I once worked with a CEO of a successful startup. His company had been experiencing growing pains and customer-service mishaps that led to a decline in performance. During a leadership meeting designed to review recent irregular operations, he raised his hand and took ownership of the problem with a blunt assessment.
"The fish stinks at the head," he said.
In other words, the organizational issues stemmed from leadership errors. These mistakes at the top of an organization can easily trickle down to create cultural issues throughout the team.
Companies undergo cultural assessments for a variety of reasons—and they're not always because things have gone awry. A company might have a great culture that it wants to preserve during a growth phase. Or it might want to evolve the company's culture to keep pace with a leadership change, market shift or relocation.
Other times, companies need to know why something unexpected has happened. Leaders might be trying to address increased turnover, decreased market share, a drop in productivity or something as major as ethical violations. Unfortunately, leaders don't always understand what the aforementioned CEO identified: Organizational issues often go much deeper than culture.
Company culture is created by the collective experiences and behaviors in an organization. Every member of a team plays a role in shaping that culture.
Leadership might agree to engage the collective of employees in an assessment to understand the current culture, but feel absolved of the problem when attention turns to the group. At the very least, they might feel like they get a reprieve and can focus, momentarily, on other pressing priorities. In reality, the issues have not gone anywhere.
Culture is built, reinforced, evolved and maintained only when there is balance in the ecosystem. That harmony hinges on the unrelenting support of leadership, technology, ongoing feedback and communication to ensure an understanding of and alignment with a company's core mission, vision and values. If these foundational elements are missing, even the best company's organizational structure can crumble.
Fixing a Faulty Foundation
If the foundation for a building is unstable, its structural integrity is compromised. Businesses are no different. To help remedy structural issues in your company, consider the following tips:
1. Align work and communication.
In a healthy organization, every person should understand where work and communication come together. A siloed approach in which information is not shared among departments can lead to a lack of collaboration and learning. Organizations that operate this way struggle as each department attempts to solve similar problems independent of the larger ecosystem.
A network analysis can help companies determine which departments and employees need to communicate to get work done. This analysis can also help identify influential players or roles in an organization, which allows leaders to determine how to leverage resources to support systemic change.
2. Tear down the silos.
Simply telling people to work together won't accomplish much, so find ways to make cracks in organizational walls.
My company recently worked with an organization that was incredibly siloed. Its teams delivered vastly different products and services to clients, and its leadership team didn't see the need to coordinate work processes or share information across departments. The arrangement began to affect employees' ability to access the tools and resources that were available in other parts of the organization, creating a system of haves and have-nots. Instead of the entire company benefiting from improved internal processes, departments had to reinvent the wheel on a routine basis.
My company has had success by using leadership-development opportunities to bring people together from across an organization. An immersive approach engages individuals in self-reflection and encourages them to learn from and share with their peer group—other leaders.
3. Map it.
Try visualizing major processes and elements of your business, paying careful attention to key handoffs. Involve department leaders and frontline employees in the process, and work to identify existing strengths as well as missed opportunities to excel. Use this insight to take a fresh look at your organizational structure. Assess whether that structure still makes sense and whether it will help get you where you want to be. If not, change it!
When it comes to company culture, every employee, policy and executive decision plays a key role. Cultural issues can mask underlying problems, so it's important to dig beneath the surface to pinpoint core complications. Success ultimately depends on a company's ability to root out organizational issues and treat them from the bottom all the way to the top.