A winning culture beats the competition – corporate culture

A winning culture beats the competition – corporate culture – Cover Story

Jill Langendorff Folan

You’re in the most important selling situation of your life. All’s going well. Then, the prospect asks, “What makes you different from your competitors?” What do you answer? Your products? Your technology? both may be true, but current conventional wisdom states that the only truly sustainable competitive advantage your company may have is its people.

This means that culture, leadership, and commitment elements most CEOs are not used to addressing – are now critical to your success. Does this mean the demise of the corporate world? Not for those companies who know where to look for help. And, most will not have to look beyond their own backyards.

Getting assistance with the qualitative aspects of corporate culture won’t be hard to do, however it will require corporate leadership to allow and motivate their communication and human resource departments to set aside their tasks, don their strategist hats and help leadership create a culture that plays to win. But, don’t we all play to win? you might ask.

In fact, most people (and, therefore, most companies that employ them) play not to lose. This sort of culture is highlighted by:

* fear and anxiety,

* victim mentality, and

* compliance.

Employees and leadership appear satisfied with the status quo. Few new ideas, products or processes come out of these companies and even fewer have any kind of effect on the marketplace.

A culture that is playing to win, on the other hand, breeds trust, and rewards courage, growth and learning. It encourages and, more to the point, expects creative thinking, innovative problem solving, and high voltage results on a daily basis – not just during the occasional brainstorm session or strategy retreat.

The help senior management needs to breed this kind of culture resides in their human resource and communication departments. Maybe not as they exist today, but as they must exist tomorrow. These professionals know the audiences, they know the issues. But, in many organizations, they have not been invited to lead this charge. In tomorrow’s successful companies, HR and communication will be developing strategies to ensure change resilient employees who act as business partners with their employers. The basics administrative tasks and employee advocate roles can run themselves, and the technology exists today to allow employees to take more responsibility for self administering these tasks.

A number of strategies have successfully reinvented internal HR, not the least of which is outsourcing. With outsourcing you have several options, including:

* Large HR consulting firms,

* professional employer organizations, and

* smaller, specialty firms.

Activities that can easily be outsourced include payroll, benefits management, and most special communication projects. Each outsourcing option has its own advantages, depending on your company’s needs.

Another way to move your HR and communication folks away from day-to-day tasks (leaving time to lead the cultural charge) is through automation:

* interactive voice response systems to provide employees with answers to questions,

* online employee handbooks with fax-on-demand forms,

* e-mail suggestion boxes and feedback channels, and

* Internet sites to assist with marketing and recruiting efforts.

Once the basics manage themselves, HR and communication can focus on helping you develop your only competitive advantage – your people. What can the HR department contribute to your playing-to-win strategy? World class companies are working with HR to:

* Develop competency requirements that relate to business objectives and will drive results,

* focus on recruiting efforts, using more sophisticated assessment tools and procedures,

* develop formal mentor programs to enhance work force development opportunities,

* find and develop soft skills – the will do skills – along with the can do skills of employees, and

* link performance management to training and development programs, competency models and compensation decisions.

What about communication? Clearly, your communication team must support the programs and policies developed by the new HR. Today, however, this goes beyond a front-page story in the employee newsletter. In fact, more and more communication experts are doing less and less writing. Look what’s keeping them busy:

* Leading culture change with senior management and HR by developing and communicating ways to release and reward the spirit, courage and creativity of your work force while reinforcing your corporate vision and values;

* developing communication strategies that link to your business strategies, moving you toward success and improving your bottom line;

* facilitating visioning sessions, planning workshops and problem-solving sessions made up of senior management, staff, line personnel – or a mix of all functions and levels – to predict and manage tough business issues;

* coaching leadership on interpersonal skills to improve and increase face-to-face communication, critical to creating meaning for your employees and building credibility for your senior management team; and

* measuring the effect of each and every communication effort to ensure the appropriate expenditure of time and money – and to make course corrections where necessary.

So, how do you get started if your communication and human resource staffs are well entrenched in tasks and transactions?

* Sit down and talk with them. Chances are they’re ready to contribute on a strategic level.

* If certain individuals don’t seem up to the challenge, find out whether it’s because they lack certain skills (which can be learned) or the willingness (which may be motivated) to change.

* Work with them to develop new mission and vision statements for their departments that link to the corporate mission and vision; articulate measurable objectives that link to your business objectives.

* Build strategy development, culture change leadership, and whatever else meets your needs into their performance plan and link it to their compensation.

Whatever you do, don’t delay. Your people – your only sustainable competitive advantage – have more external job opportunities than ever before. They know about corporate cultures that play to win. And, they’ve seen the rewards reaped by these companies and their employees. You’ll know when you’re ready to play to win; and now you know who to call to help coach the team.

Jill Langendorff Folan is vice president and consultant, Aon Consulting, Chicago.

COPYRIGHT 1998 International Association of Business Communicators

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group