MANPOWER SHORTAGE: PART I: Industry corporate culture's role in attracting and holding people

Defining, building positive culture

PART I: This is the first in a three-part series dealing with attracting and holding onto quality employees. This article deals with corporate cultures. Parts II and III will focus on how to relate a corporate culture to bottom line results and the questions oil industry executives must resolve to attract quality employees.

The energy crisis dominates offshore oil and gas industry discussions, but the "truly scarce resource" that executives should really be worried about is getting and keeping talented technical people. Luring and keeping good people takes more than money and benefits. Almost as important as these considerations in shaping an employee's decision about which company to join is the corporate culture. A desirable corporate culture acts as a powerful magnet to attract and holds tight the most valuable asset any company has - its people.

A study by Personnel Journal showed that executive job interviewees ask about the corporate culture almost as much as benefits (34% and 36%, respectively). Employees at all levels seem to have a powerful, unfulfilled need to belong to something they can be proud of and pour their best energies into. As the authors define it, "corporate culture" encompasses all the factors that determine how the people in a company think and act, as a group and as individuals. A corporate culture is the sum of a company's history, legends, myths, heroes, values, rituals, communications, collective experience, and business environment.

Advertising and marketing project what a company appears to be - its image. The corporate culture defines what a company is - its identity. It is spiritual (esprit de corps, not religion), experiential (firsthand involvement and the emotional impact of it), and philosophical (bonding with a whole that is greater than all its parts).

Every person in the organization, from roustabout to CEO, contributes to the flavor of a culture. The flavor depends on the type and strength of the seasonings that go into the broth.

Clearly defined culture

A company's corporate culture may be clear and unmistakable - though this is not automatically good if it happens to be a strong negative culture. Not uncommonly, corporate cultures are ambiguous and poorly defined. Ask 20 employees in a company what the culture is, and you'll likely get twenty different answers. Nobody seems to know for sure what it is, or if there even is one.

By contrast, there are a few offshore oil and gas companies that have well-defined, strong corporate cultures that exert positive influence on the behavior of their employees. In such companies, the employees know and believe in the vision of the company and are emotionally committed to fulfilling its mission.

But, so what? What has the corporate culture to do with profits and dividends for the stockholders? Broadly speaking, the link between the health of the corporate culture and a company's bottom line performance is poorly understood, if at all. In a future column, we will probe in detail the measurable dollars-and-cents connection. You may be shocked at the correlation.

Symptoms of problem

Cultural neurosis is common. Lack of communication, lack of trust, lack of respect, lack of understanding - these are but a few of the reported symptoms. The dilemma is how to diagnose the cause and, even larger, how to cure it.

In this three-part series, we'll address these concerns and spell out how to relate the state of a corporate culture to bottom line results. We'll examine the questions industry executives should and must resolve to attract top-quality employees:

  • What exactly is the culture of my company?
  • What effect is it having on my success or lack of it?
  • What can be done to manage our culture and make it as it should be?
  • What is the cost of controlling my company's culture, and how do I measure whether it's paying off?
  • What are the consequences if I do nothing about the culture of my company and let it take its own course?
  • What are my competitors doing about their cultures, and what impact will it have on me?

We will probe into the sensitive, often misunderstood issues of creating and maintaining a corporate culture that derives its energy from within, rather than being forced down by mandate from management. We will try to frame conceptual solutions in pragmatic terms that relate to bottom-line results, rather than warm and fuzzy promises.

Corporate culture development, far from being touchy-feely nonsense, demands hard-nosed and determined execution of a disciplined strategic plan based on these 10 building blocks:

  1. Vision: Look beyond this quarter's earnings to where and what the company ultimately wants to be in relation to its stakeholders and its environment. It's important to deliver favorable earnings reports every quarter, if possible, but the 90-day mentality that drives American business these days is shortsighted when it prevents management from seeing the value of long-term planning and development of a company's culture.
  2. Commitment: Beginning at the very top of the organization and flowing all the way to line-level hourly employees, instill a determination to provide superior performance for every customer every time - proven by action (walk the walk), not talk. More than once, we've seen top executives give lip service to the customer-comes-first litany, but fail to live up to it by their actions.
  3. Objectivity: Maintain and illustrate a clear view of the company, its vision, and its culture from an unbiased vantage point free of private agendas. Many companies continue to suffer from the "vision du jour syndrome." There's often a tendency to make the "vision" fit the expedient action of the moment - in other words, rationalization. In the long run, it amounts to having no real vision at all.
  4. Planning: Create a strategic blueprint to guide the construction of your corporate culture - a required process to maintain alignment with the vision over time. "If you don't know where you're going, you'll probably end up someplace else." We often quote that classic gem from the master of fractured logic, Yogi Berra. It crystallizes in a few words one of the most profound requirements of corporate culture development. There's no telling what kind of culture you'll wind up with unless you know what it's supposed to be when you start out building it.
  5. Discipline: Methodically implement and execute tactics to put the strategic plan into action, with built-in regular checkpoints to measure results, gauge progress, and make tactical adjustments. This is the boring part, but it's absolutely essential. Corporate culture building demands constant care. If it isn't tended every day to keep it blooming, it will wither or fall victim to the weeds of apathy.
  6. Buy-in: Develop understanding, internalization, and active support from all ranks of the organization, from hourly workers to the board of directors - with particular emphasis on middle management (the people responsible for tactical execution). No matter how powerful you think you are, you can't wish a corporate culture into being. It can only be done as a team, with everybody participating - and even more important, wanting to participate.
  7. Consistency: Maintain strategic integrity and apply the culture-building initiative evenly in all support materials, in all departments, in all strata of the company. In advertising, they call it "reach and frequency." Keep coming back with the same story.
  8. Continuity: Create systematic conceptual links that bind the initiative together over time, independent of personalities or level of resource support. It should be "the big idea" that is larger than any one individual, so it will live on its own when that person moves on (to another department with different responsibilities or to another company entirely).
  9. Patience: Maintain realistic expectations of cultural dynamics and appreciation for the time involved in shapimg a culture. Capt. Piccard of the starship Enterprise commanded, "Make it so." Offshore oil and gas executives sometimes try the same method for corporate culture, but it just doesn't happen that way. It takes time.
  10. Resources: Invest the time, money, and people required to make the culture happen, the amount of each being a function of how fast management wants to move. In the simplest terms, put your money where your mouth is.

These proven principles of corporate culture have been forged from universal truths derived from the authors' experiences with large corporations in the offshore industry, oil and gas, gaming, hospitals, entertainment, fast food restaurants, and other industries. The principles work because they are founded in the fundamentals of human nature.

Building a corporate culture involves a great deal more than ivory-tower declarations. It takes thought, planning, and action. The payoff is on the bottom line.

Authors

Rob Sanders is a principal of New Orleans-based Discovery Group Ltd., a marketing company specializing in employee attitude and opinion research. He can be reached at Rob@discoverygroupltd.com

Ray Knight is a freelance business writer.

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