Your Culture Is … As Your Organization Does

Your Culture Is As Your Organization Does

In initial conversations with company executives, 92 times out of 100, they’ll call us and say something like, “We’ve heard you’re culture change experts and we need to change our culture. We’re thinking we want it to be more fun like that Tony what-his-name guy’s company—umm, Zappos. Can you do a “we ‘heart’ employees” (I say tongue-in-cheek) campaign or something to help us with that?”

Or: “We’ve had a lot of good people leave lately and we heard from the employee opinion survey that our culture stinks. We’re thinking maybe we should start having ‘Jeans Friday.’ You think that would be a good start?”

And, here’s yet another recent one: “We need our employees to be self-starters—more motivated, more innovative.  What do we do with our culture to make our employees more that way?”

It’s not that simple

My inside-my-head voice is groaning “OMG. Are you kidding me?”

And, my actual voice, out of wanting to truly help this poor soul, says something like “I’m glad you called us. Let’s talk for a few minutes about this thing called culture and what you’re really trying to get at with your objectives….”

‘Culture’ is one of those mystical and elusive terms. It often surfaces in a hallway, manager and all-hands discussions as if it’s a kind of separate entity of its own, something that made itself, something that could be changed or tinkered with independently of the other elements that make up your business … and when we talk about “changing it,” it’s spoken about as if it’s a switch you can flip, a lever you can pull, and an initiative we need to implement.

I suppose if it were like that, it might make things simpler. But it’s not.

Outcomes and behaviors

Your culture is an outcome of what you do, what you say, and how you do things around here. It’s about the ways your business practices values, leadership actions, and employee attitudes—and behaviors show up everyday. It’s how an organization operates. And, you cement this said culture over time with actions or inactions, paralysis or knee-jerk decisions, appreciation or hard-driving perfectionism, rewarding brilliant lone-star’s or compromising team players, giving responsibility or micromanaging tasks…

I learned along the way, culture is behavior. That’s all it is; culture is people’s behaviors.
-Ginni Rometty

The individuals in your organization are essentially sharing patterns of behavior that they all observed, learned, and in more than a handful of cases, eventually assimilated to or rather, quit bucking if they were to “possibly survive here.”

Your culture might just have the chance to really change when you get to the real stuff. Things like espresso machines, free lunches, and business casual aren’t the point.

Look to the source

If you want a culture that oozes more positive juju, then you have to look at how it was formed in the first place—those things that are contributing to making it that way. What you do advertently or perhaps inadvertently do, say, and convey as a company and as leadership?

Here are some of the questions we ask our clients to explore about themselves to begin really deep diving into how we do things around here and subsequently how the “culture” got to where it is now.

  • How do you set priorities and goals? Is this process consistent with the kind of culture you want to have?
  • How does accountability show up in your organization – how is it established and maintained? Are there accountabilities for line-level employees but not for leadership? Do you have the appropriate metrics or do employees feel they have impossible standards to meet?
  • How is information shared? Does leadership only share on a need-to-know basis? Are employees fearful to share and thus, hoard information because that’s what keeps them valuable to the company? Does leadership share early and share often, even before they feel a strategy is ready for prime time?
  • What are the priorities in company communications to employees? What is it that is actually getting airtime in your organization? Is it something the employees can get behind, they can understand, they feel proud of?
  • How is the truth shared and sought? Do things get pushed under the rug? Are things out in the open?
  • How do decisions get made? Who is involved in this process? Is it leadership ‘do the thinking’ and employees ‘do the doing’ without opportunity for input?
  • How does delegation occur? Is it truly effective delegation or is it relegation? Ultimately one party wiping their hands of it and passing the buck.
  • How are ideas shared? Are they occurring freely? Do employees want to contribute their best ideas to the company knowing they’ll be given a fair shake or chance to succeed?
  • How does collaboration occur? That is, does true collaboration actually occur? Are people incented to contribute to the collective or only as individual performers and how well they do their respective jobs?
  • How are rewards given? Are brilliant jerks rewarded even if their ruthless personalities degrade morale and teamwork? Are rewards given inconsistently across the organization?
  • How do punishments occur and how are mistakes handled? Do people that hit a bad patch get another chance? Does anyone ever really get fired for poor or non-performance? Do some people get worse punishment simply because they have different managers?
  • How valued is learning? Are you the type of organization that helps people to grow and deepen their expertise—or do you tend to pigeonhole and hold someone back because you need them in a specific role or effort? Do you provide opportunities for mentoring and growth—or do your employees hide their lack of experience and understanding because they’re afraid they’ll be penalized for not knowing?
  • How are people’s efforts appreciated? Are you the type of organization that gives an “A” for effort? Or, is “hard work” irrelevant with knowledge that only effectiveness (not effort) is rewarded?
  • How are risks encouraged and taken? Does risk taking apply to everyone or just a few of the top rung? Do you encourage innovation and a fail-fast mindset? Do you say you want innovation but shoulder employees with metrics squarely based on execution?
  • How are successes celebrated? Is it something that is done publicly? Is it something seldom done? Are stories shared far and wide? Are successes celebrated in a way that is meaningful to employees? Have you asked them what is meaningful to them?

