Culture Hacking Is a Business Thing—Not Just an HR Thing

Creating a meaningful and effective culture is not just an HR thing—it is a business thing that every manager needs to be involved in. Welcome to my culture hacker blog series for 2016! Each month I’ll share more insights into how you as a manager or executive can elevate or reprogram your company code to ensure employees are engaged and inspired, and that customers are loyal advocates. In this first blog, let’s set the stage for why culture is so important, and what it takes to be a culture hacker.

Culture is the mindset and attitude of your employees about what they do, which manifests itself in how they do things; in other words, their actions and behaviors. These behaviors manifest themselves in their interactions with your company, your customers, and other associates or staff.

While culture is often discussed in terms of employee engagement and retention, we are more focused on the relationship between culture and customer engagement and retention. This line of thinking is not new, and was documented and demonstrated back in the 1998 Harvard Business Review article, “Employee-Customer-Profit Chain at Sears,” wherein the writers demonstrated that employees’ attitudes led to a better customer experience and in turn better profits.

Yet, whenever the topic of culture comes up, it seems more about talent engagement and retention, which of course is important and a direct correlation to an improved customer experience, but must harder to prove in terms of ROI. With so much discussion about the value of many HR functions, there is little doubt the work of culture makes a difference to your customers, and yet it is no longer just an HR thing—a focus on culture and inspiring the right employee mindset must be an every day thing.

Together everyone achieves more

Simple put, your staff’s attitudes, behaviors, and words are defining how your customers perceive your business, which is ultimately defining your reputation as a business. Recognize that your reputation is your brand. “Your customer experience tells you everything you need to know about what’s under the hood,” wrote Blake Morgan in Forbes 2015. What’s under the hood is your company culture and how you treat your people, and this manifests itself in every customer interaction with your people.

Tony Hsieh from Zappos famously said, “Brand is the lagging indicator of your culture.” This is a great line to remember, because it highlights just how important culture is when it comes to your brand, and it reinforces why for executives and managers today, culture might be the most important area of need and focus. This idea is reinforced by Deloitte by Bersin in their Global Human Capital Trends report for 2015 that states, “Employee engagement and culture issues exploded onto the scene, rising to the number one challenge around the world in our study. An overwhelming 87% of respondents believe the issue is important, with 50% citing the problem as very important—double the percentage in the previous year’s survey.” So, let’s all agree that culture is important.

What is also important is to remember that the question is not, “Do you have a culture?” because you do. The question is, “Do you have the culture you and your associate desire—one that keeps your customer coming back for more?”

Do you have a formalized culture—one that is directing and influencing the mindset and attitude of your staff to deliver what is needed for your customers to be happy? Are you utilizing the various cultural mechanisms available to you to inspire your people to do what you want them to do? These are the questions every businessperson must be asking in 2016. The good news is that I will help readers to formulate some of those answers in this culture hacker blog series.

Managers and executives are required to refresh and reignite their company culture to be more service-oriented and customer-experience focused. While HR may take the lead, the reality is that everyone must take part. Culture can no longer be seen as just an HR thing, an optional thing, or a not-required thing. It is a fundamental business thing, and as such every manager and executive needs to understand it and be involved in delivering it.

While many executives and managers focus their energies and investments on business and marketing strategies, the reality is that your culture will have a greater impact on your strategy and brand than any other single thing. Peter Drucker’s phrase, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast,” is probably more relevant in business today than ever before. So, as a manager and executive you must be focused on what you can do to ensure you have the right culture in place, because everyone plays a part.

Edgar Schein, a professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, said, “The only thing of real importance that leaders do is to create and manage culture. If you do not manage culture, it manages you, and you may not even be aware of the extent to which this is happening.”

I often get asked, “Can you really reprogram a culture or the mindsets and attitudes of people, especially within those large companies that have long traditional histories and ingrained ways of thinking?” The answer is of course, but it is not an easy, short-term initiative, and it cannot just be made up as you go. Evolving a culture requires its own plan, a focus on the right things, the right resources, and most importantly the right leaders. All of this will be covered in my blog series.

For today, I want to address one issue that will explain why everyone needs to think like a culture hacker—someone who can reprogram the mindset and attitude of the team. Over the years as I have worked on the culture of my own businesses, or the culture of a company I worked or consulted for, there has always been one big hurdle to overcome and that is the idea of change.

No matter how much they claim to be comfortable with it, people are not okay with change. I learned over the years not to make such a big deal about change, especially when it comes to culture. I have been a part of many cultural transformations over the years where the first thing the company does is announce that it is time to change. The first thing employees do is get concerned and resist, even though the changes might have many positive outcomes.

Let’s face it, if we do not understand something we tend to fear it, and culture is not one of those things that a lot of professionals, staff, or people understand. They have heard about it, but never really connected it to their daily routines and how they take care of their customers, even though they live it every day.

My first advice when approaching any change in your culture is to refrain from making such a big deal about it (at least until a time when you have worked on the various mechanisms that all impact your staff’s mindset today). With this idea in mind, we suggest hacking when it comes to your culture. Hacking by definition is associated with perceived or real change. However it is often without the end-user noticing—at least not initially. This is the core of our approach to changing people’s mindsets; be subtle and exact—an approach that successful hackers employ.

A Hacker seeks and exploits the weakness in a system. As culture hackers, we look to identify the weaknesses in the mechanisms that have the biggest influence on how someone feels about what they do and who they do it for professionally. The mechanisms we seek to exploit and evolve are easily recognizable, but for some reason they still get ignored, which is why so many people they see culture as hard to change.

The mechanisms we focus on hacking include: selection, on-boarding, training, recognition, engagement, communication, and leadership. You may be familiar with all of these elements, but how are you leveraging them to elevate the performance of your associates and the satisfaction of your customers? In today’s world, we all need to be culture hackers. I look forward to guiding you through this process in the months to come.

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