Striving for a company culture employees love

In 2019, Josh Levine wrote a book called, “Great Mondays – How to Design a Company Culture Employees Love.”

First of all, many of us don’t love Mondays as much as the rest of the week. And as leaders, we should all understand that contributing to a great culture is among our most important responsibilities. Of course, it’s safe to say that everyone wants to work in an environment where there is purpose, passion and fulfillment, even on Mondays.

And with remote work being more the norm during the COVID-19 pandemic, fostering a great company culture can take on some challenging and unique dynamics.

Josh Levine asks the question, “Can anyone actually love what they do for work?” And he answers that question by saying, “Not only can people be passionate about what they do professionally, but should find work into which they can throw themselves.”

In the credit union industry, I believe that leaders and staff alike find meaning and purpose and job satisfaction in ways that few other companies or industries provide. Especially in tough economic times this is true. Realizing how much people need affordable and trusted financial services can be a great motivator.

But what are the elements of a great corporate culture and which ones should be emphasized in this particular environment that requires social distancing and work from home?

Mr. Levine points out that workplace culture is one of the single biggest contributors to a company’s financial performance. Since 2009, organizations listed on Forbes’s “Best Places to Work” list did better than the S&P 500 by 84 percent, and since 1998 earned almost three times the cumulative stock market return of the FTSE Russell 2000. On the flip side, the 30 lowest-rated public companies on underperformed the market by nearly 75 percent.

Factors like engagement, adaptability and the length of tenure are all influenced by culture. Great Mondays lays out six key components of company culture – purpose, values, behaviors, recognition, rituals, and cues. Obviously, not one formula will work for every credit union or credit union organization. But the framework is a good foundation for a plan to improve the culture. Great company culture enables employees to feel seen and supported and it empowers them to bring their whole selves to work and make choices that will help them grow professionally, according to Levine.

And when it comes to fostering a team commitment to improving culture, a great quote by Antoine de Saint Exupery provides this guide: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”

So, perhaps the first step in creating an improved company culture is to let the whole team know why this is a priority and engage all of them in shaping the vision for what is in it for them. And none of us should think of this exercise as “creating a culture.” The culture is the environment that employees work in, how they perceive management, whether they feel respected and listened to and how much they yearn for the vast and endless sea. So, the exercise needs to be about improving what already exists.

In looking at Levine’s six key components of company culture, I found myself wondering which ones are particularly important in the current environment. And much like considering all facets of a credit union operation, it’s nearly impossible to improve everything simultaneously as opposed to setting priorities. It’s the same for elements of culture. Setting priorities and focus on areas most in need of improvement is a second key building block.

And drawing from the St. Exupery quote, it’s important to note that while leaders, and the CEO in particular, have responsibility for culture, improving it is really everyone’s job. Levine points out that, “every choice, action, and conversation affects company culture.”

At my company, MCUL & CUSG, our plan has long included a section called, “Culture Drivers.” It encompasses the internal planning, communication, technology, HR and support efforts that help all divisions and product managers achieve success. But having a framework for objectives and goals in these areas is just an important first step. Executing to achieve improvement and true culture enhancements is where the real work lies.

Levine’s first three components are about creating the vision for the culture, while the second three are about bringing the culture to life. Together, all six components create a system for taking an active role in the outcome of how people feel and are engaged in the organization. It is a system for designing a culture that employees love.

The first three are purpose, values and behaviors. The purpose describes why an organization exists beyond making money. The values are shared beliefs about what is most important when conducting business and behaviors are the choices made by employees that are guided by purpose and values.

The last three are recognition, rituals and cues. Recognition describes programs that encourage behaviors that bring the culture to life. Rituals are recurring group activities that build and strengthen relationships. And cues are the reminders that help employees and leaders stay connected to the future.

For credit unions and their support organizations, in the current environment, purpose, values and behaviors are on full display. But in plans, they could be better codified and reinforced. From a priority standpoint, during the COVID economy, it seems logical that more emphasis should be put on recognition, rituals and cues because employees are, and feel less connected to the team and there is risk that they might also feel less appreciated and less mindful of what the future holds in terms of the meaning of their work.

In a virtual world, it can be more challenging to provide recognitions, awards and appreciation to staff at all levels. But video conferencing allows for virtual awards ceremonies, group conversations for what is going well and who is contributing in extraordinary ways. The team just needs to structure and commit to a process for the recognitions, rituals and cues described by Levine.

Robert McNamara said, “Brains, like hearts go where they are appreciated.” As humans, we all have a need for positive reinforcement and managers are in a unique position to seize opportunities for well-timed recognitions and expressions of gratitude.

As I talk with leaders about the valuable leadership lessons that they have learned, one that most often comes up is that they wish they had shown more empathy and compassion with their employees. I can relate to this over my career journey. Humanizing a culture by encouraging all leaders to be authentic, vulnerable, humble and empathetic matters more than any other facet of culture improvement.

One challenge with recognition programs is that they can tend to be driven top-down and overly controlled by senior management. These can have an important impact, but Levine also encourages the pursuit of peer-to-peer recognitions even if they are informal in nature. For instance, on group zoom calls, if a leader encourages employees to mention something they have observed in excellent work by peers, this informal process can be powerful. For most of us, getting a compliment from a peer is more powerful and authentic than a formal award recognition.

Levine defines a ritual as a recurring group activity designed to build and strengthen relationships. On a personal level, these are things like poker night and thanksgiving dinner. But in our credit union employee world, especially during COVID, these rituals can be our zoom calls. In the case of my company, every two weeks, we have an all-staff call and every two weeks we have a leadership call. We have begun to alternate between information updates versus meetings addressing set topics and/or allowing for social discussion.

While the social discussion can sometimes feel forced, it serves an important purpose of helping staff and leaders to feel more connected and appreciated beyond the typical accountability for performance.

Structured virtual rituals will hopefully soon give way to more traditional in-person meetings. But until that can happen again, we can learn from the efficiency and effectiveness of these zoom calls for certain ritual purposes. 

Levine calls these “explicit big group rituals” that are run by the company. He also lists explicit small group rituals, emergent small group rituals and emergent big group rituals as considerations. The latter two come about in less structured ways by employees themselves as opposed to formal management actions. Read the book to explore the possible relevance to your credit union.

The final component for a great culture is called cues. Levine suggests that most companies have a few cues in place, even if they don’t realize it. Wall-sized mission statements are one example. So, most contemporary offices have mission statements, value statements, goal achievements and other cues around the office or on the website.

But again, in this work from home environment that we find ourselves in, the notion of improving cues should be considered as a priority. If employees are no longer roaming the halls and interacting in person, what might we do to replace those cues in a virtual world? That is the priority to solve for.

Certainly this can be done with the company website. But internal virtual newsletters and videos and communications become more important for putting these cues in front of our teams. Again, cues are defined as the physical and behavioral reminders that help employees, managers, and leaders stay connected to the future, or what we’re striving to accomplish.

As we work with our teams to improve culture, one thing is certain. That is, our work world is being transformed in ways that we’ve never seen before. We’ve been forced to embrace and understand how a remote work culture can be more effective and efficient than the old model. 

Using Josh Levine’s framework of six components of purpose, values, behaviors, recognition, rituals and cues is a great way to structure this important process for helping us all love our work environment. And as our employees feel passion and meaning in their work, it will surely translate into the member service excellence that we all strive for.

Dave Adams

Dave Adams

Dave Adams is  President / Chief Executive Officer of CU Solutions Group. The  CUSG office is located in Livonia, Michigan. Mr. Adams joined the Michigan Credit Union League in August of ... Web: Details