Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: Coronavirus: Business and technology in a pandemic

The importance of business culture in a time of crisis

Businesses in today's pandemic and quarantine environment have a choice. Adopt a culture of business agility to move your business forward in this new environment or fall further behind.

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Peter Drucker famously said that culture eats strategy for lunch. I believe a healthy culture would invite strategy to lunch, engage with intent to learn and grow during lunch, and then pick up the tab. In a hyper-connected, knowledge-sharing economy, your company culture is your brand. And the collective behavior -- collective thoughts, words, and actions -- of your employees will reveal your culture, core values, and guiding principles. A simple definition of culture that I used to convey to management was this: culture is what happens when the managers leave the room. Do employees make the right decisions, that benefit all stakeholders, at the right time, for the right reason, even in the absence of authority? If the answer is yes, then you have a healthy culture of trust, empowerment, and care. The benefits of a healthy culture are magnified during difficult times.

"Bad companies are destroyed by crisis, good companies survive them, great companies are improved by them."  -- Andy Grove 

Throughout my career, I've worked with some extraordinary business leaders who helped turn unhealthy companies into growing and profitable businesses by transforming their culture. To better understand the importance of strong company culture and its benefits during a crisis, I connected with one such senior executive who I consider to be a business culture transformational expert.

Brad Martin is executive vice president of operations at ATN International. Martin previously served as chief operating officer for Senet Inc., a leading "low power wide area" network (LPWAN) operator and global service provider. Martin also served as senior vice president and chief quality officer with Extreme Networks, a global leader in software-driven networking solutions for Enterprise and Service Provider customers. Martin and I co-authored the book The Pursuit of Social Business Excellence when he served as vice president of engineering operations and quality with Siemens Enterprise Communications and Enterasys Networks. 

We wrote the book because our company was named the fourth best place to work in Boston out of more than 1,600 companies, we were growing revenue and headcount, and we had built a strong company culture that we were both very proud of. Martin is one of the smartest, hardest working and caring senior executive that I have ever had the privilege of working with. I have learned many lessons about how to lead an organization, how to adopt a growth mindset, and how to place stakeholder success and trust as key core values from Martin.

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Brad Martin, executive vice president of business operations at ATN International.

Martin is an award-winning cultural transformation and growth expert practitioner and thought leader. I asked Martin to share his thoughts about the importance of business culture during a crisis. Here's what Martin had to say: 

Speed is the most important currency

Businesses in today's pandemic and quarantine environment have a choice. Adopt a culture of business agility to move your business forward in this new environment, or fall further behind. High-performance companies have already done this. They will thrive in this environment, and leave the crisis in a better competitive position then they were going into it. What does "culture of business agility" mean in today's business environment? If you can sum up in one word, it is "digitization." 

Of course, having a digitally enabled business has many different contexts. A digitally enabled culture is underpinned by technology, a culture of adoption and management styles that encourage and reward communication, transparency, collaboration, respect, accountability, and fun. Reading about high-performance companies and their culture is important but what matters most is the relevant application of these cultural traits, and how the value of these traits is truly magnified in a crisis.

Framing your purpose based on stakeholder needs 

There are four questions to ask as you manage a business during a crisis (or anytime for that matter):

  1. What are your customer's needs?
  2. What are your employee's needs?
  3. What are your stakeholder's needs? 
  4. What are your community or societal needs?

One area where all four of these pillars intersects is business digitization. Digitization helps your business be easier to interact with, whether that is purchasing product, provisioning service, paying bills or servicing and supporting your customers and partners.

Digitization helps your employees by making business processes simpler, faster and more accurate. It also helps your employees collaborate, communicate and to drive accountability cross-functionally. Digitization helps your stakeholders in ensuring that the business is optimized for speed, profitability, and agility for future growth. Digitization helps the societies in which your business operates by simplifying daily work life, simplifying service delivery, making governments for efficient, driving social messaging and awareness in a time of need.

How to build a purposeful culture of clarity and care 

There are thousands of tools and techniques to drive a digital strategy. All of which can make a major difference in your business. These tools and techniques will all fall short of expectations if the culture in your business is not appropriately defined, documented, taught, modeled, and supported each day. To define your culture is step one. Without definition, your culture will evolve to the lowest common denominator. This is no way to run a high-performance business with intent. In defining your culture there are many "words" that a company can use to capture the essence of your business and it's aspirations.  

In Martin's experience, it is very beneficial to start with the following three elements:

1. A cultural theme needs to reflect the "why?" - Business leaders need to make a conscious decision to shift away from talking about "what we do" and "how we do" it, to instead talking about "what we believe in."  

"People don't buy what you do; people buy why you do it." -- @SimonSinek

Your business cultural theme must reflect your "why." This will encourage and inspire employees, customers, stakeholders, and community members to support, and patronize your business for delivering optimized outcomes in a time of crisis or in time of business growth and prosperity.

Our Belief and our "Why": "Driving customer success through service excellence"

2. The definition of the word "culture" - There are many definitions of the word culture. It'd definition is important so that people understand its meaning and importance to human behavior.

The definition we have used: Culture: A shared, learned system of values and beliefs that shapes and influences perception and behavior.

3. Your summary cultural attributes for your business - The list of cultural attributes (or core values) needs to be simple, short, relatable and fundamentally supportive of your "why" or cultural theme. For our business, we chose six cultural attributes or traits: Communication, collaboration, accountability, transparency, respect, and fun.

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A consistent definition of culture, and core values, is key to building alignment and commitment throughout your business. 

ATN International Culture Card

Consistent definitions and cultural attributes key to understanding and alignment 

These three steps help to set the table with the basics for cultural definitions. But we are all people with individual behaviors, and sometimes our behaviors are not perfect. It is crucially important to recognize that companies are made up of imperfect people. We all have good days and bad days at work, at home and in life in general. A very powerful addition to your cultural definition is to provide contrasting traits or behaviors that support and behaviors that do not support your culture. This simple aspect of behavioral definition and recognition helps to empower your employees and colleagues with three core beliefs:

  1. Cultures are defined by behaviors
  2. We are all imperfect people who exhibit both good and bad behaviors
  3. The "right" behaviors will be supported and celebrated by colleagues and management

The power of contrasting behavior definition provides each one of your employees a map and guide to how they can not only support the culture definition of your business but also to recognize and reward behaviors of their colleagues, employees, and management.

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A healthy culture defines comparison behaviors -- positive and negative. 

ATN International Culture Card

Co-creating value at the speed of need requires distributed connections 

In a time of crisis, these cultural definitions will ensure that your teams and colleagues are aligned, organized and working with the intent to deliver value to the business. In normal circumstances, companies have field offices, headquarters, and stores that define groups and behaviors due to proximity. In today's work environment, physical proximity to your co-workers is not an option. You must embrace digital proximity, and empower this digital proximity with the best business culture to support your customers, employees, stakeholders, and community.

At ATN International, we deliver services in very different environments across multiple countries, cultures, social, and geographical demographics, and economic maturity models. What common behaviors of customers do we see across markets?  Stakeholders want great service, supportive business models of mobile and remote individuals, "ease of engagement and connection to their communities. As a business in a community, it is crucial to support all of these common needs and wants. Your business culture can help enable your customers, but it typically does not happen by accident. You must be intentional with your culture in its definition, its support and its recognition. These actions will enable your business for optimized agility. Optimized agility will allow businesses to exit this epidemic more competitive, and well-positioned to grow market share and to grow employee and customer satisfaction.

This article was co-authored by Brad Martin, Executive Vice President Of Business Operations at ATN International.