Warren Buffett said, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.” Many organizations struggle to create a memorable and magnetic workplace culture, and it’s no wonder. Culture is tricky to define, and takes time and effort to build.
Michael Watkins defines organizational culture as a moving target made up of the patterns of behavior; shared process of “sense-making”; and the stories, values and rituals that take hold within organizations.
One thing is clear: strong organizational culture is a powerful talent attractor. It can win you access to the best talent in your industry and be the glue that retains top employees amid fierce competition. So how can you turn your culture into one of your strongest assets? Let’s look at three businesses whose organizational cultures have earned them distinction in their industries, along with the admiration of their employees.
Publix supports employees with ownership and growth opportunities
Florida-based grocery chain Publix Super Markets is the largest employee-owned company in the United States with over 184,000 employees (whom they call associates) and profit margins that surpass those of Wal-Mart, Kroger and Whole Foods. The company’s employee-centric culture has resulted in a voluntary turnover rate of just 5% among full-time employees.
All full and part-time employees averaging 20 hours per week receive company stock in their ESOP (Employee Stock Ownership Program) after a year of service and additional stock each year, giving employees a stake in the company’s success. The Publix management style emphasizes communication and transparency. Employees have regular reviews for performance feedback and are eligible for salary increases every six months.
The Publix career site is packed with resources, like the job match system shown below, to help job seekers and current employees find the Publix career path that’s right for them. The company strives to promote from within, and encourages employees to pursue opportunities that align with their goals. Publix also provides employees with information to learn about career opportunities and tools to express their interest in different roles. Publix’s CEO & President, Todd Jones, began his career at Publix as a part-time bagger.
“I believe in Publix and what we have to offer, from the products we carry to making sure Publix is a great place to work. What really makes the difference is our associates being owners of our company,” Jones said. “I believe we will always be a great place to work, in part, because of this ownership. It’s part of our culture and part of our focus on associates being our greatest asset.”
Southwest Airlines hires service-minded, fun-loving individuals
Southwest Airlines began flying with just four planes in 1971, and has grown to employ more than 52,000. Based on the U.S. Department of Transportation’s most recent data, Southwest Airlines is the nation's largest carrier in terms of originating domestic passengers boarded. The company has been profitable for 43 consecutive years, and its legendary culture is one of its greatest assets. Founder Herb Kelleher is credited with instilling the idea that happy employees create happy customers, and profitability follows.
With core values of a “Warrior Spirit,” “Servant’s Heart” and “Fun-LUVing Attitude,” Southwest asks employees to embody hard work, perseverance, proactive customer service and lighthearted fun in everything they do. Managers are encouraged to hire for attitude and train for skill.
“Obviously, certain positions require specific skillsets, says Julie Weber, Vice President People at Southwest Airlines. “We’re not going to hire a pilot who has a great attitude but can’t fly a plane! But, if it comes down to two equally qualified candidates, the one with Southwest values will receive the offer."
When we’re faced with a qualified candidate who doesn’t have the right values, we won’t make an offer—no matter how long the job has gone unfilled.”-Julie Weber, Vice President People, Southwest Airlines
Southwest’s culture of service thrives on appreciation, recognition, and celebration. The company works to appreciate every employee through local and companywide culture committees. Southwest employees take time to recognize each other through formal and informal ways, including internal awards and programs, such as the Winning Spirit Award. The company has several prestigious corporate awards employees can be nominated to receive, like the President’s Award, and recognizes service through milestone anniversary celebrations.
Celebrating is something that Southwest is known for—the company history is full of fun and creative events, and employees enjoy annual companywide celebrations such as Spirit Parties, Chili Cookoff, and Southwest Rallies. On top of company-sponsored events, employees enjoy participating in locally-hosted celebrations and recognition for life events and milestones.
Because of this employee-focused culture, Southwest employees are often featured in the airline’s commercials, ads, and in Southwest: The Magazine:
Salesforce inspires employees with mission and purpose
In the 17 years since its founding, Salesforce has built a reputation as a business that values philanthropy, diversity and responsible corporate citizenship. The CRM maker is one of the most highly valued cloud-computing companies in the nation and employs 19,000 people.
Through its “Integrated Corporate Philanthropy” model, Salesforce has made volunteerism and community service pillars of its organizational culture. Starting with onboarding, new employees are urged to give back to communities, and every employee receives seven paid days each year for volunteer activities.
When Salesforce launched, CEO Marc Benioff and cofounders worked to define and document the company’s shared vision and align everyone on big goals. Jody Kohner, Salesforce VP of Marketing and Employee Engagement, says this top-down alignment on mission, values and purpose is crucial to preserving the company’s dynamic, and culture fit is a key hiring criteria from leadership to entry-level roles.
“Being vigilant about hiring leaders who are committed to the culture is critical for maintaining that special something that made you great when you were just getting started,” Kohner says.
3 tips for creating a great organizational culture
- Prioritize transparency. Employees that feel included and in the loop on important decisions are motivated to be more engaged and do their best work. One study even found transparency was the #1 factor contributing to employee happiness. Communicate with your workforce early and often to foster a culture of trust and inclusion.
- Hire for cultural fits. A 2005 study showed strong culture fit can mean greater job satisfaction, stronger identification with a company, longer tenure, more commitment, and superior performance. Start by defining the key tenets of your organizational culture. Then integrate these criteria into your employer brand messaging, job content and interview processes.
- Make people feel like they belong. Neuroscience expert Christine Comaford says feelings of safety, belonging and mattering in employees can improve communication, collaboration and alignment, which ultimately boosts company revenue. Once you’ve defined your culture and hired people who align with your values, encourage them every day to be themselves, follow their instincts and get involved with the rest of their tribe.
To learn more about building great organizational culture, read our series of interviews with HR leaders: