In her 35 years of working within the human resource space, Libby Sartain has observed a healthy amount
of corporate-culture failures.
She’s also been at the vanguard of major culture-change success stories, as Sartain gained career
notoriety by serving as CHRO of Southwest Airlines
and Yahoo! Inc.—and helping to get their corporate-culture and employee-experience houses in order.
So when it comes to creating positive, sustainable
culture change, Sartain knows exactly why it needs
to happen and how to reach that critical summit. And
that goes for large corporations, small- to medium-sized employers or even start-ups. Size doesn’t matter
here. If you want to attract and retain the best talent,
Sartain says, it will take a culture and employee
experience—a company brand—that draws people to
your door with scant desire to leave once inside.
“Few organizations can authentically claim they
Of course, she quickly adds, it’s not as simple as doing what the next
have created a sustainable winning culture,” says Sartain, who is currently
an independent advisor working with companies on strategic HR issues,
as well as an author, board member and volunteer. “There is strong
academic research that shows how employers with strong cultures
outperform their competitors.”
Sartain points to research from John Kotter and James Heskett, who
found that organizations with cultures focused on customers, employees
and shareholders increased revenue by an average of 682 percent during
an 11-year period versus those without such a cultural focus.
guy is doing.
“A competitor can duplicate almost any differentiator but culture
may be the only thing that cannot be copied,” Sartain says. “When an
organization consistently builds and reinforces such a culture, it creates a
competitive edge that’s very hard to replicate.” She adds that one of the
top agenda items for corporate leadership teams—especially the CHRO
and CEO—is to drive transformation of the company culture to achieve
better results and increased innovation.
On the flip side, when a company collapses or gets media attention
for unabated bad behavior, culture usually is the first word to make it into
the headlines. Sartain warns that creating a great employee experience—
and with it a culture that drives across-the-board success—is no simple
matter. But most of all, it requires that any effort goes well beyond the
typical HR approach. It requires, she explains, dogged dedication and
“functional and emotional” overhauls.
“Even when done for all the right reasons by well-meaning teams, most
culture-change initiatives fail,” Sartain says, adding that the problem with
a “culture initiative” inside an organization is that it implies intense project
work for a finite period of time and with a small team of leaders working
with the CEO to bring about needed change.
“No workshop, team-building exercise, rewards program or the best of
corporate communications can effect sustainable change,” she says. “The
change has to become a way of life, self-replicating, to be sustainable. It is
hard and takes dedication.”
Sartain explains that cultural alignment and an improved employee
experience happen when everyone shares a set of core values and
is aligned around a common cause. In her experience, there are key
elements to drive this alignment, including, among other components:
In Sartain’s view, the employer brand is a way
to make culture come alive. It gives an employer
a consistent voice and authenticity about its
relationship with its workforce, whether that is a
workforce of 10 or 10,000.
“Done well, it can be the most powerful tool
a business can employ to create an emotional
connection with workers that engages hearts and
minds,” she says. Sartain adds that the brand must
be applied consistently across the entire employee
life cycle—from the time a prospective candidate
becomes aware of an organization as a place to work
to his or her departure from the organization.
When it comes to hiring for cultural fit, everyone’s
values matter, she says, noting that one person’s behavior can affect
customers and workers.
“Ultimately, culture is personal,” she says. “Each employee must
“It is also the element that picks up traction the fastest,” she says.
feel, act and believe that he or she is part of the culture and has an
opportunity to have an impact on it daily.”
Hiring people whose values match company values should be one
of the top competencies of an organization committed to a high-
performance culture, according to Sartain. With that, implementing
stringent hiring practices is the most important step in the process.
“A consistent process must be used to deliver the right kind of people
“And if you make a mistake with a leader or manager, get rid of those
throughout the entire organization. If every hiring manager is hiring using
his or her values system as the lens, culture will never be aligned.”
Finally—and this is where the CEO and CHRO can make a real
difference—leaders must understand that they cannot solely create this
new corporate culture. Managers have a critical role to play, too.
Of course, Sartain says, leaders are strong influencers through their
day-to-day behavior, but employees must also hear and observe from
their managers how the company will support them. Both leaders and
managers also must be able to clearly articulate the employee-value
proposition for workers who question, “What’s in it for me to work here?”
Most of all, however, the two must share the desired values, a goal that
can be supported by value-driven leadership-development programs.
who are unable to work in concert with the company values,” she says.
“One or two visible exits will show the organization is serious about
making culture a way of life.”
While metrics such as Employee Net Promoter Scores (“Would you
recommend a friend work at this company?”) and engagement measures
are required in gauging culture transformation, Sartain says, perhaps the
strongest measure of an aligned, self-replicating culture is whether or not
any employee or candidate can tell you what the company stands for. For
instance, do employees understand the business strategy and how their
work contributes to company performance?
“Today’s workers look for employers—again, size isn’t an issue—in
which they can believe and proudly tell others about,” Sartain says. “A
job should be LinkedIn- or Facebook-worthy. When people have a true
understanding of their impact on the company strategy, they are more
engaged and productive.”
Driving a successful culture change and making the employee experience a talent magnet
are possible, but only by adhering to dedication that goes beyond typical HR efforts.
BY TOM STARNER
Libby Sartain, independent HR advisor
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