What does it take to build a positive corporate culture?

Photo: Kellogg Company
Nov 15, 2022

Lesley Salmon, SVP, global chief information officer at Kellogg Company, says that she spends a lot of time thinking about her team and how to engage its members in ways that deliver continually improving results for the consumer packaged goods giant’s stakeholders.

Ms. Salmon does not believe that one-third of your life should be spent working at a job that has you constantly saying to yourself, “Oh no, I have to go to that place again.”

In an essay on building a positive corporate culture, Ms. Salmon quotes Sheryl Sandberg, the former chief operating officer at Meta and founder of Leanin.org: “Leadership is about making others better as a result of your presence and making sure that impact lasts in your absence.”

She calls having the opportunity to lead “a privilege” and believes that passion and empathy are the keys to helping team members get the best out of themselves.

Kellogg’s IT organization, she writes, has been built on four pillars: having a purpose, creating an environment of continuous learning, breaking down silos and having a winning strategy.

Having a shared purpose helps team members come to work with renewed energy on a day-in and day-out basis.

“At Kellogg, our vision is a good and just world where people are not just fed but fulfilled,” writes Ms. Salmon. “Our purpose is to create better days and a place at the table (or keyboard) for everyone. That sense of purpose is the bedrock for how we approach everything — from people, processes, technology and data — and, ultimately, how we’re creating the future of food.”

Intellectual curiosity and continuous learning are essential for growth, says Ms. Salmon. Kellogg, she writes, makes significant investments in skills and leadership development.

One team is the mantra at Kellogg, according to Ms. Salmon. “We (IT) are continuously breaking down silos, partnering, and experimenting with the commercial teams to drive business outcomes.”

She cited a 2020 example where a team member learned that more than two million in the UK are unable to read packages due to sight loss. The company added Navilens technology to its packaging to allow the site impaired to learn about ingredients using their smartphones. The technology is being brought to the U.S. next.

“We’re creating a workplace defined by personalized solutions, well-being and a focus on experimentation, culture and inclusivity. A team becomes the competitive advantage when you get this right,” she writes.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: What do you think are the pillars upon which positive corporate cultures are built? What do you see as examples of positive corporate cultures at work in retail?

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"Value the team, respect them professionally and personally, and provide opportunities for growth and development. The rest are details."

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19 Comments on "What does it take to build a positive corporate culture?"

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Zel Bianco

I have personally experienced how Kellogg has created an environment where personal growth is taken quite seriously. They are a client of ours and have seen where upskilling their sales organization on the use of data has allowed for corporate growth but at the same time making sure that their people grow as well. A company that only thinks about shareholder value at the expense of their people that make that growth happen will not prosper in the long run.

Gary Sankary

Value the team, respect them professionally and personally, and provide opportunities for growth and development. The rest are details.

Dion Kenney
15 days 9 hours ago

A potentially contentious topic, as there are as many ways to define and create culture as there are companies and leaders trying to manifest it. For me, culture is the actual result of hiring, organizational process, and the behavior that leadership presents, regardless of the mission statements or company vision. If you find yourself on a team that shares a vision, lives that vision, will defend that vision, and you are aligned with that vision, then you have found your tribe.

Lisa Goller

Positive corporate cultures exude more team unity and respect, and less ego and competition. When people feel safe, they devote more energy into doing their finest work.

Target, Costco, Trader Joe’s and REI stand out for having a positive culture that permeates their entire org chart.

Patricia Vekich Waldron

A clear strategy, operational excellence and knowing one’s role in bringing it to life are key to productive teams. Swift action when individual agendas, incompetence or bad behavior arises does a great deal to keep good workers motivated and on track.

Gene Detroyer

I am teaching an MBA course on leadership. The slide on my first PPT is “Leadership is about making others better as a result of your presence and making sure that impact lasts in your absence.” Then I tell the students the course is over. That is all you have to know.

Of course, that is not the end. The balance of the course is understanding people and tools to implement that first slide — how to get over all the hurdles one would encounter on the way to building the team.

The one thing that Ms. Salmon doesn’t address how difficult it is to build a unique culture in a company with an overriding culture that has been in place for years, if not decades. Legacy culture dies hard.

Jeff Sward

Clarity of the vision. Clarity of the brand promise and the strategic and tactical elements that support that vision. Clarity on the metrics that will measure success along the way. And finally, a process that embraces and resolves varying inputs, ideas and opinions. Conflict resolution. Not everybody is going to be right or happy 100 percent of the time. But they need to know they will be heard.

Dick Seesel

Aside from the obvious (treating employees humanely, leading by example, and so forth) I would add that empowering associates to make decisions is critical. This provides a sense that the job has real meaning, not just a series of tasks.

