BY MELISSA JEZIOR, PRESIDENT AND CEO, EAGLE HILL CONSULTING

Ushering in a new decade offers an opportunity for leaders to reflect. What has gone exceedingly well in your organization or within your team? What have been the missteps, both big and small?  What are your goals for the next ten years and how will you drive performance to get there?

There are infinite areas to focus on to achieve those long-term goals. Perhaps it’s finding new markets or launching new products or services. Or maybe it’s concentrating on raising capital, using new sales strategies, deploying innovative technologies, or strengthening customer service.

But, I would wager a guess that you’ve left the most important driver of performance off your list – leading your culture.

Why? Culture is at the core of what steers business results – for better or for worse. Culture is how work gets done. And when your culture is clearly defined, understood by the workforce, measured and managed, the end result is peak employee and organizational performance.

Alternatively, a toxic culture can decay or even destroy a team, organization or company.

This past year, we saw far too many examples of culture gone wrong.

Two of the most obvious examples are Pacific Gas & Electric and Boeing. The problems with the corporate culture at both companies have been widely documented, and those culture issues led to tragic decisions and errors that resulted in lost lives. Shareholders and employees also have felt the impacts of an unhealthy culture. PG&E’s $13.5 billion bankruptcy plan has been rejected in part because of “failed efforts to improve its safety culture.” Meanwhile, Boeing just ousted its CEO and has indefinitely halted production of its 737 MAX as more than 700 of the company’s aircraft are grounded worldwide, including nearly 400 built since the grounding.

And just a few weeks ago, travel darling Away saw its CEO step down after a damaging story on its workplace culture and treatment of employees. At Nike, employees organized a protest last month over concerns about the treatment of women at the company’s Oregon headquarters. Meanwhile, Amazon continues to face scrutiny about its work environment, and questions remain about Facebook and Twitter’s culture that puts protection of customer data at risk, while details continue to emerge about the culture at NBC.

The common thread among all of these examples – culture can have a profoundly negative impact on financial performance, morale and the brand.

Take Culture Off Auto-Pilot

On the upside, leaders are growing to understand that their culture drives business performance. It is becoming clear to executives that culture must reside in the hearts and minds of its entire workforce and play out in their daily decisions, conversations and prioritizations. The emerging view is that organizations must pursue a reality where every employee is accountable for culture and that culture must be the common thread that weaves this throughout every individual.

The problem, however, is that most companies aren’t prioritizing and strategically managing their culture. This is because leaders often see culture as a vague, nebulous and confusing concept, and they struggle to build an infrastructure that drives a strong culture. As a result, culture is left on auto-pilot.

Recently, we commissioned research to understand at a deeper level how culture functions within an organization. In a survey of C-Suite executives, we learned most executives agree that organizational culture impacts financial performance.

But, we also learned that less than half (48 percent) say they monitor culture to mitigate risk. Moreover, only 59 percent told us they are holding leadership accountable for creating strong cultures, and only 46 percent say that they hold employees accountable for their organization’s culture.

Other important findings:

75 percent of executives in the survey said that culture is one of the top reasons employees joined the organization.
Only 60 percent say that their organizational policies and procedures are aligned to the culture.
Just more than half (56 percent) agree that their organization clearly articulates the key attributes of its culture.
Two out of three executives surveyed cited improving culture as a top strategic priority.

The bottom line of the research: Culture really, really matters – but all too often leaders aren’t plotting a clear course.

There are ways to provide clarity around culture and hold employees at all levels accountable for living and driving culture. And organizations that are deliberate about piloting their culture will have a competitive advantage because culture aligns a workforce to achieve results.

As you map out your vision for 2020 and beyond, here are three steps to make culture a priority:

Realistically assess your culture. Is it clearly defined? Is it aligned with your business goals? What do your employees, customers and other stakeholders think about your culture? Is it driving or harming performance?
Educate your workforce. Once you have a clearly defined culture aligned with your business goals, does your workforce know what it is and your expectations for aligning with the culture? If you want culture to drive employee behavior, they have to know it, know what matters, and act in accordance with culture. It’s got to be more than just words and platitudes.
Hold leaders and employees accountable. Develop specific culture metrics for leaders and rank and file workers. Then, measure performance on a regular basis. Reward and elevate those employees who deliver on culture, and take corrective actions for those who aren’t.

One of my goals for 2019 was to take a little bit of the mystery out of culture and make it a more understandable and manageable concept for leaders. To that end, we launched a podcast, cultur(ED), featuring conversations with leaders who have figured out how to make their culture a super power.

One of the most memorable quotes from the podcast came from two-time Olympic gold medalist and FIFA Women’s World Cup champion Abby Wambach:

“Culture is everything because culture sets mindset, right? And mindset has everything to do with winning and losing.”

Cheers to you and 2020 — and wishing you success in building a resilient and winning culture.