Corporate Culture

An organization’s focus and attention on attracting, developing and raising the performance level of its people can give it a strategic advantage. There are many ways to view this such as offering competitive salaries and benefits, providing career planning processes, stock ownership, etc. A unique perspective and approach our company is expert in is that of transforming corporate culture. This allows a company to create itself as an employer of choice and provides an inspiring environment for people to work in as part of a high performance team producing breakthrough results. I will summarize our unique approach with comments from experts and managers we have worked with.

“Critical to business success [is] the need to align workers with business strategies and to deal with the factors that drive human performance.

“Culture, values, and human behavior, often described as soft issues, are as important to success as hard issues such as finance, structure, and work processes. The soft issues are in many ways the hardest issues, and, around the world, senior executives are struggling to deal with them.” (Excerpted from “Competing in a Global Economy” Watson Wyatt Insider)

Network of Conversations

Corporate culture in an organization can be looked at as a network of conversations. Our work is based on the paradigm that people’s behavior is a function of conversation; how they see the world and how they talk about it to themselves and others.  All too often, within a short period, perhaps three months, a new employee has a set way of seeing their organization and a lot of that conversation revolves around complaining and gossiping about “the way things are around here.” People have difficult experiences and get stuck in “talking about the past” and resenting events that happened. Managers protect their “turf” and resist changes. It’s no wonder that those conversations, and ways of seeing their work, do not lead to productive behavior and attitudes. This kind of environment is not conducive to attracting and retaining talented people. We can talk about motivation and all the rest, but when push comes to shove, behavior is really a function of how people see things. For example, a task seen by one person as challenging may inspire action. That same task seen by a different person as difficult may inspire reticence. The tasks are the same, what is different is the person’s conversation.

A challenge in many organizations today is that they are limited by their organizational paradigms. When an organization’s paradigm becomes the only way of doing things, the organization loses flexibility and opportunity. It is not the kind of organization that attracts talented and creative people looking for challenges and leadership opportunities. Much of management attention is devoted to the tools and techniques that squeeze more out of the existing paradigm. When the competitive environment pushes an organization to its limits, the old paradigm no longer holds. People become disenchanted, cynical and resigned. In these types of environment, turnover increases, particularly among employees that the organization does not want to lose.

Most companies plan for futures that are too small, and in doing so they only leave room for the inevitable or the predictable. They most often design their strategy on the basis of their ability to match their existing resources with their ambitions. People are scaling down their aspirations and ambitions to fit their resources. Only when a company’s aspirations and desires lie outside its resources does creativity occur. Organizations must invent new ways of competing and changing the game. Creating this environment attracts and retains talented people who want to participate in creating extraordinary results.

Three Levels of Conversation

Creating powerful conversations that shape the environment of an organization will leverage the ability of an organization to attract, retain and access the creativity and talent of its people.

Our work with organizations and businesses is based on the premise that conversations take place at three levels or dimensions in an organization. These levels are not hierarchical and therefore they are more like dimensions then steps on a ladder.

The first level of conversation is the executive level. At this level, conversation around strategy takes place. A future for the organization is created, including values. Strategic outcomes and milestones are generated. Companies we have worked with generally form a cross section of their organization to generate this conversation. Including as many people in the organization both directly and indirectly in this conversation develops employee commitment and gives the organization an identity that attracts people to work for that organization.

“Building a business-focused, value-based organization is one of the critical tasks facing any company with global aspirations. We worked with a broad cross section of our work force to develop business-based values that everyone could passionately embrace.” (Brad Mills, Chief Strategic Officer, BHP)

The second level of conversation is the individual level. This conversation allows each and every employee to develop powerful leadership conversations that make a difference in their day-to-day work. People distinguish their unproductive conversations such as gossiping, complaining, and blaming others. New conversations for creating commitment and developing high performance teams and breakthrough projects are designed. Our experience is that when people see themselves as leaders that make a difference in their organization, turnover is dramatically reduced. “In a high-tech industry, remaining successful and being competitive require real agility and the ability to constantly innovate and come out with new technology in a timely way. In addition to reducing product development time, shortening the cycle, and producing incremental improvements, we wanted something new, fresh; really a breakthrough result. The process we used was designed to revitalize the culture to refocus employees on driving results, welcoming and even initiating change, and creating a new leadership role in our company. It successfully incorporates employees in the company’s future, gaining widespread commitment to growth and change.” (Beverly Mehlhoff, Director, Employee Education and Development Worldwide, Guidant Corporation)

Finally, there is conversation that comprises the operational level. This is the level where projects are created and executed by teams through which the organization can achieve its strategic goals. Simply said, these are the conversations where teams of people coordinate their actions to achieve monthly, quarterly and annual operating plans.

“We worked with senior management to design a process where we could create and deliver on goals that were stretch goals; new world records that had never been obtained before. Our objective was to take incredibly good managers and turn them into exceptional leaders who could produce another world record. The outcomes were incredible. We not only met what we considered stretch budgets, we exceeded them. Our costs are lower than they were when we started the program, and we were able to improve safety by 50%. All of this is from the leadership that is in place, speaking from a vision and a set of values that the organization is aligned on.” (Craig Steinke, Senior Vice President and Group General Manager, BHP Copper Metals)

Applying Conversation Management In Your Organization

Developing certain conversations will make a difference in your organization. Following are conversations that are destructive and unproductive:

  • Gossip: Gossip is like a disease in organizations. It spreads and builds like a wildfire. No results are being produced by gossip. What is happening is that opportunities are being destroyed. People are being right or feeling superior, but locking in place the agreement that things can’t change. Make a commitment to stop gossiping in your organization.
  • What’s Wrong or Who Is to Blame: These conversations end up creating an us versus them situation. Trust is destroyed and communication is constrained. A more powerful conversation to develop is to ask: “What are the facts here?” and after that is discussed to ask: “What actions can be taken to make a difference in what we are committed to have happen?”
  • Non-productive Complaints: Complaining for complaining’s sake makes no difference. People many times complain to make others wrong so they can be right. Developing the following conversations will be productive and make a difference in your organization:
    • Productive Complaints: These complaints make a difference because they involve complaining to someone who can make a difference and offering something that addresses the complaint. This is complaining from a perspective of being responsible.
    • Acknowledgement: Fully acknowledge people for what they do. Acknowledging others creates teamwork, trust and powerful working relationships.
    • Listening: Learn how to listen from other’s perspectives.  Listen fully to get what they are communicating from the world they see. Listening in this way will open others up to listening to you and enable you to create productive actions together.


When there are powerful conversations created at each of the three levels or dimensions, with an alignment between the levels of conversation, the environment for productivity and satisfaction is enhanced. People actually enjoy being at work. The attrition rate drops as this transformed environment takes hold. The companies that are known for their powerful corporate culture are like “magnets” in attracting talented people.

In summary, an organization’s competitive advantage rests on the breakthrough development of people capabilities and capacities at all levels. All this is a function of powerfully creating and aligning the three levels of conversation in an organization. This creates an organization that will attract, develop, and retain high performing people.

Reprinted from the September 2001 Issue of Monitor Leasing & Financial Services