Learn to purposefully guide your company’s culture.
“Culture is everything,” the CEO said during our first interview. “Our company has something special—figure out what it is, cultivate it, transform it, but don’t screw it up.” No pressure at all, right? I accepted the job.
What is this culture thing we all hear about and speak of? I have many peers who will tell you that it’s a fluffy buzzword, haphazardly thrown around in intellectual conversations about strategic growth and business continuity—an undefinable intangible that makes for great debate. There are countless books, articles, blogs, probably even Instagram feeds all dedicated to culture and what it means for business.
In the spirit of simplicity, I’m defining culture as the what, how, and why things get done. Any group or gathering of people has a culture. It exists, it’s real, and as my supervisor framed it, it’s everything.
While I may secretly agree that many interpretations of the word walk a fine line of business cliché, an organization’s how and why (usually executed by people) are typically the secret sauce. So, what is a talent development professional supposed to do?
Let’s look at my firsthand experience on how purposefully guiding the culture of a company can have incredible financial impacts on a business.
European Wax Center is a beauty lifestyle brand franchise founded in 2004. It offers customers a full suite of waxing services, as well as a proprietary line of beauty products. It also operates a unique franchise business model, with a network of more than 720 centers across the United States.
When EWC had fewer locations, it was easier to support the execution taken at the individual location level. But as the business grew and expanded, it was more difficult to achieve the same level of consistency throughout the locations. More locations meant more franchisees and more managers, and this meant the experience the company offered could be susceptible to dilution and therefore affect the consistency. EWC did what many good companies do and invested heavily and considerably in training and support services. However, the question remained as to whether that was enough.
Respecting the franchise model, EWC faced a challenge: How could it achieve and sustain consistency across all locations so it could deliver one brand message and, in turn, gain location owners’ and leaders’ commitment to consistently provide the same level of service?
A few years back, my talent management team found that sample locations outperformed similar locations across multiple key performance indicators (KPIs). This is not an uncommon discovery in business. But our company is in the franchising industry, where everyone has the same access to tools and business intelligence and shares a similar customer base. It started to feel like the missing piece was not a hard business element but rather something less tangible.
Through a series of focus groups, observations, and feedback sessions, my team noticed that at top-performing locations, the ownership and management team had established a positive work environment through strong interpersonal relationships, allowing communication to flow naturally between peers, where feedback was proactively given and requested.
The franchisee and managers had established a microenvironment of care, friendliness, passion, and high performance where associates could grow both professionally and personally. They had, organically, established a culture of high engagement that positively affected the team’s performance and ultimately the location’s overall performance. They had inadvertently driven business through their culture. Even with similar conditions, the how and why they executed were the factors helping them stand out and outperform.
My challenge was to replicate this localized, authentic effort across the organization while making it engaging and attractive enough to gain franchisees’ and their teams’ voluntary commitment.
My first step was to identify the culture-driving behaviors and elements that I needed to promote and incentivize in the teams. Through roundtables and internal focus groups, my team and I discovered:
- Positive influencers—highly successful teams had one or more individuals who have a positive impact both personally and professionally within the team.
- Storytelling—the best teams were able to easily recall anecdotes to demonstrate the value and benefits of working together to tackle problems and add value.
- Brand values showcase—we could see within the locations how team members had internalized the brand values and used those values to guide their day-to-day decisions.
The culture challenge
My team and I created an eight-month culture challenge—a brandwide contest-style initiative, with awards and prizes, that had three objectives:
- Promote and reinforce the company’s brand values and culture.
- Create brand ambassadors at every level.
- Celebrate and recognize teams that consistently exhibit the desire and ability to create a culture that both reflects and showcases brand values and culture.
We executed weekly and monthly team-oriented challenges aimed to promote excellence in three dimensions:
- Knowledge: Create a conscious awareness of what cultural attributes are needed at an individual and location level to drive success.
- Mindset: Help associates discover the culture that makes the organization more successful and commit to upholding that belief.
- Behavior: Incorporate a culture element into everyday work and rely on it to guide the team through unfamiliar situations.
We also deployed a culture engagement survey in the first and final month of the challenge to gain data, including participants’ satisfaction, their understanding of how their role contributed to the bigger picture, their feedback on their interactions with the manager, and their likelihood to recommend the location or company as a great place to work.
At the end of the culture challenge, we announced the finalists and winners during our annual brand conference. While a committee in the corporate office selected finalists on a variety of factors, peers chose the winning locations. Cash prizes and bragging rights were awarded to the winning locations.
Culture is difficult to quantify. My scope for expected results was initially conservative. The expectation was simply to see an improvement in engagement scores using a survey before and after the challenge.
My team and I targeted two specific areas in the culture engagement survey: overall satisfaction with being a part of the brand and recommendations that the brand is a great place to work. It’s important to note that we went into the challenge with high scores (both these questions already producing results in the 90 range). We saw a 1 percent lift in our score, which wasn’t bad but also not particularly telling. Additional positive impacts on metrics like retention and turnover helped to paint our bottom-line picture. But we were ecstatically surprised after looking at the business and operational KPIs.
The financial benefit correlation from the culture challenge was astounding. For example, in seven out of seven KPIs, locations that fully participated in the challenge outperformed the partially and nonparticipating groupings even after isolating year-over-year forecasted projections; in some KPIs, these locations more than doubled the year-over-year results seen in the other groupings. Further, in four out of seven KPIs, locations that partially participated in the culture challenge outperformed nonparticipating locations. Even for metrics with low year-over-year growth, fully participating locations still managed to outperform the rest of the observed groups.
A qualitative analysis of the data in a sample of locations showcased that one primary driver for the locations’ level of involvement in the culture challenge was the leadership style and overall leader presence within the team. A deeper look at the results over the six months following the challenge and an assessment of the various types of leadership involved yielded even more fascinating results. We saw differences between locations that fully adopted the cultural behavioral changes and those locations that reverted to previous ways. Those that stopped engaging were unable to sustain their improved results.
Our culture challenge represented a victory showcasing the value of investing in culture and specifically in leadership development and special initiatives that look to strengthen the bond among team members and leaders. Only the right type of leader—someone who fosters communication, encourages teamwork, and links the importance of culture to the business—will cause a lasting impact in the team’s performance while increasing engagement and satisfaction.
Starting a Culture Challenge
The scale of our culture challenge is not an ongoing event and may not be easy to replicate or roll out in most organizations. However, if you choose to pursue a similar challenge within your company, start with these four steps:
1. Talk about your culture in terms of behaviors. Culture can be confusing to describe, so it’s important that leaders and influencers articulate what it means and what it looks like for your company.
2. Monitor how your associates experience the culture. Through formal or informal approaches, pay close attention to the team to identify and intervene during high-impact moments throughout the associate experience, such as an associate properly handling a guest issue or being promoted to a new role.
3. Empower the leader as a role model. Align your leaders to say, behave, and operate within the expected parameters of a cultural role model. Leaders should communicate the importance of culture and adjust their personal behavior to be consistent with the culture; they must operate based on culture-driving norms and practices.
4. Operationalize the culture. Make culture an actionable element. Equip the associates to activate culture as a compass that will drive every business decision within the day’s work.
There is no secret formula that will turn everyone into culture-driving machines. It requires discipline, nurturing, and commitment from all parties to grow the business and add real value through cultural engagement. Is culture everything? I think so, and it may even make you competitor-proof.
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