What is this “Company Culture” nonsense?

A couple of years ago my friend Justin who works over at Quirk said “Culture is everything” in business. At the time I had just done a big merger and I was used to running a relatively small, and relatively uncomplicated business and frankly the word “culture” sounded like something we didn’t have or didn’t need.

Several years on I’ve realised he was largely correct – and I have come to appreciate and understand the full power of culture in an organisation, and a few things about how to approach it.

For starters, what is it?

Culture is, put simply, what it is like to be in an organisation. It’s the thing that is left over when you remove all the actual operations of the business.

By analogy it is the equivalent of what it’s like to eat a particular kind of food. And its how it leaves you feeling and the imprint it leaves on your senses once you have.

Typically in a small business – and even in a larger business – culture is an emergent property of the company. By that I mean: no-one stops and says “Ok, this is going to be our culture”. It is an expression of the personalities of the founders, the office space, the city and the collection of characters the business employs.

For this reason small businesses put little or no conscious effort into culture building. And like a human body sometimes the culture is healthy and sometimes its unhealthy but it moves organically.

As the business grows and matures the need to take a firmer hand with company culture grows with it. The reasons are manifold:

  • The founder or founders leave, get married, get old, get rich – and are no longer as present in the business to push the culture with the force of their own personalities
  • Similarly the team gets older – which means they are not as persuaded by free beer and snacks. They want to get their work done and go home to their kids so they’re just not around to bond with colleagues.
  • Things that were novel become tired. The first ten times you took the whole team out for pizza everyone loved it. Now they just expect it – and complain about the choice of restaurant.
  • Bad elements creep in. With each hire the chance of hiring someone who does damage to culture grows – and if you culture is simply organic this damage can poison the business fast
  • The business gets bigger. This is the simplest and most dangerous occurrence in any successful enterprise. Suddenly the business becomes a “faceless corporate”. The dreaded “processes” and “systems” appear. And people begin to feel like cogs in a machine rather than engaged and valued.

So what can be done to manage culture?

This is not a definitive list but here are 5 learnings from recent years:

  1. Decide what kind of culture you want. And be realistic. It should be an expression of the leaders of the business because they have to stamp it into the organisation by example. If your CEO is a tyrant trying to build a supportive, collaborate culture will never work.
  2. Entrench culture with visible practises and artefacts. If you want to be cautious, reward and highlight prudence. If you want to be zany and creative make sure your workspace and the tone of your communication echoes that.
  3. Recruit to fit your culture. That means you need to have someone who understands the culture thoroughly involved in all recruiting, and you need to turn away people with great skills if they don’t embody and extend the culture you want.
  4. Design processes and systems that feel like you want your business to feel. If someone spends all day jumping through admin hoops they are unlikely to experience the company as agile and creative. Likewise if everything is wild and chaotic expecting a culture of fiscal discipline is delusional.
  5. Teach culture by teaching your way of doing things. Most businesses miss the simple power of teaching programs and training. Nothing embeds a way of doing things more than the right kind of learning experience. We have found simulations and roleplaying to be vivid demonstrations of the kind of business we are, and what it’s supposed to be like to be a member of our team. This includes a strong induction program.

The starting point of all this is to simply ask the first question above: what do we want it to be like to in our business? Everyone will find their own way to bring life to that but there is no doubt that the world’s leading businesses have all taken the time, and invested money, in consciously creating culture.