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September 15, 2011

The Business Case for Corporate Culture
By Pamela Williams

 There was a time in our country when employers viewed motivation as a nicety, not a must-have. Manufacturing ruled the economy. Companies expected workers to show up, put in their time and clock out. In exchange, they would provide paychecks and often the security of lifelong employment.

 
Then a seismic shift occurred. Entrepreneurism took off. Competition exploded. Technology advanced at breakneck speeds. Shoppers became savvy. And the marketplace moved from neighborhood-centric to a global stage.
 
How did all of these changes impact business? Christopher Powell, evp, human resources for Scripps Networks Interactive said, “an increasingly competitive global environment makes operating at the highest possible levels of performance a necessity for mere survival, let alone success.”
 
And when we talk about peak performance, productivity alone doesn’t cut it. At CTHRA’s HR Symposium in May, Tom Rutledge, COO, Cablevision Systems Corporation, sized up the situation by saying, “sameness is not good in the media industry.” What is hot today, be it a new network capability or the most popular show on television, may be obsolete tomorrow. For that reason, Rutledge advised, “as employers, we must encourage creativity and risk taking.”
 
To thrive in today’s world, employers need engaged, highly productive, forward-thinking innovators at all levels of the organization. As a result, employee motivation has taken on a key strategic role in the workplace. “Motivation gives people energy to achieve a vision,” said Powell.
 
In fact, a survey conducted by the management consulting firm Towers Perrin showed that employees with the highest level of engagement perform 20% better and are 87% less likely to leave the company than their counterparts with less personal involvement in their work. In addition, engaged employees tend to serve as ad hoc spokespersons for their companies, which helps attract customers and viewers, as well as new talent.
 
Corporate Culture Sets the Tone
While there is a strong business case for engaging employees in their work, how does a company go about the process? The first step is to establish and cultivate a culture that aligns the individual employees’ performance with corporate goals.
 
I asked some of the HR leaders in our industry to define their corporate culture. As expected, while they share some basic characteristics, each is unique. Sheryl Anderson, svp, HR and administration at Starz Entertainment, succinctly defines Starz’s culture of excellence as includinga “fast-paced and ever-changing environment, one that encourages open communications.”
 
According to Bill Strahan, svp, HR for Comcast Cable, “Our culture is set in our credo statement and in our touchstones. Our credo speaks to superior customer experience, having the best products and friendly, reliable service. Our touchstones, ethics, respect, quality, flexibility, diversity, employee focus and enthusiasm tell us the qualities that do well in our organization. We are a relationship-based team more than a hierarchical structure. Having the touchstones tells people how to form the most productive relationships.”
 
Customer service also plays an integral role in Time Warner Cable’s culture, where some 64% of employees are in frontline, customer-facing jobs. Tom Mathews, evp, HR shared this insight: “Our culture is customer-focused, inclusive and responsive. We are involved in the communities where our customers and employees live. We encourage our employees to engage themselves in community organizations and volunteer in community activities, particularly supporting initiatives in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Education Coalition via Connect a Million Minds, our signature strategic philanthropic and community program.”
 
Chris Powell credits the culture at Scripps Networks Interactive as having fostered “a very inclusive, collaborative work place, with core values that include diversity, openness and shared responsibility. Oh, and humor is another core value. We try to have fun, even if we do call it work.”
 
CEO Colleen Abdoulah provided insight into the WOW! Way: “We are a group of people who lead with courage, serve with heart and celebrate with grace.” 
 
The companies that focus on employee morale and culture are reaping the rewards, as evidenced by their inclusion in the “best places to work” lists published by sources ranging from local newspapers and job search websites to Fortune and Working Mother magazines.
 
High Touch
Once a company defines the type of culture that will help it motivate employees to achieve its business goals, the organization must actively communicate its cultural expectations to employees on a regular basis. In fact, good communication has become even more critical during the recession. Scripps’s Powell said, “we know that it is human nature to be fearful in tough economic times, and the best way to manage fears is to provide more opportunity to share information and to listen.”
 
Companies’ communications initiatives range from daily email updates to internal blogs, newsletters, small group meetings and periodic companywide employee meetings. Some employers go even farther to encourage personal engagement. For instance, Time Warner Cable features actual employees in the starring roles in “I am Time Warner Cable,” an ad campaign shown both internally and on national TV. Its twin aims are to give customers a personal look at the people who deliver their service and to boost employee morale. Aside from giving the workers a taste of show biz, as Tom Mathews said, “it engages them and instills a sense of camaraderie.”
 
From Talk to Tactics
While communicating one’s corporate culture is critical, it’s equally important that companies create opportunities for their employees to actually embody it in their daily activities. To encourage a culture of innovation and creativity, Time Warner Cable created the TWC Ideas hub, which Mathews said “encourages employees to share ideas that can help us develop new products and services, improve customer interactions and communicate a sense of excitement as a technologically advanced, innovative and forward-looking company. TWC Ideas has generated tremendous enthusiasm among employees, and some of our best ideas have come from them.”
 
Powell added, “at Scripps Networks Interactive, we pride ourselves on fostering an entrepreneurial environment. We work closely with our leaders across the company to create opportunities for new approaches and new ideas to surface, including providing financial rewards to employees who offer creative solutions to problems or initiate new ideas that pay off.”
 
In addition, Scripps regularly hosts what it calls “hack day,” a full day given over to innovation. “Those who participate are given 24 hours to create a new product, most of which are digital based (hence the name) and then present that ‘hack’ to senior management,” said Powell. “Hacks that show promise and align with business goals may be further developed and explored.” 
 
Produce the Carrots
It is quite possible for a company to go to great lengths to foster a vibrant culture only to see its efforts come to naught in the workplace. From an engagement standpoint, the way an employer reacts when an employee fully embraces its cultural tenets can make the difference between success and failure. It’s not enough to simply set high expectations and create ways for employees to live up to them. It’s equally important for a company to recognize and reward successes.
 
When employees see that one individual’s behavior is positively reinforced, it encourages them to rise to the occasion in their own performance. The process is cyclical—and it’s a double-edged sword. If a behavior encouraged by the culture results in negative reinforcement, other workers will be reluctant or fearful of acting in a similar manner.
 
For example, when it comes to creativity and innovation, some risk-taking is required. Scripps’s Powell cautioned employers that “people must be able to survive risks that go bad. If they are punished for ideas that don’t pan out—if the company pulls the rug out from under them—it sets a precedent. In the future, other employees will be fearful of taking risks.”
 
Is This a Good Match?
When you’re looking for a job, company culture is not always at the top of your mind, but it should be: It is just as important to job satisfaction and performance as your function and influence, if not more so.
 
Before your first interview, learn as much as you can about the company. Examine its website thoroughly. Read all the media coverage you can find. Talk to people in the industry, and if you know people who work at the company, probe them about the culture to find out what they like (or dislike) about it. Once you’ve landed an interview, arrive prepared to share your values and culture expectations. Ask how they align with the company’s values and culture.
 
Beyond that, advised Comcast’s Bill Strahan, “listen for what questions they ask you, but more importantly ‘listen’ for what questions they don’t ask. If no one asks you about how you work with others, cooperation probably is not very important in their culture.”
 
Above all, never underestimate the importance of a good culture fit. As Chris Powell of Scripps put it, “if you feel like a square peg in a culture that supports round holes, you are never going to thrive and contribute to your full potential.”
 
 
(Pamela Williams, CAE, is Executive Director of the Cable and
Telecommunications Human Resources Association (CTHRA).)
 
 


 
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