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8 Simple Rituals That Build a Stronger Culture

How can you shape the right priorities and behaviors in your organization’s ecosystem? By setting the example—starting here.

By Arthur Yeung and Dave Ulrich

You already know your organization needs a strong culture to function at its best. But you also need people to put the right rituals in place to pull off that winning culture.

Take Ren Zhengfei, for example. The founder and CEO of the Chinese tech conglomerate Huawei is gifted at writing letters and telling stories, using evocative language to describe his company’s marketing challenges (like “The coldest winter Huawei is facing”) and build a sense of urgency and constant dedication to hard work. Zhengfei also wrote public letters to certain employees to amplify the positive or negative behaviors he wanted to convey within Huawei.

All leaders need to be great communicators and must find what works for them. Maybe your style is more about interactive webinars, a podcast series, or a lighting round of interactive town halls. The key is to realize that any culture requires care and feeding, and a deliberate use of rituals that work for the leader and the larger ecosystem is essential.

Consider the following list of some practices we found particularly compelling. We offer these to you in the hope that some ideas may be worth adapting to your unique situation. We also hope that the sheer number of successful rituals that others have found effective inspires creative thought. Ask yourself: What can I do on an hourly, daily, weekly, or longer basis to embed and support the culture we need?

Ritual #1: Tell Stories

At Huawei, Zhengfei writes letters, tells stories, and shares photos. To drive home the message of pleasing customers, not the boss, he shares a photo of himself waiting in line for a taxi at Shanghai Hongqiao Airport. The message? At Huawei, employees should waste no energy or effort to serve their bosses—including the CEO himself. 

Ritual #2: Use Time Wisely

Amazon’s Jeff Bezos allocates 70 percent of his time to new businesses. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg primarily focuses on new products while leaving all operational, commercial, and management matters to COO Sheryl Sandberg. And Zhengfei only spends time with customers, employees, and partners.

Ritual #3: Name Facilities

How you name a building, room, or other structure at your organization conveys who or what will be heralded inside the company. While some companies name their meeting rooms after different famous scientists or accomplished actors, Bezos has named his brand-new headquarters Day 1, for a term he often uses to mean that Amazon is still a startup with tremendous opportunities for growth. (There’s also a Day 1 Building on the south campus, and another on the north campus.)

Ritual #4: Tear Down Walls

What do the offices of senior executives look like? For some companies, executives may have corner offices on the top floor. For other companies, the CEOs or senior execs might just sit with employees in an open space, with no private offices. All these arrangements convey the kind of culture you want to create in the company. The physical setting of offices always conveys the extent to which a company values transparency, equality, and collaboration.

Ritual #5: Spend Money Wisely

At Amazon, resource constraint is seen as a source of creativity. To quote a senior executive: “I think frugality drives innovation, just like other constraints. One of the only ways out of a tight box is to invent your way out.”

Ritual #6: Set High Standards

At Supercell, the development team decides in advance what rates of player retention and participation its new product must pass to reach the next development gate. These benchmarks are announced throughout the company, and games not meeting the standards are abandoned in full view of the entire company—to no one’s shame.

Ritual #7: Take the Long View

Google is famous for practicing this long-view philosophy day in, day out. This perspective creates a culture of ownership in which people act not so much for the quarterly return, but more for the long-term health of the company. Google believes that this cultural mechanism encourages wiser decision making and gives leaders and employees the license to abandon a bad idea.

Ritual #8: Hold Daily Meetings 

At JD.com, China’s largest retailer, almost every team holds a meeting every morning to discuss what decisions need to be made that day and what decisions were made the day before (or recently) and the known outcomes. This level of transparency, combined with accountability, keeps everyone honest and helps the group learn together. It also provides meaningful feedback while decisions are being made, and not after the fact.

Which of the above process tools, practices, or rituals can you adapt to make culture real in your company? How can you make sure everyone in your organization and ecosystem really cares about customers, is excited about innovation, and acts with agility? Reinventing the organization is a wasted exercise if you and your employees can’t think, feel, and act differently.

We can’t overstate the importance of culture in creating the common expectations for the entire ecosystem and the means to achieve those expectations. Culture is a part of the air that we breathe and is reinforced or diminished by innumerable decisions, practices, and systems put in place. 

Above all else, leaders need to define the right culture, which connects external promises with internal employee actions. The right culture consciously supports the four core capabilities of the market-oriented ecosystem: external sensing, customer anticipation, innovation throughout, and agility everywhere. Culture also governs personal behavior and employee practices when practice rituals are implemented.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from Reinventing the Organization: How Companies Can Deliver Radically Greater Value in Fast-Changing Marketsby Arthur Yeung and Dave Ulrich. Copyright 2019 by Arthur Yeung and Dave Ulrich. All rights reserved.

Arthur Yeung is the senior management adviser at Tencent Group, where he leads and facilitates organizational innovation and leadership development. Previously, he was the Philips Chair Professor of Human Resource Management at China Europe International Business School (CEIBS) and taught regularly in executive programs in association with Harvard, INSEAD, and the University of Michigan. He also served previously as chief human resources officer of Acer Group. He is the author of 13 books and numerous award-winning articles.

Dave Ulrich is the Rensis Likert Collegiate Professor of Business Administration at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business and a partner at RBL Group (rbl.net), a consulting firm focused on helping organizations and leaders deliver value. He has published more than 30 books and 200 articles and book chapters. He has worked with over half of the Fortune 200; has numerous lifetime achievement awards for organization, leadership, and HR work; and is listed in the Thinkers50 Hall of Fame.

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