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Blog: The Importance of Culture (In Good Times and Bad)

The Importance of Culture (In Good Times and Bad)

Vault has engaged with the Greater Washington Society of Certified Public Accountants (GWSCPA) in many ways over the past few years, from Vault COO Amy Horner’s service on the Women’s Leadership Forum to the Nonprofit Symposium where many Vaulters find outstanding continuing education and a chance to connect with other professionals. This year, in addition to sponsoring the Nonprofit Symposium, Vault’s Director of Human Resources, Christine Rowe, will address the GWSCPA on the topic of organizational culture on December 16 from 12:00 – 1:15 p.m. EST. Her presentation, “The Importance of Culture (In Good Times and Bad),” will emphasize the need for organizations to focus on defining and living their unique culture long before a crisis begins to impact operations. 

Beyond a Buzzword

Though “culture” has received renewed attention during 2020, the emphasis on culture has been a core component of Vault’s strategic and operational focus since the firm’s inception. According to Rowe, organizations that make this investment in culture—in their people, processes, and core values—during ordinary times are more prepared to be resilient through challenges and uncertainty. Perhaps most importantly, a strong culture contributes to an environment where employees feel supported and motivated at work, which impacts client satisfaction, too. 

“We want people to want to work at Vault. There’s a happiness factor to it. If employees are happy, that translates to the service we bring forward to our clients. It all comes back around,” says Rowe.

Rowe is a strong proponent of building an intentional culture that aligns with business objectives, actively listens to team members, and creates a productive and empowering environment overall. For Vault, this is nothing new. The company-wide approach at Vault to establish and evolve the firm’s culture means bringing many people into a dialogue and knowing it is never perfect or a finished product. Just like cultural changes in society more broadly, changes in attitudes or behaviors are adopted over time by many people.

Culture & Core Values Go Hand-in-Hand

For organizations that are starting to approach their cultures with more intention, Rowe cautions against looking to other companies for inspiration instead of looking inward first. Clarifying your goals, identity, and values is paramount to establishing a relevant culture. Observing how firms define their culture can be useful—such as their customer service values, service delivery, or management styles. However, Rowe explains that “creating a culture” is not as simple as a task to be checked off a to-do list or borrowed from someone else. 

“I believe in an authentic culture, but it’s important to know it can’t just be copied from someone else because you have to live it,” says Rowe.

Vault relied not only on its leaders but its entire team to define the core values and culture that each person upholds. These core values include accountability, flexibility, collaboration, appreciation, and a drive for excellence. Every Vaulter brings an appetite for learning and growing—and is willing to be accountable and collaborative to accomplish that. With those shared values and attitudes, a sense of collective ownership for the team culture became a central part of the Vault working environment.

“A lot of companies discuss who owns culture.” Rowe reminds us, “Whose responsibility is it? Everyone’s.”

Even when a firm’s culture is aligned to its core values and represents the big picture of where the team wants to go, being accountable to that culture often brings challenging moments. A strong organizational culture can help support many strategic goals at once, but it does not solve every problem. Indeed, Rowe acknowledges that promoting a supportive and collaborative culture where learning and hard work are rewarded accordingly is attractive to newly hired employees—but will they still feel aligned to the company’s goals and culture if the economic outlook changes? 

“Culture can’t just be about making your firm stand out when it’s an employee’s market. You should be employee-focused no matter what the market is like,” says Rowe.

It is also important to realize the limits that fun office perks and financial benefits can have in creating a strong culture. They may even distract from more significant conversations and decisions around culture. While offering fun experiences and incentives that keep employees excited to do their best work is important, thinking about culture in terms of tangible rewards is only one aspect of it. 

“Culture can help with your branding, customer experience, and more, but you have to be willing to make tough decisions related to culture—it’s not just the tangible things like happy hours,” says Rowe. Instead, thinking about how culture and values align and create a roadmap for approaching big and small business goals is valuable. It must be broader and more robust than the concerns of the moment. 

A Living, Breathing Project

Because a firm’s culture must be broader than a particular moment in its life cycle, continuously evaluating and measuring culture is critical to its long-term success. With a people-first culture, the strategic goals a firm pursues become more realistic because motivated, supported, and prepared teams are collaborating to accomplish them. Approaching culture as a shared responsibility relates to Vault’s core responsibilities of collaboration and accountability. It allows every Vaulter to bring forward new ideas that can benefit everyone.

“Frame it, align it, live it, evaluate it, and measure it,” says Rowe. “It doesn’t mean everything is perfect, and not everyone will love everything.” Instead, she emphasizes the importance of looking at the larger fit and the overall data and impact of culture on the team’s happiness, productivity, quality of service, and client satisfaction.

Engagement surveys can help with understanding the alignment (or lack thereof) between employee engagement and their happiness. Methodically-crafted questions and statements can help firms understand how employees feel and how best to use that data to make the appropriate changes. To that end, engagement surveys need to assess how closely the organization’s core values align with the culture.

“If we think part of our culture is that our organization needs to be accountable, we need to include that in the engagement survey, and establish where any disconnects are,” explains Rowe.

Making this surveying a regular and transparent practice demonstrates that commitment to culture is a priority. Rowe also suggests that leaders figure out how to strategically approach survey results before receiving the data. In addition, finding opportunities to connect with employees about their working environment and whether it is a good fit for them can be a useful way of gathering additional data, even if the questions asked are not explicitly about culture.

While having a strong culture has undoubtedly gained new attention in the last year, Rowe will encourage her audience at the GWSCPA Nonprofit Symposium to keep it top-of-mind on an ongoing basis—no matter the broader business environment. Culture matters in both ordinary times and extraordinary ones. The organizations that see culture’s importance and align their culture to their core values, listen for feedback, and adjust accordingly will be better prepared to weather the inevitable storms.