“Our number one priority is company culture. Our whole belief is that if you get the culture right, most of the other stuff like delivering great customer service or building a long-term enduring brand will just happen naturally on its own.”
- Tony Hsieh, Zappos CEO
You’ve probably heard and read endless testimonials on the importance of culture, specifically company culture. I don’t know how many times I hear people tout about company and business culture. Yes, business culture is important, but a lot of the time people just reiterate this point without truly understanding what company culture means.
The way it’s spoken is like company culture is an item that you obtain – you either have it or you don’t. But this is hugely far from the truth. You will never not have culture. In fact, if you’re a business leader and you don’t even acknowledge the presence of a business culture, paying no mind to change or influence it, that in itself is the culture of your business.
It’s not surprising that having a strong business and company culture is important but it’s not as black and white as many people think. A lot of new founders or business owners seem to think that just having a culture is enough. A culture is just a way of being, which is exemplified by the actions, values, behaviours and even structures that your business holds.
So why is culture important?
First off – having a strong culture isn’t always necessarily a good thing. Here’s where it gets wonky. A strong business or organizational culture just means that your staff's culture and values align with the overall organization's values. It has nothing to do with whether your culture is considered good or bad. There is no such thing as a good or bad culture since rating a culture is entirely subjective.
There is, however, a difference between the right and wrong culture.
For example, let’s say I started an investment firm that primarily works with University Funds. My clients are University board members wanting to invest a lot of money. My company culture, however, was very laid back. There was always music playing, people popped their heads in and out of meeting rooms. People never wore business clothing. Not a high power distance environment at all. Although my culture was reciprocated by my staff meaning the alignment was strong, it really wouldn’t appeal to my clients at all.
They would immediately form an ill opinion of my business. Perhaps even thinking that we were unprofessional. So despite me having a strong company culture that my staff identifies with, my business might not succeed because it doesn’t align with the environment I’m targeting.
What I am trying to get at is the strength of a culture is how widely and deeply your employees hold the company’s dominant values and assumptions. In a strong culture, your staff are going to understand and even embrace the values of your brand.
“You can have the best strategy in the world, but culture will kill strategy,”
warns the CEO of Vancouver based First West Credit Union.
This is very true and shown in my example above. Despite having the best business strategy, if your company culture is not aligned or appropriate for your business, you could take a hit.
Having a Strong Culture Only Improves Business Success Under Specific Conditions
Well, if you haven’t gotten why it’s important or needed yet from above that’s okay. There are a ton of reasons why you should start thinking about the culture of your business or company. The culture is in the values and assumptions that are held by your people. It’s shown through what’s called “Artifacts” that are left around your business.
There are different types of artifacts: stories and legends, rituals and ceremonies, and symbols and structures. Stories and legends refer to those stories you hear about the founder of the company or an example sales story that’s popular and circulated throughout your company. What kind of stories are those, and what kind of lesson or value to they hold?
Rituals refer to the routines that are common to your organization such as having a roundtable check in at the beginning of every staff meeting, how we greet our clients, or even how we talk to each other. Ceremonies refer to the events that we host like staff BBQ’s or Christmas parties. Finally, symbols and structures are the physical items in our space such as the floor plan or art on the wall.
Culture is important because it forms a system of control. Your culture will influence the way your staff behaves and the actions they make. For example, if your company had a very formal conservative culture, cracking jokes on a first big meeting might not be the best choice of action. Your staff represents your business, so the culture of your business is going to influence their decisions on how to behave and act. This even happens non-consciously. Your culture can improve business performance by motivating your staff to coordinate their behaviour towards a vision and specific performance goals that benefit the company.
Culture is important because it allows your staff to be invested in your company if they align with your values. It forms a social “glue” that bond people together and makes them feel like a community. This allows for better communication, more sharing of ideas and openness to identifying problems.
Finally, a strong culture makes it easier for staff to understand what’s expected. Employees can make sense of what goes on in the company and why certain things happen. Your staff has a clearer perception of their role in the company, where they stand, and less stress related to this.