Winning the Culture Wars

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How do you change your culture to create the one you want? How do you launch it, nurture it, and have it become the business accelerator that it can be?

As my firm’s champion of this kind of work since 2010, I can share lessons from our experience. First, know that it won’t happen overnight. To build the foundation of a winning culture (however you define it), you should think in terms of years, not months.

In addition, you’ll need to acquire buckets of buy-in and credibility from every quarter of your organization. You’ll need the chief executive to want this change and to view it as a critical piece of the business’s success. Equally important, you’ll need a sustained, focused effort among your team.



This is the playbook that has worked so well with our remote workforce of senior-level finance and accounting pros:

Get clarity. This first step is all about figuring out the vision and how you want the culture to turn out. But don’t think about the culture just yet — involve your CEO and a handful of other leaders in exploring their view of the company’s future and what you’ll need to get there. Then make the connection to the people and behaviors that will make it all possible. Here’s a thought experiment that can be part of this exercise: “In order to be this kind of successful business, we need our people to be like ….” When you fill in that blank, that’s the culture you want.

For RoseRyan, our mission is to provide top talent, savvy know-how and best practices to our clients. To do this, we believe that our people must have the freedom and flexibility to share their insights and knowledge, always bring their best ideas forward, and produce the best possible work for clients. This was our vision. It anchored everything we did to make our culture vibrant and it guides us today. You’ll need an anchor, too.

In our case, after the initial group brainstormed, we brought out the vision for refinement and review by the full management team. Then we got working on the details. We turned the vision into actionable words. We ultimately called them our values: to be trustworthy, to excel, to advocate, and be a great team player (or “TrEAT” for short).

Make it concrete. Whatever terminology you use, you need everyone to interpret it in the same way. For TrEAT, we created lots of everyday examples to show what each value meant to us and how it would play out in day-to-day dealings. Take the time to make your buzz words very concrete as actionable behaviors so that there’s no gray area.

Ease into it. Introducing the culture you want is a big step and takes some time. At RoseRyan, we socialized the concepts first. Another leader and I took out as many people as we could for casual, small-group lunch discussions. We talked about what we were doing and why. And then we introduced our four values and sat back to hear what they had to say. We got a lot of skepticism, so you might expect that as well. More importantly, it gave people time to digest the ideas.

Within a month or two of the lunches, we held half-day workshops where we got more formal with our questioning and dug deep to get feedback from everyone across the firm. We asked, “What sounds right about the values?” “What seems wrong?” and “What’s missing?” Attending one of the workshops was mandatory and we held a few of them at varying times because it was so critical to get as much input as possible.

After all the feedback was digested, we presented the fine-tuned program at a company meeting. We asked for volunteers to be part of a new team to help lead the effort. We had hoped for eight volunteers and I was thrilled when eight people raised their hands. This grassroots team meant everything to the success of the program. It still does.

Reinforce it. The culture has to be communicated constantly in order for it to take root. As we set out to remold our culture, our team sent out weekly e-mails with concrete examples of ways the values were playing out in real life. Likewise, at our management meetings, everyone had to bring a weekly example of a value being successfully lived by someone within our firm. This felt clunky at first, yet over time this part of the meeting became easy and eventually pretty fun. Later on, these “shout-outs” were sent out to the individual being recognized as rapid feedback, and now they are incorporated into the CEO’s internal communication as well.

Reward it. We went beyond pats on the back and still do. Fifty percent of RoseRyan’s merit salary increases are based on metrics related to our culture. And every year for the past five years, we have given the firm’s highest honor, the TrEAT Award, to the person who has best exemplified our values in their work. It’s a peer-to-peer honor based on nominations submitted throughout the year.



Once you build the culture, will everyone follow along? There’s an ongoing process ahead that’s doable with these tips:

  • Always hire with the culture in mind. Make sure you hire people who fit your culture. This becomes infinitely easier when it is defined and articulated. We specifically test for this in our interview process.
  • Expect to lose some people. In fact, plan on it. Although painful at the time, losing a strong contributor who isn’t aligned with what you’re creating will be a benefit over the long run. It’s a credibility factor for starters — letting everyone know that you’re serious about the culture.
  • Assign internal champions. We ask our team members on this ongoing initiative to give a one-year commitment, and we regularly add new people to the team to bring in fresh ideas.
  • Leaders must walk the talk. They set the example or the culture framework will fail the smell test. This means being highly visible in living out the cultural values.
  • Add accountability to the mix. Come up with appropriate metrics for measuring success, and let it be known what the expectations are. Don’t make exceptions for anyone or you’ll lose all credibility in a jiffy. Also, update your program’s goals on an annual basis so that they stay current.
  • Keep up the energy. Celebrate milestones and achievements along the way. Thank people who are helping to build and reinforce your culture.
  • Factor in the culture when you make big changes. Any new strategic initiatives the firm wants to put into play should consider how the culture could be affected. 

Having the culture you want is a business accelerator in every way. At RoseRyan, we are able to do so much more than we ever thought possible because of our culture. Our team works like a well-oiled machine, and together the sum of our whole is far, far greater than the parts. And our strong culture is attracting high-quality talent, which is huge in times like these when the war for talent is full-on.
Pat Voll is vice president of RoseRyan, a San Francisco-area firm. 

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