Culture Really Does Matter

In our work with more than 100 business owners over the last 10 years, and as hiring managers in our collective corporate roles spanning many years, we now fully appreciate the role that culture plays in an organization. It can be especially important within smaller companies, especially family-owned enterprises or entrepreneurships, where the personalities of the founder/owner often shape the company culture.

If you want to provoke a vigorous debate, start a conversation on organizational culture. While there is universal agreement that a) it exists, and b) that it plays a crucial role in shaping behavior in organizations, there is little consensus on what organizational culture actually is, let alone how it influences behavior and whether it is something leaders can change.

Michael Watkins, author of The First 90 Days: Proven Strategies for Getting Up to Speed Faster and Smarter, was so intrigued with finding the best definition for culture that he facilitated a discussion around the topic on LinkedIn in 2013. The discussion thread generated more than 300 responses, including rich and varied perspectives and opinions on organizational culture, its meaning and importance. Among the more interesting responses:

  • “Culture is how organizations do things.”
  • “In large part, culture is a product of compensation.”
  • “It’s overly simple to assume in large corporations that there’s only one culture; it’s risky for leaders to ignore the sub-cultures.”
  • “Culture is the organization’s immune system.” (Michael Watkins’ definition)

But do companies need a strong, positive culture to be successful? In our view, yes they do. As advisors, and sometimes “executives for hire” who join client companies on an interim basis to implement a project or assist with a significant challenge, we’ve seen many types of cultures, some that are commendable and fun to be a part of, and others that leave you feeling sorry for the employees. In a 2013 Inc. article, contributor Paul Spiegelman shared his views on the subject, noting that building a company of engaged employees takes years and requires consistent execution. He boils down his culture strategy essentials into something he calls “The 10 Cs of Culture” – here’s the list:

    1. Core Values – they are essential guideposts when developed, communicated and executed in a consistent manner. Values are those behaviors that will never change no matter how the company changes.
    2. Camaraderie – it’s about having fun. It’s also about getting to know colleagues not just as colleagues, but what they’re like outside the office. Include not only employees, but also their families.
    3. Celebrations – you can’t underestimate the importance of recognizing your team. While it may be important for your people to hear from the CEO, it also feels great for them to hear from peers. I once developed a program called PRIDE (Peer Recognizing Individuals Deeds of Excellence). It allows co-workers to recognize others for living up to a company’s core values.
    4. Community – Part of the fabric of a successful company culture is connecting with and giving back to the local community. Whatever size company or type (small or part of large national group), you should dedicate to serve the communities in which you live and work. This not only helps the organizations that you support, but it brings pride to your staff.
    5. Communications – I encourage formal and informal communications consistently at all levels of a company. Hold quarterly town hall meetings. Also try lunch ‘n’ learns or chat and chew sessions where employees can discuss one particular topic. Or, just ask “how’s it going” to get the conversation started.
    6. Caring – show your employees you genuinely care about them in the totality of their lives. Use an internal website or intranet that notes what’s going on the lives of employees (births, deaths, injury or illness, weddings, etc.) This information generates a lot of positive responses and makes employees feel appreciated beyond their work. If your company can afford it, provide behind-the-scenes assistance to people who need special help.
    7. Commitment to learning – show your employees you’re committed to their professional growth. This can be done in small, incremental steps. Start out with small things like a book club and build up to offering online learning programs or developing management training courses.
    8. Consistency – culture is based on traditions. When you come up with great programs or events, make them regular events and do them consistently. One time efforts to improve the culture will feel disingenuous. This can take years, but can make a profound difference that pays dividends for years to come.
    9. Connect – don’t isolate yourself at the top. Connect with all people at all levels of your company. Get out of your comfort zone. Practice “management by walking around.”
    10. Chronicles – does everyone in your organization know how the company started? Do they know the personal stories of the founders and what led them to build a sustainable business? People want to know they are part of something special and unique. Greet new employees by sharing the company history and impart stories that led to current culture and strategies.

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