Cultivating Culture

Teaching employees not just how to do their jobs, but the way you expect them to treat co-workers and customers, requires leading by example and consistent communication.

By Margery Weinstein

Mastering the technical skills of a position, along with techniques for meeting deadlines and getting approval from the decision-makers, is just one facet of a successful employee. The other major facet is the individual’s ability to successfully blend into your company’s culture. The C-suite of most organizations has decided how it wants its customers to be treated and how it expects employees to treat each other. Those expectations often are put in writing in the form of a mission statement. Once the statement is tacked onto a wall, however, the fate of the decided-upon culture is up for grabs. Some companies are using training and learning programs to make it more likely those ideals are lived out.

Culture Right from the Start

Teaching employees about the corporate culture starts on day one of employment at information technology provider EMC Corporation. “We align enterprise and organizational onboarding programs to accelerate time to productivity and to ensure consistency. From a global perspective, 100 percent of new employees participate in an interactive online program called FastStart, where they learn about the company’s history, products, strategy and corporate mission, values, and expectations,” says Director of Learning Strategy and Acquisitions Ernie Kahane. “The virtual deployment of this program enables us to ensure a global and consistent onboarding experience for all new employees.”

In addition to enterprise-level orientation, hiring organizations deliver job-specific orientations. The tailored programs teach employees what the company expects customers to receive in each specialized area. “Sales Education conducts a five-day, intensive case-study-driven program culminating in sales presentations, and our Global Services organization delivers a two-week orientation to introduce organizational goals, measurements, contributions, and roles,” says Kahane.

Sometimes the buddy systems works best in introducing new employees to the culture. At heavy civil construction, mining, and manufacturing company and material supplier American Infrastructure, new employees learn from seasoned employees how the company does business. “New employees are assigned an onboarding ‘buddy,’ and some new employees (depending on their position) are assigned a mentor and a coach during this period,” says Director of Career Development and Training Jamie Leitch. “Onboarding at American Infrastructure is designed to orient employees to our corporate culture and to provide them with the opportunity to ask questions, gain clarification, and share best practices from their previous organizations.”

In addition, all new employees are required to wear a “green” hard hat on all of their job locations for the first 90 days in order to signal to their fellow employees that they are new to the organization. As such, Leitch says, these employees are treated with special care and concern at all jobsites. “They are provided with extra onboarding assistance by their fellow employees in order to support their onboarding process.”

Spread the Word

Law firm Bass & Associates, P.C., ensures employees understand the mission statement, so it isn’t just an abstraction. “Our mission statement very much describes the culture at Bass & Associates. We focus on producing high-quality work in all that we do. This is delivered by having multiple levels of quality control in place throughout our company,” says Training and Development Manager Andrew Hoskins. “We also perform and receive random audits throughout the year. We are able to offer comprehensive and customized service to each of our clients by incorporating departments that handle specific client needs. We also have customized our training programs to fit the needs of both the company and the learner.”

The firm uses regular communications with its workforce to transmit the culture. “We produce a company newsletter that covers the issues related to our industry and our clients. It also serves as a forum for employees to share about their personal lives and outside interests,” says Hoskins. “We let them know that while the work they do is important to Bass & Associates, we recognize that their personal interests are also important and related to our success.”

Perhaps the best way to spread the word is by example. Choice Hotels International looks to its leaders to set an example worth following. “Communication and accountability are paramount in our culture. Treat others how they want to be treated and hold yourself and others accountable for all actions,” says Manager of Talent Development, Learning, and Development Lori Greaves. “We know that coaching and training toward the reinforcement of positive behaviors is vital as this leads to a more progressive development experience; ultimately creating and cultivating a positive, lasting experience for our customers.”

