Historians had this to say about the purpose of the RMS Titanic: 

Traveling on the Titanic was a voyage of purpose, primarily to transport mail, cargo and passengers, many of whom were emigrating, as steadily and safely as possible. Designed to withstand harsh seas and cut through water, the Titanic was built with efficiency in mind.

Because of how it was constructed, many believed the ship to be unsinkable. Along with its stature, the ship was built for luxury, primarily catering to the wealthiest members of society at the time. Unfortunately, the designers, captains, and first-class passengers of the ship shared the same selfish, self-centered vision for their future, which quickly evolved into WIIFM or “What’s In It For Me.” 

Contrast the RMS Titanic to the most decorated U.S. Battleship in the history of our country: the USS New Jersey. According to American Historians: 

The USS New Jersey first served in World War II, striking targets across the Pacific. She went into reserve status after the War but was called back up to pound positions in Korea. The New Jersey was placed on reserve status in 1957 but returned to active service in 1968, providing artillery support to forces in the Vietnam War.

Wikipedia states, “During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the battleship was the most powerful type of warship, and a fleet of battleships was considered vital for any nation that desired to maintain command of the sea.” Each ship had dedicated men and women to “man their battle stations” with a purpose. There was no selfishness or arrogance. The vision and attitude across the board was to serve our country through duty and honor and to protect America against any adversaries on the high seas.  

Herein lies the problem: many organizational cultures resemble a cruise ship mentality. There is a clouded vision of the future, values are individualized, a roadmap to success is missing, and the tyranny of the urgent is the daily priority. In today’s 21st-century workforce, in order for an organization to preserve its business legacy, it is paramount that its culture resemble that of a battleship.  

Throughout my leadership journey, I’ve seen my share of poor organizational cultures. To be fair, I have also witnessed effective ones. So, what are the foundational requirements for a healthy organizational culture? The answer: vision, values, mission, goals, and priorities. Let’s take a look at each one.

Vision

Must answer the question, “Why do we exist?” The book of Proverbs in the Holy Bible states, “Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18). Vision is an imagined future state to establish a firm foundation for an organization to build upon. An organization can gather its executive team and ask the future they envision one, five, ten, or twenty-five years down the road. It can even have internal and external visions, however, each one must be clearly established and defined. In sailing terms, a vision is the “port” a ship is trying to reach.  

Values 

Must answer the question, “How will we behave?” Values are the litmus test from which all decisions within the organization are made. They should drive major decisions, budgeting, and resource allocation. Without values, an organization lacks effective measures of employee behavior making it susceptible to individual personalities, experiences, and ideas that may not align with the envisioned future. Because words have meaning, an effective way to establish values within an organization is to ensure each value is clearly defined and given an impact statement. An organization’s values are its “rudder.” They ensure the organization stays the course or is able to make corrections enroute to the final port.

Mission

Must answer the question, “How will we succeed?” A well-defined mission statement provides a clear and concise guide to how the company defines itself. Mission statements are internally focused for the good of all employees – not the customers. A good practice for organizations is to keep the mission statement to less than 25 words so that all employees can understand, know, and actively live it on a daily basis. The mission is an organization’s “engine” which enables it to move on a set course to its destination.  

Goals

Zig Ziglar once said the following about the importance of having goals: “How can you achieve something you cannot see, how can you hit a target you do not have?” Effective organizations have SMART goals that can be seen and “hit”. Each goal is “Specific” to ensure focus. The goal is “Measurable” to know when the organization has succeeded. The goal is “Achievable”, meaning it can’t be some wildly conceived idea that is not feasible for the company and resources available. A goal is “Risky” for it to be worthwhile. If an organization does not stretch itself, it cannot grow; and growth requires calculated risks. Finally, a goal is tied to “Time” because without time there is not sense of urgency or motivation. Parkinson’s Law states, “Work expands as to fill the time available for its completion.” The most effective organizations are masters of time management and challenge themselves to achieve goals in the least amount of time possible.   

Priorities

Once a vision is set, values defined, mission developed, and goals established, an organization can set priorities. Priorities must answer the question, “What’s Important Now (W.I.N.)?” Organizations without priorities will give “oil to squeaky wheels” or just take care of the next task in line. The most effective organizations have candid discussions defining the next step. Leadership expert and author Andy Stanley wrote a book about decision making and the three questions he emphasizes can also be used to set priorities. In order to make the best decision, organizations should ask themselves, “What’s the best thing to do in light of past experiences, current situation, and future hopes and dreams?”

Marissa Mayer, CEO and President of Yahoo, stated the following about company culture: “It’s about getting the best people, retaining them, nurturing a creative environment and helping to find a way to innovate.”

Is your vision for the future clearly defined? What values drive your business? What is your mission and what goals will enable its success? Are priorities established and followed with a W.I.N. mentality? 

If your employees were asked to describe your organizational culture, would they say they’re on a cruise ship or battleship?