Company Culture
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Company culture changes. Founders need to get out of the way

Sometimes, the best thing company creators can do is recognize when what they created has evolved, writes one longtime executive.

Your company's culture will change. That's OK. (Photo by Alexas Fotos via Pexels)

This week’s Culture Builder newsletter is a guest commentary. CEO Chris Wink is on parental leave and will return later this month. The Culture Builder newsletter features tips on growing powerful teams and dynamic workplaces. Below is the latest edition we published. Sign up to get the next one.

Company culture isn’t just a what. It is also a when.

Visions, values, behaviors, recognition and rewards allow founders to infuse a company with cultural beliefs that attract, retain, and inspire employees and customers alike.

Culture changes, though. This may seem obvious, yet we often resist it. We might say that a former employer of ours “isn’t the same” or express surprise that a workplace tradition has changed.

No company is the same today as when it first started. That happens for good, bad or — more often — varying reasons. Look no further than the competing narratives surrounding Twitter’s tumultuous transition into private ownership. To many, the mass layoffs and CEO Elon Musk’s public behavior reflect an organization’s cultural implosion on fast forward. To others, it’s the shakeup of a company that has financially underperformed its peers.

Most companies’ earliest days involve tremendous guessing: chasing the wrong customers and strategies until they find ones that work. This is the “throwing the spaghetti on the wall” phase. External factors play a role, too. Market conditions change. The world changes. Companies need to focus and adapt. Some do this better and faster than others. Some companies and industries have it easier than others, as well.

Regardless, a company’s culture needs change. Visions and strategy shift, too. The ambiguity between the original plan and the challenges of executing it over time can cause real clashes between founders, executives and their teams.

Culture is a kind of trust — unwritten rules and expectations. When trust is lost (even when it’s out of the control of the creator), it not only diminishes the intention, but becomes the principal cause of internal conflict.

Many executives, especially founders, resist this. They often want to hold onto that magical startup phase. Famously, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos wanted to always act like it was “Day One.” But the people you need the first day typically aren’t the ones for day 1,000. They’re different people, who will create and respond to different culture.

In the past, many CEO and founders failed to realize (or acknowledge) this dynamic happening behind the scenes. This had real implications for their growth, inviting and deepening a toxic culture — and, at times, leading to total failure.

But in today’s environment, that’s no longer an option. Competition is fierce in many industries and newer generations seek community, belonging and a remarkable culture wherever they work.

So, what are the solutions?

Acknowledgment and empathy

Always remember that people want to be heard, seen and valued. With that in mind, the first step is acknowledging the problem at hand with your executive team and, then, your employees. These workers have been struggling without direction, their foci too diverted and capacity stretched too thin, so being an empathetic leader and thanking them for the ongoing support and feedback is a great place to start.

Ask them: How is our culture different today than in the past? What do we gain and lose because of that?

Shift in perspective

Second, you must change your mindset toward growth. It doesn’t mean trying to be everything to everyone at all times. Real growth actually occurs when you play to your strengths and become much more intentional and focused in your business. It’s when you move from being seen as a commodity to being seen as an expert to your ideal client, not everyone. It means saying no to opportunities that no longer serve you.

Repositioning strategy

Third, invest time and commit to a strategic repositioning exercise that will confidently shape your business’s direction by identifying your renewed vision, validating your niche and declaring your market positioning — one aligned to both your company’s strengths and what the market actually desires.

This is one of the most-absent strategic processes in business today and the core reason I created the U.N.I.Q.U.E. Method: to guide CEOs and founders through a proven process to find your unique market position and thus become scalable, sustainable and sought after. A repositioning exercise is not a marketing/branding exercise only, but a strategic one to help you determine:

  • Who are you today? (evolved vision)
  • What do you do best? (core expert capabilities)
  • Who you no longer serve? (unideal clients)
  • Who do you do it best for? (niche/ideal clients)
  • How you do it differently and better? (your unique transformation)

Internal re-alignment

The clarity this process brings can become the catalyst you seek for the internal strategic alignment between the founder, executive team and employees. It has the power to truly reinvigorate organizations and their culture, alongside turning years of ambiguity into focus without second-guessing.

Develop an employee rally cry (cherry on top)

According to the Harvard Business Review, “Changing company culture requires a movement, not a mandate.” To build off of the repositioning momentum, create an internal movement to support the renewed vision that your employees can all pull for.

Tactically, it requires introducing a stretch metric or milestone goal over a finite timeline that has a financial performance bonus attached to it. It should be a motivator for each division to rally around and play their part.

As the founder of a repositioning firm who has worked with thousands of founder over the years, if you follow the five steps above, I can guarantee you it will not only revitalize your culture from within, but give you the confidence to be seen as the expert that you are in the market that you serve.

If you are at an inflection point in your business, and you want to learn more about the repositioning process, download a copy of the overview of the U.N.I.Q.U.E. Method and the U.N.I.Q.U.E. CANVAS worksheet here.

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