The Best Way to Build Company Culture

January 4, 2016, 7:43 PM UTC
Daily Life in London
LONDON, ENGLAND - JULY 10: Office workers hold a meeting the lobby of a skyscraper in the City of London on July 10, 2013 in London, England. (Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images)
Photograph by Oli Scarff via Getty Images

In the recent $12.2 billion merger between Marriott International and Starwood Hotels, Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson sent a letter to all 180,000 Starwood associates that centered not on the business benefits of the merger, but on the cultural implications. “A big part of our people-first culture is treating people with respect and transparency,” wrote Sorenson, whose company has been on Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For list 18 times. “You’ll experience both as we work through this process.”

When the Internet emerged in the mid-1990s, many saw it as a fad, promoted by young techies who had no idea how to run a business. Now we know that businesses that didn’t embrace the Internet early on had to catch up later.

When it comes to company culture, we at Great Place to Work see senior executives either resisting culture, expressing skepticism toward it, opening up to it, or embracing it

These 10 strategies will help companies build and maintain corporate culture, regardless of how often leaders resist or embrace:

Sharpen the conversation

With executives who see “culture” and “values” as mushy, it is particularly critical for team members to speak with clear definitions, distinctions, and ties to business outcomes. A company’s stated values are the core principles that guide decision-making, behavior, and create predictability and consistency across the organization. Culture is the pervasive beliefs and attitudes that characterize a company. In a great company culture, employees trust leaders, have a sense of pride in their work, and enjoy their colleagues—and the culture serves the strategy.

Build personal meaning

Try asking a culture-resistant executive about his or her own experience. “What’s the best job you ever had?” “What’s the best place you ever worked?” “What made it so great?” Answers like, “We worked as a team,” or, “We got it done—whatever it took” are the opening to say, “That is culture. And that is what we can intentionally create in every part of our company.”

Make the business case for culture

Those who look to data for proof should know that companies on Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For list (a list we create) perform nearly two times better in stock returns compared to broader indices. And great workplaces have voluntary turnover rates that are as much as 65% lower than their peers, helping mitigate the hefty cost of chronic employee flight (lost knowledge and productivity, hiring, onboarding, training, and other costs). That is just the start—the business case for culture is strong. You can bring it home by identifying specific initiatives and performance indicators in your own organization that will be helped by greater trust.

Link to the pain points

We believe the root of many serious business challenges is the absence of trust in the culture. The money question is: “How might higher levels of trust mitigate the problems we’re seeing?” Talking about your company’s pain points—rocky acquisitions, time-consuming projects, high costs, quality issues, poor cross-functional alignment, or failure to execute new strategies—is a good way into the real concerns of top leaders.


Establish social proof

Author Robert Cialdini describes a number of strategies that could help make the case for culture. “Social proof” is particularly powerful. Visiting a respected company with a remarkable, palpable culture can inspire your leaders to dedicate themselves to similar efforts.

Make it a personal challenge

Imagine saying to your CEO, “When I talk about culture, I am talking about the enormous power you have as a role model here.” It’s normal to defer to CEOs, but in our experience, they welcome challenge. It takes courage to ask: “How could you and other leaders role model a different set of behaviors, more like what you want to see?” You will have to push through resistance, but stick with it.

Make the personal appeal

Never underestimate the power of looking someone in the eyes and speaking from the heart. Leadership author Seth Godin says you don’t need charisma to be a leader—you get charisma from being a leader.

Paint an inspiring picture

When you are trying to persuade others, it can be tempting to protect yourself by under-promising. Don’t. Paint a powerful picture. If you believe it’ll work, then state your vision without qualification, caveat, or diminishment.

Tell stories

“All politics is local,” said politician Tip O’Neill. It’s the same with culture. Find and share real, ground-level stories of what happens when the culture is strong, high-trust, and strategically aligned. More powerful are stories of the real suffering and damage low-trust cultures create. In a low-trust culture, people are unproductive and demoralized. Then they take that home. Stories help senior leaders feel it.

Invoke the golden rule

The day-to-day work experience of senior executives is insulated. They are protected from many of the routine frustrations of a low-trust culture. Build empathy by asking, “Imagine you were a mid-level leader trying to do the right thing, but were often stymied by politics and other consequences of a low-trust culture. What would you want senior executives to do to help you?”

Stick with your beliefs about culture. You are making progress and one day something, maybe something small, will catalyze big changes. Don’t be careful what you wish for.


Jonathan Becker is an executive culture consultant at Great Place to Work, a global research and consulting firm that works with organizations to build high-trust workplace cultures and produces the Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For list.

Read More

Great ResignationClimate ChangeLeadershipInflationUkraine Invasion