Early in my career I wasn’t a big believer in corporate culture, but I’ve since worked at some truly great organisations where I found myself living and breathing their values.
Today I’m a convert, an evangelist if you will.
Not that I’m a pace setter. Everyone now understands that the quality of an organisation’s culture can be a serious competitive advantage. A recent Fortune article put it nicely, saying “Leaders of the best companies know the secret to business success isn’t just about earnings, but about creating an ideal culture for their employees.”
By whatever measure you choose — the talent an organisation attracts or retains, its revenues or stock performance, levels of productivity and innovation, repeat business, brand value, you name it — workplace culture is critical to sustainable success.
But let’s start at the beginning.
What is culture, exactly?
Corporate culture is essentially the values, attitudes and standards that are shared and, importantly, exhibited by members of an organisation. It’s often rooted in stories about the organisation’s formative years, perhaps the behaviours of its founders, and is expressed in the enterprise’s current goals, how its employees behave and the way its customers are treated.
Culture serves as the fulcrum between management vision on the one hand and, on the other, what happens in real life. For that reason, culture is driven — indeed, owned — by leaders whose remit it is to set, by way of the vision they convey to employees, the organisation’s desired values and behaviours.
Beyond espousing a vision, leaders together with their HR teams must ensure that the necessary structures exist to embed those values and behaviours into “how things are done around here.” These include ways to identify and recognise employees who walk the walk so that others can better understand what the CEO’s vision looks like in action.
Why culture fails
I think what’s missing in many discussions about workplace culture is why even the best efforts to create a sustainable culture often fail.
To begin, any CEO will have a difficult time if their aspirations are out of step with the organisation’s capabilities to implement them.
I once worked with a leader – I’ll call him “the Nike guy” – who drove our team with unrealistic expectations, as if we had the bottomless resources of a multi-national corporation. It seemed just do it was his only directive. Now, a bit of constant goading and stretching for distant goals is all fair and good, but after 18 months of failed projects, falling morale and defecting team members, the company’s senior management saw the disconnect and showed him the door.
By then, however, the damage was done and the team never quite recovered.
Not enough pushing and prodding can also lead to stagnation and despair, so every culture needs the element of excitement that inspires employees to strive to for those distant goals.
The point of all this is that alignment needs to exist between the goals being pursued and what’s actually possible, or at least probable. The culture that’s “right” for an individual organisation is balanced, aspirational and in tune with the nature of the business. An Apple Corporation without innovation or an Amazon.com without customer service would soon become a has-been, along with its CEO.
Culture equals brand
Gone are the days when an organisation’s culture had no direct relationship to its brand. Glossy magazine advertisements and prime-time TV commercials could once hide, for a while anyway, shoddy quality or questionable practices.
24×7 global communications, especially social media, changed all that. Today a corporate brand is not what an advertising agency says it is but what customers say it is. After all, customers know a good brand when they see it because it’s alive in the actions of employees as much as it is in the product or service. Whether you’re a Google or the local gym, your culture is your brand and your brand is your culture, each constantly defining and redefining the other ad infinitum.
And you don’t need focus groups and expensive consultancies to know how strong your brand is— simply take a good look at your organisation’s culture. If to strengthen your brand, start by making sure your corporate culture is one that takes care of employees. They will then take care of your customers, and your brand will take care of itself.
Good things take time – but the bad can happen overnight
An added level of complexity for leaders who are fine-tuning their organisation’s culture is the fact that getting (a) the right vision and (b) the ability to execute both, in symbiosis, is tricky.
This is because each is driven by a different constituency. CEOs may define an organisation’s vision and values, but it takes time for desired behaviours to take hold among employees and for customers to then benefit.
This brings me to another thing I’ve noticed about corporate culture: it’s in no small way determined by how an organisation hires, fires and promotes. I believe that after the CEO, the most important influencer of corporate culture is the HR director — the person involved in decisions about what people are brought into the team, why they’re rewarded, and why they are let go.
I knew one CEO who was terrific at painting the cultural “big picture” but failed to ensure his HR team delivered on the details. To not put too fine a point on it, the HR director was an extremely poor role model of the values being espoused. Worse, he was busily hiring people who were, sadly, a lot like himself.
Birds of a feather and all that.
It didn’t take long for this disconnect to lead to lots of unacceptable behaviours, with the end result that the organisation’s culture — and brand — developed in ways the CEO most decidedly did not like or want.
Spread the right culture from the top
So to be sure, the corporate culture that’s “ideal” for any organisation should be not only guided by the leader’s vision and values they want the organisation to become known for, but also managed so that those values are woven into workplace behaviours from reception to shipping dock, and everywhere in between.
All this may not be rocket science but it’s certainly good business sense that your competitors will hate you for.
And if you’re really serious, have a look at our two-day Building High-Performing Teams leadership course.
 “The Best Employers in the U.S. Say Their Greatest Tool is Culture” by Milton Moskowitz and Robert Levering, Fortune magazine, March 5, 2015