Most everyone agrees that a high-performance culture leads to a high-performance business. But finding agreement on what culture really means and how to build it is usually where the agreement ends and the mystery begins. I’m surprised to find how few leaders really understand what culture is, or how to harness its power to improve business performance.
If you look online for a definition of culture you get stuff like this: “A model or style of business operations within a company, or a key component in business that has an impact on the strategic direction of business”. I don’t know about you, but that says nothing to me, and certainly couldn’t help me in building a better performing business?
I don’t have all the answers; but one thing I do know is that when we focus on building a better culture, we build a better business. It’s not the mushy feel-good stuff some people say it is. Culture is a real-life, living, breathing part of a business, and it impacts everything.
My experience with culture is/was born of necessity. A few years after taking the helm at Vivid, a manager came to me and said, “One of our employees is not a good culture fit and needs to go”. I asked him to describe what it meant to be a good culture fit. I got a long, convoluted answer that was based solely on the perception of one person, the manager. I realized at that moment that if we couldn’t clearly define our culture, we certainly couldn’t make intelligent business decisions based on it.
To be completely honest, I had no idea how to go about building a business culture, but I did realize we needed to be able to define it in order to build it.
That led me on a bit of a mission to figure it out. I read a lot of stuff, and even attended a conference where many of the top companies in the world were trying to solve the same problem. The takeaway: pick 1-3 key leadership behaviors that will lead to the type of culture you want to build, and then execute on those key behaviors really, really well.
“Agile” was the type of culture that I believed we needed to have in order to build a fast-growth company. At its core, Vivid is a technology company. The ability to embrace change, move quickly, and seize opportunities in real-time, was essential for us. Fast-growth businesses are in a constant state of change, so traits like adaptability, healthy risk-taking, trust and speed, can be the factors that separate the good from the great.
It all sounds pretty straight-forward, but it’s definitely not easy. It starts at the top of any organization. One of the themes I learned during my research is that the behavior of the leaders is what ultimately defines the culture of an organization. It’s not just what leaders say, or what the poster on the wall says, but what they actually do, day in and day out.
I chose two specific leadership behaviors—“rapid decision-making” and “courage and candor”—and began the process of building an agile culture. We used our management team meetings at first to talk about how we could lead by example and practice these behaviors. We talked about actual situations and how we’d handle them based on our key leadership behaviors. We listened, we practiced and we learned how to be agile as a company. Not surprising, the results followed quickly.
It became much easier to recruit when we knew the traits we were looking for in new candidates. Decisions were being made at a much faster pace, with much better accuracy. We stared attracting the right talent and naturally repelling the rest. We took healthy risks and we didn’t point fingers when we made bad decisions. We just adapted and we grew.
There was another part of building the culture that we tackled almost simultaneously; establishing our Mission, Vision and Values. Again, some may say “the soft stuff”, but I disagree. These foundational elements enable an organization like ours to be agile. If everyone knows and believes in the Mission and Vision, we all know what we’re trying to accomplish. When everyone understands and buys-in to the values, we all know how to go about accomplishing whatever it is we’re trying to do. The strains and pains of growth simply get easier when all of this comes together. It takes lots of work, but it’s so worth it.
At HSI, we’re fortunate to have a Mission and Vision that we can all believe in and get excited about. We “make the workplace and communities safer”, that’s our deeper purpose. And, we’re going to “be the top platform in online safety and compliance”, that’s a really big and awesome vision. And we have our shared values that help guide the way we do our work and interact with others. That’s solid. Now we can go about building a new, “bigger and better” culture that will help us achieve our dreams as a company.
I’m excited to lead the EH&S business unit and to bring some of the leadership lessons and experiences that helped make Vivid one of the fastest growing companies in online safety training. Now, we can focus on the new challenges and bold growth goals of Vivid, an HSI Company!