Libby Sartain knows about the power of communications when it comes to transforming workplace culture. Having held the CHRO role at both Southwest Airlines and Yahoo! Inc. during her career, Sartain now shares her experience with HR leaders and professionals. Here, she offers five strategies to establish and reinforce a strong company culture:
1. Lead by example
Many employers decide on the culture they want, the things they need to get there, and the behaviors they want their leaders to exhibit. The problem, Sartain explains, is they write down the desired culture change, tell everyone in the organization about it—and then expect employee engagement to magically occur.
“Of course, that never works,” she says.
Instead, every leader—from the CEO to line managers—needs to take true ownership of living and behaving and leading by example, day-in and day-out. When creating and maintaining company culture and values, actions speak louder than words.
“You also have to hire leaders who believe in and subscribe to the culture that you are trying to achieve,” she adds. “Most of all, leaders must treat others the way that the new culture defines desired behaviors, and live their work lives that way.”
2. Build employee-first management style
Sartain says most of today’s employees desire flexibility, autonomy, recognition, and rapid advancement in their company. Old and new employees want leaders and mentors who care about their career experiences and participate in their development; they want clarity about career paths; they want to know their manager cares about their success, just as they care about both their own success and the company’s bottom line. In short, employees in the workplace seek anchors of stability, purpose, and culture, which is the significant role managers play.
“While it’s an informal mode of communicating, there are actions that workers must see in their leaders to believe the new culture is real,” Sartain says. “At the heart of anyone’s disappointment in leader behavior is usually a disappointment in how the leader treats an individual or body of people.”
3. Reinforce the shared mindset
Realizing a shared mindset company-wide boils down to relentlessly reinforcing the new culture every chance you can, especially through repetitive multi-channel messaging, using both tech-based messaging platforms and meetings, events, etc. Sartain says that’s what happened at Southwest.
“It is a lot of work, but once you get rolling it becomes self-replicating,” she says. Sartain cited an anecdote involving superstar CEO Herb Kelleher. Sartain and a 10-year Southwest veteran were chatting when the latter asked why Kelleher repeats himself so often at every meeting regarding culture. Sartain reminded the co-worker that the while it may be repetitive for a veteran, the person sitting next to him may be new. That’s why repetition is critical in ensuring the shared mindset takes hold, she says.
“It may seem boring, but long-term employees often don’t realize how hard it is for those critical messages to move all the way through the organization,” Sartain says. ““In every training course you provide, every email and social media post you make, and at every employee meeting – to cite a few examples – you have to include cultural and shared mindset messages. Keep reinforcing it every way you can. It will pay off.”
4. Brand the employee experience
Simply put, the employer brand is a way to make a strong culture (and the transformation that follows) come alive. It gives an organization and management team a consistent voice, and authenticity about its relationship with employees. If done well, it can be the most powerful tool a business can employ to create an emotional connection with workers that wins hearts and minds.
However, Sartain says, having the employer brand is not the end game – the work is just beginning. The employer brand (and subsequent great culture and work environment) must be applied consistently across the entire employee life cycle—from the time a prospective candidate becomes aware of your organization as a place to work, to his or her departure.
Over time, she explains, HR can brand the programs offered to employees from dress code to leadership development, compensation, benefits and events. As many of these offerings are essential to the employee experience, they are key to supporting employer brand messaging and company culture.
Sartain does have a warning for HR: Without applying the brand to every stage of the employee experience, the brand promise rings hollow. If workers do not see the brand in action, skeptics will soon follow.
“So proceed with caution; do not try it unless you are prepared to do the hard work to make the brand and therefore the culture comes to life,” she says.
5. Connect employees to the employer value proposition (EVP)
Branding is an important communications strategy for organizations and company culture, but the employer value proposition is really the “stuff” of a branding strategy. It’s how the employee connects with the company. Sartain says it’s the deal you make with employees, or the answer to the question, “What’s in it for me to work here?”
“You’ve got rewards, promotions, learning and development opportunities and a business plan,” Sartain says. “All of those things are important and they can be branded in a way that employees connect to them. Along with all the other ways to influence employees, if you can communicate that and deliver on your promises, your cultural transformation will succeed.”
Sartain concludes by emphasizing that consistent, ongoing, and honest communication holds the power to reinforce all of five of these strategies that have been critical to her past HR success. Most of all, she says that ongoing communication will keep the company’s emerging new culture, employer brand, and EVP top of mind for all employees.
About Libby Sartain
After a distinguished 30-year career in corporate human resources, Libby Sartain today is an active business advisor, board member, and volunteer. As head of HR for both Yahoo! Inc. and Southwest Airlines, Sartain led significant business transformation initiatives aimed at attracting, retaining and developing employees. Her current focus is on growth companies, where she develops employment brand strategies that help grow the workforce exponentially, while establishing company reputation as an employer of choice. Sartain also serves on the Boards of Directors of ManpowerGroup and Shutterfly Inc.
In the non-profit world, Sartain has served on the Board of AARP since 2014 and was elected to the Vice Chair position in 2016. Sartain also served as chairman of the board of the Society for Human Resource Management in 2001 and is on the Board of SHRM Foundation.