A Company's Culture Begins on Day One

Sander Flaum, founder and principal of Flaum Navigators
Sander Flaum, founder and principal of Flaum Navigators

If I asked you about your organization's culture, chances are I'd hear the same pat answers from everyone. We're customer focused. We work hard and play hard. We respect our employees.  

Sure of that? The fact is, it's hard to know what's going on when you're on the inside—especially for leaders.

When growth makes you so desperate for new talent that you recruit for experience at the expense of character and attitude, you may find that silo thinking and careerism have crept into your culture.

When your key leaders start leaving early on Friday to get to their weekend houses—while expecting their direct reports to spend their Saturdays on yet another rush project—cynicism isn't far away.

See also: Agency culture: Firm foundations

The next time you walk through your company's halls, go a little slower and take a cultural audit.

Ask yourself a few questions: How are visitors treated the first time they enter your doors? How are they greeted the 20th time? Do they know your organization's purpose?

What do people say about your organization after quitting time? Do they reinforce your values in new hires? Or do they share their gripes at the first opportunity?

Do your people work because they're passionate? Or are they just worried about their bonuses?  

An organization's culture begins on day one. Everyone looks to the founders as role models. But as time goes on, cultures can shift. Have you kept yourself nimble and learning? The early Apple and Facebook were famous for their entrepreneurial cultures. Have they kept them?  How? Nimbleness and thirst for knowledge are embedded in their cultures.

See also: Novartis exec: Pharma culture can be stumbling block to creativity

When I was hired to take the helm of the Robert A. Becker advertising agency (now Havas Health), in 1988, the company was sinking. It had been acquired by a British media company and its prospects looked very dim. Once known for winning creative awards, Becker was now getting pink slips from almost every one of its clients. 

The culture, if you could even call it that, was one of despair. My plan was to reboot the agency into a marketing partner that could think and feel like a pharma company. Having been a client for the previous 18 years, I began recruiting account people from the pharmaceutical industry itself—people who knew advertising and how to rev up a sales team and had track records in how to position and drive brands. If we were going to be one of a kind—a marketing- and sales-effectiveness agency—we needed a staff that understood and had lived through what our clients were facing. It required a total culture shift.

To get the rest of the agency on board, all managers had to walk the walk. If that meant brainstorming and critiquing our clients' marketing plans unasked, we took the risk, and the staff who wanted to stay on joined me for early- and late-day strategy brain dumps. If it meant senior staff letting latecomers know their tardiness wasn't welcome anymore, we did it. And if it meant closing people out of staff meetings because they were five minutes late, we did that, too. We were striving for meaningful change in every organizational crevice. 

See also: Pfizer taps corporate affairs leads as part of reorganization

When the top managers of a company can agree on a culture and act as role models, change will come through fast, especially when you're reinventing yourself.

If you think it's time to improve your culture, here are a few ideas:

Identify behaviors consistent with your desired cultural philosophy. Prefer rewards to reprimands.

Redefine your organization's values to capture the culture you want.

Enlist your senior leadership team. Give everyone a mission to “think and act purpose.”

Avoid gimmicks. Ocean liners don't turn on a dime and neither will your culture.

Hire people who express values consistent with your culture.

When people are happy to come to work and look forward to doing a great job, you've got the makings of a winning culture. Reinforcing this ethos accomplishes a lot more than buying a ping pong table or serving free pizza every Wednesday.  

Work hard to constantly change and take frequent walks through your company. Do you like what you see and hear? Do you like the vibe?  Are you proud? That's the sound of a cultural click.

If we were going to be one of a kind, we needed a staff that understood and had lived through what our clients were facing.

Sander Flaum is the founder and principal of Flaum Navigators. He is also one of MM&M's top 40 transformers this year.