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Five mortal blows to your culture

Sometimes you hear a message that you just have to share. That's the case for me after listening to CEO Sam Martin at the Association for Corporate Growth (ACG) Denver in early February. He warned that even the best cultures will die if we don't protect against the "five mortal blows."

Who better to explain culture issues than the CEO of the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company, known to most of us as A&P, a company that's been part of our collective cultural memory since 1859? Sam Martin, a fellow Coloradoan, was recently tapped to take this icon of American business out of Chapter 11. He plans to succeed by preserving the culture, as well as improving the financials.

Over the next five weeks I'll use Sam Martin's five mortal blows as a launchpad to explore how to keep your company culture alive and well. A culture where employees are engaged; morale is high; and values are understood and respected brings long life to your business.

Mortal blow #1: Making senior level transitions without ensuring that new leaders share your
company's values

You're interviewing a possible new senior team leader with all the right experience and expertise, and recommended highly by a trusted colleague. She impresses the rest of the team and references check out. She seems a perfect fit in every way, so you assume she shares your values-why bother to probe? You make her a generous offer; she accepts.

It may take only a few weeks before you regret your decision, realizing how easy it is for a single crack in leadership alignment to throw a poison stake into the soul of your company. Say, for example, everyone on your senior team-except your new team member-would answer "yes" to the following questions about honesty, one of your core company values:

• Are you honest with your employees and customers about suspected product defects?
• Do you avoid putting "spin" on your marketing messages?
• Is your open door always open--really?
• Do you ask your assistant to say you're "out" when you're actually in your office?

Your new senior leader has a different take on honesty, and she:

• Hides details about possible product defects and releases the products to the market
• Exaggerates your capabilities in marketing collateral to a point that you can't possibly live up to the promises
• Opens her door to employees for just an hour each morning and discourages interruptions at any other time of the day
• Frequently asks her assistant to make excuses for her

This doesn't necessarily make your new senior leader a bad person. After all, technology companies are famous for releasing their products early, defects and all, and letting the marketplace drive corrections. And many New York ad agencies spin tales that make millions for their corporate clients. But, in this case, your new team member doesn't define or value honesty in the same way the rest of your company does. And that is a critical difference that should have been flushed out early in the interview process.

Is your company that fragile?

The connections between leaders and their organizations are fragile and it takes very little to break them. Your company's sense of "we" begins with leadership. Leaders are intensely scrutinized by employees, and their attitudes and behaviors are copied throughout the organization. When the senior team is misaligned, who do employees-and customers-trust? What platform do employees use to make decisions? What's expected of them and who are they accountable to? It's important that your senior team is totally aligned around all of your values, whether they are related to honesty, quality, commitment, collaboration, integrity-or simply having fun at work. Otherwise, your employees won't know how to behave.

It takes just one leader modeling the "wrong" values to undermine not only your culture but your financial success. Study after study shows that companies with senior leadership teams that are in full alignment with their organization's mission, vision and values create cultures where employees can perform at their best and toward a common purpose. There is no better way to build a competitive advantage and differentiate your brand.

Avoiding the mortal blow

The first step in ensuring alignment is for everyone on your senior team to understand what the core values of your organization are and how they support your strategic objectives. You may share many values in various degrees, but what are the core values that uniquely define your real-not fantasy-organization? Make certain that the beliefs and behaviors of every senior team member support those values.

Based on this foundation, when you're promoting from within or recruiting outside your organization for new senior team members, probe, probe, probe for values alignment. Your probe should include one or more of the many effective assessment tools in the market, interview questions structured around values, plus values- and behavior-based questions of past employers and other references.

If there's one area of your culture that should be black and white, it's your core values, and your senior team's alignment with them.
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Kathleen Quinn Votaw

Kathleen Quinn Votaw serves on the Board of Directors for both the Association for Corporate Growth (ACG) Denver and Colorado Companies to Watch. She is also founder and CEO of TalenTrust, a Denver-based professional services firm that helps high growth companies solve the people puzzle.TalenTrust offers strategies to attract, retain and engage talented people. Reach Kathleen at kvotaw@talentrust.com or 303-838-3334.

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