The Truth About Culture: Intention vs Reality

By Jen Spencer, CEO, The Creative Executive


Be honest. Have you ever thought: But my company is growing, and we’re making our revenue goals, perhaps our workplace culture isn’t as important as it’s cracked up to be? The truth is: you can have a bad culture and be successful as a company. It happens all the time.

Success for companies comes in all forms. Some of the success factors our clients tell us they care about, are increased revenue and profit, growth in size (location and people), product and process innovation, making an impact beyond business in the communities they engage, and having the ability to impact people’s personal lives through security, creativity, engagement, and impact.

You may be seeing great success now, but if you haven’t devoted time and energy to your organization’s culture, this boom time may not be a permanent state. Bad cultures aren’t sustainable over long periods of time.

What is culture? At The Creative Executive, we define it as follows.

Culture is about how the work gets done to fulfill the vision and create the successes that have been set out as priorities by your leaders.

What culture is not…

Foosball. Unlimited coffee. Beer o’clock. Or, any number of the perks that your lucky employees enjoy during their work hours. These can be part of a healthy culture defined as above, but they are not a substitute for it.

For achievement-oriented employees — leaders who want to be engaged, contribute, and achieve, culture matters. A lot. For employees who may not be in a leadership position or management role, culture matters to them, too. When you don’t have a lot of say in how policy is made, you really want to like the policy that’s made for you and how the people around you implement it.

Every workplace has a culture — whether you like how it feels or not. The question is: is the culture influencing, creating, and reflecting the way you want people to experience work happening?

The word experience is an important distinction. There is the intention of what leaders want that culture to be. And then there is the reality of how others experience the culture.

For leaders who are committed to building thriving cultures, understanding the difference between the two is fundamental.

Intention vs. Reality

Whether you are a founder of a new start-up or you have been leading a company for ten years, you have an internal narrative, or intention, about the type of culture you have created, or aspire to. You have a vision and expectations — even if you don’t put words to it — about the impact your company will have on the world and your life. This sometimes subconscious narrative influences your leadership and how you make decisions. And it’s yours.

Reality encompasses everyone’s experience — not just those that have the most power in the organization. What do individuals, teams, departments, and company leadership experience? How are those experiences different or similar?

Is your culture influencing, creating, and reflecting the way you want people to experience work happening?

How to Align Your Intention with Reality

Admit you don’t know what you don’t know

As a leader, you have a particular purview, and that subjective position influences what you see.

It also influences how people give you facts and disclose their experience. No matter how open you are, the dynamic of power can influence how honest people are with you.

That’s why there are amazing tools to help you get the information you need. At The Creative Executive we recommend:

Workify is an all-in-one employee engagement platform. (Paid subscription)

Officevibe is a feedback and engagement tool that has a free team subscription option.

Don’t want to sign up for a subscription just yet? Bootstrap your own feedback engine with Survey Monkey. They offer both free and paid plans.

Learn everyone’s truth

Seek out information to understand what you don’t know. Have conversations up, down, and across your organization.

Some key dynamics to keep in mind during your conversations:

  1. POWER: who has influence and authority and how does this influence the outcomes positively and negatively?
  2. RELATIONSHIPS: how do people/departments maintain relationships across the organization and within departments?
  3. SUCCESS: who has engaged employees, consistent innovation, and financial health within their group, department, division, etc.?

Use the data for action

There is nothing more demotivating for employees than being asked their opinion and having no response or action set out as a result. When you make and modify decisions, policy, initiatives for change based on that full-picture perspective, it solidifies trust and commitment among leadership and those that are operationalizing the work in your organization.

Share the accountability

What does accountability at all levels of the organization look like? It can be anything from a suggestion box to having a Q+A with the key decision-makers regularly in an open town hall format. It means that the conversation around the gaps is continuously evaluated and progress is checked in both public and private forums. Creating change is hard, and it requires consistent, thoughtful action and, most importantly, room for iteration.

Consistent, collaborative effort toward something that’s valued and prioritized will create positive results.

Doing big things in the world while creating sustainability requires a steadfast commitment. And it will most certainly challenge you. We’ve seen this in our work with clients every time — consistent, collaborative effort toward something that’s valued and prioritized will create positive results. Culture sure does work better when everyone is moving in the same direction.

Are you ready to rise to the opportunity? Your company needs you.


Jen Spencer

Jen Spencer founded The Creative Executive to help companies, teams, and executives navigate change and become more effective and strategic leaders.

Through coaching, training/workshops, and consulting services, The Creative Executive brings the most value to those that are already successful, but want to continue growing, improve their cultures, and continue to develop their senior leaders for the inevitable ever-changing business landscape of today.

With an approach that’s size and industry agnostic, The Creative Executive has worked with companies of all sizes, from two-person start-ups to Fortune 20-backed mid-size businesses. Some of our clients include Media Arts Lab, LatinWorks, Team One, Wexley School for Girls, JDI, and executives from PayPal, Dell, and Indeed.

Jen launched and curated the first years of TEDxAustin as co-executive producer. She received her B.A. in sociology and women’s studies from Boston College and is certified in Results Coaching Systems (now The Neuroleadership Group), Team Coaching International, and Leadership Circle Profile. A native Texan who has lived all over the United States, Jen currently lives in Austin with her husband Jeff Maki, an advertising creative director, and their son, Leo. Jenn’s a member of the Culturati™ programming committee.