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SMART ANSWERS
By Karen E. Klein

10.12.99  
Building Corporate Culture: Getting Leaders to Deal with the "Soft Stuff"
The challenge is getting hard-driving execs to subscribe to your credo — not sabotage it

Q: I'm struggling to create a single corporate culture that will serve my small but rapidly expanding company. The problem is our executives come from different backgrounds, and all have their own agendas. Where do I begin?
--T.H., New York City

A: What you want to establish is a strong vision and philosophy about dealing with people and business issues that everyone -- from the CEO on down -- subscribes to. What you have now is a group of individuals -- each of whom sees him or herself as a leader -- with competing beliefs, who could sabotage your efforts to build a company that's profitable, respected, and a desirable place to work.

Your challenge: To get your execs to discuss company values -- without checking their watches every five minutes. "Leaders don't want to talk about culture, that's soft stuff," says Maxine Fechter, a workplace consultant whose firm, People Equities, is based in New York City.

Consider a weekend retreat -- or if that's unaffordable -- an off-site meeting where your team can bench their natural, competitive instincts and collaborate on where they'd like to see the company in 3, 5, and 10 years. Present data on your company, its history, and the wider industry. Ask them to identify strengths and weaknesses and suggest changes.

If there are extraordinary internal conflicts brewing, interview troublemakers privately beforehand. Encourage participation by making it clear you value your managers' business experience. If you do, "people will be less likely to sabotage progress and more likely to work together," says Danette Mueller, a consulting partner at Leverage Systems, a St. Paul (Minn.) human resources consulting firm.

Strive to get everyone to buy into the process. "If your execs don't help build your vision, you can hang your corporate values on the wall, but they'll never be lived out," says Elizabeth Gates, human resource manager for Pitney Bowes Management Services in Los Angeles.

Draw up a step-by-step plan for applying the values your team agrees on, then monitor the results. If the goal is to create a culture that's accommodates workers' family needs, for example, observe how many new mothers return to work after maternity leave -- or quit soon after. If the idea is to encourage feedback from everyone, make sure managers don't punish subordinates who criticize their procedures.

The reward for a cohesive corporate culture? Employee retention and productivity, a more stable company, better customer service, and ultimately bigger profits. Get your team to buy into that, and suddenly the soft stuff may take on a whole new appeal.


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