If there is one topic everyone can agree on, it’s that no one can agree on the subject of organizational culture. Sure, we know it’s important; great culture not only attracts talent, it keeps your employees motivated, engaged and loyal to the company. However, there are a host of opinions on what truly defines culture. Is it the people? The perks and benefits? Or is it the leadership?
In the same way social groups are identified by their cultural traditions, organizational culture defines a company. Some say culture emanates from the way you “do things.” But where did it begin? Is it created or organic? And how do you change it?
Contrary to popular belief, culture is not ruled by the “cool” perks, the loftlike open office space and happy hours with unlimited booze. These things are great and can be reflective of your culture but I can assure you, a loftlike open office space will feel like a prison if your employees value flexible work hours or the privacy of a home office, instead of being held captive from 9 to 5. So what makes a “good culture?”
Culture is neither philosophy nor mission; it is an outgrowth of the people you hire. Think about high school; a cultural melting pot with distinct archetypes. There are the jocks, the nerds, the Goths and the prom queens. The same holds true for business culture. I sort them into two groups, owners and renters. The owners are quick studies. They hit the ground running. They see no barriers between themselves and management. They’re a competitive lot. Renters are solid performers; good at their jobs. But finding friends is a priority. “Who’s my lunch buddy? What’s the gossip? Where do we go for drinks after work?” The right mix of both can result in a culture that is both competitive and fun.
Culture is also tied to what your people value, especially the leaders. I think this is key when trying to understand motivators and values among those who lead teams. Never assume. Ask. Listen. Reflect. Re-evaluate. Repeat. Hiring and promoting people whose values align with your best aspirations for the business will enable the best culture to emerge. Keep in mind, however, that the things that people value when the group is primarily comprised of millennials fresh out of school, will change when those same millennials are becoming new parents.
Define what your culture is to you
Some companies make the mistake of attempting to replicate another organization’s culture. Think of it this way: Would wearing a leather jacket, neon and tulle, dying your hair blue and belting out pop songs make you Katy Perry? There’s nothing wrong with looking at other companies for inspiration, but attempting to “be like them” will only cause confusion and envy. I remember working for a time in a smaller city. OK, it was Indianapolis. I heard the same refrain constantly: “We are just as good as those Chicago firms.” I remember thinking, “Those guys in Chicago aren’t thinking about you.”
Think instead about the obstacles your organization is facing when it comes to identifying, building, and enhancing your culture? Are you making the right hires? Is there misalignment at the leadership level? The most toxic thing an organization can do is to ignore a toxic culture and just “hope” it gets better. Jack Welsh is both revered and disliked for his decision to put the company first. If you got a management job at GE, it came with an end date. Jack Welsh believed that when people stayed too long, power bases grew, corruption took hold and people were hurt. So every couple of years, he cleaned house. He put healthy culture above all else.
It’s not about the happy hours and the free snacks.
Companies put a lot of stock in attracting and keeping talent. Most lists of best places to work will highlight things like happy hour, free perks, office environment, business hours (never set in stone) and flexibility. You’ll read many career pages that laud our “great people.” But look closer. Is there a focus on career development and employee engagement? How about the values that define the C-suite and the leadership team?