Employee Feelings Count, Too

Banking and finance company BB&T Corporation doesn’t forget to consider the employee’s point of view in spreading corporate culture. “Associates who feel valued and engaged in their work are central to BB&T’s success. Our strategies focus on all facets of associates’ well-being: career, financial, physical, community, and social. In a recent anonymous survey of our associates, 90 percent said they were proud to work at BB&T—a sign of exceptional associate engagement,” according to BB&T. “We continue to make substantial investments in associate education to create a knowledge-based learning organization. To successfully operate our decentralized structure of 36 community banks, we know we must have highly trained associates who understand BB&T’s philosophy—and who are ‘masters’ of their areas of responsibility, whether they are computer operators, tellers, lenders, or financial consultants.”

The company also strives to develop employees who are self-motivated. “In our rapidly changing and unpredictable world, companies and individuals also need a clear set of values to guide their actions. As a values-driven organization, BB&T encourages and trains our associates to have a strong sense of purpose, a high level of self-esteem, and the capacity to think clearly and logically,” BB&T says. “We believe that is the essence of BB&T’s competitive advantage: associates who turn rational ideas into action that, in turn, accomplishes our mission. BB&T’s values form the foundation for the way we do business.”

Engaged Employees Lead to Culture Success

At Mountain America Credit Union (, employees often are pre-set for engagement by being culled from the ranks of customers. The ability of the company to sustain that engagement is a marker of cultural success. “Many of our employees were members of Mountain America before being employed here. They had positive experiences as members, which made them want to apply for employment,” according to Senior Vice President of Educational Services Suzanne Oliver and Assistant Vice President of Educational Services Shelley Muhlestein.

For the last five to six years, “approximately 30 percent of all new hires have come from employee referrals,” Oliver and Muhlestein note. “Our current employees know what a good place this is to work and recommend it to their friends and family. Since employees know what’s needed to be successful at Mountain America, they can identify others with similar values and standards who will enjoy being part of our organization.”

Recent employee engagement scores reinforce Oliver and Muhlestein’s assessment. “Our annual engagement scores continue to be high, letting us know what is working well and areas to improve from the employee perspective. Good people want to work at Mountain America. We have been a ‘Best Places to Work’ recipient for several years and many seek employment here,” they point out. “In 2012, just 5 percent of total applicants were hired, with 34 percent of all open positions being filled internally. Our turnover rate is 24 percent, and 7 percent of employees who leave Mountain America re-apply to work here again.”

Merger = Culture Opportunity

When workforce development and mobility company Cartus Corporation conducted an acquisition three years ago, the company used it as an opportunity to strengthen its organizational culture. “We decided to undertake a cultural integration as part of our acquisition planning. We made a significant investment in determining what the culture of the two merged companies had been previously, and what we wanted our new, combined company culture to be,” says Senior Vice President of Global Human Resources Amy Meichner. “After we defined the culture, we built a long-term plan that was executed by a cross-functional and global team of employees, who oversaw the new culture’s rollout.”

Meichner explains that Cartus then communicated and provided training on the culture in many ways. “Our multifaceted approach included communications and messages; visual representations of our culture; inclusion of the cultural elements in all our core programs, including hiring, training, and recognition; and tools and events to engage our employees in seeing and feeling what the culture was all about.”

Corporate Culture Red Flags

You’ve made your best effort to teach employees about your corporate culture, but you think something may have gone wrong. Doug Williamson, CEO of leadership development firm The Beacon Group, offers some red flags to watch out for:

  • Lack of candor and transparency at all levels. No one understands senior management’s plans or the company’s goals.
  • Decisions that do not stick or get implemented. Management announces a change, but then nothing comes of it.
  • Senior leaders who are not first-rate role models. They talk a good game, but then act in ways that undermine their message.
  • Lack of consequences for failing to live up to the cultural norms and expectations. No repercussions for managers who are notoriously abusive toward employees.
  • No measures are used to track and spot gaps over time. Employees are not effectively monitored for performance consistency.
  • Behaviors are not included as part of the performance review process. There is a tolerance for employees who mistreat co-workers as long as they meet their financial goals.
  • Lack of a balanced scorecard methodology (hard and soft metrics measured equally). Interpersonal relations toward colleagues and clients or customers are not meaningfully considered in employee evaluations.

