Building Strong Corporate Culture

January 16, 2024 | By: Laurie Harper

Corporate culture defines your organization. Creating a strong corporate culture at your company isn’t just a one-off initiative that your Human Resources department takes on. Your company culture needs to be deeply linked to your company’s operation and greater purpose.

Your culture defines the “how” and “why” of your work. It’s the fabric that binds the collective values, behaviors, and attitudes of your employees. A well-defined and articulated culture can make the difference between a company that thrives and one that merely survives.

In my career, I’ve been called “Culture Queen” – not bad for a nickname. I could certainly think of a lot worse, and if my professional legacy falls under the title of “Culture Queen,” then I count that as a success. Building a strong and positive corporate culture is integral to the foundation of a company’s success. So how does a person or organization create a strong corporate culture?

Crafting an Inclusive and Empowering Culture

Designing your culture requires careful attention to what you are trying to achieve. A strong culture encourages individual growth both personally and professionally and promotes a sense of safety for employees to make mistakes and learn from them.

A good corporate culture can exemplify selfless service to customers, a thirst for innovation, accountability to stakeholders, and determination to drive forward.

Most importantly, it ensures enjoyment throughout your team’s journey at your company and ensures you focus on celebrating victories, big and small.

Personally, I focused on a culture that was inclusive, creative, challenging, and fun. But I did not do this in a silo. I met with my team, individually and in groups, to learn what was important to them, what motivated them, what brought them joy and a sense of accomplishment. That was the roadmap to designing a culture that was unique and personal to my team.

Since you are dealing with diverse individuals that have their own unique perspective, you will not have a consensus. As a leader you have to trust in your vision and be willing to stand by your convictions on the path forward, even if that means making the tough decision to remove managers that will not support you on the journey.

Once you have defined your culture, your guiding principles, you will need to meet with your leaders and get everyone on the same page about what your culture means for the company and for the individual. Make sure every leader knows that they are responsible for driving your company culture forward.

Communicating Your Corporate Culture

Once you have defined your culture, you need to communicate to your team, consistently and repetitively. Explain the “why?” So often, the culture is defined and simply becomes a list of values that hang on your breakroom wall. Maybe you see them listed on your company web site, but if you do not link those values to active behaviors, you fail.

From top-down, you need to live it, breathe it, and talk about it. This way, the culture permeates every aspect of your organization, from meetings and project work to customer service and after-work activities.

I believe the best way to communicate your culture—what you are striving for—is through story telling. Share the stories of the employees who exemplify your culture. Share why and how they made a difference. Celebrate them. Share this story with your customers, other employees, and new recruits.

The story, and the enthusiasm in which you share it, will catch on. Soon everyone on your team will be sharing the stories, and your culture. Your values will then become defined behaviors that occur daily.

Our team’s values are defined by the acronym SPADE – Selfless, Passionate, Accountable, Determined, Enjoyment.

I challenge anyone reading this article to ask one of my teammates what our values are, and I guarantee they can recite them, and more importantly share what these values mean to them.

While we have the cool neon SPADE sign in all of our offices, it is not the sign that ensures everyone knows our values, it is the stories associated with those values. Every quarter we have an All-Team Meeting and I mean “All Team.”

The meeting topics change, the venue changes, but the most important part of those meetings are our SPADE presentations. We ask our team to nominate their peers that demonstrated one of our core values. Reading those stories is an incredible experience. More than one tear has been shed I can promise you.

Through a difficult selection process, we select a winner for each category and share their story at the All-Team Meeting. The winner receives a spade (literally a shovel) that they sign and hold on to until the next All Team Meeting.

In addition, at the end of the year we have an Annual Celebration in which we select the individual who most defines the value throughout the year (an employee has to win during the year to be considered for the annual award).

The event is epic. Employees and their significant others are invited and together we celebrate them, their success, and our team.

Here’s an example of the write up for our 2022 Accountable winner Daniel Ruiz-Cruz.

“Our customers, no matter how challenging, are who we serve in commercial real estate. We also ensure assets are taken care of on behalf of Cousins as well as the community we work in. Being accountable to all can be difficult and being consistent can also be a challenge. This individual has consistently covered all ranges of responsibility from thorough completion of work orders with prompt communication, to volunteering in the community we serve.

In building emergencies, usually flooding of some sort, he is usually the first to respond and act until the team arrives. He can be a quick gopher for projects or take the lead on a project and delegate to his peers what needs to be done.

He does not shy from confrontational customers or circumstances and yet keeps his professionalism at a high level, exemplifying who we are and who we strive to be at Cousins. He is an upcoming star that has proven that if he says he is going to do it, he will.”

Stories can bring your culture to life. By sharing narratives about employees who embody your culture, who are making a difference and how they’re doing so, you’re giving tangible examples of what living your culture looks like. And when these stories are shared with enthusiasm and authenticity, they become infectious, inspiring more employees to embody the values your culture stands for.

The Role of Leadership in Culture Building

As leaders, you have the opportunity to define the culture in which you work. Why would you not spend the time and energy to ensure your culture is felt by every employee, every day? You could just hang those values on the wall, but I guarantee you won’t like the results.

Define your culture, focus on your culture, and share the stories, and you will have enduring success. Leaders are not only responsible for defining the culture, but also for embodying it in the workplace.

Every decision a leader makes, every action they take, sets a precedent for the rest of the organization. Leaders need to ‘walk the talk’ and demonstrate their commitment to the culture in everything they do.

I am extremely fortunate to have leaders that believe in our culture and guard that culture. They put an emphasis on how an individual will fit within our team, how they will add to our culture, more than they focus on the skills the person brings to the table.

My leaders know their teams, how to motivate them and they share their accomplishments with senior leadership. They take the time to truly know their employees and make the easy decisions to support them through good times and bad. Knowing when someone needs a happy hour, or a few days away to be with family, or a hug.

They care, they are authentic, and although they are the “boss” they make themselves vulnerable, are open about their challenges, share the lessons learned, they build trust and with trust, their teams will follow them to hell and back (or through the fire, flood, or any other emergency).

The Enduring Benefits of a Strong Foundation

A well-crafted and maintained corporate culture is a strategic advantage that can drive business performance, improve employee engagement, foster innovation, increase retention rates, attract top talent, and project a positive company image.

Our culture defines the “how” and the “why” of our work, and that culture is defined each and every day. Developing a strong and empowering corporate culture can help you retain your best employees through the difficult times we all face.

Commercial real estate is an industry with unique challenges and opportunities, and having leaders invested in empowering and growing your corporate culture will enable your company to thrive. Don’t just hang words on a wall, live them, breathe them, exemplify them daily.


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