Five signs of a healthy corporate culture

A bank’s culture is like a magnet: It can attract the people who will thrive there and repel the ones who won’t. So how do you know if yours is healthy?

By Monica Meinert

A company’s culture is like a magnet: It can attract the people who will thrive there and repel the ones who won’t. So how do you know if yours is healthy?

Learn more from Rebecca Undem at the ABA Conference for Community Bankers, Feb. 11-13, 2024, in San Antonio. Register here.
And whether your company has intentionally created a culture, you have one, explains consultant and former banker Rebecca Undem. During a recent webinar, Undem—who will be a featured speaker at ABA’s upcoming Conference for Community Bankers in San Antonio—discussed why now is the time for organizations to embrace that spirit of intentionality and work toward building a strong corporate culture.

Much of it has to do with the significant demographic shifts that are underway in the workplace.

“The ‘great retirement’ is coming, and it’s coming faster than many of us are prepared for,” Undem warns, alluding to the anticipated mass exodus of baby boomers from the workforce as that cohort reaches retirement age. Against an already-tight labor market, banks will have to fight harder than ever to attract and retain talented workers from younger generations that expect very different things from their employers, she notes.

For example, younger generations desire a more horizontal leadership structure, as opposed to a more traditional, “top-down” chain of command. They also desire: meaning in their work, better work-life balance and constant feedback. They are also more socially conscious than baby boomers or Gen Xers, Undem notes.

With four very different generations now in the workforce—and many middle and upper management positions being held by baby boomers and Gen Xers—it’s easy to see where there could be friction. So how can banks address the needs of their current workforce while ensuring that their company will be attractive to younger talent in the future?

The answer is to have engaged employees, Undem says. Research has shown that three key factors drive employee engagement: pride in the organization, belief in senior leadership and a great relationship with their direct supervisor.Those factors generally depend upon a strong corporate culture.

So, what are the signs of a healthy corporate culture? Undem offers five:

1. Rooted in clearly defined values. Many organizations have mission, vision and/or value statements. But Undem emphasizes that in order to be truly effective, these need to be clear, behavioral standards that guide the attitudes and behaviors of the people who work for the company. Essentially, an employee’s job description provides the “what” of the job: the functions they are expected to perform in their role. Values provide the “how,” she explains. “They should be things that are actively discussed on a regular basis,” she says. “And we should be willing to hire and fire to them.”

2. Development-focused. Strong corporate cultures should also focus on employee development—which Undem acknowledges can be tricky, especially as corporate structures get flatter and there are fewer opportunities for employees to be promoted up the corporate ladder. Accordingly, managers should be diligent about creating and setting goals for their employees based on the individual and their needs and interests. Goals can be functional, behavioral, developmental, project-based or even something personal, such as getting over a fear of public speaking. After all, “if people get better at something in their personal life, it means they’ve grown as a person,” Undem says. That, in turn, can translate to better performance at work.

3. Coaching-centric. One of the key characteristics of younger generations is their desire for continuous, real-time feedback, Undem notes. That requires managers to engage in ongoing conversations with their employees about what’s working and what’s not. Whether those conversations are taking place consistently is a key indicator of culture health. Some questions for senior leaders to ask: Does the corporate culture embrace mistakes? Is feedback provided in real time? Are leaders empowered to coach in the moment? Is peer-coaching encouraged? And are these things happening consistently across the enterprise?

4. Engaged in the community. Community engagement is something that comes naturally to banks, but it still requires thought and intentionality, Undem says. Fundamentally, companies have three things that they can give back: time, talent and treasure. “A lot of organizations have done a great job of stewarding their treasure,” she says. “But very rarely are organizations thinking about the stewarding of time or talent. This is a key piece of a strong culture, because this youngest generation has never been more socially conscious. They’re looking to align with organizations that meaningfully engage in the communities in which they serve—it’s an absolute must for culture, especially if we’re talking about attracting young leaders.”

5. Led with integrity. Finally, a true test of a healthy corporate culture is whether the leaders at the top of the organization are walking the talk. Not only do organizational values ring hollow if employees don’t see them modeled by their leaders, but “not walking the talk can sow real seeds of resentment,” Undem cautions. “The alignment has to be there.”

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