Minding My Own Business

Atmospheric Pressures or, Culture Does Matter

April 27, 2007

In 1993, I was living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan when Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park was released. That Saturday night, some friends and I made sure to see the movie at a theater that was specially equipped with an oversized screen and the city's most advanced cinema sound system. To this day, almost 15 years later, I can still vividly feel the trepidation I experienced upon exiting the theater after the film, half expecting to see a 40 foot tall T-rex charging down Broadway, stomping on cars and devouring pedestrians. Such is the magic and power of expert filmmaking, when a director is able to envelop the viewer into a carefully constructed version of an alternative reality, reined in not by the rules of logic and fact, but by the bounds of imagination alone.

Well written books achieve a similar feat. Have you ever been so engrossed in a book that you actually felt as if you were living in another time? Have you ever experienced characters in a book, film or television show so expertly developed that you not only feel that you know them, but feel intimately connected to them, feeling their joys and sorrows as if they were your own emotions?

Believe it or not, in certain very important ways, business managers possess powers similar to those that writers and directors wield through their books and films. Developing the atmosphere, or mood, of the company is a key responsibility of senior management, and it is this mood that is, as much as anything else, a defining element of the company. Certain companies pay a great deal of attention to creating their own milieu, often at great expense, as can be attested to by anyone who has ever visited a Lexus dealership or an Apple retail location. For non-retail businesses, however, the construction of the working environment and its accompanying culture within the company is usually merely an afterthought. But even for these businesses - in fact, especially for these businesses - the ramifications of the work atmosphere and mood to both long term performance as well as the value of the business can be as significant as any production process or marketing plan.

For more than 20 years, the University of Iowa's football stadium, Kinnick Stadium, has notoriously painted the walls of the visiting team's locker rooms a bright pink. According to the University's supporters, the tradition of the pink walls is attributed to former coach Hayden Fry, who held a psychology degree, and believed that subjecting male athletes to a pink environment, based on the feminine connotations in our culture of pink, lessened their aggressiveness and would perhaps give the home team an advantage on the gridiron. I'm not sure how effective this strategy was, or even if it was anything more than an old fashioned "psyche-out", but I bring it up as an example of a particularly far-reaching consideration of the relationship between environment and performance.

In the Middle Ages and well beyond, alchemists struggled in vain to turn lead and other elements and compounds into gold, failing to grasp the impossibility of altering the molecular structure of matter. Transforming a poorly performing business into a profitable and valuable entity, however, requires alterations of an entirely different sort, and a critical change target is usually the corporate culture. When Bill Parcells was hired by the New York Jets in 1997, the football franchise had been struggling for many years, and had become a laughingstock among not only the other teams in the league, but its own fans as well (of which, in the interest of full disclosure, I confess to being one). Parcells was renowned for his talent recognition, game planning and skill coaching ability, but the very first move he made after taking the helm of the team was to change the team's logo, uniforms and helmets. A "culture of losing", Parcells stressed, had to be replaced by a culture of winning, and that meant starting with the most visible aspects of the team. Shortly after his hiring, Jets All-Pro defensive end Hugh Douglas observed that "He [Parcells] brings an aura with him. You walk into a room he's in and there's this feeling. It's just different." Parcells, who retired earlier this year after similarly turning around the Dallas Cowboys, his fourth team, is a testament to the importance of transforming the mood before you can transform the performance of an organization.

So how exactly can today's manager transform the atmosphere of his or her company?

First and foremost, I think that, as evidenced by Bill Parcells, you want to focus on enveloping the organization with a culture of success, and keep that in the forefront of your efforts. As shallow as it sounds, it is the physical elements of your business that are important initial levers to utilize in the transformation of a company mood. These levers include the obvious, such as customizing and professionalizing the decor of the offices, upgrading the physical condition of the production facility, and paying attention to all of the aesthetics of the working environment. Other important visual elements include both interior and exterior design, such as furniture, lighting, open and closed spaces, office and plant layouts, parking lots, shipping docks, and landscaping.

But there are other more obscure contributors to the ambience of a business which our firm includes on the checklist we use when advising companies on how to design a cultural transformation within the context of strategy development. These levers revolve primarily around people-related issues, and include:

-�� �Personnel policies, such as dress codes, uniforms, personal calls and visits, and cell phone usage on company property;
-�� �HR policies and procedures, such as personal time off, reporting structures, compensation structures, benefit plans, and grievance handling;
-�� �Facility rules and issues, such as security, food and beverage, interdepartmental relationships, and personal space policies.

We also consider every form of communication by the company to both the outside world as well as internally, and the related levers that should be considered, including:

-�� �External and internal signage;
-�� �Logo, letterheads, business cards, envelopes, fax cover sheets, and document templates;
-�� �Web site, brochures, advertisements, trade show displays, and other marketing and collateral materials;
-�� �Telephone, voice mail and e-mail systems;
-�� �Company meetings and presentations, both internally and externally.

For some companies, making changes to even just one or two of these elements can dramatically alter the mood of the organization. Other businesses refrain from adjusting anything too radically, feeling more comfortable addressing many of these issues by tinkering ever so slightly with virtually every issue across the board. And then there are those who elect to dramatically transform their cultures, and pursue significant changes at every conceivable level within their organization.

Sometimes, though, beyond determining the feasibility of implementing changes along these lines and projecting their upside potential, a significant cause for concern often revolves around the delicate issue of the problem employee. Virtually every business has at one time or another had at least one of them, and assuming you are not him or her, you know just who I am talking about. They are the cancers in the organization, the individuals who rub everyone the wrong way, wreak havoc with company morale, and to put it bluntly, irritate the heck out of just about everyone. As a manager, it is your duty to confront this problem by either instituting some type of barrier (physical or procedural) to deflect the impact of this problem employee, or finding his or her replacement. The fact is that dysfunctional organizations are as problematic as dysfunctional families - but as a manager, you have options that parents and children don't have (e.g., you can't fire your narcissistic and demanding mother-in-law!).

Ultimately, though, atmosphere and corporate culture are about Attitude - the attitude that your company instills in its employees, customers, vendors, and perhaps even competitors. We all want to manage a team of eager, excited, creative, and successful employees. However, as so accurately captured by the fictional Remington Steele, "Dedication doesn't punch a time clock." Creating an atmosphere in which your employees love their jobs and work hard for their company - and view it as their company - doesn't happen without focus and effort. And that fact is worth focusing upon.

Elisha Tropper is president and CEO of T3 Associates, a New York based strategic consulting firm, and the former president of Prestige Label, a North Carolina converter. He can be reached by e-mail et@t3associates.net.