Thursday, January 30, 2014

Defining Your Company Culture

I’m a numbers guy.  I’ve been an auditor, a controller, a financial officer, and I’m a CPA.  I’ve known for years it’s all about the bottom line and that’s been my focus; at least it was my focus until a competitor accused us of being a “cult”.  It may not have been meant as a compliment but I took it as one.  I took it to mean we had something that captivated people and created a loyalty among our partners and employees.  What I had to find out was how to nurture and grow that “something” which it turned out was our undefined culture.

Culture is powerful.  It’s the accepted norm of behavior; the rules of the road if you will, with any group of people.  It’s stronger than any org chart, strategy statement or directive from management.  This is because each of us is wired to perceive what is socially acceptable and what is not.  Don’t believe me?  Observe children for a few minutes.  They’ve figured out when to take a parent seriously and when to ignore them. A parent will say over and over, “clean up that mess”, “get in the car”, “do your homework” and the child completely ignores them, but somehow that child knows exactly when their parent is about to snap and will respond at that moment (and sometimes slightly afterward).  We are adept at reading social cues and those social cues take priority over written or verbal instructions.  Our desire to belong to a group encourages conformance with those social cues or culture. 

Intentional Culture

Whether we proactively create our culture or just happen into it we all have a culture in our workplace. The problem with an accidental culture is it may not be good for your customers or for your workplace.  Whether you’re a sole proprietor, a staff of 3 or a large organization you need to assess your culture and decide if it’s right for your intended service to your customers.  If it’s the right culture, document it and reinforce it.  If it’s the wrong culture, define your intended culture, document it and reinforce it.  Here’s how:


There is no perfect culture.  Apple, Zappos, and Harley Davidson have extremely different cultures but are all very successful.  The most important thing to consider when defining your culture is the alignment between your customers, your staff, and your leadership.  If you claim to offer a caring, supportive service to customers but your culture is highly competitive, you’ll send a very mixed message to employees and customers. True Alignment by Edgar Papke offers great insight into this topic and identifies the different culture types and the customers to whom those cultures speak. 

Your culture must also be authentic.  The people with whom you partner or hire will sense whether or not it’s authentic so if it’s not, change it. 


Whether you stumbled into a great culture or defined it in the step above, you must document it.  This means writing down the aspects of your culture and specifically the “values”.  Patrick Lencioni outlines this in his article Make Your Values Mean Something

We found we stumbled on a great culture because we had people who cared deeply about our partners and kept their best interest in mind. We attempted to break that down into a set of “values” or attributes.  Rather than impose a definition we surveyed everyone we could to identify those values.   We had a very long list but narrowed it down to the following 8 values that made us who we are and that we could not abandon.  They are:
  1. Supportive at all levels
  2.  Innovative and creative
  3. Seek learning and personal improvement
  4. Have fun along the way
  5. Integrity in all we do and say 
  6. Accountable
  7. Extra Effort
  8. Legendary Service


Many companies have written values but they become meaningless if they’re not actively reinforced.  We took a page from the Zappos playbook and gave each employee $400 per year to award other employees for exhibiting one of our values.  We also set up the “Culture Club” which meets to discuss the furtherance of our values.  Our value of “innovative and creative” is so important we set up the “Innovation Team” to spread innovation throughout the organization and create an environment where everybody could try something new.  We changed our hiring process to include a culture interview. It’s important new employees fit our culture and don’t take it in a different direction.  The above tools help reinforce culture but wouldn’t be complete if there wasn’t a consistent message from leadership.  As long as cultural development is valued and encouraged by leadership these tools are impactful.

We’ve made a lot of progress but we have a long way to go.  The magic we discovered early on was the passion each person had for helping our partners succeed.  That passion is what people inside and outside the company felt.  Our cultural development won’t be complete until every employee shares that passion and all of our partners sense that passion, not because we say it but because it’s the way we think, act and feel. 

Oh, and in case you thought I stopped being a numbers guy, I haven’t.  It turns out culture does translate to the bottom line so we’ll keep investing heavily in it to keep the numbers guy happy.

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