You can also use these as a guide to think about the organization you want to have—and subsequently, a culture that better matches and is more congruent with your objectives as a business.

Are there areas or questions we’re missing? We welcome your comments and would love to hear where you think culture lives in organizations.

Adapted and reprinted with permission from

Is Your Company on the Brink of its Own Brexit?

Is Your Company on the Brink of its Own Brexit?

Like millions of Americans, I was surprised and a little saddened by Britain’s vote to leave the European Union. I wasn’t surprised, however, by the sharp emotional divide between those who wanted to stay and those who wanted to leave. That’s because the Brexit debate was really about culture. And for a concept that many leaders believe is too intangible or fluffy to worry about, culture sure has a way of bringing out the fight in people.

Back to the Past

In Britain, the Brexit referendum touched a deeper question. What kind of country did the people of the United Kingdom want to call home? A different one depending on your age and where you lived, apparently. Older voters and those in England proper and Wales wanted to separate from the EU; younger voters and those in London, Scotland, and Northern Ireland wanted to stay very much attached. Underlying those desires were very different emotions, values, visions, and dreams.

I’ve seen these sorts of debates play out many times in organizations, particularly during periods of change or threat. Like other fundamentals we take for granted (food, water, security), we don’t typically think about culture much until something goes wrong or anxieties arise. Then, culture comes to the foreground.

In particular, when a company is under immense pressure or goes off track, it’s easy to look to its culture and think, “we’ve gone astray from the values and traditions that made us great.” That idea of going back has a lot of merit. Culture is what binds us together and helps us judge what’s right and know how to make decisions. In an organization (let alone a country), it’s a comforting force that rallies people together.

But the “going back” vote is also based on the idea that cultures should not change and are less strong and vital when they do.

Unfortunately, the world doesn’t have much patience with that idea. It’s changing all the time and more VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) than ever. Competitors don’t care if your culture is under threat. New technology doesn’t care. A new generation of employees and customers with different values don’t care.

Adapt, Evolve, Thrive

Charles Darwin reputedly said, “It’s not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most adaptable to change.”

Brexit supporters don’t seem to believe that. They want a country with closed borders, secure and well-paying industry jobs, less diversity, more national control… a Britain they know from childhood and stories. The EU supporters want a country that’s cosmopolitan, open, dynamic, diverse, adaptable, and competitive. Which world do you think we’re more likely to experience in the coming decades?

I believe in the emotional and strategic power of culture, but I don’t believe culture stands still. Successful cultures have always adapted and evolved to meet the needs of the environment. This happens naturally, for the most part, but it can also happen deliberately and actively. That’s what I see going on at the most nimble, focused, and feisty (NFF) organizations today. Such organizations don’t close themselves off to the world and to change; they adapt and evolve to meet change head on while retaining what makes them special.

If your company encountered a major existential crisis, how can you tell whether it would vote Brexit or vote for EU? Here are some characteristics to look for:

Are you purpose-driven?

NFF companies are oriented around a shared purpose, and that purpose is directed toward creating and satisfying customers. They use that purpose to shape attitudes, actions, and practices that collectively form their culture in support of their why.

What is your company in business to do and why does that matter to your customers and employees? The answer matters a lot when it comes to questions about whether you have the resilience, resourcefulness, and stamina to compete in a very dynamic world.

Are you outrospective?

NFF companies are outward looking and outward thinking, even as they tend to their internal culture. They think about the customer, the market, and the competition far more than they worry about internal processes and rules.

Do you actively architect your culture?

NFF companies know that culture must be architected and adapted intentionally for an organization to grow in the right way, meet its strategic objectives, and ultimately produce those bottom-line results. Otherwise, beliefs and behaviors may not be aligned with what the company needs to be successful.

Culture as Compass

Think of the strongest and most dynamic organizations today – Facebook, Airbnb, GE, Ritz Carlton, Google, Unilever. Each relies on its culture as its operating platform to guide strategies, innovations, and plans. They lead, direct, challenge, and push on culture without letting up. It’s an imperative just like any other part of their business.

Today, it’s impossible to make a company “great again” by returning to some mythical past. Culture is a tool for leadership to use intentionally and deliberately in competing for a future that will never stand still.

What are your thoughts and how can you add to this discussion? I welcome your comments.