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How to build an 'All In' corporate culture

Nancy Weil | April 30, 2012
In recent years, consultants Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton kept hearing the same lament from corporate clients: "It we can't get our culture right, nothing works."

As is often the case with management sorts of issues, what seemed fairly straightforward was anything but that.

"We had all this data and as we went out to talk to clients, we would talk about the three Es," Gostick said. "We had one manager raise his hand and say, 'That makes sense, the three Es. Yeah, I get it. But how do I do it?' It was kind of a slap in the face. We said, 'We're presenting all of this data, isn't that enough?' And he said, 'No, I need to know how to get there.'"

The next step then was to identify leadership characteristics that are always part of a high-performing workplace culture -- things such as a strong focus on customers and employee recognition. They identified six that they thought they could put in a sort of "catch-all bucket," but their editor pushed back at them, saying the data showed, for instance, accountability characteristics that weren't on their list. They kept at it, working with researchers to identify 50 or so characteristics of the best managers and cultures and then "putting them into the right buckets" to create different models for building effective corporate culture.

"We would bounce them off our editing team, we would bounce them off our clients, and there were parts that were sparking and parts that weren't," Gostick said. "When we got to our seven it was a real 'ah-ha' moment."

Out of that work emerged a road map of seven steps that have what they call the "most powerful effect." The seven points, which the book elaborates on in detail, are: clearly define the corporate mission; create customer focus; develop agility; share everything; treat employees like partners; cheer for each other, and establish accountability.

The book blends the research they analyzed and case studies from their consultancy, The Culture Works, into a practical how-to guide for creating a successful workplace culture. Along the way, they advocate for leaders to create workplaces that are fun, where camaraderie among coworkers is a given. Gostick pointed to the corporate cultures of Google, Southwest Airlines and Apple as examples of that. "A woman at one of our presentations said she works a 40-hour, full-time job and then a Saturday job at an Apple store. She said, 'That Saturday there helps me keep my sanity the rest of the week. We have so much fun. They treat us so well there,'" Gostick recalled.

"The best cultures we studied do fun things," he said. "Microsoft blasts music to get everyone up and moving. Everyone needs a little dose of levity."

He and Elton have over the years heard the concern that fun for one person might not be fun for another person and what happens if someone is offended by office levity (they give examples of such situations in their book as well). "So what if somebody is offended," Gostick said. Besides which, as the book suggests, people who take offense at having fun at work probably need to find themselves some other place to work.


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