Nobody can resist a compelling story, and even fewer can resist one with the power to captivate and influence people positively. I want to share with you how an organization, even your organization, can come together in a way that will inspire and transform from the inside out. The word culture captivates because it describes the most important issue or component of any organization. It exists without regard for whether anyone thinks about it or planned it with intentionality. Whether positive or negative, good or bad, it literally exists whenever two or more people join up for any unifying purpose. The question is how do you create an extraordinary culture?
You create extraordinary cultures intentionally. Every organization has a culture and just as with snowflakes, every organization's culture is unique. Many times the existing culture differs greatly from the one we desire or describe to others. The actual culture contains the fundamental assumptions of our organization and determines not only the way people work together but how they relate to others outside the organization. In other words, an organization's culture defines the foundational assumptions and underlying beliefs. We have to know the status of the current culture to determine and design with intentionality the desired culture. Compelling cultures must be created.
In my book, It's My Pleasure: The Impact of Extraordinary Talent and a Compelling Culture (Elevate, 2015), I describe the process in which extraordinary cultures can be created. I identify five processes that must occur in the shaping of corporate culture.
1. Creating an extraordinary culture requires intentionality and vision. When we look at the creators of exceptional cultures, we will find they did two things successfully. First, they thought ahead and imagined how they wanted the culture to look in the future. Second, they designed a positive and compelling atmosphere that attracted the type of talent that would create the path to the future.
2. An extraordinary culture begins with a clearly defined purpose, understood by everyone in the organization. The purpose must often be repeated, and everyone in the organization needs to see it reflected and demonstrated in the behavior of those at the highest level.
3. Extraordinary cultures thrive on challenging missions. The organization must have something "to do" — something bold to try and accomplish. The mission must be based upon the defined purpose.
4. Extraordinary cultures determine their core values in advance. Core values are the compelling and fundamental beliefs that inform decisions, actions, attitudes, and behaviors of everyone in the organization.
5. Extraordinary cultures possess guiding values. The organization has clarity and focus because everyone understands what they do, why they do it, and how they do it.
I am more certain about the truth of those statements today than at the time I wrote them. I am also certain you can cultivate an extraordinary culture in your organization.
However, before we discuss changing the culture of an organization, first ask yourself why you want to improve or cultivate your culture. If you think a culture change or improvement will solve your organization's problems, think again.
Edward Shein, professor of Organizational Psychology and Management at MIT writes and lectures extensively on this topic. If you would answer that you want to improve the culture because it isn’t “working” or the culture is “bad” rather than “good,” Shein would most likely tell you that you do not have a culture issue, you have a business problem. Address the significant business or organization problems before discussing culture.
When the leadership of an organization acknowledges the existence of the issues, they should allow the group an opportunity to solve them. Too often organizations rush to seek outside assistance with these issues. Often they rob themselves of problem-solving moments that create the stories that will build the type of culture they desire for the future. If you want to “improve” the culture from bad to good, develop and empower people internally to come up with a solution, working together to solve problems.
Shein also thinks the problems and issues within an organization, or between the business and customers, can be identified as discrepancies between the actual attitudes and actions of individuals in the organization and the organization’s stated values. He suggests, upon even closer examination, you’ll discover the discrepancies were generated by individuals — acting as individuals — rather than acting as members of the group.
Based on my experience and observation, I will add that when the organization, or members of the organization, are utilized to work together as a group, upholding the mission, vision, and values of the organization, to solve their own problems, the culture changes for the better. The process of people working to fix and prevent problems together becomes stories. When people generate stories of success and triumph over adversity, these stories will be repeated, becoming part of the culture and defining the identity of the organization.
Some of the oldest stories from Chick-fil-A’s culture involve grand opening events. One story involves the executive level staff working together, using their personal vehicles to transport kitchen equipment across several states when an equipment delivery was delayed which threatened to postpone a restaurant from opening on the scheduled day.
The leadership of an organization that demonstrates genuine concern for employees works through major business problems, and seeks to prevent problems from occurring. They become role models of the organization’s mission, vision, and values. They will be encouraged to do this more as they see the influence grow.
You are well aware of the fact that you cannot keep the identity of your organization a secret. Your reputation, good or bad, will be widely known. The organization that solves problems, generates stories or camaraderie and works together, attracts talented people who are seeking to be a part of such an organization. When your organization draws talented candidates, you increase the quality of selection opportunities.
People decisions are the most important decisions you will ever make. Your ability to create an extraordinary culture depends on your influence, which in turn depends on the people you select. Select people who understand and share your mission, vision, and values. Choose people more likely to contribute in positive ways and who will, in turn, solve problems, work as a group, and positively influence others.
At Chick-fil-A, we call it “caring for one another.” We genuinely care for one another and our staff. Caring means encouraging. We encourage our staff. We build them up. We let them know that we hold ourselves to a higher standard. When you have a culture that cares for each other, your team will extend that attitude to customers. At Chick-fil-A, the culture of care and encouragement for the staff is extended to our franchisee owner/operators. The Operators are independent contractors who run the restaurants. We are highly selective in choosing Operators because we want the team members in their stores to experience the same care that staff members experience at the Support Center.
Operators who understand and communicate the mission, vision, and values we hold will select team members who buy-in to the culture. We have high standards and that means leaders in the restaurants are right there, boots on the ground with team members. We want that same care demonstrated in the restaurant. Once team members are mentored and understand how to demonstrate honor, dignity and respect to one another and to customers, you will have their best effort.
Customers recognize the difference an extraordinary culture can make in the service and experience they receive. It makes them come back, not just for a hot meal, but for the atmosphere. At Chick-fil-A, everyone is encouraged to go above and beyond as we serve one another.
That spirit of going above and beyond generates stories too. This is why we have stories of team members changing a flat tire. You’ll hear about them taking time to stop and talk with customers.
An extraordinary culture genuinely cares about its customers. There are endless stories of friendships forged not just behind the counter but from across. That’s what I call an extraordinary culture. It’s about the impact people have on one another. That’s not a culture you simply step into and experience in a restaurant. It’s a culture customers take with them.
At the beginning of this article, I said nobody can resist a compelling story about an extraordinary culture. I’ll share one with you now, one that demonstrates the impact of a remarkable culture.
It began with a chicken sandwich. Bryan Smith wasn’t expecting to be so impressed with the friendly service provided by Shakeel Williams, a Team Member at a Chick-fil-A in McClellanville, South Carolina. On his leaving the restaurant that day, Shakeel opened the door for Bryan Smith and told him to have a great day. Bryan took a little bit of that culture with him that day. On subsequent visits, Bryan learned more about Shakeel, known as “Shack” and his struggle with sickle cell anemia. Shack’s medical bills were costly, and his family lived in a small trailer. Bryan took a little more of that culture with him and was inspired to offer to pay some of those expenses. As their friendship grew, Bryan decided to do something even more significant: he built the Williams family a house of their own.
That's the impact of an extraordinary culture. Extraordinary is the only word to describe a phenomenon where the customers “take-out” your culture with them, and return that spirit of going above and beyond — for your employees.
Dee Ann Turner is currently vice president, Sustainability at Chick-fil-A, Inc., where she has worked for more than 32 years. For 16 years, Dee Ann served as vice president, Talent, overseeing talent acquisition, selection and development among other responsibilities. Based on her experiences in that role, she is also the author of the best-selling book, It’s My Pleasure: the Impact of Extraordinary Talent and a Compelling Culture. (Elevate, 2015)