Tag Archives: company culture

Tell Me a Story

By Laurie Breitner

As the mother of three and grandmother of four, I have told a lot of stories. The ones the little ones like best incorporate something from their lives in the narrative. Of course, this isn’t surprising. The role of storytelling — in oral history, moral teaching, and religion to name a few — has been critical over time and across cultures; it’s a time-tested way to bring people together, acknowledge challenges, and celebrate significant milestones. Through stories families and communities teach cultural values and other important lessons. So it should come as no surprise when a company eager to shape a strong, positive culture turns to storytelling as an important part of that effort.

By Ethel Franklin Betts (1877–1959) - The Orphant Annie Book, by James Whitcomb Riley, Indianapolis: Bobbs‐Merrill Co., 1908. Downloaded from the Internet Archive. http://www.archive.org/stream/orphananniebook00rile#page/n7/mode/2up, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46668567

By Ethel Franklin Betts (1877–1959) – The Orphant Annie Book, by James Whitcomb Riley, Indianapolis: Bobbs‐Merrill Co., 1908. Downloaded from the Internet Archive. http://www.archive.org/stream/orphananniebook00rile#page/n7/mode/2up, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46668567

If you are interested in re-shaping your company culture, learn more from this interview with Carmine Gallo, author of the new book, The Storyteller’s Secret: From TED Speakers to Business Legends, Why Some Ideas Catch On and Others Don’t.

For more on how to use your company’s stories in the context of assessing your organization’s culture, read Karen’s earlier post “Get a Fresh Perspective on Your Organization’s Culture: A (Mostly) Do-It-Yourself Approach.”

© Copyright Laurie Breitner. All rights reserved.

Regarding Your Company’s Value Proposition: Is Everyone on the Same Page?

By Laurie Breitner

Recently my colleague, Karen Utgoff, wrote a post to help business owners, entrepreneurs, executives, marketers, and product managers better understand the important role value propositions can play in ensuring business success. Whether your business has been around for a year or for decades, evaluating the relevance of and adherence to your value proposition is well worth the effort. What you learn can serve as the basis for unifying and aligning marketing and operational priorities to ensure you stay on track for long-term success even as you respond to immediate demands.

Silhouettes of Business People Meeting with Business SymbolsOnce businesses get off the ground, business plans often get set aside in favor of greasing whatever wheel is squeaking on a day-to-day basis. Perhaps past assumptions about who your customers are and what products/services they need were off or markets have changed, and you find yourselves busily serving other customers with different needs. Or, maybe your value proposition is crystal clear in your mind, but not carried out as you might hope by employees or well supported by your company’s capabilities. Especially when customers keep walking in the door, it’s easy to lose sight of the big picture. Read on for some ideas about how to get started on your VP Assessment.

Get a team together. Involve everyone whom you rely upon to implement your value proposition. Don’t overlook your support areas like HR, customer service, and systems or key external professionals including your suppliers, creative agencies, channel partners, banker, or tax accountant. To keep costs down, you might have a small working group, but get input from all corners and run results by all key stakeholders.

Review your assumptions. Start with the basics; clearly define your customer. Consider demographics (age, gender, and economic status), psychographics (likes, dislikes and values), and geography. Start by listing as many attributes as possible and from that list pick the top few that most accurately describe your customer base. Your company may serve more than one market, but start with one and then repeat this process with others.

Make a list of customers’ needs that your company addresses. Note whether it is an operational, economic or emotional concern. Pay close attention to needs your business meets that the competition doesn’t. These important differentiators can inform your internal and external communication and help you maintain margins.

Here’s an example:

A worker-owned co-operative, Pioneer Valley PhotoVoltaics (PV Squared), sells and services reliable, custom-designed, renewable energy systems for homeowners, businesses and institutions located within about 100 miles of Greenfield, MA. Through experience, they have learned that their customers are seeking solutions for operational, economic and emotional needs. Customers’ economic needs include predictable energy costs, excellent return on investment, and support for the local community in terms of good jobs for local residents. Operational needs include long-term system reliability, efficient system operation, better public health (cleaner air and water), and stronger grid infrastructure. Emotional needs include helping to address serious social and economic problems — reducing atmospheric carbon, energy independence and conflict reduction. Many customers also appreciate that PV Squared is a locally based, worker-owned cooperative.

Because incentives such as tax credits and rebates differ from year to year, interest rates vary, and energy costs fluctuate, relying exclusively on an economic appeal could be risky. Similarly, expecting customers to make an investment solely to improve public health and community job growth is unrealistic. While many appreciate system reliability and promoting increased distributed power generation, most customers seek additional benefits before making a purchase. While there are competitors who meet some of the needs, few — if any — meet all as well as PV Squared does. With this three-pronged approach, PV Squared has the flexibility to respond to changing conditions while staying on their chosen path to sustained, long-term success.

