Skip to content Skip to navigation

Making Culture Your Competitive Advantage: How to Attract, Retain and Activate the Best Talent

Tags:  (2017 Aug 1st - 2:50pm)

What if the public sector set the standard for having a workplace culture that attracts the best talent, thrives in the face of challenges, and drives fearless innovation?

Culture provides a competitive advantage. Consider: A friend of mine spent more than 40 years working at the post office, fantasizing about retirement and bonding with his colleagues by lamenting the government job. When the time came to retire, however, he committed to another five years of service and has never been happier. His work had grown so meaningful to him and become so deeply connected to who he was that when the choice to remain with the post office was finally his, he chose to stay.

Public sector organizations have the potential to set the standard for modern workplace culture because they have extraordinary advantages at their fingertips in the forms of their employees’ pride in service, community-oriented work, and relationships built over years of dedicated collaboration. Each brings people to the office each day.

We often refer to culture as a single abstract entity. In practice, an organization’s culture is a massive web of touchpoints that people have with one another every day. Each microculture, each smaller group in which people operate, acts as a strand in the web. When we step back to consider organizational culture, we see both the web and its strands, both the forest and the trees.

The Power of Culture Is Directly Proportional to the Individual’s Desire to Belong to It

Having a great culture makes an organization attractive in the eyes of a workforce with shifting strengths, demands, vulnerabilities, and an entirely new generation of employees. An employer of choice strives to be seen as a standard-bearer for employee benefits and mission-driven work. Public sector entities can boast the perfect opportunity for a jobseeker to dedicate his or her energy to one’s own home, to impact and represent the brand of the place one lives.

Having a great culture also helps an organization acquire and retain the best talent. People want to work at and pour themselves into what they love, and they want to be productive. These desires are innate, and a strong organizational culture satisfies them.

Great culture also increases an organization’s resilience. Between budget cuts and bureaucracy, public sector employees are especially pressed to perform with increasingly scarce resources, only one of which is energy. Its people form the backbone of everything an organization does, and having a strong culture strengthens employees’ focus and commitment in the face of obstacles. It fosters reverence for every role. No position is insignificant, no contribution is too small, and there is no such thing as a job that anybody could do.

People Who Have the Opportunity to Dedicate Themselves to What They Love Find Their Energy Increases as It Is Spent

It is culture that brings out the best in employees and drives innovation. Public sector organizations face regular periods of transition. A great culture sets the conditions for using transitions to drive bold innovation. It carries the workforce to new levels of creative and productive capacity, constantly seeking to evolve the relevance and impact of the services the organization provides. Organizations operating in the public sector have a certain degree of necessity by virtue of those services. Efficiency and effectiveness, however, are never guaranteed, and each depends on a strong culture for sustainability.

It comes as no news to learn that culture matters. Yet the link between cultural strength and organizational outcomes is often elusive. For example, I have just claimed that culture makes an organization competitive in the war for talent, helps increase resilience, and launches the present into the future. But I have, until now, neglected to emphasize that all of that is only possible because great culture actually drives performance at the individual worker level. A great organizational culture, then, is not captured in the vision or values statements of an organization. Rather, it is built at the local level, at the level of team discussion and frontline decisions by people who own their place within that great culture.

Build the Culture You Need With the Culture You Have

In Culture Eats Strategy for Lunch, Kathie Sorensen, Ph.D., and I note that each person is a moment-to-moment architect of culture. This reality makes the key to building a high-performance culture giving each employee the opportunity to own his or her unique role in creating an engaged workplace. Management’s job, then, becomes helping each individual discover what is most important to him or her and providing the tools to help all employees leverage what they do best to raise their productive energy to even greater heights.

The manager plays a pivotal role in driving individual and team performance. Organizations often reward high performers by making them managers without realizing what it takes to excel in the role. Bad managers can inadvertently suppress great talent. To be successful, managers need to understand that they exist to unleash the best in their people. Those who know how to select for talent, define the right outcomes, coach to strengths and find the right fit for their people lead teams that outperform their counterparts. Giving managers the language and resources they need to cultivate relationships with their team members significantly impacts a team’s creative and productive capacity.

Government culture is sticky. A public sector organization’s greatest asset is not just a person in a role; instead, the greatest asset is the right people in the right roles, with the right people being those who will invest their talent and energy and, through their partnerships and interactions with one another, empower everyone to do the same. The best people meet obstacles with innovation, performing beyond expectations and inviting others to rise to challenges because they know that their organization is counting on them, their clients and constituents are counting on them, and their communities are counting on them. More, the best people work for organizations that know that culture is the only sustainable competitive advantage, and that culture is neither abstract nor someone else’s responsibility.

Curt W. Coffman is the New York Times bestselling co-author of First, Break all the Rules (1999), Follow This Path (2002) and Culture Eats Strategy for Lunch (2012). Coffman spent 22 years as global practice leader for employee and customer engagement at the Gallup Organization and is an executive fellow at the Daniels College of Business at the University of Denver. Today, as chief science officer for the Coffman Organization, he consults with organizations of all sizes and industries to help them bring out the best in their employees.

Curt Coffman will be presenting at the IPMA-HR Annual Conference Sunday, September 17. You can contact Coffman at (888) 999-8940 or