Creating Your Own Unique Culture

By Dr. David “Doc” Vik, Founder and CEO, The Culture King, and a former Coach

“Culture” within a business, in and of itself, is kind of “sqwooshy.” Companies attempt to do many things to create a culture, but the anticipated positive effects are not always realized because the five key structures that create the culture often are missing.

Step 1: Create a compelling vision. Within all companies, groups of people need to know “what” they are doing or delivering. Once they know the “what,” all thoughts, decisions, and actions can be aligned to it. This will help in creation and reinvention and will be crucial for your employees to find the best way to do things. This needs to evolve over time, and will be a guiding light or “North Star” to follow and help guide.

Step 2: Establish a purpose. Everyone needs a purpose in their lives, and this is just as true in businesses. The purpose is the “why” you are doing what you are doing. If your company’s purpose is only about making money, employees won’t stand behind it for long. If the purpose is compelling enough and gives them a great reason to work at your company, it will attract passionate employees who want to fulfill your company’s purpose. A word of advice: Make your purpose short, memorable, and repeatable—just like your vision.

Step 3: Take a good, long look at your business model. Is it aligned with the wants, needs, and demands of your customers? Is it aligned with all the possibilities and opportunities the Information Age has to offer?

The lifespan of an S&P company a generation ago was 50 years. Today, the lifespan of an S&P company is 25 years and shrinking. Companies are “dying” at an unprecedented rate, and many times, it has to do with the business model not evolving with the times.

Step 4: Create unique/wow factors for your company. Why should anyone want to work for or buy from your company? What is unique or “wow” about it? Does what you sell or deliver stand out from the rest? When creating your own unique/wow factors, you can choose from any of a number of things, including: quality, value, price, service, delivery, etc. Just be different! If everyone is building fences, dig a tunnel.

Step 5: Establish values that let the outside world know what you are all about. Company values are basically what everyone values within the organization.

Once the structure is set, allow the people of your organization to create the culture. Over time, your culture will become part of your DNA. It then will be the blueprint of “what,” “why,” and “how” you do things…now and long into the future, helping your employees and company to reach their full potential.

For more information about Dr. Vik’s book, “The Culture Secret: How to Empower People and Companies No Matter What You Sell,” visit

A Corporate Culture Embraced by All

It’s difficult to get employees to believe and live out a corporate culture chosen by the C-suite. Clara Lippert Glenn, president and CEO of The Oxford Princeton Programme, offers the following tips:

  • Instead of asking employees how hard they will work for the company, ask them what they will do to balance their work/personal life. Someone who can balance a busy work life with a rewarding home life is one who can handle any work situation you throw at them. We want people who are happy inside the office, as well as outside the office.
  • Create and enforce good, easily understood workplace policies. Policies give everyone the parameters needed to be creative, successful, and happy at work.
  • Think about people management. It’s not just about managing a task, budget, or project. It’s about managing people—their expectations, their motivations, their hurdles, and their joys.
  • Remember that it is not always about who is going to get the job done best, it’s about who is going to do the work well and get along with those around them.
  • Encourage employees to ask questions. Pass along the age-old motto: The only stupid question is the one you didn’t ask.
  • Teach employees to be proud. Tell them: If you are not proud of the work you are doing, you’re in the wrong job.
  • Encourage a no-complaining culture. Instead of whining, teach employees to take the initiative to discover and explain a solution.

For more on this topic, visit

Lorri Freifeld
Lorri Freifeld is the editor/publisher of Training magazine. She writes on a number of topics, including talent management, training technology, and leadership development. She spearheads two awards programs: the Training APEX Awards and Emerging Training Leaders. A writer/editor for the last 30 years, she has held editing positions at a variety of publications and holds a Master’s degree in journalism from New York University.