What makes a company culture successful, or not? What makes it attractive and engaging to customers, employees and others familiar with your brand?

That's a question I've asked in more than 600 interviews, but it seems the answer isn't clearcut. Most of the people I've interviewed believe that purpose and values are integral to the success of a company at the culture level, but there isn't a clear answer about what that looks like at an operational level.

In today's interview series, I asked five experts on organizational culture to share their advice for creating company cultures that inspire employees and create value for customers.

Purpose Amplifies Value

What turns customers into raving fans? What causes them to perceive their experience of one organization as more valuable than another?

According to Heather Brunner, CEO and Chairwoman of the leading digital experience platform for WordPress, WP Engine, it's the same thing that engages employees. "A core tenet of mine is that a CEO's role is to amplify enterprise value through the power of purpose," says Brunner. "If we want to turn customers into advocates, we have to earn that by demonstrating our commitment to purpose, exceeding their expectations with every interaction. The goal for CEOs needs to be creating an environment where people are engaged with purpose and are on a mission to fulfill it. That's how we grow - by creating happy customers who are invested in our success."

Purpose inspires growth by differentiating a culture that merely satisfies customers, from one that truly engages them. The difference between an engaged customer and a satisfied one is a significant one, according to Gallup polls that show 50% of customers identifying as satisfied, while only 38% identify as engaged.

What's the difference? Customer satisfaction is about meeting expectations, while engagement creates a shared sense of partnership that makes a customer feel invested in company success. According to Gallup, companies that aspire to this type of relationship with customers must be crystal clear on their mission and values, and create a culture that serves them. This creates engaged customers who become advocates, recommending products to others and returning as loyal customers.

Engagement Promotes Innovation

Engagement is important to employees and customers alike, but engagement alone may not drive innovation. Says Marc Kaplan, U.S. leader for Deloitte Consulting's Organization Transformation and Talent practice, "The goal needs to be creating a simply irresistible organization, one where people aren't just engaged but inspired by their leaders and passionate about what they do.

Inspiring this type of engagement among employees means looking at employees from a more holistic perspective. "It isn't enough just to cover employees' basic needs for things like a regular paycheck if we're looking to get the most out of employees," says Kaplan. "We have to meet higher order needs as well. For instance, safety is a challenge in many organizations. If people don't feel safe to speak their mind and share their ideas, they're not going to achieve self actualization tasks like creativity or innovative thinking.".

Pedro Earp, Chief Disruptive Growth Officer for business incubator and venture capital firm ZX Ventures, agrees. "Innovation depends on people feeling comfortable to go beyond their comfort zone," says Earp. "We're living in a new world that requires new capabilities and technology and ways of thinking. We need people to be excited about shaping the future. If we're looking for innovation, we need to create a culture where that is valued, where people feel encouraged to bring their ideas and creativity to the organization."

Says Kaplan, "Building a sense of organizational trust creates a foundation for higher needs like belonging, self-esteem and the drive to create something great. Addressing these sorts of needs is the foundation for a culture that people are passionate about."

Values are Beautiful

Organizational value statements get a bad rap. In many companies, they consist primarily of a list of values stated on the website that gets largely ignored after they're rolled out. Gallup recently found that only 27% of employees believe in their organization's stated values. Even fewer - 23% - know how to apply them in their daily work.

Yet, while values may suffer in implementation, they're critical to your company culture and the relationship you have with both customers and employees. Ensuring that values aren't just a set of words on a page, but are reflected in company culture and individual habits, is a question of leadership, says Dan Kiely, CEO and Cofounder of multilingual customer experience and technical support provider Voxpro.

"It always comes down to leadership to change the environment in which people work," says Kiely. "If we want to make it better and make a difference in our culture, we need values that ignite in people a sense of entrepreneurship or ownership. One of those values should be an obsession with what we call 'operational beauty,' or a personal journey toward growth as an individual both personally and professionally. It's about striving to be better tomorrow than you are today."

So what's the key to company culture? Is it purpose or values? Innovation, or personal and professional growth? If you want a culture where employees bring their heart and soul to work; if you want partnerships to replace relationships of convenience with customers, you'll need all of these. They're each an integral part of a successful company culture.

Published on: Sep 1, 2017