Assess your ability to follow through. Don’t fall into the trap of promising more than you can deliver or assuming everyone in your organization knows your company’s priorities. Here are some questions for self-examination:

  • Can each of your employees articulate your value proposition? Are their actions consistent with it?
  • Would your customers, employees, vendors and suppliers agree?
  • Is fulfillment of the promise represented by your value proposition achievable? Providing the highest quality, most personalized service and lowest price while cultivating a profitable business is a practical impossibility.
  • Do you have the key resources, capabilities, and partnerships you need to fulfill the value proposition? If not, what would it take to build that capability and what evidence would demonstrate that you were successful?
  • How have you tested to ensure that you really are meeting customers’ key needs?
  • Do your customer have other needs that you are not solving?
  • How does your value proposition compare to that of your competitors?

Use the results of your VP Assessment to build a list of improvement opportunities. In a future post, I’ll discuss ways to evaluate the list of possible initiatives and select ones that have the most potential for your business so that you can develop both operational and marketing goals.

© Copyright 2015 Laurie Breitner. All rights reserved.

What Do G.M. and the V.A. Have to Do with Your Organization?

By Karen Utgoff

Public domain

Public domain

I have been keeping my eye on the disturbing news about General Motors and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Recent reports describe deep dysfunction that appears to have resulted from failing to both acknowledge and then address systemic problems — some of life-and-death significance. While both organizations are huge and complex with many layers of bureaucracy, leaders of smaller, simpler businesses or nonprofits should not assume such problems are entirely a result of size and scope. Here are some thoughts on spotting and preventing such situations in your own business:

Recognize that no one is immune. Individual weaknesses differ but we all have them. Understanding your individual (and team) susceptibilities can help you to nip a potentially alarming systemic problem in the bud rather than assuming it away as an aberration.

Watch for symptoms of trouble brewing. Most business problems are made worse by ignoring them. Be alert to early warning signs of problems in general. This will help you prevent difficulties of titanic proportions as well as smaller ones that can interfere with routine operations and performance.

Create a quality-focused, high integrity-based culture. A culture that values honesty and questioning assures employees that they will be listened to — and not punished — for calling management’s attention to potentially significant problems. A culture of “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” is dangerously disrespectful of your employees and their moral compasses. If you are not sure how to characterize your culture, here is one approach you can use to get a fresh perspective on it.

Manage by walking around. The leader who regularly walks among, talks with, and listens to employees throughout the organization is more likely to learn about problems individuals on the frontlines are seeing. Don’t stop there. Follow up on the information, demonstrate that you want to know about and will act to solve problems. Then, communicate with employees about what you’re doing and why; consider publicly thanking the individual(s) who brought the issue to your attention.

Encourage individuals to do the right thing. Do job descriptions, financial incentives, and other recognition motivate employees to bring such issues into the light of day or to sweep them under the rug?

Lead by example. None of the above will make a difference if your actions don’t match your words. This is as true day-to-day as it is when a crisis hits. If your employees see you cutting corners with products or product safety, they will get the message that they can — and perhaps should — do the same.

Start now. If you are concerned that significant problems are being overlooked, start to address them now. Ask questions and show that you would rather have accurate but unsettling answers than false comfort. It will take time and effort to overcome the status quo but keep at it.

Learn from the mistakes of others. To start, check out “Top Investigator Has Blistering Criticism for V.A. Response to Whistle-Blowers” (NYTimes, June 23, 2104) and “GM Recalls: How General Motors Silenced a Whistle-Blower” (BusinessWeek, June 18, 2014). Two key takeaways:

  • Problems take time to develop. In both cases, there were multiple warning signs over many years with many missed opportunities along the way.
  • People were trying to do the right thing but couldn’t.

 

If you do all of the above will you be immune from the sorts of crises that G.M. and the V.A. are now experiencing? No (remember item one), but you will be more likely to catch and fix significant problems with a minimum of injury and expense.

 

© Copyright 2014 Karen Utgoff. All rights reserved.

What’s So Special about You?

I could not have anticipated that a taunt I first heard in grammar school would be a question I’d later ask business owners in all seriousness. Businesses are most successful when they build upon their unique strengths and take appropriate steps to mitigate critical weaknesses.  But recognizing your strengths and weaknesses is easier said than done. Here is an overview.

