7 Pointers to Build a Strong Company Culture

Much like electricity which cannot be seen but empowers the devices, culture is an invisible force that drives beliefs, habits, rituals and outcomes of an organization. In fact, culture is a sum total of an organization’s shared values, behaviors, rituals, beliefs, attitudes, goals and practices.

It exerts a powerful influence on day to day behaviors and choices of people. Yet, the truth is that most organizations are not aware about the current state of their culture.

The thing about culture is – even when you are not consciously building a culture, it is still being formed by default based on your actions and decisions on a day to day basis. And it impacts your bottom line.

“If you get the culture right, most of the other stuff will take care of itself.” – Tony Hsieh, CEO, Zappos

If culture is anyway being formed, why not work to build it consciously? Here are some good starting points to build a strong culture.

  • Clarify your motives: The goal of building a strong culture is not to merely extend a “feel good” factor to your people. The goal of building a great culture is to empower, enable and network your people through values, beliefs, rituals, systems and practices so that they can create real business value.
  • Understand the drivers of great culture: Many leaders associate culture with external perks like free lunches, vacation policies and such. Culture is driven by combination of internal and external forces and most importantly, understanding of what your business really needs.
  •  Define your values: Once you know what kind of culture you want to build, you need to establish values – guiding principles that should dictate the behaviors and actions and help people differentiate between right and the wrong. Involve your people in defining values for better buy-in and collective discovery of associated behaviors. 
  • Live them: Values defined, posters created,communication done and office space is decorated with new values – great! But culture, real culture, is built one action and one decision at a time. Your values will mean nothing unless they are lived at every level within the organization.  Reward what you want more of.
  • Assess your culture: Take time to periodically assess the culture. Are we living our values? What do people think about our culture? What are our strengths and opportunities for improvements? Assessments can vary from simple internal surveys to sophisticated external assessment tools. The key is to know where you stand and what needs improvement.
  • Take Actions: People make sense of an organization’s culture not by written words but by real actions. If building a strong culture is your priority, act on the feedback you receive from the culture assessment. Talk to your people, involve them in the change process and make real progress in areas that matter. Strong cultures are shaped largely by how leaders act.
  • Communicate Relentlessly: It helps to communicate about your culture and values continuously and explicitly. Your internal and external stakeholders need to understand your culture. Communicate through words and through your actions. Reward people who demonstrate right behaviors and live your values. Provide feedback to those who don’t.  Encourage open and honest dialogue about your culture whenever you can.

Yes, your product or service is the starting point of organization building activity. But unless you build a great culture, it is incredibly difficult to accelerate growth.

So, there is a reason why Peter Drucker famously said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Strategy is created in boardroom but culture determines how people on the floor actually implement the strategy – and how well!

The Journey is the Purpose: An Inspiring Tale of Nek Chand Saini

Nek Chand Rock Garden in Chandigarh, India is a true marvel of creativity and innovation. Built by Nek Chand Saini, a self-taught innovator, Rock garden is one-of-its-kind sculpture garden in Chandigarh which almost looks like a miniature of an ancient kingdom spread over forty acres. What makes this truly unique is the fact that all the sculptures in this garden are made from recycled material like ceramic pieces, bottles, glasses, ceramic pots, earthen pots, bottle caps, sinks, electrical waste, crockery, broken bangles, dust, pieces of tar, rocks and pebbles. The garden comprises of twisted, narrow and walled pathways leading to large open spaces. These open spaces house plazas, pavilions, theatre and hundreds of sculptures of men, women, dancers, animals, houses, temples, wells and decorated walls. Seeing hundreds of statues filling the canvas is nothing less than a spectacle. Interlinked and cascading waterfalls nicely complement the sculptures and walls to extend a very soothing ambiance.

The description above may sound a bit like a travelogue but it is not just that. It is an intriguing tale of passion, suspense, drama and finally the triumph of creativity over all the odds. A story with an important lesson.

Many villages were demolished when Chandigarh, India’s first planned city, was being built according to design by French architect Le Corbusier. Nek Chand Saini worked as a road inspector for the public works department when he started collecting the discarded material from these demolition sites. A few years later, he secretly started working on assembling these recycled material to create a sculpture garden that depicted his vision of an Indian village life. This hobby expanded soon into a full-fledged work of art on a government conserved forest land in the foothills of Shivalik Moutain Range. Since his work was illegal, he kept it a secret for ten long years before it was discovered by city inspectors. As the word spread, people began flocking to see this work of a genius that was already spread in 12 acres of land by the time it was discovered. Amidst the looming threat and uproar of destroying this illegal work that occupied forest conservancy, Nek Chand was able to get public opinion and support on his side. In 1976, the Rock Garden was inaugurated as a public space. Nek Chand was offered a government salary and a staff of 50 laborers so that he can expand his vision and continue his expression of creativity. In 1996, Rock Garden was again attacked by vandals after which city administration took charge of managing the park.

Today, with over 4000 visitors daily, Rock Garden is the most visited folk art sites in the world. Statues made by Nek Chand Saini decorate some of the best folk art galleries across the globe.

It is an inspiring journey of personal transformation from mundane to magnificent. He created a sublime space of innovation and creativity just out of his imagination, creativity and sheer hard work. How many of us today would spend this amount of effort and creative energy in creating something just out of love for doing it? Will we do it without any expectation on rewards or recognition? Nishkama Karma (action performed without any attachment to fruits or results) is the central message of Bhagwad Gita and Nek Chan Saini truly exemplifies it.

