Instilling Common Values in a Diverse Corporate Culture
by Tom Nies
Building a global corporate culture involves recognizing the differences among employees from a variety of nations. But the real key to developing a cohesive global corporation is to find a way to effectively communicate a common set of values and principals consistently across national, cultural and linguistic boundaries.
Our company, Cincom Systems, has been in the software business for 35 years and for most of that time we have been a global company. We began expanding globally in 1970, and by 1974, we had operations on six different continents. Today, we do business in more than 20 countries. Today, our company generates 60 percent of its revenue outside the United States, and many of our international clients have been with us for 20 years or more.
This has not been an easy path. And one of the lessons we learned early in trying to build a global organization is that it critical to establish a single standard, a single way of doing business that must transcend national and cultural boundaries.
However, managing a global organization by issuing remote edicts from headquarters just doesn’t work. We try instead to make our employees in overseas offices understand that they are as critical to the company’s success as any headquarters manager in Cincinnati. This isn’t about making anyone feel good. The fact is, with more than half of our business coming from outside our borders, our international team members are as important as anyone in the company, perhaps more so.
Our efforts to foster a global culture are built on four components. We believe any global organization can use these elements or variations on them to create a successful international enterprise, regardless of industry. Communicating Core Values in a Global Language Cincom has developed a set of common values and has adopted a universal way to communicate these values. We work hard to make sure that these values mean the same thing and are understood in a common way from Cincinnati to Tokyo to Sao Paulo.
Cincom has built itself on a foundation of guiding principals that we sum up in three words: character, competence and commitment. Our approach to building this foundation of values has been to start with our headquarters operation and work outward. We believe strongly that if we believe in and practice our core values every day at our headquarters, than our regional and international operations will embrace these values more easily, rather that view them as empty words and pay lip service to them. One tactic that has worked for us in communicating these values is to adopt the literary character Don Quixote from the novel by Miguel de Cervantes as the unofficial patron saint of Cincom.
Don Quixote did joust windmills, but those who understand the book also know that he embodies many of the values we try to promote at Cincom. He had imagination, compassion, discipline and he took great joy in every task, whatever the outcome. It helps that Quixote is not an American example. Quixote was written in Spanish in the 17th Century, so his recognition eclipses national and cultural boundaries.
We hold our local and global employees equally accountable to these principals. We do not tolerate differences in business cultures as a reason to employ different ethical standards. This may seem counterintuitive in the sense that we are not accommodating cultural differences. However, running an effective global company is about defining a common corporate culture. That can’t happen if the rules are a little different in each of our branch offices.
Reaching Out Globally
Frequent and open communications is something all senior executives claim to support. If you are running a global business, it is critical that you pay more than lip service to this management principal. I make myself available at all times in person, by phone or email. As a result, I often hear directly from people in the field, in the U.S. and abroad, with questions or comments about a specific issue. I make time to respond to all of these messages.
Don Quixote has proven a useful symbol for our global employee recognition program, which we call the Quixote Club. Again, recognition programs are common, but they often do not do enough to include the contributions of staff located multiple times zones away from headquarters.
The Quixote Club is an honorary society within Cincom that recognizes 10 percent of our global workforce each year for its commitment to our core values. Each branch office nominates 10 percent of its team for induction into the Quixote Club each year, and their names are posted on our “Cintranet” or internal corporate Web site, as well as on plaques in our worldwide headquarters and in offices around the globe.
Quixote Club winners receive gold rings with a diamond in it. Every time employees receive another award, they receive another diamond to add to their ring. We also have a worldwide Quixote Club Day where winners are recognized in every office in a company ceremony.
As a company that does 60 percent of its business globally, we make sure our annual recognition program represents our global workforce. At a more senior level, we conduct twice annual leadership conferences at our home office in Cincinnati, and roughly half of the managers attending these meetings are from our global operations. These meetings deal with strategy, business practices, new products and corporate challenges. By sharing a common set of challenges and objectives, these meetings help create a sense of common purpose among domestic and global leaders and are very valuable in reinforcing our core principals across the global organization.
Building Global Strength with Local Leadership
Cincom is a global company, and particularly so for a company of our size. We have achieved a cohesive global organization by avoiding common mistakes. The first is not running our global offices with an iron hand from headquarters. This is never a good way to run a business, but particularly not when leadership is so far removed from global operations. At Cincom, we have made a point of not rotating managers from the United States in and out of our international operations. Many companies do this to make sure that someone who understands the directives from headquarters is running far-flung operations. While we do have some senior leaders from the United States running our European and Asian divisions, local offices are in almost all cases managed by leaders developed from within that market. The phrase “think globally, act locally” may be a bit worn, but it is one we believe works. Historically, when we have opened a new location, a manager from our headquarters operation will get that location off the ground, but that manager’s first hire will be his or her replacement, and that replacement is a local national. The other common mistake we’ve avoided is to run each local operation like a separate business, with no connection to headquarters except in name. This makes it very difficult, if not impossible, to project a common image of the business. And for Cincom, our reputation is so closely tied up in our mission statement and core values that such an approach is not feasible.
Building Personal Connections Among Peers
Much of what we’ve discussed involves formal communications between headquarters and our global teams through our “Cintranet,” regular gatherings, employee recognition programs and so on. These are tremendously valuable, but they only do so much good without regular reinforcement at the grassroots level. We provide a state of the art peer-to-peer communications platform that provides an organic system for fostering communications and knowledge sharing among branch offices around the world. This has been a key component of Cincom’s global operations since we first expanded internationally back in the 1970s. Only the technology has changed. When we started our international operations, internal mail systems, teletypes and phones kept our far flung global operations connected. Today, Cincom uses video conferencing, computerized white boarding and shared collaboration software to share information, knowledge and understanding back and forth globally. There is nothing like the pressure of a looming project deadline to bring out the best-and worst-in people. By sharing information globally and in real time, our people learn the Cicom way not from headquarters edicts, but from witnessing the performance of their peers-often from many time zones away.
Our international offices need to be self-sufficient and self-directed in order to be effective. But our company, with the aid of technology, has reduced the distance between Cincinnati and Sydney or Shanghai. This requires a real commitment at each end to operate a truly global business, and it requires some sacrifices, given time differences often as great as 16 hours.
If there is a critical project in Australia that requires attention from key Cincomers here in the United States, we will engage in that project at all hours in order to work with fellow Cincomers in real time. This kind of “whatever it takes” effort is emulated in our global offices, because they see it in action; they do not just hear us mouth the words from headquarters.
Cincom Systems Inc. Founder and President Tom Nies is the longest running CEO in the software industry. Cincom pioneered the once-radical idea of selling computer software as a product at a time when software was freely given away with hardware. To learn more about Cincom’s products and services, please visit http://www.cincom.com