4 Steps for Turning Your Cultural Limitations into Cultural Assets

Recently, our business went through the same cultural branding work that we provide to clients. We studied our organizational culture to reveal who we are and articulate what great looks like here. Through in-depth interviews, focus groups and our quantitative cultural survey, we identified, the facts, truths and personality of what defines our business. Afterward, we were able to develop our new Employee Value Proposition (EVP) that authentically describes our cultural essence. What was the goal of all this? To uncover just who we are collectively as a tool to improve overall engagement, candidate attraction, employee retention and business performance—and make us a top performing employer of choice.

What Happens When You Discover the Truth?

While this approach is exactly what we recommend to our clients, it got me thinking. As with any organization that goes through this type of cultural introspection, we uncovered both desirable and less-than-desirable characteristics about what it’s like to work here. But rather than sweep the constructive feedback under the cultural rug, it’s what we did with it that I’m proudest of. We took the opportunity to transform our cultural limitations into assets as a tool for retention and attraction.

What do I mean by this? Well, many times, when leaders discover some undesirable aspect about their culture, their first reaction is to avoid or overlook that cultural characteristic. Yet this is a mistake. The good and the bad must always be weighed together. And they both help define an authentic organizational culture. For example, as a service-oriented division within IBM, we are definitely not the biggest, nor the most visible within our broader organization. But rather than letting that truth derail us, we captured this cultural limitation and turned it into an asset—specifically that being part of something really big is a big deal and gives us more opportunities than we could ever have alone.

Another example? Within IBM, we understand that we may never meet top company leadership. But rather than lament this fact, we are encouraging one another to look to our divisional leaders and to find how we can individually make a difference in the teams we work with every day. These are just two examples of what it means to fundamentally transform perceived weaknesses into strengths—and our new EVP is a living testament to this.

Embracing Your Authentic Culture

With these concrete examples of our own cultural essence in mind, I want to show you the steps we took to turn our limitations into assets:

  1. Listen. Then listen some more.
    The foundation of any great organizational culture starts by listening to your people. That’s why qualitative research is so essential. By interviewing, engaging and interacting with your employees and leadership, you’ll get a clear picture of who you really are. Remember, let your people do the talking.
  2. Own the results.
    So what you’ve uncovered is both enlightening and disheartening. Take a moment to check your reality and then own exactly what you have found. You can’t authentically express who you are without fully embracing the reality of your culture—for better and for worse.
  3. Express it authentically.
    In our own cultural work, we never attempted to sugar-coat the findings. Instead, we looked for opportunities to state explicitly who we were, often even working in direct quotes from the people we interviewed. EVPs are only valuable for candidate attraction and employee retention when they authentically express what it’s like to work there.
  4. See the silver lining.
    With every expressed limitation is an opportunity. An opportunity to uncover possibilities and explore how that weakness can actually become a strength. Be honest about your challenges. Understand how they can be leveraged for attraction and retention—and you’ll be on your way to embracing your authentic culture.

Remember, the Glass Is Half Full

Across our business, we’ve seen incredible reception to the unveiling of our cultural brand. So many employees have commented that our EVP captures exactly how they feel in working here. And that’s huge. This not only enhances the adoption of our expressed culture in the short term, but it will pay dividends for keeping top talent and attracting new talent who match our culture in the long term. I guess you can say I prefer to see the cultural branding glass as half full—and then use it to its fullest potential.

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