How to strengthen company culture: 5 steps from a CEO

ABBYY's Ulf Persson shares five steps he took to unify a global culture after becoming CEO. Consider how you could implement them to strengthen culture at your own organization
309 readers like this.
HBR Article: The battle for female talent CIO

A strong company culture can boost employee motivation and morale, positively impact growth objectives, and improve customer satisfaction. However, the most motivating cultures go beyond financial objectives and business achievements and are led by common values that inspire innovation and empower employees to feel connected to a higher purpose in their day-to-day work.

That is what I embarked to do when joining ABBYY as CEO in 2017. It was already an established international technology company, but I could sense the workplace culture was stagnant and lacked a global outlook and a unified culture.

[ Culture change is the hardest part of digital transformation. Get the digital transformation eBook: Teaching an elephant to dance. ]

With a team of over 1,300 employees distributed across 13 offices around the world, including California, Sydney, Yokohama, Hong Kong, Munich, Moscow, London, and Paris, we were working with a certain degree of autonomy. However, each country had its own style of operation with local corporate functions for sales and marketing, and each worked in dissimilar environments with varying missions and goals. To be successful in a global economy, it was imperative to unify operations and teams and instill corporate values everyone could rally around.

Here’s how we did it, using steps you can implement to create a powerful company culture at your own organization.

1. Create a company DNA

It’s important to develop values that don’t just sound nice. They must be meaningful, actionable, and upheld. Being a global distributed team in a dynamic industry makes it more critical to establish a company culture that sets a foundation for growth.

Company values are most effective when all employees participate in creating them.

Company values are most effective when all employees participate in creating them. To enable this, initiate a multi-phase process to gather staff feedback and provide team members with the opportunity to actively be involved in the process. Interview senior-level managers, run focus groups across a wide range of departments in each region, and implement company-wide surveys that include value-related questions. It is essential to obtain insights and varying perspectives throughout the organization, especially when there are cultural differences and what may work in one region may not work in another.

Next, thoroughly analyze survey answers and incorporate the feedback into your value positioning. By actively engaging team members from every facet of your company, you will be guided by a set of common values that are deeply integrated and provide a vision for your organization’s purpose. Employees will see the bigger picture and feel connected to the overall results.

2. Define behavior that encompasses values

Once your values are established, the next step is to define what beliefs and behaviors encompass those core values. This helps ensure you can shape the company culture in a direct and tangible manner.

For example, at ABBYY, value-based behaviors include:

  • Innovating for customers
  • Caring and going the extra mile
  • Working as a team
  • Being open-minded

Each value-based behavior will play a role in how you approach teamwork and collaboration and how you interact with customers. For example, with our “Innovating for customers” value, the behavior is being passionate about technologies and investing time and knowledge to create best-of-breed solutions.

3. Leverage company values to attract and retain talent

There is fierce competition for top tech talent. A recent LinkedIn survey revealed that 74 percent of candidates want a job where they feel their work matters. A unified company culture with inspiring values can be an effective tool in addressing the skills challenge and attracting and retaining the best team members. Employees want jobs that are not only relevant and engaging but also meaningful.

Furthermore, company profits can be impacted since high turnover is pricey: The average cost of an employee leaving a job is estimated to be around twice their salary. Meanwhile, estimates show the value of retaining an employee for three years vs. two can yield an additional $1.3 million in revenue earned during that same period.

4. Improve global channels of communication

It is estimated that bad communication costs the average organization $62 million per year in lost productivity. To ensure a productive and unified culture, communications between different countries and time zones must be optimal.

An open-door policy is an effective way to reach this goal because excessive hierarchy can cause delays and reduce efficiency. Furthermore, a personable and approachable management style encourages more open discussions and more efficient decision-making. Remember, some of the best ideas and solutions come from grassroots.

A personable and approachable management style encourages more open discussions and more efficient decision-making.

Regular communications such as weekly conference calls are crucial, but calendars clash and habits die, which can lead to breakdowns in workflow. Never let time differences get in the way of regular conversations; instead, implement collaboration tools to streamline and unify communications. 

We also held a global company event to let employees meet in person and feel part of the bigger organization. It also provided an opportunity to reinforce our values and recognize team members across functions and the world.

5. Ensure lessons learned are transferred between markets

A unified approach to working and exchanging ideas not only reduces recurring problems, but also encourages implementation of successful strategies. To accomplish this, every region should prioritize knowledge transfer and sharing best practices, while keeping cultural practices in mind.

For example, if you are opening an office in a new territory, ensure that new team members are onboarded quickly so they understand corporate and cross-departmental procedures. They can then share unified communications, sales enablement, marketing, and customer care resources that are tailored to language and cultural differences.

Also, encourage employees to flourish by offering transfers to other offices. We often do this when successful, results-driven employees are promoted to lead a department or office in another country. This fosters continuity in company values and procedures.

Unifying a global company requires a team approach that involves every department and person within the company, and it should be embedded within your core values. It doesn’t happen overnight, but specific milestones should be celebrated.

As for our journey, we’ve seen tangible results since implementing our unified global initiative. We’ve experienced consecutive double-digit revenue growth and record sales within existing and new markets, and we have seen new partners gravitate toward us.

When a company lives by its values, it becomes more visible. Trust, respect, teamwork, and readiness to take responsibility to create best-in-class solutions for clients and individuals are the values that foster a unified company culture, and these values have enabled us to deliver innovative, impactful solutions to customers.

[ Want advice from top CIOs on solving talent challenges? Get the Harvard Business Review Analytic Services report: IT talent strategy: New tactics for a new era. ]

Ulf Persson is CEO of ABBYY, a Digital Intelligence company. Over the past 20 years, Ulf has been involved as an investor and board member in 20 different growth companies. ABBYY is a Digital Intelligence company delivering a complete understanding of business processes and raising organizations’ Digital IQ.