Corporate Cultures

Keeper of the Flame

by Ray Knight and Rob Sanders

    For casino executives more at home with spreadsheets and bottom lines, the tendency is to think of corporate culture building as an inoculation.  A prevalent expectation is that there's some kind of wonder drug cure-all that takes care of such things permanently with one shot.

     When morale and customer service sag, a common treatment by management is to "shape 'em up" with a shot of inspiration from rah-rah motivational consultants.  The "feel good experts," as employees often scoffingly call them, hold employee sessions with canned agendas and a bag of cliches, like having one employee catch another falling backward to demonstrate trust.  Often, they recommend some kind of smiling contest and award a prize to the winner.

     The motivators leave, and management goes back to the spreadsheets, confident the morale problem is solved.  In a short time, the smiles fade, and everything settles back to where it was before all the hubbub (maybe worse, because now cynicism is added to low morale).

     There are two things that doom this approach to failure.  One is that the canned motivational sessions are usually one-size-fits-all and don't take into account the real or perceived concerns of employees in a particular company.  The other main problem with the one-shot approach is that it's one shot.  There is no miracle wonder drug for culture.  A single motivational event won't cure a corporate culture permanently.  Never has.  Never will.

     Building your corporate culture is a continuum.  It's a seamless loop of action, reaction, and renewal.  It's a process, not a project.

     Like the friendly warmth of a hearth fire, the spirit of your culture must continually be refueled to stoke the flame.  The fire must be tended periodically to add a new log of vision and inspiration or reposition the glowing embers for a better draft.

     Every corporate culture must have a keeper of the flame; it won't tend itself.  Ideally, the keeper should be the oracle of the company spirit   usually but not always the CEO.  It takes a person, not a committee.  It takes someone with a clear vision of the culture and the personal strength to keep it lit.

     Building the culture you want in your company begins with research.  Though some human factors are universal, there are always concerns unique to a specific company environment.  These must be identified and analyzed before an effective plan of action can be strategized.  Ask your employees what the problems are.  Ask them what the solutions are.  Ask them openly and be open to honest answers, even if they hurt.  The very fact that you care enough to ask their participation gives employees a boost, a sense of respect from you.

     With the research in hand, construct a cultural development plan custom-designed for your company's environment and circumstances.  Plan for the long haul.  A one year plan should be the minimum start.  Better yet, look ahead five years, at least in terms of your commitment to the culture building process.  Keep in mind that the worse shape your culture is in, the longer it  takes to change it for the better.

     Once you ignite the process, stay with it.  Kindle and reinforce it regularly.  Do follow-up research periodically to see how you're doing   what's working, what isn't.  Make adjustments and add another log to the fire as needed to renew the spirit.

     In most casinos, employees are skeptics and cynics by nature.  They'll humor you by tolerating the first wave of culture-building activity, expecting that when it's over, you'll forget all about it and that'll be the end of it.  They've seen it many times before, the lack of follow-through with many other management initiatives that were shooting stars  - a brief streak into oblivion. Been there, done that.

     They will only become convinced of your real commitment to changing your culture for the better when you reinforce the process constantly and consistently.  It probably won't be until the third or fourth "log on the fire" that they begin to realize you really mean business and it isn't going away.

     Some will opt out and leave; that's good, because they don't fit your culture.  Some will resist change, for their own reasons stubbornly holding to the old way.  They should be removed when identified; they'll dampen the fire.

     If your culture-building plan genuinely has the employees' best interests built into it along with your corporate objectives, most will seek the light and become torchbearers for your culture-building cause, led always and constantly by the keeper of the flame.

(This article appeared in the November 1999 issue)