While it would be impossible to enumerate all attributes an organization might have, the following list will get you started.  As you consider your organization’s strengths and weaknesses, please be absolutely honest.  It’s easy to think only in positive terms, to see only potential or to obsess over weaknesses. However, giving in to one-sided thinking will not result in actionable information. Better to recognize any areas that need attention as soon as possible so that you can address them before they negatively impact your bottom line. On the flip side, don’t fail to recognize where your organization shines. This may lead to discovery of competitive advantages that will help your business to leap ahead.

Expertise/industry savvy and contacts

  • Unique capabilities – what can your organization can do/supply that is not available from competitors?
  • Experience/knowledge of principals and staff – do you offer customers an extraordinary level of expertise or experience?
  • Industry ties – do you belong to and actively participate in industry associations?
  • Influencers – do you regularly engage in two-way communication with industry influencers?
  • Media – would it be likely for the media to contact you were there to be a breaking story in your industry?

Customer base

  • Customer satisfaction/fans – do your customers refer or recommend you to potential new customers?
  • Loyalty – do you receive repeat orders from customers?
  • Diversification – do you have multiple customers in a variety of industries?
  • Are your customers financially stable?
  • Do your customers expect you to compete on price alone?

People

  • Leadership and top managers – is your leadership team complete, respected, knowledgeable and well connected?
  • Overall, do employees have all the skills and qualifications they need?
    • Skill level – does your organization ensure that staff is well trained, up-to-date and knowledgeable?
    • Dedication to quality and customer service – is your organization’s definition of quality and customer service measurable, clear to all members of your staff and considered in every customer interaction?
    • Licenses, insurance and certifications – do you/your staff have all relevant licenses, insurance and certifications?
  • Succession plan/pipeline – do you have a clear succession plan and the means to find and attract sufficient new employees?

Suppliers/raw materials

  • Stable – are your suppliers financially stable?
  • Raw materials – is it likely there will be an adequate supply of raw materials available at a reasonable price?
  • Bench strength – do you have multiple suppliers of key goods or raw materials?

Products/services

  • Are your products and services distinct from those of your competitors?
  • Do you have exclusive agreements to sell products and services in your market?
  • Do you offer a complementary mix of products and services not found at the competition?
  • Is demand for your products and services seasonal and/or tied to events beyond your control? (Weather, subsidies, tax incentives, etc.)

Intellectual property

  • Patents/trademarks – do you own and protect patents and trademarks?
  • Marketing collateral – does your marketing collateral engage and inform your customers base?

Infrastructure

  • Convenience to customers/suppliers – are your organization’s locations accessible to both customers and suppliers?
  • Traffic – if it’s relevant, are you located in a space (either physical or virtual) where your customers are likely to congregate?
  • Visibility – is your organization easy and convenient to find both physically and virtually?
  • Processes and procedures – do you have efficient, documented processes and procedures?
  • Systems – do your systems (computer, telephone, forms, inventory management, etc.) effectively support customers and staff?
  • Technology – do you have all of the industry-specific tools and technology you need to compete for business?
  • Overhead – is your operation efficient?

Financial

  • Financial strength – is your organization on sound financial footing?
  • Banking relationships/access to credit – do you have on-going positive relationships with one or more banks that would be willing to extend credit?
  • Positive cash flow – overall, is your cash flow positive?
  • Terms – are you offered and do you take advantage of suppliers’ best possible terms?

Culture

Culture significantly influences an organization’s ability to attract and retain employees, respond to problems, and to provide a great customer experience. For more on this, read Karen Utgoff’s recent post on looking at your organization’s culture with fresh eyes.

It is often illuminating to involve customers, suppliers and staff in exploring many of the questions above. You can learn a lot by understanding their views. Also, what might have been accurate in the past may not always be true. Support your assessment with facts whenever you can. Refresh this information periodically, more often if your circumstances (market, customers, etc.) are in flux.

Understanding your organization’s strengths and weaknesses will give you a better understanding of internal capabilities. To formulate a strategy, these need to be considered in the context of the external environment. For more on doing so, see this post by Karen Utgoff on sorting out opportunities and threats.

© Copyright 2014 Laurie Breitner. All rights reserved.

Get a Fresh Perspective on Your Organization’s Culture: A (Mostly) Do-It-Yourself Approach

By Karen Utgoff

When was the last time you took a systematic look at your organization’s culture? Many owners and leaders of small-to-medium sized businesses could answer this question with one word: “Never.” Unfortunately, culture is often neglected when leaders size up their organizations even when its importance is recognized because it is difficult to measure:

  • Unlike cash flow, leads generated, cost of goods sold, defect rates, absenteeism, or other company/industry empirical measures, culture cannot be assessed strictly in terms of numbers.
  • Culture — good or bad — is so much a part of an organization’s day-to-day “normal” it can be difficult just to recognize its influences, much as individuals may be blind to their own good or bad behavior patterns.
  • Culture is very much in the eyes of its many beholders — employees, customers, suppliers, as well as the management team. Although it may be uncomfortable, it is important to consider each for their perspectives and bring the necessary objectivity to the process.
  • Convincing yourself (and staff) of its importance to find the time to do this type of assessment can be very difficult in the midst of day-to-day demands.

