Culture: The secret sauce of success

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April 5, 2021

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A Supreme Court justice once defined obscenity by not defining it. “I know it when I see it,” Justice Potter Stewart famously said in 1964. It seems that an organization’s culture might fit into the same category: difficult to define, but obvious once illuminated.

The difficulty in defining organizational culture is because it is so many things at once. An amalgamation of personality, values, reputation, purpose, style and traditions framed by a set of written and unwritten rules developed over time and considered inviolable. Put them all in a pot, let them simmer for a while — a few years or maybe a few decades — and what’s left is culture!

Culture then is nothing less than an organization’s heart and soul, and its importance rivals any other asset or advantage. It is the glue that holds the organization together. It inspires loyalty in employees and motivates them to act consistently and pridefully. It influences them to perform at a high level because they feel a responsibility to uphold their end of the cultural bargain.

Culture is also an important factor in retaining top performers. Randstad, the international employment and recruitment firm, lists toxic cultures with poor pay, limited career opportunities, lack of challenging work, lack of recognition and work-life imbalance as the leading reasons people leave their jobs. There is an urgent need to pay attention to the culture growing around your club or course or risk losing top talent.

If this amorphous entity known as culture is so critical, what steps can you take, what keywords can you prioritize for search engines and what KPIs do you elevate to bake it into your organization? If only creating or transforming culture were so easy. Every winning culture is part of a unique set of attributes and characteristics that cannot be invented or imposed. It must be discovered from within.

But that doesn’t mean you should sit back and wait for culture to reveal itself — or for it to form in ways that could be detrimental to your future success. The road to a sustainable and winning culture ensures that employees:

  • Understand the club’s/course’s vision and how they contribute to it. When everyone knows where their leaders are steering the ship, it’s much easier to get people onboard and for employees to feel good about rowing.
  • Know how their performance is measured and what their personal success looks like. What results are expected? Are there both quantifiable and qualitative measures?
  • Are consistently recognized for contributions that meet and exceed goals. Nothing is more motivating than recognition in front of colleagues.
  • Recognize a commitment to diversity and inclusion. Employees of color and minorities want to see evidence that their opinions and work is valued and that they’re on a level playing field.
  • Feel that their managers are taking steps to safeguard their health and well-being. In a post-pandemic world, employees want to feel confident that their job is not putting them and their families in danger.
  • Are rewarded through a set of personal, flexible, creative benefits. Baby boomers, millennials and Gen Xers think about benefits and perks differently. To make them meaningful, managers must understand what each employee values most.

In addition to helping retain top performers, an engaging and embracing culture also has competitive advantages, particularly when it comes to sustaining high performance. Bain & Company research found that nearly 70 percent of business leaders agree that culture provides the greatest source of competitive advantage. In fact, more than 80 percent believe an organization that lacks a high-performance culture is doomed to mediocrity.

Culture may not be the easiest thing to define, but you can take steps that encourage a culture in which your organization thrives. You can’t rush culture, but you’ll know it when you see it.

Henry DeLozier is a partner at GGA Partners, trusted advisors and thought leaders. He is currently Chairman of the Board of Directors of Audubon International.