Recognise This! – Values are key to your company culture. Recognition is key to making those values real.

SHRM’s annual conference is always an exciting time and a great venue to meet people in person to discuss intriguing ideas and developments in the industry. Keynote speakers, however, tend to be hit or miss. John Hollon summarised well why this is so in TLNT.

Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, was the most on target keynote presenter – speaking directly to issues and areas of concern that HR pros can influence and one critical area of top-level concern for chief officers – company culture. Though Hsieh spoke primarily on how to create the company you want in a new organisation, there are lessons for companies of any age and at any stage of development.

How to Build the Company Culture You Need to Succeed

1)   Start with the culture you want. This is the crux of Hsieh’s message. If you’re lucky enough to be in a position of starting a company, institute the culture you want from the beginning. How?

    * Define the Values – Figure out what values are important to you for how your company will conduct business.

    * Hire to the Values – Hire employees based on these values and involve as many current employees as possible in the interview process (formally or informally). For example, Hsieh mentioned the value of “Be Humble.” If a candidate interviews well in the formal process, but treats the shuttle driver poorly on the trip to the airport, then the candidate will not be hired.

    * Manage to the Values – Zappos recently made demonstration of the values 50% of their performance review process. More on that in this post, but in summary, Hsieh said about this: “Employees would no longer be rated on how well they accomplish tasks, such as meeting deadlines or being punctual. Instead, success would be determined by how well employees embody Zappos’ 10 core values.”

2)  In a decades-old institution, change to the culture you need.
All of Hsieh’s suggestions are good and valid when you have the luxury of starting from scratch in a new organisation. But what do you do when you need to change the culture of a decades-old institution? Changing the habits and mindset of entrenched employees and management can be difficult.

This where strategic employee recognition plays a powerful role. By focussing on the values you want to see demonstrated in your desired new culture, then recognising every demonstration of one of those values by any employee you begin to develop the culture you need. This can only be successful if employees at all levels understand that this change of focus will be long-lasting and not the latest management “fad.” How?

    * Authenticity –
Every recognition given must be authentic, specific and meaningful. An off-the-cuff “Thanks!” has limited value in comparison to a detailed, specific message of praise and appreciation for the value demonstrated and why that effort was important to a greater objective.

    * Consistency – Authentic messages, inconsistently given, cause any effort at changing company culture through strategic employee recognition to lose its credibility. Leadership must be consistent in how it not only recognises others’ accomplishments, but also in how it encourages all employees to express appreciation based on the values to their peers and colleagues.

    * Frequency – Recognition loses its impact and relevance quickly. An employee who is told “Thanks” weeks or months after the event deserving of recognition no longer has a tight connection between the event deserving of recognition and why it is worthy. To make company values come alive – to be real in the daily work of an employee – recognise those employees immediately when they demonstrate a key value. Do not limit this recognition with false quotas, but let those deserving of repeat recognition receive it.

3)   Keep your winning culture during leadership transition.
Inevitably, someday Tony Hsieh will have to hand over the reins of Zappos to another leader. How can he ensure the culture he has so carefully built will live on after he is no longer an active presence in the company?

    * Succession plan according to your culture and values –
Just as all employees are hired to the values, so should any new senior leader. Those conducting succession planning should always have an eye out for who most understands, respects and wants to perpetuate the culture.

    * Embed your culture into your corporate brand – If your culture has become part of who the company is in the eyes of consumers (as it has at Zappos and Southwest), it becomes nearly impossible for any subsequent leader to even consider destroying the power of that brand by changing the culture.

    * Protect your culture tree! – But it can happen. Wally Bock wrote a couple of powerful posts on the importance protecting culture during succession (summarised here) and how failing to do so can dramatically hurt the bottom line. As Wally says: “Culture is a powerful but fragile thing. If you burn down the culture tree, it takes a long time to grow another one.”

The bottom line – recognise and reinforce the values you know are critical to your organisation’s success. Do so often, authentically and consistently. Protect the culture and values you’ve worked hard to implement.