Great companies are built by design, and one of the most powerful drivers is the culture

Written by Karen Seymour
Chief Purpose Office of Human at Work

Photo by Crystal Jo on Unsplash

I’m one of the fortunate ones who has worked with leaders and in organisations with great culture. It’s where warmth, energy and enthusiasm were felt as soon as anyone stepped into our space. Where people were honoured for their unique selves and strengths, where everyone’s ideas mattered, where we experimented, succeeded and failed, always recognised for learning and reaching beyond. And it was designed to be this way.

What exactly is culture and why does it matter? 

Culture is the collective set of behaviours
that bring the values you hold dear to life 

A great culture can create a better, more inclusive and thriving work environment that translates to better financial results, engaged, connected, inspired and higher-performing employees, deeply satisfied and loyal customers, greater top-­line growth, enhanced wellbeing and more creativity. And who doesn’t want to work in, or do business with, an organisation that’s known for its awesome culture?

Companies that build the right culture outperform their peers over time, have higher annual return to shareholders and higher return on investment capital than those without.

Google is a company that’s widely recognised for leveraging the power of company culture and benefiting because of that. Google’s strong and open culture has helped drive revenue gains of over 6 times in the past ten years and helps them win the best talent amongst millions of applicants every year.

Culture is built by design

Great company culture is built by design. When you intentionally build and support your culture to thrive, your people are all-in to play a key part in your business success. When you understand and intentionally steer culture, aligning it to your strategy and your big, bold goals, it becomes a key lever for engagement, positive performance and long-term wins. This is also how culture supports and drives success for your Shared Value initiatives.

“To be most effective at driving your shared value efforts, understand if your company culture enables or disables your practice and what you can shift to help accelerate your Shared Value performance.” 

– Shared Value Initiative’s Purpose Playbook

Designing culture right

How can you design and shape your culture to support your company’s success?

1. Start with your why

Putting purpose at the heart orients your team to an aspirational ‘North Star’, sets the direction, compels them to contribute to something bigger than themselves and brings them along on your journey to success.

2. Describe what success looks like and feels like for your organisation

From this vision, build your strategy to get there and think about what you need specifically from your teams. How will everyone have to behave? What values will be important and rewarded? Which ones won’t? How will your people show up? This gets everyone fired up about where you want to go and outlines the rules of engagement the team operates with on the journey.

3. Shape your culture as a leader

Company culture is designed by leaders who intentionally shape the culture. They take time to understand and assess their culture so they can shape it. They show care, build trust and put actions into play to bring out the best behaviours from everyone to reach their goals.

Culture is leader-led. Without clear leadership on direction and how teams work together culture meanders and so then do results. The bigger the transformation underway to get to vision, the more attention is required on culture. 

4. Dial into your humans

Culture is all about people. What they believe, know to be true, and understand as important.

It’s inherently an exercise of hearts and minds.  It means focusing on human needs and emotions and setting direction on what’s expected and possible. When culture is designed by leaders for humans it enables teams to contribute meaningfully to the organisation’s success.

Designing for that means looking at culture as a journey from the perspective of individuals.  How would you design a culture of belonging?  How would you make someone’s feel as if they belonged on the first day on the job? How would you unlock feedback from everyone in the organisation if everyone’s view were required?  How could you design for intellectual bravery in a hierarchical structure?  

5. Use culture to fuel transformation

Lale Kesebi, our Human at Work CEO and Founder, shared at the February SVIHK Deputies Catch-Up that dialing into your culture is essential for transformation success and getting to your company’s win. It’s the rocketfuel you need when you  lead people into the unknown. Four steps to make transformation stick are key:

Photo by Jehyun Sung on Unsplash

I. Inspire the team by sharing the organisation’s vision of what winning looks and feels like. This taps into the hearts as well as the minds of your people, partners and customers and inspires your team to go beyond expectations.

II. Influence inside the organisation and right from the top to create permission to move in new directions and overcome obstacles. Double down on where you find support, celebrate evangelists supporting the cause and neutralise detractors.

III. Engage people by sharing your goals and strategy so they are clear on the impact to them and exactly how they can participate. Bring them along the journey, they need to feel included.

IV. Activate your people to use their strengths and skills to help get the company to your win. Storytell on wins and collaboration and cultural behaviours you’re trying to amplify. Support and recognise people along the way. Operationalise it throughout your organisation with policies, procedures, resources and budgets so there’s alignment with your vision’s success and designed culture. How you’re marketing, communicating, hiring, giving feedback, measuring performance, providing recognition, developing leaders, reporting on results, harnessing innovative ideas and engaging with stakeholders is all about operationalising your culture to fuel success on your vision.

When will you know if you’ve got culture right?

The easy but hard to measure answer is – you’ll feel it.  It will feel as if everything you’re working on together is both successful and in unison across your team.  

Your optimal culture for high performance and for achieving your vision is:

  • Understood by everyone
  • Led, and supported and modelled through behaviours top-down
  • Clearly aligned to your purpose, and your strategy journey and desired impact are clear
  • Communicated inside and outside through storytelling to inspire and engage

“Culture doesn’t just come because you wave a magic wand. It comes through hard work; it comes through sharing; it comes through cross-fertilisation of people and ideas.”

– Ajay Banga, former CEO of Mastercard

HKBN is a top example of an organisation in Hong Kong that’s getting it right through leading, communicating and aligning culture, and this helps drive strong results. You need only read their company culture statement, or meet their leaders or co-owners to see why. 

Photo by Edu Lauton on Unsplash

Does your company have a great culture? What are the best examples of great culture in action? Please share what you see, feel and think in the comments below. Have more questions? We’d love to hear from you. 

About Karen Seymour

karen seymour

Karen Seymour is an SVIHK Advisor and Hong Kong’s first Chief Purpose Officer. She helps leaders and business teams make their transformation plans stick by designing human-led strategies and activating their organisation’s unique and powerful purpose to fuel high performance, enable their people to do meaningful work, and contribute to organisations that thrive.