Corporate culture shock: reinventing your brand

Thought Leadership on Talent and H.R. presented by Speed Raceway.

Any world traveler can tell you that stepping off a plane in another country can sometimes feel like walking into a new, bizarre and unfamiliar world. The language, food, rituals and customs all differ from what we are accustomed to. In these instances, different doesn’t necessarily equate to either good or bad — it merely registers as different. Our own culture is so entrenched in who we are that most of the time we don’t even recognize it when we’re at home. It takes a shock to awaken us to change.

Likewise, for businesses across this nation and worldwide, corporate culture is as fundamental to daily life as baseball and apple pie are to Americana. And like the world traveler, we often don’t even recognize our own corporate culture until we are faced with the shock of change. The biggest difference is that instead of pleasantly sipping bellinis in St. Mark’s Square or soaking up the fragrant smells at a spice bazaar in Istanbul, for businesses this moment of cultural clarity can often be scary and daunting. When you first discover that the very core of your company is what might be holding it back, the shock can be devastating and ripple for years if not corrected.

Luckily, like our childhood friends at G.I. Joe always said, knowing is half the battle. Once we recognize our actions, we are free to change them. As easy as this sounds, it can sometimes take years to really overhaul the entrenched culture of a company. But once repaired, these new attitudes, habits and principles will resonate throughout every level of your business and become the brand that catapults it to success.

Analyzing your brand
So, how do you know if your corporate culture is holding you back? As Kai Hammerich and Richard D. Lewis point out in their book, Fish Can’t See Water: How National Culture Can Make or Break Your Corporate Strategy, business managers are “often, if not always, blind to their own culture.” The book focuses on cultural sensitivity between nations, but even if your business resides solely in the U.S., the idea of recognizing “the water that you are swimming in” is crucial to placing it strategically in a position for success. If you’re blind to the status quo like most of us are, try asking yourself these simple questions?

  • How do employees within your organization handle internal conflict?
  • Are your workers encouraged to speak up and identify problems, or does it benefit them to keep quiet?
  • If someone proposes a new and different idea, is it embraced, ridiculed or just ignored?
  • If someone makes a mistake, is it an opportunity for management to punish and make an example, or is it used as a rallying point and welcomed as a teachable moment?

If your answers don’t align with the culture you desire, there is no better time to address them than now. These questions help identify some key components of corporate culture; communication, conflict resolution, innovation and management style. Problems with any one of these alone can derail even the most successful company, and tackling several at a time can lead to crisis and turmoil.

Often times, success can actually be one of the main causes of problem cultures. In the aftermath of the Target data breach in 2014, a mid-level employee took to the news and attacked the internal culture of one of the largest retailers in the world with an email to Gawker media. That unnamed staffer believed “everyone was homegrown and ‘Targetized’ and has no concept of how to run a 21st century business. They still think it’s 1996.” Target’s CMO, Jeff Jones soon followed with a news release of his own, acknowledging that the retail giant needed to address the current state of its culture. Without delving into the various levels of truth in this matter, this illustrates how problems within an individual corporate culture can go unnoticed or unspoken for years before the company is blindsided by crisis.

Identify, recognize, reward

Once you decide to make a change, getting started can be overwhelming. No two companies share the same vision, so there is no blueprint for what your culture should look like. However, there are some basic ways to find your identity and reinforce the actions that will drive your brand.

First, start with the basics and review your core mission statement. Does it still apply? Does is still matter in today’s world? Is it still who you want to be? Chances are, it contains some great ideas, or you wouldn’t be where you are now. Keep what still applies and what still works, and realign the rest with what matters now. After you’ve confirmed this set of goals, you can build your new culture around these core values. It’s important to let it seep into every aspect of your business, especially your people. It’s only when your people start to believe in the message that it will truly thrive. To do this, you need to identify actions that align with your goals and signal their importance for all to see.

By our earlier definition, a culture is made up of the rituals, habits and principles, which you sometimes don’t even realize you have. So although it takes time, a routine must be born from the actions which receive frequent and repeated recognition and reward. Otherwise, if actions exemplifying new ideas and attitudes are not reinforced, the old cultural beliefs will fight to reassert themselves.

A reward can take many forms, ranging from encouraging words to promotions and raises. At Speed Raceway, we believe that it takes a mix of words, top-down leadership actions, cash-based motivation and non-cash incentives. Because our team-building product is a fun, group-strengthening activity, this type of non-cash incentive plays an important role in balancing the individual awarding of raises and promotions.

Change initiatives are never easy or fast. However, the long-term impact of a positive company culture can elevate your business to new levels. If you don’t act, you risk falling behind the competitive curve. Or even worse, you risk experiencing a crisis you may not ever recover from.

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