82: Is Culture Your Organization's Competitive Advantage?

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As the founder of Great Mondays, a culture design agency, Josh Levine is passionate about helping clients improve the work they do every day. He is an educator, designer, and best-selling author, but above all, he is on a mission to help organizations design their culture so that it is an advantage. In this episode, Josh defines culture and explains why it is so important to a company’s success today. He describes the six components involved in defining, designing, and delivering a successful culture, sharing examples of how organizations ‘live’ their cultures.
Josh’s book, Great Mondays: How to Design a Company Culture Employees Love, presents the framework and tools business leaders need to understand, design, and manage their culture. He may be known best for helping found the non-profit, Culture LabX, and has overseen its growth into an international community. He has also written for Forbes.com, Huffington Post, Fast Company, and the Design Management Journal about organizational culture, why it is important, how to achieve it, and how to build a culture advantage.
Listen (above) or watch the video (below) to catch Fred's interview with Josh.

Key Learnings From This Episode

  • Josh’s Career Journey. For almost a decade, Josh was a Brand strategist, helping organizations understand their story and communicate it to the world. In thinking about where he might apply his talents and have more impact, Josh realized that to help organizations deliver on their brand promises he had helped them create, he needed to help people inside the organization understand why they were in business and get them engaged. Josh’s journey took him deep into org culture to understand how to get people on board. Leveraging brand strategy and design tools and skills, he learned how to help organizations design their cultures through a creative, proactive approach.
  • What is the definition of ‘culture’? Culture is the cause and effect of every choice made inside an organization. The point of culture is to influence behaviors in a way that supports the company and its people in the work that they do so that they can be empowered to make better choices.
  • Culture is the only sustainable competitive advantage in business today. It cannot be stolen or copied. It is the operating system of business. It is a high leverage point. Innovation and great recruiting are important, but you have to get the culture right. Everyone needs to understand why they are there, how to work together, and the implicit agreements – and to support those. Only then is a company set up for sustained success.
  • Culture is hard to replicate. Most companies do not do a good job of getting it right. There is a huge advantage in getting it right. Culture is not a problem to be solved. It is something to live, it is moving in the right direction, it is the journey. It needs to happen and become a strategic executive level business function. It needs to be built into the everyday thinking.
  • Josh Levine Quote on HR Studio PodcastSix critical components to building culture. There are six components to building a successful culture, and it is a virtuous cycle. The first three components are about the design of the culture – setting the intention.
  1. Purpose – the North Star, ‘why’ we are in business
  2. Values – the ‘how’ - the diverse guardrail or boundaries in which employees can operate
  3. Behaviors – the alignment of purpose and values, helps employees understand how to make better decisions
  • The art of uncovering differentiation in values. Do you help an organization define what is already there or focus on aspirational values? You only get to define 3-5 values. It is an exercise in prioritization. If everything is important, then nothing is important. If an organization already excels at something, then it is a core tenant, a defining feature. Think about the things you want to grow. Balance what you are already working on with what you want to get better. Organizations do not think of their values as evolving. They think of them as ‘truths’ – as standing forever – which may not necessarily be true. Think about what are challenges now and what you want to work on in the future. Push to excel, challenge to stretch, but not so challenging that it is impossible. You want the values to resonate as something the organization aspires to.
  • Beyond Defining and Designing Culture. It does not mean anything just because you have defined it. You have to live it. How do you get organizations to deliver? Where are the leverage points?
  1. Recognition – the mistake organizations make is that they recognize and reward ‘outputs’. To change the culture, organizations need to reward values-driven behaviors, recognize the ‘how’, reward the behaviors – the defined purpose and values. Regularly recognize and reward those behaviors.

    Example: A high-growth client defined a value which it called ‘ACK&OWN’ – acknowledge and own. People were not ‘owning’ things. To test the behavior, a task was left ‘on the table’. Would someone take it and promise to deliver? This is an example of acknowledging and owning behavior. Admitting to and owning mistakes is another example of ‘ACK&OWN’. This is a way of branding yourself, but you need to be consistent. This can also be called accountability. Own it, and if you drop it or don’t deliver, acknowledge it. If you are able to connect the value to your company’s product or services, it will resonate. Acknowledge failure and encourage trying new things.

  2. Rituals – are the way organizations can strengthen and build the synapsis of culture, which are relationships. How can you scale culture? It is difficult to scale. When organizations scale, the relationships degrade and fail – there are too many people. Rituals are the regular, repeated way you get to know people who are not in your immediate vicinity – there are literal barriers, departmental barriers, levels of leadership, different countries, etc. How do you establish rituals to get people to know others across the organization? If you don’t have relationships, you get silos, anti-collaboration, and fiefdoms. You cannot know everyone. Relationships start to degrade once you cross/scale beyond 50 people. Establish things to keep people connected. 
Examples of rituals:
  • The office holiday party – it is once a year, people are outside of their norms and they get to connect with everyone. Another example is the Summer picnic.
  • You can also have a get-together among 5 or 6 people – go for coffee, have a team get-together. Create a company volleyball team, hold Lunch & Learns.
  1. Cues – make sure people remember why they are there in the first place. People get bogged down in meetings and deadlines, and it’s easy to forget. Cues are behavioral, physical and digital reminders of what you are trying to accomplish together. Have your mission statement and values in sight, tell stories at company-wide town halls. Keep people engaged in remembering. It is the leader’s job to make sure people remember why they are there.
  • Creating Great Mondays. When you know why you are coming to work, when you feel fulfilled, and when the organization’s and your personal values are aligned, Monday can be a great day. We are in a robust and incredible moment in our business history. Many of our parents and grandparents did not have an opportunity to do what they wanted to do. We have the opportunity to choose what we want to do. So let’s do that. Be fulfilled. Be happier in your life.
Josh Levine HR Studio Podcast Show Notes
Josh Levine HR Studio Podcast Show Notes
Tuesday, June 25, 2019 - 8:00am
Fred Bunsa
Josh Levine
HR Studio Podcast