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Practical advice for federal leaders on managing people, processes and projects.

Crafting Office Culture


Office culture affects everything from employee retention to productivity, and managers have an incredible opportunity to shape that culture. In most organizations, culture is based solely on what is sold, delivered or provided. But David Vik, former culture coach at online shoe retailer Zappos and author of The Culture Secret: How to Empower People and Companies No Matter What You Sell, which is set for release by Greenleaf Book Group in February 2013, argues that culture should be deliberately structured to align with the wants, needs and demands of both employees and customers.

Vik believes that crafting a unique culture should be priority No. 1 for organizations that want to attract and retain loyal employees and customers. While federal managers may not be as concerned with “customers” in the traditional sense as private sector managers, agency leaders nonetheless have parties they are tasked with serving.

One of the first challenges of managing organizational structure, Vik says, is the fact that the concept itself is “squooshy.” Several organizations could take identical steps toward creating a certain culture, but not all will realize the same effects. This is true in part because every organization already has an existing culture, which may be less than ideal. “So if you want to create your own unique culture that will help empower your employees and drive your company to success, transforming the culture you already have is a great place to start,” he says.

The first step to creating or transforming your organization’s culture is to develop a compelling vision. Employees need to know what they are doing, in the largest sense. They should know the organization’s ultimate goal and what managers expect to accomplish. Many managers, Vik says, fail to properly identify the what, skipping right to the how. But if employees have a good sense of the organization’s vision then they can help develop ways to achieve that vision, which means more innovations and less micromanaging.

Next, articulate the purpose of the organization, or the why. In the private sector, Vik has seen that if a company’s sole purpose is to make money, then employees won’t stand behind it for long. Passionate, committed employees must feel compelled by their organization’s purpose.

Vik has found that having or creating “wow factors” for an organization may be the single most important thing managers and executives can do. The focus must be on setting the organization apart and that can come from quality, value, price, service, delivery, or really anything; but it is the manager’s job to decide how the organization can best differentiate itself. This wow factor must be tangible, the organization must be able to point to concrete results or practices that are distinctive, otherwise it’s just lip service.

Finally, he points to organizational values as a crucial aspect of culture: “Values let the outside world know what you are all about.” Encouraging employee participation in developing these values can be extremely productive, as it can point out where the group thinks they are succeeding and what they value devoting additional effort toward. For example, if the organization currently struggles with communication but collectively wants to improve, naming “timely communication” as a value is likely to attract employees willing to contribute to that goal. Eventually, these values become self-fulfilling.

Culture should be the blueprint of what, why and how the organization operates, Vik says, and the more a manager can keep focus on its vision, purpose and values, the more likely that culture is to become part of its DNA, helping employees and the organization to reach full potential.
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