Today, it happened again. An employer sent me an email that wentsomething like this:

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JP, we need to attract young, talented employees. We also realize thatwill require changing our culture so that millennials want to workfor us.

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Below is a list of benefits we’d like to offer to transformour culture. Can you recommend vendors for each of thesebenefits?

Thanks for your help.

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Employers, there is a better way! If your goal is to become acompany that attracts and retains millennials (or anyoneelse), you don’t need to throw a basket full of vendors andprograms against the wall to see what sticks. Not only will thisstrategy waste a lot of money, but it will also do little totransform the culture of your organization.

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When it comes to culture, you rarely solve internal problemswith external vendors. Culture problems within an organizationtypically do not emerge overnight. They are the result of years ofcultural evolution driven by internal dynamics, such aspolicies, practices, leadership, history, management training andstructure, etc.

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Before you hire a fleet of vendors, try a few of thesetips:

1. Define the culture you want to establish.

Defining your desired culture gives your organization a NorthStar by which to navigate strategy development. Begin by clearlyarticulating the type of culture you want to establish. Keep inmind that “attracting millennials” is a goal, not a typeof culture. Ask yourself, “What type of cultureattracts and retains people and how do we cultivate thatculture?”

2. Assess your existing culture.

As I mentioned earlier, your existing culture did not suddenlyemerge from nothingness. Rather, it is the result of years oforganizational dynamics that have shaped your company.

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Many of your cultural woes are self-inflicted and will not besolved by hiring an outside vendor. You need to take a look in themirror and ask, “Why are we the way we are?”

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Recently, I was talking to a friend about his work culture. Heexplained that he spends several hours each weekend working onprojects for “the man.” I laughed and said, “Are you thatinefficient? Can’t you finish your work by Friday evening?” Hereplied, “Of course I can. I actually save work for the weekend.”Confused, I asked, “Can you explain?” He went on to tell an age-oldstory of his boss sending emails, texting and calling with noregard for nights and weekends. He once asked his boss why he worksso much on the weekends. His boss’s answer was classic: “Becausemy boss works on the weekends.”

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Stories like this one can tell you a lot about a company’sculture issues. Assess your existing culture by evaluating it basedon four categories: modeling, clues, practices andrewards.

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Modeling refers to the behavioral patterns madenormative by leadership that trickle down to all employees. Why wasmy friend pounding out emails on Saturday night? His managermodeled that working on the weekend is necessary for careeradvancement (or even job security!). I once worked for a companythat wanted to nurture valued work/life balance. They wanted theiremployees to be free to disconnect from work while on vacation.Most of their middle-leadership, however, remained connected towork while on vacation. The behavior their leaders modeledundermined the company’s attempts to nurture work/life balance.Negative modeling will always erode your culture, regardless of howmuch energy you pump into a vendor solution.

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Clues are the implicit indicationscommunicating what is expected of employees at your company. Whileclues are almost always unspoken, they are heard loud and clear byyour workforce. The establishment of clues may be influenced by themodeling of upper management. Have you ever worked for a company inwhich everyone shows up by 7 am and nobody leaves before 6 pm? Mostpeople finish their work by 4:30, but they’re still sitting attheir desk at 6 to satisfy an unspoken clue: To advance in thecompany, you work long hours. Find the clues that hinder progresstoward your desired culture. Then, bulldoze them!

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Practices are the formal and informalprocedures that shape how and when employees work. A simplequestion to ask about your existing practices is, “Does thispractice support or hinder employee flourishing and businesseffectiveness?” You must strike a balance between supporting youremployees and exercising financial responsibility through efficientworkplace management. If, for example, your remote work policyresults in extended beach days and limited productivity, you mayneed to tighten the policy. What if your employees feel chained totheir cubicles and unable to manage a work/life balance when lifeevents occur? It’s time to adjust your practice in the oppositedirection.

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Rewards are the public recognition and praiseemployees receive for their work. You can tell a lot about acompany’s culture by observing the things they reward. Does yourcompany only reward employees for making more money for thecompany, or do you reward other contributions or accomplishments?How often do you reward or recognize employee achievement? Duringannual company reviews, do you report the number of employees whowere promoted or achieved career milestones? Do any of your formalor informal rewards align with your company values? What you rewardmatters because it reflects what you value and what employeesshould aspire to accomplish.

3. Be honest about your values.

Values drive culture, and there is no way around it. I work witha lot of clients who say, “We want to start a wellness program tosupport employees. It’s something we value.” It doesn’t take longin the conversation to discern what they actually value – costavoidance. If values do not drive your cultural aspirations, theywill never stick. Millennials, in particular, will sniff out thedisingenuous charade behind your vendor offerings and head for thenearest exit.

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Until your company, and the leadership in particular, genuinelyvalues the values you claim to espouse, your culture initiativeswill have minimal impact. Why? Values always drive practice. Whenyour values become ingrained in the psyche of your organization,your organization begins to change. You no longer need to “programin” the values, because people begin acting in accordance with themnaturally. That’s very different from simply installing avendor.

4. Hire the right vendor(s).

Once you’ve addressed the internal causes of negative culture,you can look for gaps where you may need external help.

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Don’t have an effective program for identifying and trainingquality leaders? You may want to hire an external consultant tohelp. Trying to incorporate healthy behaviors in your culture? Awellness vendor may be a good fit. Do you value supporting thefinancial flourishing of your employees? Consider offering benefitslike student loan assistance, retirement planning or financialeducation. In each of these scenarios, vendor selection supplementsa comprehensive culture strategy; it does not drive the strategy.Instead, your strategy and internal culture initiativesmust drive vendor selection.

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A common mistake that I see employers make is confusing thepresence of a vendor with the presence of a strategy. You can hirethe greatest vendor in the industry and not have an actualstrategy. Vendors, as great as they may be, are not capable oftransforming your culture. Can they be great resource aides?Absolutely! Do I recommend vendors? Absolutely! Vendor selection islike creating an exercise routine. First, determine your goals.Then, decide how to train your body to reach those goals. Finally,if needed, purchase resources that align with your goals andplan.

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Here’s a good question to consider: “If we remove or change ourvendor, will our culture initiatives fall apart?” If the answer isyes, you should focus on creating or improving your strategy. Totest your strategy to build stellar culture, assess the ease withwhich vendors are exchanged. If you fire your wellness vendor, forexample, what is left of your broader strategy? It seems like anobvious question, but countless employers will fail that test. Why?Employers often confuse investing in vendors and programs withhaving a thoughtful strategy.

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Great culture begins with an organic desire to become aparticular type of company. If you want to attract andretain people, then your value-drivers must resonate withthe intrinsic desires of those people. Begin your culture changeinitiatives by seeking alignment between where you are today andwhere you aspire to be. Then, as needed, strategically partner withvendors that can help you reach your goals.

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The effort is worth it. Keep building!

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