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What Executives Get Wrong About Changing Company Culture

February 12, 2016, 12:00 AM UTC
Courtesy of 3M

The Fortune 500 Insiders Network is an online community where top executives from the Fortune 500 share ideas and offer leadership advice with Fortune’s global audience. Penny Wise, chief branding officer at 3M, has answered the question: How do you build a company’s culture?

A company’s brand should be a reflection of the best things about it. And that’s often centered on its culture.

The best brands celebrate, encourage, and retain those parts of its culture that remain relevant, while simultaneously striving to shift or revitalize certain cultural aspects so they better resonate with current and future customers and employees. That can be a challenge, especially for companies with a long and storied history.

For instance, at 3M—which is over a century old—we have a long-standing culture of collaboration, and it’s one of our most treasured and distinctive assets. That includes our creation of the original 15% rule, which allows our engineers and scientists to spend more time pursuing projects of their choice. Those research-led partnerships across our technical platforms have resulted in countless innovations in films, adhesives, and nanotechnology, among other areas. These breakthroughs solve customer problems and help improve our world.

Safe to say, collaboration is a keeper, and a part of our culture we want to retain forever. But 3M is continually striving to find new or better ways to build on and improve our culture and our brand.

See also: You get the company culture you are willing to accept

And your company can, too. Here are a few recommendations for building (or rebuilding) your company’s culture:

  1. Stay curious

Don’t get complacent. The world is always evolving, and so should your brand—not necessarily via wholesale changes, but by incremental tweaks that can make something good even better. By probing and prodding and listening to all stakeholders, you’ll uncover nuggets of wisdom that can be used to revitalize your culture—and your company’s performance.

  1. Do your homework

At 3M (MMM), our work—including branding work—starts with thorough and frequent research. Recently, we talked with more than 15,000 customers and employees in 15 countries. We then sifted through the data and came up with insights that helped redefine the core of who we are—which is a scientific company that works to improve lives. And that led to the launch of a new brand platform in 2015: “3M Science. Applied to Life.” It further magnifies the DNA of our company, including our culture of collaboration.

  1. Be authentic

You can’t force-feed a new culture or vision on an established, world-renowned brand. Change must be authentic and ubiquitous, but also flexible enough to reflect regional nuances. In our case, our new platform had to work for a sales rep in China or Iowa, and connect with an automotive customer just as much as someone in dental or safety.


  1. Practice what you preach

Don’t proclaim a new vision or culture or brand essence and then fail to follow through. For 3M, that meant that the design, build, and launch of our new brand platform had to be aligned to our research findings—and our collaborative culture.

How do we ensure alignment occurs? By collaboration, naturally. We work diligently to gain the insights and perspectives of cross-functional leaders across our enterprise, and that validation ensures that what we create is “just right” and authentic to who we are. Now that the platform has been in place for more than eight months, we are seeing tangible examples of how ingrained it has become in 3M’s existing culture—proof that it’s working.

Changing any company’s culture is a mammoth undertaking, especially when the company has a legacy of amazing stories and history to be celebrated. By focusing on telling the newest, most relevant aspects of the company’s journey, you can reinforce—and improve—on the purpose, power, and importance of the brand for all audiences—especially employees.