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How culture breeds commitment

Conference sessions rarely yield more than a handful of good quotes, which is why The Conference Board’s recent 21st Annual Senior Corporate Communicators Conference was so exceptional. The theme was building a trustworthy organization and the importance of corporate culture to that goal. Here’s a sampling of tweetable comments:

“We’re in a period of corporate activism. This is a great opportunity for CEOs to rebuild trust out of the ruins of the financial crisis.”

Gary Sheffer, Chairman, Arthur Page Society; Retired VP of Strategic Communications, GE

“Reputation is a record of how an enterprise has behaved over time up until today.”

Ben Boyd, Deputy Chairman, Practices & Sectors, and Global Chair, Corporate Practice, Edelman

“Companies are the engines of change and progress in the world right now. It’s no longer governments; they’re dysfunctional.”

Sheffer

To build strong corporate culture, “celebrate telling the same story again and again. Because somebody hasn’t heard it yet.”

Oscar Suris, Chief Communications Officer, Wells Fargo

“Unlocking the passion and purpose of people in your organization is the best way to build trust in your business”

Sheffer

“No one wants to work at a place they aren’t proud of. That innate pride is an asset for you.”

Boyd

“Performance and stock price are a tiny slice of the value a company brings to the world.”

Sheffer

“Social media has no tolerance for hierarchy, but organizations are all about hierarchy. Stop cascading things.”

Christie Gay, Bridge Consulting

“CEOs who don’t broaden their value proposition [beyond financial metrics] are going to be the losers in the talent wars.”

Sheffer

“Pay attention to people far removed from leadership. They are your face to the public. Uber doesn’t work if the driver is a jerk.”

Sheffer

One theme that runs throughout these comments is that culture is more important than goals or even mission. Corporate social responsibility, charitable activities, and paternity benefits are great, but they aren’t the reason people come to work in the morning. They come because they believe in what the organization stands for. As one speaker noted, firefighters run into burning buildings because that’s their culture.

Culture isn’t at odds with layoffs, budget cuts or any of the other unpleasant things businesses have to do. Rather, it explains and contextualizes them. Executives who exemplify the culture they define spend less time defending and explaining themselves because their behavior is in harmony with the organization’s values.

It’s worth noting that most of these speakers came from companies in industries that aren’t noted for their strong culture, or even good behavior. Suris of Wells Fargo told of the pain many of the bank’s employees felt in the aftermath of the subprime mortgage crisis, when they were vilified along with the corporate raptors who actually caused the market collapse. Wells Fargo’s culture is one of transparency and customer service, he said. Employees couldn’t believe that not all banks operated the same way.

We hear a lot about the importance Millennials place on working for purpose-driven organizations. Who can blame them? They’ve grown up in a world in which trusted institutions are under assault, job security is a myth, and government is in perpetual gridlock. As Sheffer noted, businesses have an opportunity to define a positive vision for the future that was previously the exclusive domain of governments.

Business communicators are critical to that process. They may not define culture, but they drive awareness of that culture both inside and outside company. They need to call out leaders who stray from the purpose and exemplify the company’s culture in all their communications.

You may think that your business doesn’t lend itself well to a higher mission, but I’d suggest you think harder. A company that makes hammers helps people build beautiful things. A toothpaste maker is in the business of inspiring confidence. Nearly any product or service can have a bigger purpose. These days, that may be all we have to inspire employees to believe in us.

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