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The Building Blocks of a Successful Corporate Culture

By Ian Fuhr, Founder of the Sorbet Group and CEO of The Hatch Institute – a personal and business coaching company

People often ask me how we built a culture at Sorbet that was so focused on delivering obsessive customer service. The truth is that it didn’t happen by accident. Before launching what would grow to become South Africa’s top beauty salon group, I developed the culture framework that would be the foundation of the business. Sorbet became the testing ground for my culture concept – were my theories right, and could I put them into practice?

The answer to both of these questions was yes, and when we exited Sorbet years later, I formalised the framework we used into a methodology that any business can embrace. We call it ‘Cultureneering’, and it has become the foundation of The Hatch Institute’s coaching and consulting philosophy, which represents everything a business needs to put in place in order to build a successful culture.

The socio-political context:

This is the soil on which your house sits. I learnt early in my career that what happens outside the business impacts what happens inside the business. Employees don’t leave their feelings and experiences at the door when they arrive at work each morning. South Africa has an extremely complex socio-political context, and it informs the way we all live and work. It impacts how colleagues interact and how employees engage with customers. As we’ve seen time and again by brands that are tone deaf to the racial realities that south Africa still faces, businesses ignore this at their peril. Instead of ignoring the socio-political context, face it. Encourage open and transparent discussion throughout the organisation. It’s your choice – you can build your house on quicksand or rich, fertile soil.

Reason for being, core values and purpose of work:

These are the foundations of any business and they must be in place before you can deliver anything of meaning to your customers.

Your reason for being is why you exist. It’s very easy to get this wrong, mainly because businesses tend to look inwards instead of outwards. I made this error myself when I launched Sorbet. I wanted us to be the number one beauty and salon brand in the country, and so that was the narrative we told our staff (and ourselves). It took my daughter, Jade, who was marketing manager of the business, challenging me on the relevancy of my reason for being before I realised that I’d been looking at it backwards. No one cared whether we were number one or number 50. Not our staff nor our guests. Instead, we had to refocus on what they cared about. This shift allowed us to find a reason for being that actually mattered: Touching people’s lives.

Core values and purpose of work are the other two values that work in tandem with your reason for being. Core values determine the way you support your reason for being – what does it mean to you and how does everyone in the business live the values? The purpose of work is simple: It is to serve the needs and wants of your customers. It should never be about money or profit. Those are the rewards for good service. Service should always come before reward.  If your entire business can get behind these ideals, you will automatically begin building a service culture.

Personal development, Culture-driven Leaders and community building:

These pillars build on one another. For example, before a leader can create and support a community, they need to work on themselves and understand how they are standing in their own way. If you can’t experience personal growth, it’s impossible to develop a team. We also all come with our own personal baggage, paradigms and unconscious biases that need to be challenged. Leaders who address these in themselves are able to walk the journey with their employees.

Once a leader has focused on their personal growth and shown the ability to transform themselves, they can begin the journey to becoming a Culture-driven leader. Culture-driven leaders don’t believe that culture impacts the bottom line – they know it is the bottom line. Get it right, foster and protect it, serve the people who serve your customers, and the rewards will follow. Great leaders get people to follow them to places they would never have gone by themselves. They inspire people to motivate themselves.

Finally, community building is what happens when you have all of these things in place. A business that becomes a community is a place of safety, where people can speak without fear, where unpopular views are tolerated and accepted, and conflict is perceived as constructive. Communities can only be built by leaders who have undertaken a journey of self-discovery and shifted the paradigms that were undermining the community.

When you have all of these elements in place, you have built a culture that supports a common purpose of obsessive customer service.

Obsessive customer service: 

The natural state of people is to serve each other and our communities. When we tap into our reason for being, we feel most fulfilled when we’re adding value. Great business cultures don’t need to convince people to be of service – they remove all the barriers to what comes naturally to us. Follow the steps above and you will be giving your employees, your business and your customers a great gift.