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Turn Your Culture Into A Competitive Advantage


CEO at StoneAge | Keynote Speaker | Thought Leader | Leadership Blogger | Podcast Host | YPO Member

The new year is here, and if you’re like me, you’re ready to make 2022 your best year yet. Much of what will determine your success in the coming year will be your ability to attract, onboard and retain your talent. But workers across the globe are putting their collective foot down, telling leaders loud and clear that they want better working conditions, pay and work-life balance. And with 11 million unfilled jobs in the United States alone, it’s evident that companies aren’t creating careers that people want.

What are leaders to do? Make your culture a top priority and turn it into a competitive advantage.

When asked what our competitive advantage is, my answer is easy: “It’s our culture, hands down.” Because our employees are owners, they invest in our customers’ success, which creates an advantage few can compete with. It fills us with pride and gratitude when our customers come to visit us at our headquarters in Durango, Colorado, and say, “I’ve never seen such happy employees. They are all so proud of the work they do. Can I work here?” We build our culture on teamwork, self-leadership, transparent communication, experimentation and dedication to our mission: To inspire our customers and employees to say, “Why would I choose anyone but StoneAge?”

But what is culture exactly? Simply, it’s the organization’s set of norms, behaviors and expectations on thinking and acting. It’s how things are done within your company. While culture starts at the top, it’s the collection of behaviors, attitudes and attributes of all the individuals within your company. If your culture is toxic, it’s because people believe the only way to get ahead is to exhibit toxic behaviors.

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Define your culture.

First, it’s helpful to articulate your culture clearly. At StoneAge, we established the “own-it mindset,” which spells out our purpose for being and how we expect our employees to show up each day. It outlines our three core values and why they are important to us. We align our quarterly performance review process and employee success training with the own-it mindset. Everyone at StoneAge understands what it takes to succeed, and we constantly reinforce our values. It’s not just a poster on a wall; we live and breathe it.

Suppose you haven’t clearly defined your culture and aligned your decision-making processes, hiring practices, performance review methodology and incentive programs with it. In that case, you’re missing an opportunity to create a better culture and competitive advantage.

Let go of toxic people.

After you’ve defined your culture, the hard work begins. Executive leadership must care about creating a healthy culture, and if you have people on your leadership team who are ineffective or who bully to get their way, you’ll have to make some changes. You can’t turn a toxic culture into a competitive advantage if you have toxic people on your leadership team — or anywhere within the company.

Focus on managers.

Most people leave companies because they don’t like their boss and feel burned out at work. According to Gallup’s recent report, Employee Burnout: Causes and Cures, “76 percent of employees experience burnout on the job at least sometimes, and 28 percent say they are burned out ‘very often’ or ‘always’ at work.” Further, the top five factors of burnout are: unfair treatment at work, an unmanageable workload, unclear communication from their managers, lack of manager support and unreasonable time pressure.

Effective managers focus on their people first, not administrative tasks. They set clear expectations, give feedback and ensure their teammates have the tools required to do their jobs. Great managers show their employees they care by asking questions, listening deeply and taking action. As a leader, you must train your managers to do these things well.

Focus on onboarding.

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We put all new employees through a robust onboarding process. We also assign them a culture buddy — a person who helps a new employee understand and navigate our culture and organizational dynamics. Why does this matter? Data from the Wynhurst Group show that new hires who undergo a structured onboarding process are 58% more likely to stay with a company for more than three years. If you want your culture to be a competitive advantage, you’ve got to have employees who want to be part of advancing the mission for years to come.

Prioritize vision and alignment.

Finally, to create a competitive cultural advantage, there must be organizational alignment to the vision and strategy. A clear, well-articulated vision gives your employees direction and a larger purpose, as well as the inspiration to work hard and be disciplined. A vision allows you to set proper expectations for what you want your team to accomplish. While vision is the starting point, you must tie it to people’s day-to-day work. I once had an employee tell me, “Strategy is a management thing, and my team does the real work.” This sentiment is how most people feel about strategy, and it’s a problem. Every person on your team needs to understand the strategy and how their work ties to it. If they don’t think their work matters in executing the strategy, you aren’t creating an advantage.

Creating a winning culture takes time, and turning it into a competitive advantage takes intention. It’s easy to become overwhelmed with the hard work of cultivating a place where people love to work. My advice is to start small and keep going. Build a company that your employees and customers don’t want to go without. That’s a competitive advantage that’s hard to beat.


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