Communicating Your Corporate Culture

By: Marty Parker

Once a week, Michael McCain, president and CEO of Maple Leaf Foods, sends a note to Maple Leaf team members. The email is essentially a candid review of McCain’s weekly experiences and impressions: he talks about the company’s activities, about success stories and about other industry-related news. The main point of the note however is that the examples and stories he gives, are meant to reinforce the values of the organization. It’s a popular read, and often results in one-on-one interaction between those who are reading it and the CEO.

McCain’s weekly email is but one example of the way in which communication is used to reinforce the organization’s culture. Whether it’s their quarterly town hall webcasts (which are designed to highlight the company’s values and provide dialogue between management and employees), their internal social network and intranet site where employees can collaborate and connect with team members, or the Maple Leaf Foods’ Leadership Academy, the key for each of these tactics is that communication is the tool used to reinforce values and behaviour. The other important factor? These communication initiatives are leadership-driven – and in the case of Maple Leaf Foods (a four-time winner of Canada’s Most Admired Corporate Cultures and an inductee in our Hall of Fame), the person typically in the driver’s seat is the president and CEO.

If you believe (like we do) that culture is one of the greatest assets an organization can have – and one that also impacts performance –then it makes sense that you would want to cultivate that asset. In fact, one of the best ways to ensure that it lives, grows and appreciates is through communication.

Get to Know your Culture

When we started working in and around corporate culture, our clients were saying to us: culture is difficult to understand and it’s hard to put any shape to it. So how can you communicate it? Well we believe, if there’s no shape to culture at a particular organization, it’s because that organization hasn’t yet gone through the exercise of defining the core behaviours that both represent and drive their culture.

We’ve been told that one of the strengths of our firm is our ability to define and articulate the culture of our clients. I think the reason we’ve been successful at doing so is because we’ll define an organization’s culture in plain language that describes behaviour: if people in a company behave independently, we’ll say your organization exhibits the behaviour of independents. If it’s very co-dependent, and requires a lot of cooperation, we’ll use those terms and we’ll give examples to back it up. Once your organization has defined its culture the next step is to determine how that culture will take shape so that you can articulate it.

Talk from the Top

Articulating your culture may be a challenging process, but once you get it you need to communicate it – a lot. What’s really important though is that the leaders lead the charge. If they can do it well, and if it can be done through an employee brand – or a consumer brand if you have one – it will really help to reinforce your culture.

This can take the form of mantras, credos, rallying cries – whatever you want to call it. Sometimes the mission of the organization can represent the culture (and sometimes not), but these things all help. The key is this: when you really have the ability to communicate your culture in everything you do, and when that communication comes from the top of your organization, it becomes pervasive – and people start to truly understand what defines it.

Keep it Simple

Great organizations communicate culture well, because they keep the message simple. For instance, Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts have a guiding principle of “The Golden Rule” –do unto others as you would have done unto you. The beauty of The Golden Rule is its simplicity – easy to communicate, easy to understand and easy to use as a guide for behaviour. Employees can always ask themselves, am I following The Golden Rule? Am I treating people the way I would wish to be treated?

The Golden Rule started at the Four Seasons because they wanted to reinforce the notion that a customer focus could not survive independent of an employee – the two had to work in tandem. In fact, for them, employees attitudes were mostly going to be driven by management’s attitudes and therefore the rule helped them ensure that cycle of caring and giving flowed down the waterfall from management to the employee and out to the guest. It was as simple as that.

Repeat Yourself       

What’s also key in communicating your culture? Repetition. Meaning, find as many opportunities as you can to reinforce your message.

Let’s look at Coastal Contacts, based in Vancouver. Coastal is one of the fastest growing online retailers of contact lenses and eyeglasses. At Coastal, they really do have a culture of low ego. But more importantly, their culture is built on accessibility to the people who work there.

Because they’re an online retailer – customers don’t always get to meet the person handling their order. As an organization, Coastal has had to figure out how they’re going to communicate their culture and their brand – how are they going to show their customers who they are and what they do. It’s something they have to do constantly, and often social media is heavily involved in the process.

For instance, the company has dozens of videos posted on YouTube, featuring everything from a fun lip dub involving hundreds of their employees in all aspects of the business– to more information-driven videos, where Coastal’s own people show off the latest frames, or talk about how to order online.

The point is this: Coastal is constantly communicating their culture, showing who they are, what they do and how they behave: it’s fun, it’s exciting, but at the same time these communication tactics show the world what they do and give people – customers – access to the organization.  And why have they been successful? Because people have an expectation of what they’re about; their brand is about exceptional customer service for a low price. That’s their culture, and it’s communicated over and over in a consistent way.

Build Links

Another great way to communicate your culture and to make it stick is to draw a link to the history of the company. A recent example is “The Schlegel Organizational Culture”, an eight-page document which outlines the vision, family history, shared cultural values and expected behaviours of Schlegel Villages, 16 continuum of care campuses owned and managed by the Schlegel family of Kitchener, Ontario. 

The document talks about how the Schlegels, through company founder Dr. Ronald Schlegel, have been involved in seniors’ care since 1953 and demonstrates their very personal and unique perspective on long term care and retirement living. It weaves this historical information into the modern day, and talks about the continuing role of the Schlegel family in the organization, how the business has grown and more importantly – how the Schlegel’s define the organization’s culture.

Very few organizations create this type of ‘Our Company’s Culture’ or ‘Our Way’ document, but more should.  It’s one of the best recent tools I’ve seen and if you’re an organization that sees culture as an asset I would recommend creating a similar document.

Make it Measurable

Finally, organizations will have better luck communicating their culture when what they are communicating is something that’s measurable. Often organizations are desperate to communicate their values. But values aren’t necessarily how people act, and trying to measure against or talk about values the same way you do for behaviours is not easy. For instance, if integrity is one of your core values at your organization, how do you measure it? If someone has stolen or lied, it’s perhaps do-able, but otherwise it’s hard to measure integrity on a day-to-day basis. Conversely, look at the Four Seasons’ The Golden Rule.  Isn’t it much easier to measure how your employees are caring, or how they’re treating others? The Golden Rule defines an organization’s culture, because it’s easy to communicate and offers measurable behaviours.

One of my early bosses at Johnson and Johnson was Gary Hough. Hough was a wonderful leader and I believe no one understood culture like Hough. He was a communicator, a great story teller, and he knew how to bring a team together through shared values, great parties and wonderful mentorship. During one of our many discussions, Hough passed along a great piece of advice: anything important needs to be discussed, openly and honestly – whether it’s a relationship, an asset or a goal. Culture is something that must be communicated in that way. If culture is to be developed, honed and valued it needs to be talked about often, it needs to be challenged and it needs to be lived in the organization – starting at the top.

You can read more in my book, Culture Connection, where I go deeper into the topic of creating the culture conversation for your organization.

About Marty Parker

Marty Parker is chief executive officer of Waterstone Human Capital, and considered the country’s leading expert on human capital. He is a frequent commentator on issues surrounding corporate leadership and organizational culture and author of Culture Connection: How developing a winning culture will give your organization a competitive advantage”

In 2005, he founded Canada’s 10 Most Admired Corporate Cultures™, an annual program that recognizes best-in-class Canadian organizations for having a culture that has helped them enhance performance and sustain a competitive advantage. In 2014, the program expanded to include Canada’s Most Admired CEO™.