Creating a Company Culture: Advice of Organizational Expert Chester Elton

Your team is the foundation of building innovation into your business, so you need to be able to attract the best and the brightest, and more importantly retain them once they’re on board. That is of course easier said than done. The goal is to make sure that you have innovation built into your company’s DNA in every aspect of your business so that you can create a competitive edge and soar to success.

When you think about innovation, I think most of us think about new technologies or cool new products that are introduced in the market, but in order to remain relevant and stay competitive today, you need to be innovative in every aspect of your business.

I interviewed my friend Chester Elton who is a best selling business author and an expert on organizational culture, employee engagement, and leadership.  He is the co-author of many books including “All In”, “The Carrot Principle”, and “What Motivates Me” which is his latest.

SS: You’re focused on culture in the organization, but a lot of rapidly growing businesses don’t have time to really think these things through.  Is organizational culture really important at all stages of your business, and if so what are the advantages?

CE:  It really is. I think you’ve got to set aside what is your mission and vision and purpose, not just what we do, and how we do it, but why. Particularly with the millennial generation coming in. Their top motivators, and this is from our proprietary database of about 35,000 people that have taken our motivators assessment, are making an impact, learning, and families. So am I making an impact? Am I making a difference? Am I learning and growing and developing? Are you challenging me? Are you putting me in situations where I’ve got a good mentor, where I’ve got a chance to explore my talents and find my way, and then that work-life balance thing.

SS:  How important is the leader? What responsibility does a leader have in shaping the culture?

CE: The culture starts at the leader. Speaking about great leaders and how they put the message out, Golden Corral, the best buffet in the USA.  It’s a fascinating company to me because there have been so many different buffet ideas out there that have come and gone and yet here’s Golden Corral,   45 years and just rocking it.  I got to meet Lance Trenary. (President & Chief Executive Officer at Golden Corral Corporation) I was speaking at their leadership conference and I said “So what’s the difference,” and to your point he said, “we’re very purpose driven,”

So you say, “Well it’s just food.  Lay it out, lay it thick, and make it affordable.  But he says, “No, very purpose driven.”  They do a lot of stuff, for example, for military families and that really drives their service.  They do this thing called Camp Corral where they set up summer camps for military family’s kids.

So it’s really interesting, and it rallies their people around that noble cause.  They’ll send over 3,000 kids to camp this summer for free.  See, that’s the culture where you say yes, we provide great food at an affordable price, but we take that profit, we give it back to our communities, we make a difference, and they’re so proud of that that it drives the person that wants to make that difference join them.

SS:  I know you travel internationally a lot, and speak at a lot of events, do you see differences in the way this works when you go into different cultures internationally?

CE: I just got back from Kuwait and people say, “Do you have to change your message when you go to the Middle East or when you go to Asia, and so on, or even different industries” And I always say, “You know what they all have in common? People.”

Now is it nuanced? Sure it is. In certain countries, the way you interact or shake hands or kiss on both cheeks or don’t touch at all.  You understand that, but at our core we are humans and we have a need to be a part of something bigger then ourselves, to believe what we do matters and that we make a difference, and that when we make a difference somebody noticed it and said thank you.  So that core human element speaks to every language and every culture.

SS: How important is it for your mid-level employees and your line employees to really understand that culture and be a champion of it?

CE:  It’s critical.  I think the easy part is the framework.  Getting the right buzz words in. One of my favorite mission statements of all times was, “Legendary Food, Legendary Service,” Texas Roadhouse.  They brought in all these consultants and they said, “We’ve got to flush that one out,” and the CEO said, “I’ll tell you what.  You can change it as much as you want, but you’ve got to keep it to four words and two of those words have to be legendary.”

When you get down to the managerial and supervisory level, that’s where you have to execute, and so it has to be very clear. I love just the four-word approach.

Just to finish up is have you given your line managers the vision and then the tools to execute on that.  Like simple things like when you see that right behavior, did you reward it?  Did you talk about it in your team meetings? Is it a living, breathing mission vision or is it just something that they stuck up on the wall.

The Challenge:   Creating a company culture sounds simple, but it’s one of the most difficult challenges companies of all sizes face. What are you doing in your business?  Are you developing a strong company culture with a purpose.