percent vs. 74 percent
  • Net income increased 756 percent vs. 1 percent
  • Job growth increased 282 percent vs. 36 percent

I’ve identified three ingredients of their business successes: vision, key people in key spots, and culture.

Here are five ideas to jump-start your design of a winning culture:

  1. Be who you are. Winning cultures reflect who the leader is and the company’s core values. A shared mission and values can be liberating — empowering your associates with confidence and trust to make the right decisions. If people have to refer to a manual to make daily decisions, you hamper service and lengthen the sales cycle.
  2. Training should be an integrated processTraining is an inside job — not something to be abdicated to an outside provider. While an outside firm can provide clarity of direction, help to design the training process, and provide for interval course correction, the ultimate day-to-day responsibility for training rests inside the company.
  3. Recognition systems — don’t leave “thanks” to chance. Put systems in place to ensure regular recognition. Imagine an outsider asking your associates, “By a show of hands, how many of you are ‘overly recognized’?” People are starving for recognition, and the recognition doesn’t need to be heavily weighted financially. In fact, one of the most powerful recognitions is the age-old handwritten note.
  4. Knowledgeable companies communicate, and they do it proactively and consistently. Howard Schultz, Chairman of Starbucks, is constantly reminding the company that even though it is big and successful, that does not mean Starbucks can’t execute each cup of coffee better. Share the news and realize that communication involves both talking and listening.
  5. Recruit and hire the best — and start them right. Think “culture first, experience second.” You can train people in the business; however, attempting to retrofit people into a culture is a Herculean challenge. Invest considerable time in the recruiting and screening process, as opposed to just filling an empty seat. Once you find the winning hire, implement an orientation plan so that the new hire isn’t just thrown to the wolves, or ignored.

Create a work environment that is challenging, satisfying, and fun. Storytelling can be the most effective tool to ensure the culture message resonates. People often forget concepts, but remember stories. So, spend more time sharing stories that underscore your desired culture. Stories are simple, timeless, and memorable. What percent of your time is spent on designing and implementing your culture? Don’t rush to the urgent at the expense of the important.

Many thanks to Jack for sharing the above insights. You may remember the 1986 Space Challenger tragedy and all the publicity about six astronauts’ travel to space – along with schoolteacher Christie McAuliffe. There was a culture within NASA that discouraged transmission of bad news to leaders. Engineers from Morton Thiokol built the solid rocket boosters and had expressed concerns for eight years regarding the integrity of O-rings, especially in temperatures below 53 degrees Fahrenheit. On January 27, 1986, Morton Thiokol engineers expressed grave concern to their internal management and NASA mid-management. The launch occurred the next day at 36 degrees Fahrenheit and the Challenger exploded midair due to O-ring failure. In the Rogers Commission investigation that followed, senior NASA leaders testified that they were never aware of the O-ring concern. Culture drives predictable outcomes.

Choose, create, communicate, and then cultivate the culture you want. Don’t leave this to chance. The long-term results are now predictable. When you begin to shout things like “Go Fast, Ricky Bobby!” or “If you ain’t first, you’re last,” you’ll be accelerating your team in the right direction.


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Barry Pruitt


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