Unlocking the Power of Company Culture

Our culture is awesome! Culture defines us. Our culture separates our company from the pack and attracts the best talent.

I’ve heard some form of these declarations from most Founders and CEOs. Having a killer culture is popular nowadays. Leaders can be as proud of their culture as the company they’ve built. And, rightfully so.

Zappos’ Tony Hseih said, “If you get the culture right, most other stuff will take care of itself.” Start-up founder David Cummings called culture an entrepreneur’s only sustainable competitive advantage. “I used to believe that culture was ‘soft,’ and had little bearing on our bottom line,” said Tech CEO and author of Wired Differently, Vern Dorsch. “What I believe today is that our culture has everything to do with our bottom line.”

While What we Do objectives and strategies provide direction, a robust culture keeps the firm on course, holding everyone together when market forces and competitors try to tear the company apart. Culture is the flywheel, the most dynamic force of How we Operate and the key to thriving as the enterprise scales.

Yet when I ask staffers to describe their ‘killer’ culture, they give me puzzled looks. After pausing to consider the question, they often cite their cool workspace, casual dress code, work from home flexibility or the fun team events. Pets roaming the office are frequently pointed out.

How can company culture drive an organization when the basics are unclear to those who are part of it? Why is there such a disconnect between the potency of culture described by leaders and the superficial facets commonly identified by employees?

In my view, culture is an under leveraged asset, its impact nullified by lack of clarity or inattentiveness.

In most companies, Purpose, Mission and Values have been carefully considered. You can find the terms and phrases plastered on walls, t-shirts and other company swag.

On the other hand, company culture is vague and amorphous, a mystical catchall phrase that means different things to different people. Culture is implicit. Company norms, customs or idioms are unstated. Nothing is written down. Beyond being respectful and kind to one another, explanations on how to act or behave are undefined. New employees, and veterans for that matter, are left guessing about unspoken standards and expectations. When it comes to culture, everyone is supposed to “get it” even though nobody seems to know what “it” is.

So what is culture, exactly?

“Culture is a set of shared beliefs, values and practices” is one start-up’s description. Others define culture as “a way of thinking, behaving and working.” A broader view stated, “The visible artifacts of culture have to do with stories, ceremonies, symbols, events, the way people dress, and layout of an office. But the roots of culture have to do with beliefs and assumptions that underlie how work is done in the venture.”

These definitions sound great on paper but are difficult for employees to apply. What are the company’s specific shared beliefs on decision-making, prioritization or meeting protocol? Which practices truly guide collaboration or conflict resolution? Ceremonies and symbols are interesting, but what exactly are the assumptions underlying accountability, initiative or the commitment expected from members of the team?

To harness the power of culture, we need everyone to understand the inner mechanics. Based on my experience, three primary cogs driving company culture: Interactions, Expectations and Operating Norms.

Your company may be committed to authenticity, building a safe environment for team members to be transparent and vulnerable with one another. Some businesses focus on collaboration emphasizing equal conversation from all while addressing conflict directly in a healthy and constructive manner. In some firms, the level of ownership and initiative expected from leaders, teams and individual contributors is most important. The style of leadership, format for meetings (stand-up, sit down) or cadence and means of communication will vary from company to company.

How your company defines these cultural cogs is up your management and team members. There are no right or wrong answers for the Interactions, Expectations and Operating Norms. The key to bringing your culture to life is communicate, communicate, communicate! Make sure everyone is clear. Don’t leave interpretation to chance. Be explicit and unequivocal.

Peter Drucker is credited with saying “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Undoubtedly, company culture and other aspects of How we Operate are as impactful as strategic aspects of the What we Do. Stating your culture plainly will enable your firm to prosper and thus, eat your competition for lunch!