Expert Commentary

Why Bother with Traditions?

We all love our family traditions. Most families have longstanding activities that mark the season or the date. I put up Grandma's hand-crocheted snowflakes on the Christmas tree every year, even if no other decorations go on the tree at all. A friend has a special menorah for Hanukkah that has been passed down in the family. Certainly family reunions are scheduled for years in advance to be sure everyone blocks out their calendars.

Leadership at All Levels
February 2014

Even the foods we eat for various holidays are virtually etched in stone. Quick! What colors do we associate with Valentine's Day? St. Patrick's Day? Halloween? They are pretty easy, right? In the United States, everyone knows the colors even if they don't celebrate these holidays.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention sporting events, especially since it's basketball season. Not only do teams have their colors and uniform styles and mascots, but we also have our tailgating traditions, colors, foods, games before the games, and much more. Team members have rituals they perform before the game that are ingrained to the point of superstitions. Some believe these little activities determine the outcome of the game. And, if they believe that to be true, who is to say it doesn't affect their attitude and performance, and therefore the outcome?

Forming Your Own Business Culture

The subject of business culture has been around a long time. Many fine speakers teach about the value and need for a strong culture, and some go so far as to assist in defining what culture it is that you want to build. These are extremely important conversations. Defining your culture is an important part of the vision-mapping process. You need to have the conversation about values you want in your team and your company, values that the world should be able to see in your actions, products, and messaging. Those values will define the culture.

Meanwhile, as you are creating, building, or enhancing that corporate culture, my advice is to deliberately build in a large variety of relevant corporate traditions. These will help reinforce and enhance the culture and carry it forward for you long after you've moved on to the day-to-day execution of your mission.

Some traditions will be created naturally by the staff of the organization. This is good, but take care to encourage the ones that will bring your vision forward and discourage those that are counterculture. You don't want to have an unofficial tradition in the office that negates the hard work you're doing on the other side.

Acknowledging and Encouraging Employees

What behaviors do you want to see in your employees? How would you like them to think about your organization? What is rewarded there? Longevity is a common initiator of celebration: at 10 years you get a gift, at 15 you get a party, at 20 you get a watch. These are good traditions, as long as they don't seem like the only reason for reward. What is your tradition that celebrates wonderful performance? We give raises and bonuses, of course, but are there other forms of recognition for performance? Is there a leader board or a public acknowledgement of the success that has been achieved? For example, when someone finishes a degree or designation, is there a note passed to everyone else to share in the congratulations?

If you say you are a "family-oriented" company, but you don't allow the tradition of baby showers (maybe they use the break room after hours) or personal pictures hung on the walls or time off for little league games, you are sending a mixed message. Do you have health initiatives in your office, spending money to keep employees healthy? The statistics proving the value to the bottom line for this are already out there. But giving a discount on a gym membership and creating teams, contests, and activities where employees share in the fun are two very different approaches. Encouraging walking groups on lunch break is different from actually participating in one as a boss.

An Impressive Example: Disney

Does your advertising say you are a company "focused on the community"? How do you create a tradition to support that message? Are you closing the office and taking your staff out to work with a charity of their choosing one day a year? Do you give them a day or two a year to work with their own charities? Or do you make your team take a vacation day to do charitable work?

Disney is a great example of using every element of a cast member's day to reinforce its culture internally and externally. Just the use of the phrase "cast member" has impact. Disney uses the language of the culture it wants to emulate: the entertainment business. Customers are guests. Uniforms are costumes. This is branding at its finest.

But it goes beyond what the customer sees day to day. Did you know Disney trains other businesses? That it allows behind-the-scenes tours? The tradition of sharing all that the company knows about how to run a solid, profitable business informs both the guest and the cast members about who Disney is as a company. How organized and clean must the backstage be, the underground (literally, there is a city underground), for the company to allow guests there? This translates to the work being so complete and of such high quality that you get to see the other side. They stay in character, no matter what. It's a little bit like turning an expensive suit inside out. The seams are going to be clean and finished and maybe even a little decorative. Not so with a cheap suit, which may have frayed seams and crooked stitching.

Turning to Customers

Traditions don't have to stop with internal activities. Creating traditions with your customers can lead to wonderful long-term relationships. Remember getting birthday cards from your life insurance agent? That counts as a tradition, too. Or perhaps you have a special holiday party of some kind for the top 20 percent of clients. Perhaps you send a particular gift each year, knowing they are "waiting" for the smoked turkey from Greenberg, Texas, or the cheese basket from Wisconsin each year at Thanksgiving. They look forward to that tradition like an event. If you send a different gift every year, you aren't creating a tradition in the strictest sense.

Even creating a tradition or two with the vendors you use can be valuable. Perhaps they would want to join in on a charitable event or a softball game. Even if they don't come, the invitation creates a different sense of their part in your success.

Take the Steps

So, the point is to be very deliberate about what traditions you create. Think about what you want to reinforce. How do you want the company to be seen by others, by the clients, by the employees, even by the vendors?

The first step is to collect information about all the things happening in your company that could be thought of as tradition. Leave nothing out, ask lots of questions of your team, and see what is happening officially as well as unofficially. You may not realize you have groups that go out for a monthly birthday lunch, meet for happy hour, or take yoga classes together. Some are sending birthday cards to clients, and some are sending them at Christmas. You may want to get organized around that. Know what these unofficial things are so you can encourage the right ones (and just ignore the others, if not on company time). Once you know what the activities are, you can analyze, combine, add, or eliminate in whichever way reinforces the messages you need to send.

Finally, communicate well! Be sure your folks know why you are asking about traditions and the ramifications you would like to see from the project. Then, let them help! After all, these are their traditions, too.

Opinions expressed in Expert Commentary articles are those of the author and are not necessarily held by the author's employer or IRMI. Expert Commentary articles and other IRMI Online content do not purport to provide legal, accounting, or other professional advice or opinion. If such advice is needed, consult with your attorney, accountant, or other qualified adviser.

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