Did Nek Chand Saini work with a goal of becoming famous one day? Did he plan to win all the awards that he has won? Clearly, he did it just for the joy he derived out of doing it. He simply enjoyed giving form to his ideas through sculptures. He built his legacy one statue at a time.

The story of Nek Chand Saini just tells me that our work may not always be a transaction. That if we are passionate about our pursuits, have lot of conviction to do the required hard work and derive joy from simply doing it then external rewards and recognition do not matter. They are merely by-products of doing something you love doing.

The journey then, is the purpose and the reward!

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P.S.: On 15 Dec 2014, Nek Chand Saini, the wizard of creativity completes 90 years!

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A Compelling Vision is an Anchor

Seagull Half Shot QAspire Blog Tanmay Vora

Management has a lot to do with answers. Leadership is a function of questions. And the first question for a leader always is: ‘Who do we intend to be?’ Not ‘What are we going to do?’ but ‘Who do we intend to be?’ – Max DePree

Specific, measurable and time bound goals are important to set expectations on results and drive performance in short term. Goals is like math; they address the head. Goals have an end date.

Goals however, are not sufficient. If you only try to provide direction to people through goals, they will know “what” needs to be done but may not know “why” something needs to be done.

When leading others, we need math but we need music too. Something that addresses our hearts and taps into our emotions. Something that is larger than us and gives us a powerful “why”. Yes, we are talking about vision.

I have seen companies falling into the trap of managing people through quarterly or half yearly goals without clarifying the vision. That works to keep everyone running, only without a sense of direction. Result? A disengaged workforce that just complies to goals, and that too – dispassionately. This becomes even more challenging when an organization has distributed teams across the geographies.

In a creative economy, people will give their best output and exercise their discretionary effort only when they are completely aware of the vision. In moments of handling difficult conversations, choices and ways of working, vision serves as an anchor. It provides a meaning to our day to day work. Vision is not a destination, but more like a compass that guides us through our goals and decisions.

Managing your organization’s work only through goals is like focusing your kid on simply getting good grades in the next examination. Kids need goals but they first need a vision of what kind of human being they should become.

What is true for kids is also true for organizations and teams. They are, after all, made up of human beings too!

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Change: From Vision to Execution

Leaders establish a lofty vision for a large scale change initiative and then strategize to align the team. Sometimes, the team gets over-excited by this grand vision and get stuck. They cannot define a strategy or a plan of action that takes them closer to that grand vision.

Planning for a change is a tricky thing. Vision is broad,  actions have to be specific, team needs to remain motivated throughout and uncertainties have to be managed.

Based on personal experience, here are some of the broad strategies that helps when planning and executing a change:

  1. Shorter “plan-do” cycles: Linear planning with long list of activities is almost dead. Long linear plan can bog the team down and doesn’t help in keeping all aligned. Shorter plan-do-feedback cycles help in executing work in smaller chunks and collect data/feedback that can help in further planning.
  2. Keep the plan simple: Every change initiative will face a lot of uncertainties and will get messy at some point. When smallest of details are planned, these uncertainties will throw you out of track. Planning for change has to be simple, with key milestones and broad activities. It gives a lot of space to the team in managing uncertain situations.
  3. Involve team in planning: Simple yet very effective strategy, that ensures buy-in from team and gives them a broader roadmap to execute.
  4. Plan early and often: In long-term change initiatives, constantly planning/re-planning is important. Milestones have to be moved and activities have to be re-prioritized. Review the plan at the end of every sprint and realign team’s focus.
  5. Keep communication clear: When plans change, it is important to keep communication lines clear. Teams and stakeholders need to know the impacts and risks.

I have felt that implementing large scale/strategic changes is like walking through a forest. You know where you want to go, but the road/map to reach there is not clear. This is also true for significant personal change (like switching to a new career, starting a business etc).

The critical part: You need to be constantly on top of your plan, learn and re-align.

The fun part: The quest to find the best route and eventually, if done right, the joy of reaching there!

Benjamin Zander on Possibility and Vision

Last day of year 2008 – time really flies.

On this day, I want you spare 20 minutes and watch this video from Pop!Tech where Benjamin Zander  takes a 15 year old cellist’s performance to next level and demonstrates what it means to live in world of possibility. I am indebted to Rajesh Shetty for sharing this. Benjamin Zander is a great teacher and author of a book – “The Art of Possibility”. As a part of his speech, Benjamin Zander tells a great story about looking at possibilities – having an eye for abundance. The story goes like this –

“In year 1900, two shoe salespeople were sent to Africa to open up new markets. Three days after arriving, one salesperson sent a telegram to his boss and said, “Situation hopeless. Stop. No one wears shoes here.”

At the same time the other salesperson sent a telegram to his boss telling “Enormous opportunity. No one has shoes here yet.”

According to Zander, these statements/conversations are not about assessment of circumstances – they are a reflection of attitude. Awesome.

We were told in Management Development Program that everything happens twice – first in human mind and then externally. We see a stone, and a sculptor sees a beautiful statue waiting to be discovered. Sculptor first envisions a statue and creates a print in his brain – and then he begins sculpting. Sculptor sees a possibility. On the same lines, Zander mentions a great quote from Michelangelo which goes like this – “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.”

What is your vision for 2009? What possibilities are you ready to explore? This is a good time to ruminate and connect.

WISH YOU A HAPPY NEW YEAR!