Culture Trumps Everything
Culture trumps your business idea. Culture trumps your strategic plan. Culture even trumps the competency of your team.
Figuring out how to build and maintain a great culture is not an easy journey, but it’s one you must take to discover the best part of what makes your people and your business unique, special, and capable of great things. I learned that the hard way by managing a really bad culture that, in the end, won and made really talented people incapable of working together.
But in the second half of my career, I stumbled upon a great culture. As a team, we felt our way through defining our culture, and it has worked. Now that we are further along, we have a culture where people—many of whom are brand-new to the workplace—can work together and share amazing accomplishments.
Discovering your culture is necessary because culture wins. It wins every time. If you have a bad culture, it will win—and ruin your company. And if you have a great culture, it will also win and enable you to do great things.
As the old saying goes, culture eats strategy for breakfast.
So where do you start to build a great culture?
The best place to start is by looking at what companies like mine and others are doing to create an irresistible workplace where culture wins. Companies don’t create winning cultures by writing their values on a piece of paper and hanging it on the wall. Values, behaviors and everything else that comprises my company’s culture evolved organically as the company grew and as more people came on board. We’re still learning and improving, and I expect we always will be. But our culture comes from within, and it’s driven throughout the entire organization.
Here’s some practical ways I’ve found to build and keep great culture:
Interns are Invaluable
Culture trumps competency, and nowhere is that more apparent than in our intern program. I didn’t intend to hire interns, but when a lot of tasks started piling up that no one seemed to have time for, I asked my college-aged son to step in and give us a hand. He, in turn, referred a friend to us, to give us more help. They were both too young and inexperienced to land a high-paying job, but as interns, they got a feel for what it was like to work at the firm, and we got an idea of what it was like to have them on board.
They didn’t come in with the competencies we needed, but they fit the culture, and they learned all the required skills during their internships. Now, we bring on several interns every year, and that program has become a pipeline for new hires. We rotate the interns through our different departments so they have a chance to discover their talents and interests, and if they’re a good fit, once they graduate from college, we often end up hiring them. We’ve found that if people are a good cultural fit, we can teach them the competencies.
On the other hand, people who come in with all the skills they need to do a job won’t necessarily be a good fit with the culture of the company. Intern programs are a low-risk hiring strategy, because the financial investment is low and there’s no expectation on the part of the intern for permanent employment. Internships are a great method for testing out a person’s cultural fit and ability to learn new skills, too. While you need experienced, skilled people at your company, consider bringing on an intern occasionally. You may be surprised by how quickly people who fit your company’s culture can get up to speed on everything they need to know to do their job.
Internships solved a problem at my company, and they also supported our values of “solution-side living” and “ever-increasing agility,” while protecting our company culture. Leveraging your values to solve problems can reinforce those values, because you have an opportunity to prove to yourself, again, why they’re so valuable, and why they make your company a better place to work.
Trial Periods Reveal a Lot
Another hiring method I’ve used is the 90-day contract. If an experienced candidate does well during the interview process, and you believe he or she is a great cultural fit—but doesn’t have all the competencies—offer the job on a contractual basis. Ninety days is enough time to figure out if someone really is a good fit, and it allows the person to learn the skills required to do the job. At the end of the contract, you can decide whether or not to offer a permanent position.
You can also incorporate projects into the interview process. At our company, every person contributes blog content throughout the year, so have a potential hire jump in and write something, or sit in on a meeting or come for an afternoon where they can see what it would be like to work there. This gives you an opportunity to see what they’d be like as a potential employee. Interviews are great, but there’s a formality to them that veils the culture element. And, since you’re hiring for culture over competency, these tips will help you make wiser hiring decisions that protect your culture and better ensure you find someone who’s a good fit for you—who feels the same way about you.
One Cardinal Rule
Culture will look different at each workplace—innovation may be prized at a tech firm, perhaps not so much at an accounting firm. There’s only one cardinal rule when it comes to culture: You have to be agile. Agility—being able to pivot, move, and shift with the rapid changes—will allow your culture to bend, swerve and survive. If you aren’t agile, you’ll be left behind.
That’s the “why” behind culture—why your company’s success in the coming decade begins with a great culture. You can’t just tack it on to what you’re doing right now. Culture starts with a healthy foundation upon which you build.
William Vanderbloemen is an entrepreneur, speaker, author, and CEO and founder of Vanderbloemen Search Group, an executive search firm serving churches, ministries, and faith-based organizations. He is a regular contributor to several major publications and was named No. 24 on Forbes’ “Best Executive Recruiting Firms in America.” His latest book is Culture Wins.