Organizational Culture & Values

5 ways to strengthen your culture during COVID-19

strengthen culture leader

In May, we asked more than 1,400 CEOs how their company was responding to the COVID-19 crisis as part of our CEO Confidence Index survey. Remarkably, the results suggest this period of unprecedented challenges may be strengthening the culture at some small and midsize businesses.

One year ago, only 11% of respondents strongly agreed with the statement, “I’m satisfied with the strength and performance of my company culture.” In the May survey, that number rose to 43%.

That said, CEOs are far from resting on their laurels when it comes to culture. More than half (56%) report culture will remain an organizational priority this year, and 60% say culture will be critical to their success throughout the remainder of the COVID-19 crisis.

Knowing that, I sat down with Dr. Gustavo Grodnitzky, a top rated Vistage speaker and the author of “Culture Trumps Everything,” to hear his thoughts on how to lead through the next phase of the pandemic. He suggests that “the decisions you make today are the seeds for your culture tomorrow. The decisions you make today will inform your culture and future prosperity.” From our conversation, he shared five ways that leaders can focus on culture right now.

1. Set a strategic direction, not a strategic plan.

At the start of the pandemic, many companies put their energy toward creating a strategic plan to survive the first phase. Grodnitzky acknowledges that those plans are now outdated. A strategic plan is a single path that leads forward or backward. Instead, he says, leaders should focus on setting a new strategic direction for their business that reflects its culture.

“A strategic direction should be more of a guiding star than a railroad track,” Grodnitzky says. “Because the pandemic is rapidly changing, how you move must remain flexible. You must keep open options that will allow you to go over, under, around or through any of the many obstacles that may present themselves, while always keeping your eyes on that guiding star.”

2. Apply an “optimize profits” mindset.

In the Great Recession of 2008, too many companies were stuck in a “maximize-profit mindset,” says Grodnitzky. They cut early and cut deep to look better on paper and appease their shareholders.

But, over time, these same companies underperformed relative to the competitors that chose to “optimize, not maximize profits” by prioritizing all stakeholders—employees included. Not only did this result in better performance but better retention of top talent. This is part of a shift from classic capitalism to social capitalism, focusing on the long-term time horizon. This pandemic is only accelerating this shift.

The takeaway: Companies that take care of their people as key stakeholders are the ones that win the long race. Those who prioritize investors’ interests above everyone else ultimately fall short.

3. Reimagine traditions and rituals.

Culture is comprised of beliefs, behavioral rules, traditions and rituals. Typically, it takes 12 to 18 months to truly change culture in a business. That’s because, in most cases, a company has entrenched traditions and rituals that are not easily changed. But in this time of rapid transition, culture change is happening much more quickly—and in different ways than before.

To reimagine their traditions and rituals in the current environment, companies have to embrace technology, Grodnitzky says. Technology is “a tool for us to fulfill our primary human drives to connect and belong. Technology should be used to eliminate the physical distance required by this pandemic. In a remote environment, leaders should look to use technology to sustain old traditions (i.e. sitting down for a lunch with their employees—virtually) and to establish new rituals and traditions that make them feel the same way they did prior to the required ‘social distancing’,” he says.

Small and midsize businesses can learn from global companies who have been operating remotely and creating these virtual connections for their employees. Examples of their rituals and traditions include things like hosting online activities that help employees connect like games, movie nights or book clubs. New rituals and traditions could also include meeting for virtual coffees, meals and even skill-sharing sessions.

4. Source top talent from a larger talent pool.

At the start of the year, small and midsize businesses were in an all-out war for talent. At that time, only a few companies would even consider hiring someone outside their geographic area — and only if they offered a particular skillset that was hard to find locally.

Fast forward to today: With 33 million people suddenly unemployed, talented people are back in the job market. In the pandemic, 80% of companies have implemented work from home (WFH) without loss of productivity demonstrating that WFH is a viable solution in the new reality. Layoffs have created a lot of free agents, and to attract the best candidates, Grodnitzky says companies will need to not only embrace remote work, but also remote recruitment.

“We are now facing the greatest hiring market in the history of hiring,” he says. “All of a sudden, your talent pool doesn’t need to be someone who needs to sit in a cube in your office. It opens up quite a bit.”

5. Lead with empathy.

Although the U.S. is entering the “next phase” of the pandemic, the crisis is far from over. This means that your employees are inevitably going to feel COVID-19 fatigue that could manifest itself as anxiety, frustration, fear, depression or any other number of emotions at work.

In these moments, it is the job of CEOs to lead with empathy. To do this well, Grodnitzky recommends taking a three-phased, people-first approach:

  • First, give your employees an opportunity to voice their experiences. When they’re talking, don’t make suggestions. Just listen to them and make them feel you’re empathetic to their situation. Beyond the use of empathetic words, you should try to feel in your body what they are feeling in theirs. That’s real empathy.
  • Second, ask them what they need or how you can help. Do what you can to meet their needs and meet them where they are.
  • Third, offer advice or information relevant to their situation and how you/they can move forward, collaboratively.

Why focus on people first and information last? “If you start with information, your employees won’t hear it because they won’t believe you care about them,” says Grodnitzky.

Above all, he says, embrace creating a new culture—because there is no going back to your old one. “The old context is not coming back,” Grodnitzky says. “It’s dead. This new reality is the context we must all adapt to. This crisis is a business extinction event for those not willing—or able—to adapt to the new reality.”

Category: Organizational Culture & Values

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About the Author: Joe Galvin

Joe Galvin is the Chief Research Officer for Vistage Worldwide. Vistage members receive the most credible, data-driven and actionable thought leadership on the strategic issues facing CEOs. Through collaboration with the Vistage community of…

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