CMO Impact
Creating and Nurturing Employee Advocates

Corporate Culture: Ignore at your peril!

Jayne Chace
March 28, 2016

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How important is corporate culture in developing a brand that will impact employee and customer behavior? Very. 

Jayne Chace, CMO of Coriant, weighs in on some of the effects of a good and bad culture. She shares her experience from working for a start-up and what she went through when that start-up was acquired by a global company.

However fantastic your personal expertise may be, if your personal code isn’t in harmony with the vision and values of the people making the company management decisions, then each day will be a struggle.

Corporate culture isn’t easily defined, and its importance vis-à-vis financial success is vastly under-rated if not completely ignored. It isn’t just a set of rules or a list of business aspirations. It is integral to the brand, in that it is the soul of a company that attracts and retains the people who are spiritually aligned. In big companies, the culture serves as the framework for delineating the behaviour expected from its employees and by the customers. In small companies, the culture tends to be more fluid, emanating from the few top decision makers during the growth spurt until company size requires behaviour to be codified.

My first foray into business was a Boston technology start-up, offering project management software where I joined as employee number seven. While my main role was communications, I took on other jobs (as in any start-up) from finding software bugs to opening offices in Europe. In other words, it was a typical vibrant, entrepreneurial culture where the clock became merely a wall decoration, the office morphed into your primary residence and dress code was unspecified.

Three years later the company was acquired by a global company whose “bible” mandated that executives wore only navy, black or grey suits with white or pale blue shirts. The company assumed that all executives were male and “acceptable” conversation topics became, “should a wife be invited to attend a company event?”

As an ambitious female, the rigid hierarchical culture was anathema to my spontaneous style, so I joined Digital Equipment Corp (DEC), which was matrix managed and had only one rule: Do the right thing. Interestingly, both companies were very successful in their own right. Yet the corporate cultures were polar opposites. Even sales – the one area usually identical in every company – was different. DEC did not pay any commissions on the CEO/Founder’s belief that salespeople had families who depended on a steady income, and that everybody in the company was on the team that contributed to success.

Years later, when revenues slipped and shareholders demanded redundancies to cut costs, DEC CEO Ken Olsen refused to fire people just to meet short-term financial targets. So, they fired him…and then the exodus of top employees started.

Why? Because the corporate culture totally changed and the company spiralled into oblivion – except that the DEC spirit amazingly lives on in its former employee groups.

As a calculated risk taker who thinks (and often acts) outside the proverbial box, I personally thrived in the DEC meritocracy. Thereafter, I chose my companies with care and learned from a few mistakes, such as thinking that I – as a CMO leading by example – could transform a corporate culture by myself.

Corporate culture is up to the entire team at the top. This starts with the CEO, who sets the tone for what is acceptable corporate behaviour and lives the values that motivate employees to exceed expectations, to accept salary freezes when required, etc. Demanding economy flights for cost-cutting reasons and then allowing “favourite” managers to fly business class, or making redundancies while certain groups hold expensive internal dinner meetings or attend strategy sessions at lavish resorts, only elicits contempt for the hypocrisy that is rapidly fuelled via social media.

While some people have linear careers, I am not one of them. I intentionally select roles with big challenges – varying from launching companies, products or services, IPO or exit strategies, M&A integration, turnaround and change management. With this variety, I have come to appreciate the importance of corporate culture as a requisite component and critical success factor in building positive brand equity, corporate trust and loyalty – both internally and externally.

Most importantly, I’ve learned that nobody goes that extra mile unless they believe in the company.

As per the American cliché, leaders need to “walk the talk.” As recent business controversies have illustrated, it might be legal to generate profit in one country and book it in another, but the action isn’t consistent with a corporate brand value that promises to be transparent or do no evil.  When corporate messages run counter to the cultural expectation, the best talent walks out the door and the customers wonder if the company is really the right business partner.

This article originally appeared on LinkedIn Pulse.

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