David Spear

Over the many companies I’ve worked for, it’s very clear every company has its own culture. Some have been great, others extremely lacking with cheap talk from senior executives. Creating a great culture is the responsibility of everyone in the organization. Yes, the big nuggets come from the top, but everyone needs to hop on the train, live it, breathe it, and defend it every single day. If not, then a vacuum exists and before too long, silos of competing mini-cultures start to take root in the enterprise, killing the very essence of the so-called corporate culture. Of the big pillars, here are a few that are absolutely necessary: vision, purpose (why do we do what we do), teamwork, humility, servant leadership, empathy and a healthy dose of emotional intelligence.

Mohamed Amer, PhD

Research shows that an effective corporate culture (an informal institution) is determined by the alignment and interactions between values, norms, and formal institutions (HR and governance). The values and norms guide employees’ actions in expected and contingent situations. Culture promotes the behaviors to successfully execute the company’s desired strategy and achieve its goals. For many companies, the values include integrity, adaptability, collaboration, community, and customer orientation.

Ryan Mathews

Back in the Stone Age I wrote that there are no business problems, just cultural problems. I still believe that. Also, for my sins my undergraduate and graduate work was in philosophy and I have worked closely with ethnographers and cultural anthropologists for decades. So — with all those caveats firmly in place — let me say I think of culture in fundamentally different ways than most business analysts. The “pillars” of a strong corporate culture are the same as those of any positive social culture — ethics, honesty, justice, integrity, consistent reinforcement, a shared vision capable of organic evolution, agreement on both ends and means, and absolute adherence to principles, without exception. People make culture all the time. In most companies there are at least two cultures being built at all times. One flows from the top down and is generally anchored in amorphous platitudes. Then there is the culture that employees create. That one flows from the bottom up. Rarely are they the same, except in the minds of management.

Doug Garnett

I do think corporations have lost their purpose. Unfortunately, my experience is that the best cultures are focused on doing business well and within your category — not on vague ideas like “fulfilling life.”

We need to return our industry and category to the core of purpose. MBA programs, in their zeal to drive shareholder value, destroyed company connections with the real and specific values of categories. This was driven by compensation programs which focused on short term money games which actually hurt long term shareholder value – but executives got some very nice compensation doing it.

I’m not so much a fan of Ms. Salmon’s theory of culture. The best cultures build by doing the right things for customers.

Brandon Rael

In the high-stakes and high-pressure retail environment, establishing a positive corporate culture is more critical than ever. Positive corporate cultures are delicate to establish, and it will all come down to execution. The leadership team must set the standards by prioritizing a positive culture built on collaboration, partnership, empowerment, inclusivity, and equality.

There has to be a parallel path to ensure a positive customer and retail associate experience. We have seen a greater emphasis on the retail workforce’s health, wellness, and safety, which is a welcome development. Positive corporate cultures are also fueled by executive teams creating an environment of trust and transparency, along with enabling the teams to perform their jobs to the best of their abilities.

15 days 8 hours ago

THE key to corporate culture is leadership. You don’t so much “create” a corporate culture; your corporate culture, positive or otherwise, is the result of the choices every leader at every level makes every day. This takes commitment, especially during challenging circumstances when stockholders may not share the same values.

Dave Wendland

Consistently value the team — and remain transparent and authentic (although those may sound trite, they matter to culture).

Mark Self

Mission/Vision/Values that are well understood, trusted, and “lived” by the employees. Best example I can think of is Trader Joe’s. 99.9% of the associates there obviously love/like what they do, and it is reflected and felt with the shopping experience.

Mel Kleiman

Interestingly, the article talks about purpose, but as you have stated in the discussion question, purpose is just another word for culture.

There is only one pillar when it comes to building a positive workplace. It all revolves around practicing the law of reciprocity. A culture that helps employees get what they want and that differs by employees. If you do, these employees will help the organization get what it wants.

Brad Halverson

First, having a central purpose is key because it creates direction for all. Next, living into that purpose, in demonstrating committed core values and actions every day is equally important so employees have something specific to see and feel as they go about their daily work. Supporting metrics provide added clarity and evidence of this. Leadership must first own this and walk it so that everyone else will.

Rachelle King

Positive corporate culture is built on authenticity and accountable practice. Unfortunately, most corporate cultures, missions and values are cooked up in a well-meaning ad agency. Executives then chant the party line, people managers ignore it and the employee population suffers. In reality it’s the day-to-day people managers that impact how employees experience culture. The hard truth is that most people managers are not held accountable for getting it right.

"Value the team, respect them professionally and personally, and provide opportunities for growth and development. The rest are details."

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