Editor’s note: Bob Broda is president of VisageSolutions, LLC.Today’s economic environment may have had a serious impact on company cultures. This impact makes it difficult for companies grow and take full advantage of an economic recovery.

To be effective, tomorrow’s companies must have cultures that foster flexibility, adaptability and creativity. They need to be organizations where people work together to support one another and focus on the customer. These organizations will be the ones that will survive and even excel in the next millennium.

Herb Kelleher, ex-CEO Southwest Airlines states “Culture is one of the most precious things a company has, so you must work harder on it than anything else.”

Today’s companies have spent too much time in survival mode and have not considered the long-term viability of the company. It’s true that it is hard to focus on long-term objectives when the focus is trying to survive.

In the book “Built to Last,” Jerry Porras and Michael Collins indicate “Visionary companies, at the heart, are grounded in a timeless set of core values and an enduring purpose beyond just making money”.

Beyond just making money — isn’t that the reason companies exist? However, how can a company be “built to last’ if it doesn’t care about making money. The issue is not just making money, but in making decisions that are positive for the long term. Though those decisions may not be viewed as favorable for the short term they need to be made, for the goal of the company is sustained growth.

Only half of U.S. workers say they are satisfied with their jobs, compared with 59 percent in 1995, according to The Conference Group, a non-profit research business group. This statistic suggests that most employees spend a significant portion of their day looking forward to quitting time or looking for another job.

The current economic downturn may have eroded the ability for many companies to destroy their ability to compete and fostering a corporate culture of apathy, self-protectionism and greed.

The apathy rampant in the workforce can be traced to practices such as:

  • Rewarding top executives for short-term gains who jump from company to company to take advantage of short-term gains.
  • Companies practice of laying off good people in mass because it’s easier than firing people for a reason to avoid legal troubles.
  • Downsizing which has made it difficult to maintain a happy customer base and employees gun shy.

However, companies have survived during these hard times. Southwest Airlines, Microsoft, Dell, SAS, GE — have performed reasonably well during the recent down turn when compared to other companies.

Cultures drive success

I suggest that they are successful, not only because they have quality products, but also because they have cultures that support and drive their business.

So how can a CEO create a culture which:

  • Employees not only enjoy coming into work and have confidence in management.
  • Companies show a long-term commitment to employees.
  • Employees and managers work together despite where they are within the organization, are professional and deliver quality the first time, every time.
  • The entire company is customer focused in every thing they do.

But what can be done to foster such a culture within our businesses?

Individuals can invest in companies with strong customer oriented cultures. Such investments will send a clear message to Wall Street as well as add to our personal wealth.

This in itself will have an effect on companies, but the culture change must begin at the top of the individual organization. Those companies previously mentioned are run by real leaders with vision who drive the culture throughout the entire organization. They are committed to the company goals and are aware of the outside forces that can effect culture.

The entire leadership team is key to the success of culture change. The entire team must buy-in to the effort and guide the change. If this team is not committed to the change, then they must be replaced. If management’s behavior and decisions are inconsistent with the desired change, all efforts for the change is undermined and the objectives will be impossible to be achieved.

Where to start?

The starting point is to identify the current company culture. This is not always easy because culture is not something that can be readily identified when you are on the inside. Worse yet, often management may have a distorted view of culture. A careful unbiased assessment of the staff is necessary to get a true view of culture. There are some consultants and tools that can greatly assist a company identify gaps between its current and desired culture.

Once the performance gap is determined, the reason for the gap must be identified. Understanding the reason allows the company to alter behaviors and drive the change effort. The entire change process should be treated like any other project in the organization. There needs to be a plan with time-lines, milestones, and accountabilities. Priorities have to be set, resources need to be identified and most of all, the responsibilities of the management team committed to.

Obstacles and their sources must be identified and strategies have to be developed for getting around them. A performance based, entrepreneurial organization must be created.

Management must reward the behaviors that support the change. Metrics and reward systems must be created that measure and reward desired behaviors.

However, there are two major differences from the typical project: the project manager has to be the leader of the organization; and the project is never over.

But once the culture is in line with the business, the company will in a better position to react to the changing economic climate. More importantly, it will be in a position to survive and even thrive when others are fearful for their very existence.

That’s why Herb, the former Southwest Airlines CEO, was so profound in his statement on corporate culture: “You must work harder on it than anything else.”

Bob Broda can be reached at rmbroda@hotmail.com or (919) 271-3714.