Keys to Creating a Successful Employee Culture

January 23, 2017

Keys to Creating a Successful Employee Culture

As senior HR executives, we continually face numerous challenges in our day-to-day tasks. One of the biggest—yet most rewarding—is fostering a highly successful employee culture in the workplace. While daunting on the surface, once properly executed and fully functioning with complete employee engagement and buy-in, this new culture becomes self-replicating and very much ingrained in an organization’s DNA.


What Do You Stand For?

One of the first steps senior HR executives must consider when working to create a successful company culture is how to ensure that the proposed culture aligns with the overall purpose and mission of the organization. Why are you in business? What are the company’s overall goals and objectives? What are the company’s core values? These questions, and responses, should weigh heavily in the overall decision-making process.


It is also imperative for HR executives to remember that external perception must align with and mirror the internal culture that you are working to create. The values you state are the values that the company and its employees must live by. Credibility and authenticity in what you say, why you exist, and what you do, has to be foundational to how the company operates. It’s imperative that what you are advertising—whether products, services, or employment opportunities—align with employee and leadership sentiment. You can’t merely say you’re a “caring company” and not back it up with action. “Walking the walk” is a must if it’s going to have any meaning to your external constituents (i.e., customers, potential employees) or within your own organizational structure.   

"To secure employee buy-in and engagement for organizational change, leaders must remember that this is not just an HR initiative. ... Success is dependent on a leadership team that embraces, supports, and drives the proposed changes through the organization."

The Valuable Role of HR

Fostering a new culture cannot be a top-down mandate from HR. Simply telling people, “This is the culture we want,” will not suffice. It takes complete employee buy-in, alignment, and involvement at all levels.


When you think about any kind of culture initiative, it is imperative to take a holistic look at the firm, including what your reward system is, what your physical environment is, and what your norms, policies, and practices are. You have to look at everything and ask, “Is this initiative going to align with our culture?” HR executives need to look across the organization and align communications to drive key messages that support the programs and initiatives the organization wants to support and then communicate them to its employees.


Before and After

Another effective element of successful change facilitation is pre- and post-program assessment to gauge program effectiveness. Before program rollouts, it is important to ask such things as, “what are the things we need to change to align with the messaging the company wants to communicate?” After the rollout, it is equally important to look back at what you could have done differently. Was the program aligned with company goals and values? Are there other things to consider with the next iteration of this program? Never rest on your laurels. There is always some kind of change, enhancement, additional focus, etc. that needs to be addressed every time you deploy something especially if it’s a repeatable, or cyclical, process. It is essential as well to keep this in mind as you embark on the various initiatives involved in creating a successful employee culture.


Preparing for and Managing through Change

Employee training and education are an important part of change; however, only a very small slice of the pie when you’re trying to make any type of organizational or cultural change. Training alone is not the key to any change you want to drive. In fact, it’s a very small part of it. Effective, transparent communication and the ability to understand behavior are the most critical focuses for HR executives during the change process.    


Understanding the principles of change and how to manage change throughout an organization is key, especially when change has become a constant. In the insurance industry, for example, we are always thinking about “how do we remain relevant as an organization with advancements like smart cars, smart homes and self-driving cars?” HR executives need to think about what’s next for their organization and how to get the organization ready for change. If you’re not already steeped in change management, you’re behind.


Enlisting Support at All Levels

To secure employee buy-in and engagement for organizational change, leaders must remember that this is not just an HR initiative. HR executives are the authors of change initiatives, but they don’t necessarily own them. Success is dependent on a leadership team that embraces, supports, and drives the proposed changes through the organization. HR creates the tools and processes, but management has to drive those changes.


With any big change, it’s best to start with the executive leadership team and make the business case for change, gaining their critical backing. For example, at CSAA Insurance Group, we have a couple of advisory committees that provide feedback on proposed strategies, programs, or approaches. We then work closely with these advisory committees to understand issues that are unique to the groups they represent and need to be considered from a deployment perspective.  


Facilitating change by bringing along your champions and empowering them as ambassadors for change on your behalf is key to success. It comes down to how good of a job you’ve done guiding and advocating within your organization—from idea to strategy and development to deployment.  


Overcoming Hurdles

There are only a certain number of key messages or initiatives you can give employees to try and drive change. You can’t thrust a bunch of different initiatives through an organization and expect all of them to be successful. The biggest challenge is the pace of change. Employees want to be aligned and want to do the right thing for their organization, but you risk confusing or disengaging them if there are too many organizational change priorities in play at one time. HR executives need to encourage a measured pace for change among all internal constituents while closely monitoring progress and feedback along the way. And whatever the change mandate, it is critical for leadership to be role models for the rest of the organization.


Measuring Up

So how do you know when you’ve created a successful employee culture in the workplace? When you see employees “owning it,” rather than being pushed by the organization, you know that success has begun to take root as part of the overall workplace culture. For instance, at CSAA Insurance Group, volunteerism is a major component of who we are and what we do, and it’s reflected by a 98 percent employee participation rate. We have a number of groups and employees that have coordinated their own volunteerism programs. They may work with our own centralized volunteerism group but they may also have a passion about a particular philanthropic endeavor and rally other employees around the same. When you see this happening organically, it’s a sign that a new culture of success is starting to take place and become part of the firm’s cultural DNA.    


HR executives typically will see a transformative effect on employees that are engaged. External studies and research tell us that engaged employees translate into a more productive workforce. We’ve had engagement scores that meet and exceed high performance norms and that has contributed to strong business results. Employees want to work for an organization that is winning, doing well, growing and, especially important among millennials, civic-minded. If you feel good about what you do at a company, you feel good about what you sell as a company.  


To ensure that this culture of success continues to thrive, HR executives must examine progress on a regular basis to make sure they are mapping back to the original goals and objectives of the cultural initiative. Consistently monitor key cultural success metrics, such as our volunteerism rate, and actively encourage and reward employees for participation with perks such as paid time off to volunteer. Equally important is embracing candidates for employment that are like-minded and embody the same attributes the company stands for and wishes to promulgate to ensure a successful continuation of the firm’s value system.


Driving any cultural change is an arduous task for HR executives. However, once a culture of success is rooted in a firm’s DNA, embraced by employees and management alike, you have created a benchmark for success that will serve you, your employees, and customers for years to come.   

The Authors: 

Melissa Jones is vice president of human resources at CSAA Insurance Group, a AAA insurer. She leads the company’s efforts in HR strategy and programs, including talent acquisition and management, learning and development, diversity and inclusion, wellness, organizational development and employee relations. Learn more about Melissa on LinkedIn.

Comments (1)

Melissa "walks her talk,” and that is what makes what she says so powerful. I agree with her point about integrity: "'Walking the walk' is a must if it’s going to have any meaning to your external constituents.”

It is true that mere internal marketing does not result in employee adoption, but they must see it working, and they must have fun doing it.

Finally, I am finding that when a leader pulls back the curtain a little and allows himself or herself to be vulnerable, that is a powerful thing to establish trust with individual contributors.

Check out Brene’ Brown on leaning into vulnerability, from her Ted Talks:

Thanks again Melissa for being the change you want to see.