Nevertheless taking a fresh look at your organization’s culture is critical; while the work is difficult, the payoff could be substantial. In many ways, an organization’s culture is at the core of its ability to respond effectively to immediate difficulties as well as meet long-term challenges and seize opportunities. Culture significantly influences an organization’s ability to attract and retain employees and, of course, its customer experience.

Don’t let the desire for perfection derail getting started. Taking initial steps will allow you to build a foundation for future improvements. Here is an approach that might help you begin.

Use a general framework as a starting point. While it is tempting to start by framing your assessment around the particulars of your organization, this could introduce assumptions about your culture that skew results or interfere with insights. Instead, start with a one-size-fits-all structure to assure a fresh perspective that will help you develop an objective, inclusive view of your culture.

While there are many frameworks out there, I like the one provided in John Coleman’s “Six Components of a Great Corporate Culture” from the HBR Blog Network. This article breaks culture into more manageable pieces:

  • Vision (and/or mission)
  • Values
  • Practices
  • People
  • Narrative*
  • Place*

It’s worth noting that these are components of both great and problematic cultures; the difference being that in great cultures the elements work together to create a highly productive, effective organization.

Go beyond your talk to get at your walk. Because culture depends much more upon what an organization does than what it says, look for evidence of culture in action. Use facts to support your observations or help you to see more clearly.

Use the framework to describe your organization’s culture from your (the CEO/owner’s) perspective. Record your view of each aspect of your organization’s culture. Limit yourself to a single page that succinctly covers the six components rather than a detailed description. Once this summary is complete, if you feel the need for more information add backup pages to support the summary page. For example in the section on Narrative you may want to mention the story about when you and everyone else worked late into the night to help a customer in a crisis. This could be listed as “How we went above and beyond for XYZ Co. when they needed our help,” while backup information could include highlights of your team’s efforts and XYZ’s thank you letter.

Use the framework to see your organization’s culture from many perspectives. Eventually you may want use the template to gather the perspectives of employees, customers and others who have experience with your organization. To get started, focus on employees from the front lines to the management team. Provide a copy of the template and Coleman’s blog.  Ask each one to describe your organization’s culture as he or she sees it. Encourage backup notes to support observations on the main sheet. Anonymous returns encourage frankness, but you will not be able to follow up for more detail. Often a third party is engaged to gather and consolidate returns to help overcome this barrier.

Compare and consolidate perspectives to see with fresh eyes. As you accumulate perspectives from various individuals throughout your organization and beyond, look for points of agreement and divergence. Be mentally prepared for both delightful and disappointing discoveries. For example, you may find that employees are quietly taking the initiative to realize the mission through their day-to-day actions, or that employees are only partially aware of the organization’s values. You may also find that there are some positive aspects of your culture that you, as the leader, rarely or never see but want to encourage. In any case, your mandate is to see your culture through fresh eyes rather than to act immediately on the details.

Once you have a deeper understanding of your culture, it will become easier to find ways to strengthen and nurture its positive aspects. For example, if employees are unaware of the organization’s values, you may realize that a values statement needs to be distributed to everyone, that values need to be integrated into performance evaluations, or that you will seek opportunities to create new narratives by recognizing employees whose actions exemplify organizational values.

Improve your ability to analyze and assess organizational culture by observing others. The steps above are just a starting point. One of the joys of my work is that I am regularly exposed to a wide range of organizations. In some it’s clear that talk and walk have diverged, while in others employees are remarkably in sync. There is a lot to learn from both. To strengthen your ability to nurture the culture in your organization, try applying the framework to others. Does your supplier tell you that its people are innovative problem solvers but your experiences say otherwise?

Include organizational culture as a regular part of management review. Remember that the steps above are a beginning not the end. Along with your margins, customer-base and employees’ technical capabilities, a healthy organizational culture is an important part of your business’ strength. In addition to its internal value, it plays directly into your reputation, brand, and competitiveness. To create, nurture and sustain culture effectively, make time to assess it systematically as part of routine, ongoing management and leadership efforts.

* For more on Narrative and Place, see my post on “Using narrative and place to nurture small business culture” in Succeeding in Small Business.

© Copyright 2014 Karen Utgoff. All rights reserved.