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Every company has one. It is the prevailing collective mindset and attitude of the staff. It is a reflection of the leadership. It colors and influences every aspect of the business.
And it exists by default, or by design.
In the words of Louis V. Gerstner, Jr. former CEO at IBM, “The thing I have learned at IBM is that culture is everything.” That may seem a bit of an overstatement, an attempt at corporate hyperbole in order to underscore the importance of company culture. I believe he was right on the mark. In a business, culture is everything.
So what is a business owner to do? For one, culture can be impacted, influenced and improved. And that task falls to the leader and, consequently, to the leadership team. A “bottom up” shift in a company’s culture is unlikely and usually undesirable. It is the domain and the duty, if you will, of the leader in the business to shape and foster the culture of that business.
The only thing of real importance that leaders do is to create and manage culture. – Edgar Schein, professor MIT Sloan School of Management
Robert Nardelli failed in his role as CEO of The Home Depot because he dismissed and disrespected the long established and positive culture that existed upon his arrival. It was the culture and the prevailing conceptions about who they were and what their mission was, that had made The Home Depot the giant that it had become. No corporate strategy could reverse the damage done to a culture that was reduced to dispirited and resentful employees, fearful of losing their jobs.
As a leader it is incumbent upon you to take a careful measure of your company’s culture. It is your challenge to breath fresh life into it, if necessary, and to invigorate it with a fresh sense of common purpose and the inspiration of a compelling vision.
Get to know your culture.
It has been said that “perception is reality”. I think that, in the proper context, this is quite true. It has also been said that “image is everything.” That, I think, is foolish and shallow. Image without substance will soon be seen for what it is: deception.
As a business owner, however, you must come to terms with the fact that what your customer perceives about your business, your products, your service – this is reality for them. At least it is until that perception is changed either for good or for bad. Then that becomes their reality in regards to your business. Continually and diligently working to shape and inform that perception is your job. It’s not enough for you to know that you have the best donuts in town – if a customer doesn’t think so, then you don’t. It doesn’t really matter if you believe that your sales staff is highly trained and knowledgeable – if the prospect doesn’t think so, then they aren’t.
Back in 2005, Michael Levine wrote a book entitled Broken Windows, Broken Business: How the Smallest Remedies Reap the Biggest Rewards. The thesis of his book about business is based on a social science theory put forth in the Atlantic Monthly magazine in March of 1982. The article by criminologists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling described their theory that if something as small and innocuous as a broken window is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken. Why? Because the message conveyed by that broken window is one of perception: that no one cares and this leads to a larger sense that no one in the community cares, etc. In other words, any small indication that something is amiss and being repaired can lead to larger problems.
So what is a business Leader to do?
First, know your own business inside and out – look for and recognize the “broken windows” in your business. Second, know your customers “inside and out”! Get to know them better than they know themselves. Learn what their real perceptions are of you, your business, and your product or service.
Third… fix the windows.
“What did you do today to improve your business?” That is a question that, as the Leader of your business, you should ask yourself every night. Better yet, ask yourself every morning, “What will I do today to improve my business?”
How well the business does today – or did yesterday – has little bearing on how it will be doing a year from now, or five years from now. And what you do today to build your future is what really matters at the end of each day. That is because most business owners, if they are still in business, have managed to figure out how to keep the ship going, the money flowing – but not how to keep the business growing!
And growth is not limited to revenue or physical size. Your excellence of service should grow. Your effectiveness in client fulfillment should grow. Your reputation as a thought-leader and benchmark in your industry should grow. You get the idea. But, again, this will not happen – it cannot happen – if you are not intentionally working on it.
A great business is known by its greatness. And while greatness is somewhat subjective and prone to individual interpretations, it remains a truth that a great business is recognized as such. Even if you cannot quite articulate what it is that makes it great, you know that it is. Greatness is the result of a number of factors – a clear and compelling vision, a dynamic company culture, and a passion for service that pervades every aspect of the business.
And these have to be worked on.
All the time.
What are you doing today?