Former Chick-fil-A VP Dee Ann Turner: This can make great companies fall apart

What happens when, despite your best efforts, you find that your culture is eroding instead of transforming?

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Organizations with strong cultures can spend decades putting together the elements that, when combined, create a compelling culture. These elements include a well-defined purpose, a commitment to the mission, articulation of core values and demonstration of guiding principles. Whether people embrace these elements and live them out daily in their work determines the strength of the culture.

One of my favorite authors is organizational leadership expert Jim Collins. Of his many books, one is entitled “How the Mighty Fall.” In his research, he discovered how great companies over time found themselves floundering and eventually failing.

In many organizations, this fall begins with a slow, almost unnoticeable erosion of the culture. Leading a successful organization requires an intentional focus on culture every single day. Without intentionality, culture slowly begins to erode.

A lack of intentionality coupled with momentum accelerates the erosion until the foundation is no longer in place to uphold a remarkable culture.

Here are some signs that might indicate an eroding culture:

People within the organization no longer connect with the reason the company is in business. 

Sure, every business, hopefully, wants to make money, but that is usually not the purpose of the organization. The purpose is about something bigger than any one individual, and it’s about the difference that a business can make through its product, service and influence.

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Companies with a compelling culture have a crystal- clear purpose. It’s the rallying cry for the organization. If a time comes when the leaders lose their way, they only have to return to their purpose to center themselves and find direction. If people lose their connection to the purpose, there’s a good chance the culture will erode.

People within the organization forget who they serve. 

Without customers, clients, patients, or students, most businesses could not exist. Those who are served by the business must be the most important focus of the organization.

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I love the truism “Nothing happens until somebody sells something.” I would also add that not much happens until somebody is served. Within the organization, if the customers, clients, patients, or students are not being served well, then the culture could be eroding.

People within the organization do not feel respected by one another. 

When culture erodes in an organization, people don’t treat one another as valued team members with respect for differences. When culture is strong, people care about one another. When it’s weak, care for the work and the people slowly ebbs away.

People within the organization do not pursue a future state. 

When culture is eroding, people lose sight of the vision. They lack the passion for achieving the goals of the future. They show up to work each day with little concern for what comes next.

People within the organization relinquish the past. 

When culture erodes in an organization, people quit telling the stories about what originally brought success. They consider the past to be dated and irrelevant.

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If you have ever experienced water erosion on your property, you know that if you do not correct the problem, it gets bigger and bigger. Erosion of an organization’s culture can have the same damaging effects. It needs immediate attention before it turns into a much bigger problem.

So, how can we correct culture erosion before the foundation is lost completely? Consider these steps:

Reconnect and recommit to the purpose. 

Be vigilant in teaching and modeling the reason you do what you do. Remember that the purpose of the organization is much bigger than the individuals of which it is composed. It can be a powerful unifying force in the culture.

Put the customer first. 

Perhaps others in your organization are not getting the messages from leadership about who they should be serving first. If employees are rewarded for their service to the leadership, they will not put the customer first. Be sure not to inadvertently encourage service to leadership over service to the customer.

Value varying strengths and skills. 

Every person on the team has the potential to bring value to the team. Determine strengths and maximize them to achieve results. Both the camaraderie and achievement will strengthen the culture.

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Constantly remind people where the organization is headed. 

Help them to see their place and where they fit in the future of the organization.

Respect what made the organization successful in the first place. 

Without getting stuck in the history, be sure to revere it and learn from it. Keep the best of the past alive and be willing to leave behind what no longer works.

Excerpted from Dee Ann Turner's, "Bet on Talent: How to Create a Remarkable Culture That Wins the Hearts of Customers," published by Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group on September 3, 2019. Used by permission.