How to Reinforce—or Restore—Your Company Culture

These are unprecedented times for business.  For many companies, the only way to survive will be through shared sacrifice with your employees.  When you are asking people to embrace painful measures like pay cuts and temporary furloughs, it helps immeasurably to have a strong, unified company culture in place.  But if your company culture has crumbled, I can tell you first-hand that it is possible to reclaim it.  I’ve climbed that mountain, and in my new book, Designing a World-Class Architecture Firm I detail the steps it takes to reinforce or restore your company culture.  Here’s an overview.

 I was fortunate to begin my architecture career at the original HOK office in St. Louis, Missouri, where the founders had taken care to nurture a strong internal culture.  George Hellmuth, Gyo Obata and George Kassabaum shared a powerful vision of a firm where people treated each other as teammates and helped each other to succeed. They valued harmony.  Plenty of rivalry existed outside the firm for projects, but inside, the founders insisted that teamwork was the best way for HOK to compete. To simplify this thought, which would work well at any company, the idea was:

Collaboration inside is the best way to compete outside

This feeling of being part of a big team, of helping each other to succeed, came to be called HOK culture, and was deeply embedded in the early firm.  The founders did not need to talk about HOK culture. Everyone in the St. Louis office understood it and how important it was to our success.


As HOK grew and added offices, no one thought about how to spread HOK culture to new locations around the world. They just figured HOK Culture would somehow naturally take hold.  But as HOK expanded into a firm of many offices with many new people who had little or no exposure to the founders, or HOK St. Louis, the collaborative nature of HOK culture began to erode. Some offices began to compete with each other for work.  They went after the same clients in overlapping geographic regions. Sometimes offices won work on the strength of HOK’s international reputation, but then lacked the local talent, or experience to design and deliver first-rate work in that project type. Instead of sharing the work with experienced people in other HOK locations, an office would keep the entire fee for itself, designing and delivering an inferior project.  That, in turn, damaged the reputation of the entire firm.  It was a counterproductive mess on the inside that made us look bad on the outside.

Some offices began pursuing work without checking to see if other HOK offices were going after the same client or project. I once received a call from a client saying, “I met with your office last week, and today another HOK office asked for a meeting.” In another embarrassing example, representatives from an HOK office called on a client. When they stepped into his office and exchanged business cards, he said, “The name HOK rings a bell … oh yes, your colleagues from the Dallas office were here yesterday.”  

Many of the offices—Kansas City, London, New York, Dallas, Toronto and others—began to drift, feeling they were independent.  Some leaders began to put their offices first and HOK second, operating quasi-independently. Disputes over clients, projects and territories began to spring up, particularly between St. Louis and New York. Who gets the work in Ohio? Pennsylvania? Rivalry between offices meant we weren’t putting our best foot forward.  We certainly weren’t helping each other to succeed or “collaborating inside in order to compete outside,” as the founders had envisioned.

My biggest challenge upon becoming HOK CEO in 2003 was restoring the collaborative HOK culture in every person and every HOK office around the world.  This effort required time but enabled our firm to compete better every day—and weather a variety of crises.  There are concrete things you can do to reinforce or reclaim your company culture.  Here are some of the steps:

  1. Communicate in-person with every employee. Visit with employees in-person. Regular, face-to-face communication is key. If you are not able to meet in person, meet virtually via teleconference.  It is important for your people to see you—and you to see them.  We began rotating HOK board meetings between offices to get to know each team better.  And I, personally, visited each of our 20 offices at least once a year.  Between meetings, keep everyone up to date with steady emails or other forms of communication.  Make sure your employees know how your firm is progressing toward fixing problems, or meeting goals.
  2. Encourage employees to “ask you anything.”  Hold “Ask Me Anything” talks to foster open communication between leadership and staff. Be honest and direct. People will appreciate your straightforward evaluation of the challenges your company faces and they will feel invested in helping you meet them. Getting the first employee to ask a question will lead others to ask their questions.  One time, at HOK Toronto, nobody would ask that first question, so I offered a Canadian looney coin to the first person who would “ask me anything.”  The gimmick worked and got the flow of questions started.  Treat each question seriously, answer openly, and you will begin to build a culture of shared values.
  3. Use company stock to unify your team.  If your company issues stock, it may sound like a cold, hard financial tool, but it can become a tool for reclaiming your company culture.  When HOK’s stock began growing in value, we started comparing its growth to that of the Dow, which it often beat.  That encouraged more employees to want to buy our stock.  As shareholders saw their HOK stock value go up and learned more about the business side of the firm, they began to take an interest in whether other offices besides their own were doing well.  Stock value is tied to the health of the entire firm, not the individual offices, so this reinforced our goal of helping people view HOK as a whole.  Infighting between offices receded. Stock became an important factor in binding us together and it can do this for other firms as well.
  4. Adjust your bonus program to reinforce your company culture.  At HOK, our original bonus allocation system was purely mathematical, based on profits.  It became an incentive for individual offices to win and keep as much fee as possible, undermining firm-wide collaboration and quality.  So we revised our bonus program to reward other factors we valued—not just profitability.  We began looking at qualitative metrics such as support for great design, collaboration with other offices and client service. This requires more judgment by firm leaders to honestly evaluate each employee’s contribution, but it’s worth the effort.  Once employees understand these more nuanced goals, they will be motivated to  meet them, which will strengthen your company culture.