Creating a positive organizational culture is akin to devouring homemade pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving. That is, at our house, it’s not an afterthought or a luxury to be enjoyed only “if there’s room.” It’s a requirement. You build it into the plan, priorities are established: pie, turkey, potatoes, in that order. Likewise, culture, engagement, results. It’s a winning recipe.
First, some context. Our organization was struggling and there was a direct correlation to workplace satisfaction and performance output. Only 19% of our workforce identified as being satisfied with the workplace culture and 38%+ of our staff turned over annually. In tandem, nearly every key performance indicator was on a multi-year decline. Exactly one year into our organizational transformation, our workplace satisfaction soared to 89% and a mere 6% of the workforce turned over. Subsequently, every single performance metric rose, breaking records in growth, sales, retention and revenue. There’s something remarkable about a team with spark. Passion, commitment and positivity are contagious and you can’t stop them from improving your results.
Culture is a funny thing though. The results aren’t always obvious and instant, like flipping a light switch. It takes commitment and consistency. Gradually, like a slow dawn, things get brighter until light starts to permeate even the darkest shadows.
The list of the initiatives, ideas and people that turned our culture around is extensive. Here are four critical pieces of the pie that shaped our transformation.
First, we received communication. As the CEO, I invested time to meet one on one with every employee and board member. I asked questions about what could make this their dream job, and who they identified as the top performers. I took notes on what they’d tackle first if they woke up to find they were the CEO. It takes extraordinary effort to put aside all defenses and simply listen to ideas and input. Any form of blaming, retaliating, or making excuses renders this step ineffective. It is an information gathering mission.
We also gave communication, authentic communication. It was a gift we had been withholding, creating distrust and disengagement. We became transparent with staff. When we made hard decisions, we gave the sometimes painful background.
With genuine listening and open sharing, we were able to utilize the skills and passions of the entire team and invited them to be part of organizational solutions. Even when solutions were stubborn, the team had developed trust in the process.
Caring For People
Step two was acting on what we had learned, and it took a leap of faith. We overhauled the entire organizational chart, aligning positions with skills, goals, and a structure of servant leadership. It literally represented a bottom up approach, with CEO as the “bottom rung” in the organization, lifting and elevating the next team, and so on.
We emphasized the great things that were already happening on our team, from performance to attitude to milestones. We celebrated and honored staff, giving awards and showing public appreciation at team meetings.
Part of caring for our people was updating our benefits and policies to reflect what was best for them. We added paid parental leave, increased PTO, added paid time off to volunteer in the community, transitioned some employees to remote/home-based workers, created a casual dress code for appropriate roles and allowed employees to customize their work spaces. You could say trust and autonomy became our love language. A group of team-leads came in after hours with bright paint and vinyl letters, working late into the night so that when Monday morning came, the staff on that floor was greeted with “Awesomeness Happens Here.” And by that point, they were all starting to believe it.
Connecting With Purpose
As an organization with struggling performance metrics, the work had become rigid. Performance pressure had led to more meetings and more data: report, review, require. Wash, rinse, repeat. It was easy to forget that real people were involved. So, we began our weekly executive meetings with “Brag and Tag,” an opportunity for each team member to celebrate a personal accomplishment and share one that they’d witnessed from another staff member. The 10 minute investment we made each week helped us connect on a level beyond spreadsheets.
We carved out time to write hand-written notes to staff and began thinking outside the box on celebrations: office chair relays, a chopped challenge, decorating Valentine boxes and Take your Parent to Work Day, just to name a few memorable activities from the past year.
Perhaps most important, we flattened our attitudes alongside our org chart and made leading by example priority number one. No team member was asked to do something an executive member wasn’t willing to do. We make sure when we hire someone that they won’t shy away from running a vacuum for a few minutes at the end of an event if duty calls.
With team members across six physical locations over portions of three states, it became a priority to bring the entire team together three times per year with a focus on growth, passion and connecting. We’ve played games, zip-lined and completed service projects. From silly-stringing the CEO for hitting a staff-wide goal, to kicking off the gathering with a parody R&B song utilizing lyrics representing our organization, we embraced things that make people smile and showed that we’re in this together…not just work, but life.
We made learning about leadership and acting like leaders a priority. We read several books as an executive team and implemented key strategies. We developed ways to measure performance so we could provide clarity and resources for staff. Personnel and policy changes were made to align with our goals and culture. We made some tough financial decisions that were emotional but needed. We transitioned some responsibilities into a Talent Development role to raise the bar for our whole staff and recognize the skills they had to offer. As the CEO, I took on portions of front line work to better understand the challenges. When executive positions opened, we promoted internal candidates who had showcased their talent and commitment to our positive culture.
Remarkable metrics have been reached in our organization, records broken, national recognitions received, and promotions abound. But the most meaningful outcome sits on my desk, a gift I received from the team. It’s a clear mason jar decorated with a small twine bow, stuffed full of small slips of paper. On each slip is a sentence written by one of our staff members exactly 12 months into our transformation. I’ve yet to read them all, I savor them, pulling a new one out in moments that I need healing or inspiration. I pulled one out to close this article and it reads “Your genuine care for staff is authentic. We’d move mountains for you, because you’d do the same for us.” That is culture change, when your team knows, trusts and expects that you work for their gain.