How to Make Culture Your Ultimate Competitive Advantage
Recently, I was asked the question, “How do you help leaders understand that culture is not just a function of HR, that it is the responsibility of all leaders?” When I think about this question, it leads me to ask a question in return: “What is your definition of culture?” If your definition of culture is having company parties, organizing birthday celebrations, and having break room perks like a ping pong table or free snacks, then you are missing out on an opportunity to build a Remarkable culture. How you define culture will be the foundation to ensure it is the responsibility of all leaders (and team members, for that matter), and not just the HR department.
I believe culture is the expression of the shared values of all team members. It’s the very DNA of an organization. Almost every company has values as part of their corporate statement. Having a mission, vision, and values on your wall and website are common. But it’s important to remember not to limit your culture to simply having values – those values have to be lived out in the way you operate as a team.
It has been said that culture is the ultimate competitive advantage. While that can be true, in many cases it’s not. In order for culture to truly be a competitive advantage, it must be lived out in the way you do things. No matter what industry you’re in, probably around 80% of your business operations are fairly generic, but that means 20% of the way you do things is what makes you unique. That 20% is where your culture and values come into play and that’s where you’ll create a competitive advantage. When you have complete buy-in from your team, the way you do things becomes an expression of the organization’s values and ultimately your competitive advantage.
For example, at Roam, a chain of seven shared workspaces in Atlanta where I have the pleasure of being a co-owner, we established these values: Energy, Personalized Service, Inspiration, Innovation, and Generosity. These are not unique words, but they are words that everyone on our team can get behind, believe in, and live out every day for our members. I recently saw a couple of these values in action.
A group was meeting at one of our Roam locations and one of our team members, Jocelyn, noticed one of the group members hobbling because she had just broken her shoe. Jocelyn also knew that the group was scheduled to play Top Golf later that day and couldn’t imagine how this lady was going to play with a broken shoe, so she went to a store close-by and purchased this lady a new pair of shoes. This small act of kindness and thoughtfulness almost brought the guest to tears.
While it’s important to have solid values in your company, it’s equally as important that your team feels empowered to do what they need to do in order to live out those values. In this case, Jocelyn showed personalized service by noticing the guest had a broken shoe, and generosity by going out and buying her a new pair shoes. In many other companies, the bureaucracy would prevent an employee from feeling empowered to do something like this without prior approval, but at Roam this act was celebrated and encouraged. A managing partner heard about Jocelyn’s actions and typed up the story to be shared across Roam’s Hospitality in Action Slack Channel. You can see in the photos below where the story was shared and all of the reactions and high-fives from other team members underneath, as well as a picture of Jocelyn holding the new pair of shoes.
Culture is more caught than taught. When everyone in a company holds a common set of values, then you have a set of guidelines for employees to follow. I was proud that day to see our team embodying the values we have at Roam. There was no “rule” that we have to go out and buy our guests a pair of shoes, but because of our shared values, our team member knew it was the right thing to do. By sharing the story across the company and celebrating Jocelyn’s actions, hopefully other team members felt inspired to do something similar when the opportunity arises. This creates the foundation for a strong culture and one where it’s up to everyone to be responsible for that culture, rather than just one team or department.
My challenge to anyone trying to ensure their culture is the ultimate competitive advantage and owned by everyone in the company is to start by answering these questions:
- What does culture mean to you and your organization? How are you role modeling culture and its importance for your team members?
- Are you crystal clear on what your unique 20% is and are you focused on it? Are your team members empowered to live those values out on a daily basis?
- How are you regularly keeping those values in front of employees and recognizing and celebrating when they’re lived out?
At the end of the day, culture is simply the values of the brand being lived out. So, when everyone has ownership in the brand and the values of the company, it will come through in their actions and be a shared responsibility among all team members.
Founder, Spark A Revolution