MANAGEMENT & ECONOMICS: PART II: Industry corporate culture's role in attracting and holding people

Relating culture to the bottom line

Sep 1st, 2001

PART II: This is the second in a three-part series dealing with attracting and holding onto quality employees. Part III, in a subsequent issue, will focus on questions oil industry executives must resolve to attract quality employees.

Do you know what the culture of your company is? How do you know? Off-shore enterprises are operating comp-anies. Managers in this industry are by nature primarily concerned with doing things, and making things run smoothly and profitably. If they give any thought to corporate culture at all, it is usually influenced by opinions forged from management meeting conver-sations or casual observations during MBWA (management by walking around).

There is a very real likelihood that management's view of a company's culture is markedly different than the way employees see it. Upper level executives tend to see their companies in a more positive light than do line level employees - understandably. The view from the top may be very different from the way it looks down in the yard, on the deck of boat, mobile drilling rig, or platform.

Employees at lower levels are much closer to the day-to-day realities. They see the company from its underbelly, and what they see isn't always as pretty as top management's view. As a result, their attitude toward the company, jobs, and customers can suffer, along with corporate culture.

If you really want to know what's on your employees' minds, ask them. Conduct systematic research to find out what they're thinking and feeling. Systematic measurement means repetition over time. A single market research event provides a snapshot of attitudes and perceptions, but by repeating research at intervals of six months or a year over a period of several years, the data begins to reveal trends and patterns.

Conducting ongoing research is especially important with regard to building a culture of loyal employees because the results don't necessarily show up in one quarter. Research gives management a foundation of fact-based knowledge for decision makers to build a strong corporate culture. It provides hard numbers that can be correlated to bottom-line performance. Research transforms corporate culture management from a black art into a scientific profit strategy.

A well-designed survey instrument can be a one-time investment, used over and over. The questionnaire can be self-administered, and ongoing costs are limited to tabulation and trends analysis. By analyzing the research over time, management can see what parts of a corporate culture development initiative are resonating with the employees, and which ones aren't. Scientific data measures not only the direction at the moment, but the speed, range of variance, rate of change, and probable future direction and speed.

While cultures differ widely in the offshore industry, they're more alike than most people think. Employees throughout the industry share common concerns. If concerns are addressed effectively, employees will bond to companies. Four root concerns appear to plague all corporate cultures to some degree, greater in some than others. They're rooted in basic human nature and can be big obstacles to developing a strong unified culture, unless something is done to improve them.

Poor communication

The single greatest weakness in virtually every corporate culture the authors have studied is that employees feel they don't know what's going on most of the time. It's significant that most employees say they rely on the company grapevine to get the real scoop. The most common form of "communication" in most companies is the memo. It's also probably the worst way to transmit information. Managers tend to feel they have "communicated" because they mentioned something once in Line 4 of Paragraph 6 on Page 3 of a memo last month.

There are two problems with this: First, you can't assume that everybody even reads a memo all the way through (or at all). Second, people are inundated with bits of information in today's world, so much so that little of it actually registers in their memories. There's too much competition. The first step to improving connections is to recognize that communication only happens when an idea actually completes the journey from your mind to an employee's mind. A memo is only a delivery device. It doesn't become communication until the employee absorbs and grasps the meaning.

Be creative in the way information is delivered. Try unexpected and surprising ways to communicate. Hang posters in high-traffic employee areas. Make message frames for bathroom mirrors. Make company newsletters strategic and useful, instead of boring outdated puff that nobody reads. Use technology, where available - e-mail, satellite links, videocassettes, and the like.

Repeat yourself - tell them what you're going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them. For a message to stick, it must be repeated with enough frequency to make an impression that will last. Once is never enough.

Be open - hush-hush secrecy tells employees they can't be trusted. It also divides the "Ins" from the "Outs," splitting the culture. When employees are taken into confidence, you make them partners in your vision, allies in your purpose.

Communication should be a two-way channel. Talk with employees, not at them. You can't learn anything about the culture with your mouth open and your ears closed.

Middle management training

Next to poor communication, the lack of people management skills among supervisors is the largest contributor to cultural dysfunction. In many companies, middle managers typically get promoted from the rank and file because they have been there longest or have the best functional skills. Neither are qualifications by themselves to be a good manager. Consequently, people become foremen or supervisors who have neither the temperament nor the training for coping with the challenges of leadership. The fault lies with top management.

Examine criteria for selecting managers. Make sure you're picking the people who can lead. Make sure they have adequate training for the job. You can't expect someone who was a whiz with a wrench automatically to be a great foreman. More than likely, the person will simply behave with the same bad habits learned from previous supervisors.

As a group, middle managers are more often than not a barrier that blocks your vision from reaching the lower levels of your organization. Your best intentions can't get past the department heads to touch the rank and file if your middle managers are incompetent.

Lack of respect

The computer world's axiom "garbage in - garbage out" applies to how employees are treated. You get out of them what you put in. Respect flows from the very top and trickles down to the line level. Research scores on this issue are always proportional to rank - the lowest level employees feel the least respect. If there is little respect at the top, none gets to the bottom.

When employees feel they are treated with respect, they are more likely to treat each other and customers respectfully. Make it clear to employees that you value them and the job they do. Live up to your promises - don't con them. They know when you're insincere.

Look at your employees as individuals who each have something to contribute to your success. They aren't just components of the column called "Labor Expense." In truth, respect reduces labor expense. Employees who feel valued are more productive and stay on the job longer, cutting turnover costs.

Favoritism

Perhaps the most insidious of all cultural ills, favoritism breeds organizational incest, rewards "brown-nosers," and undermines quality. When you allow cliques to develop in a culture, you lose control of it. Cliques mean fragmentation into factions. Cultural unity is a threat to them. Promotions, raises, special favors, the best shifts, etc., should be awarded on merit, not on personal relationships. Rewards should be earned based on superior effort, not "who you know." A culture built on quality performance and dedication to the company owns a powerful advantage over a "good-ole-boy" establishment.

You may be inclined to dismiss these challenges, thinking they don't apply to your company. Think again. Not a single company we've studied - over a range of industries as diverse as marine service, oil and gas, industrial supply, gaming, hospitals and health, and entertainment - was exempt from these problems.

Authors

Rob Sanders is a principal of New Orleans-based Discovery Group, Ltd., a marketing company specializing in employee attitude and opinion research (Rob@discoverygroupltd.com). Ray Knight is a freelance business writer (www.knightwriter.com).

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