Building and Sustaining Corporate Culture

As EK has grown over the last several years, I’ve found that more and more of my time, energy, and late night ponderings have been dedicated to sustaining our incredibly special corporate culture. Like a parent who always sees their kids as being the most talented or unique, I am sure that I am not the only CEO who believes that their company has the best culture, or, for that matter, the most exceptional team, services, or strategies. Nonetheless, both my own colleagues, as well as the community as a whole, are tuned into the fact that we’ve built something special.

For me, building and sustaining the right culture has never been an after-thought or “nice-to-have.” What we have at EK is an award-winning culture of collaboration and kindness, recognized both locally and nationally. By shining a consistent light on our culture, we’ve managed to give it the clarity, authenticity, and reinforcement necessary to enhance and sustain it as we’ve grown.

Our culture provides one of EK’s greatest competitive advantages. It fuels our excellence in delivery and drives the kindness with which we treat our colleagues, clients, and partners. Building culture is also an intrinsic part of our actual services, with Knowledge Management, Organization Development, and Integrated Change consistently being propelled by a strong, supportive, and clear corporate culture.

Though building a corporate culture of collaboration and kindness is not easy, it is at least a bit more achievable when a company is small and filled with people who all know each other and work together. Because EK has doubled over the last year, and plans to do so again, I recognize that guarding and growing our culture is critical to our success and ability to consistently support our employees and clients alike. Any number of studies supports this concept, with Deloitte noting, “94% of executives and 88% of employees believe a distinct workplace culture is important to business success” and Columbia Business School reporting that “92 percent [of senior executives surveyed] said that improving their culture would increase their company’s value.”

With such compelling supporting data, the decision to prioritize building and sustaining corporate culture should seem clear. However, we at EK consistently encounter organizations that are failing to do so. As we dig into this challenge, we have found that this failure to treat company culture as a priority tends to stem not from a lack of want, but from a lack of a clear starting point or strategy. Many of the organizations with whom we work start by expressing the same challenge: Corporate culture is so “soft,” that it’s hard to know where to begin or how to make an impact.

Though the challenge of creating and maintaining company culture takes constant focus and dedication, for organizations seeking to begin tackling this critical challenge, I recommend beginning with three elements:

  • Clarity– Defining your corporate culture is the fundamental first step. Too many organizations balk at this first step because they treat culture as some nebulous concept that can’t be pinned down. If that is the case, however, how can it be measured, taught, or actively reinforced? As EK began to experience major growth, I asked a subset of team members to define what I refer to as the “EK Way” to complement our Mission and Vision statements. Whereas Mission and Vision are about the company, the EK Way is about the individual team member and how they should feel empowered to act at EK. It is us. It is our culture. This list of eight “I” statements is a guidepost for EK and all of our employees. It is something that we share proudly, hanging a visual representation of the EK Way on the wall between the CEO’s and COO’s offices to ensure it is always within “referencing distance.”
  • Authenticity– Though I am incredibly proud of the EK Way we have defined, without action to support it, it is no better than any other poster on the wall. To address this, we’ve worked to ensure that there is no conflict between what is “said,” “practiced,” and “written.” In other words, we’ve worked to build our culture into our practices and policies. A great example of this is our interview process, where alongside measuring skill and technical capacity via traditional interview questions and mock presentations, we also work to measure cultural fit via Legos and word games. I’ll be the first to admit that we have more to do in this area, but we’re focused on the right elements and will continue to do so moving forward.
  • Reinforcement– For any organization’s long-term success in building and sustaining the right culture, reinforcement is critical. I think the mistake a number of organizations make, however, is that they think that this simply means ensuring consistent leadership support. In truth, the opposite is much more critical. The organizations with the best and strongest cultures over the long-term will be those where the employees act as the true shepherds for the culture. At EK, I try to reinforce this concept by stating that my goal is to be the “least important person” to the company. My “path to obsolescence” means my job isn’t just to model our company culture, but more importantly, to arm all others with the ability and responsibility to do so.

In future blogs, I’ll dig more deeply into the EK Way and steps to achieve Clarity, Authenticity, and Reinforcement for Corporate Culture. As I mentioned above, EK’s culture isn’t just critical for our own growth and success, it is also one of our core service offerings. I’ve often said that happy employees are good at KM, and KM creates happy employees. If you’re seeking to build or sustain your organization’s corporate culture, give us a call.

Zach Wahl Zach Wahl Expert in knowledge and information management strategy, content strategy, and taxonomy design. Zach is passionate about forming and supporting high-functioning teams and facilitating results-focused outcomes with his clients. More from Zach Wahl »