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Three Ways To Crack The Culture Code And Develop Corporate Values That Resonate

Sonny Kalsi is the CEO of BentallGreenOak, a global real estate investment and management platform.

In the past year since our merger, our firm’s leadership team has embarked on a process of discovery that has forged new, binding relationships across geographies and lines of business. In retrospect, the connections that we were building across the global real estate investment and services platform were in fact setting the foundation for something much bigger. This was a formative period in the building of our firm’s new culture.

Thrilling as it was to be in the midst of our own company’s cultural revolution, many important and unanswered questions would require meaningful consideration. How do we want to be seen and understood by our employees, our clients and the broader industry? What values will define our firm? What expectations will we demand of one another to drive success and a constructive, winning culture?

To establish definitive answers to these questions, a set of values was needed that would encompass all the aspirations for the firm, the chosen approach to doing business and the principles by which every team member would be held accountable. We needed a culture code.

Reflecting now on the months of intense and methodical work performed by so many to deliver BentallGreenOak’s (BGO) Culture Code, three lessons emerged that may prove helpful for companies that are exploring the development of their own set of corporate values.

1. Inclusion Gets You Everywhere

Being a global firm adds to the complexity of developing a unified set of corporate values, but it can also be a source of great strength. Drawing on a diverse employee base enables you to cast a wider representation of staff from various geographies, ethnicities, generational demographics and business backgrounds. To ensure that the dialogue among the selected individuals on our team would be uninhibited, we excluded most senior leaders from participation and established a comfort zone in which all members could speak candidly.

Our team drew inspiration from a Japanese term — nemawashi — which encourages the process of more focused dialogue in smaller circles to vigorously debate the merits of our ideas, before bringing them forward to the larger forum for discussion. Applying this approach can boost efficiency, assure more fulsome participation and add intellectual rigor to your process. 

As common ideas form through guided discussion groups, your final iteration of the culture code represents the best ideas from the widest range of thinkers; a culture code for everyone, everywhere.

2. Coupling Values With Behaviors

The diversity of perspectives invited into our team’s values-building process also laid bare one of the most fascinating aspects of cultural exploration: the power of words to both guide and/or confuse. As the team concluded the four pillars of the culture code, the importance of attaching further clarity and tangible “asks” to the values became a necessity. Linking “great” and “poor” behaviors to each of the values in the culture code can clearly articulate their meaning to employees.

Chief among our many considerations was the ability for employees to hold themselves and one another accountable to our culture code by examining the behaviors they bring to their work and work environment. This potent addition to the values contained within our code provides a behavioral recipe for success, and conversely, a set of behavioral red flags requiring immediate attention.

Presenting your values and coupling them with behaviors infuses the chosen words of your culture code with positive reinforcements and empowers all employees with a clear and urgent mandate to dismantle undesirable practices.

3. The Purpose Of It All

As I’ve traveled across the firm to meet with the ever-growing segment of young professionals across BGO, I’ve been struck by how strongly influenced their career decision-making is by the sense of purpose that their company instills in the values they espouse. There is a passion for taking the high ground on important societal issues and matters of integrity; for being forerunners on matters related to environmental, social and governance (ESG) matters; and a desire to feel connected to something grander than their job and their desk. Without a doubt, the stable of emerging talent at the firm has imprinted their passion for purpose on my firm’s culture code.

We are learning every day how to draw strength from the values of our Culture Code to directly inspire the services we deliver to our clients and investors, to enhance how we support and engage our tenants, and to forge more intimate and trust-based connections to communities and public stakeholders.

By making purpose explicit in each of the value statements of your culture code, you discover the potential for harnessing the passion of your colleagues to spark progress and drive better business outcomes for your firm.

These are early days in our firm’s journey to building a culture based on enduring values that make sense and matter. Cracking the culture code gave us the language we needed to clearly convey an identity for our firm, and the resulting expectations that will be required of us all to live up to those words through action. These lessons learned will be our constant companion as we undertake the next defining steps in our firm’s global growth trajectory, and renew our focus to sustaining a high performance, winning culture that is built to last.


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