What is Culture?
If I’ve learned anything in my 16+ years of running Barrel, it’s that there’s no magic bullet when it comes to creating and sustaining a strong company culture. Culture–and in the context of this post, I’m talking about company/organizational culture–is a slippery concept that can mean different things to different people.
In some definitions, it encapsulates the behaviors, values, and attitudes of the people that belong to the company. In others, it includes the way the company treats its customers, employees, and partners. In yet another interpretation, culture more specifically refers to the processes and systems that are in place inside the organization and the results they produce.
Personally, I like to think of culture as a measure of the business’s overall health. A strong culture means the business is enjoying robust health. A weak culture means the business is in trouble or on shaky footing. There is usually a correlation between strength of culture and financial performance, but this is sometimes not apparent on a short-term timeframe. Long-term, a weak culture inevitably trends towards a decline and has difficulty sustaining performance.
Signs of a Strong vs. Weak Culture
Since culture is difficult to clearly define, it helps me to think about what I’d observe if I were to look at an organization with a strong or weak culture. What are the behaviors, the ways of working, and the interactions like? Below are a limited set of potential observations one might find in strong and weak cultures.
Signs of a Strong Culture
- Customers are happy because they are receiving excellent service and quality products.
- Customers are eager to tell others about the experience of buying from or working with the company.
- The team is doing meaningful and challenging work that they find engaging.
- Each person on the team has a clear sense of their role and responsibilities along with a high degree of autonomy to execute.
- Each person feels supported by others with clear avenues to get guidance and mentorship.
- Everyone on the team feels that they are part of something special and has a strong sense of belonging.
- The team understands how the business works and how their contributions can positively drive business performance.
- Each person won’t hesitate to help their team members on anything.
- The team has a “we can do anything” mentality and unafraid to take on complex challenges.
- Everyone on the team takes responsibility for mistakes and is eager to learn from them and get better.
- Each person asks their team members and supervisors: “What I do to get better? How can I improve?”
- The team makes time periodically to review their existing processes critically and to explore ways to make things more effective and efficient.
- The team methodically documents and guards their collective knowledge, using it to save time, keep quality consistent, and to bring new team members up to speed.
- Everyone on the team is proud to tell others who they work for and what they do.
- If they see something done improperly, incorrectly, or inefficiently, anyone on the team speaks up and brings it to attention of others for immediate action.
- Everyone on the team is eager to praise and thank others.
- Everyone on the team enthusiastically celebrates the team’s wins, even if they’re not directly involved.
Signs of a Weak Culture
- Customers are often frustrated and confused about the products and services.
- Customers have an uneven experience and may or may not become advocates.
- The team feels micromanaged and disempowered, afraid to make even the smallest decisions on their own.
- The team is afraid to tackle hard things and quick to come up with why something won’t work out.
- At the first sign of trouble or frustration, team members are quick to point fingers, either at the customers or at each other.
- Each team member feels like they’re on an island at work and must look outside the company for help.
- Nobody is eager to volunteer or take on extra responsibilities that can help the business and the words “not my job” gets used often.
- If they see something done improperly, incorrectly, or inefficiently, everyone on the team assumes someone else would catch it and does nothing.
- Everyone has “their own way of doing things” and is reluctant to create shared processes or documentation.
- Everyone is quick to point out the flaws of others, especially the customers and their team members.
- Each person wants maximum credit for their contributions and feels slighted when they don’t get their due praise.
- Very few people see a long-term future for themselves at the company and in fact would jump ship immediately if a new opportunity presented itself.
- The employees believe management is trying to exploit them and management believes the employees are overly entitled while underperforming.
Related: See my post on The Seven Learning Disabilities of Organizations from The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge
The Key to Building a Strong Culture…
I’d be lying if I said that I knew the key to building a strong culture. There are days when I observe more bullets from the weak culture list than the strong culture list. Some bullets on the strong culture list seem hard to attain or difficult to sustain.
Instead of a definitive answer, I have a few hypotheses and ideas that I’ll leave you with–they’re themes that I think about in some capacity on a near-daily basis.
- Smaller and newer companies have an easier time creating a strong culture. The larger you get, the more baggage, complexity, and bureaucracy get in the way.
- People with healthy, stable, and happy personal lives tend to be great teammates. There is no work life and personal life. There is life and how people behave with other people. These are the people to build a culture around.
- Everything I do impacts our culture. As co-founder and CEO, I understand that my behavior will often be under a microscope. The way I interact with others, the way I show up to and participate in meetings, and the way I follow through on my promises, are all signals communicating to the team what I believe is important, whether or not I’m conscious of what I’m doing. The same can be said about other members of our team, especially the team leaders and senior-level folks who’re modeling for others.
- There is no easy solve and transforming culture takes time. I described culture as a measure of a business’s overall health. A business, or any collaborative organization, is a complex system within a complex system, with hard-to-predict behavior and dependencies on relationships, competition, and other external factors. Complex systems cannot be controlled in a top-down manner with bold pronouncements and flashy initiatives. Transforming culture will require a great deal of experimentation, a willingness to adopt new language and ways of communicating, and perhaps even outside perspective via 3rd party consultants or coaches. It’ll also require patience to see changes play out, to learn from them, and to make adjustments. As I mentioned above, I don’t have the answers to building a strong culture, just some thoughts. What I do know for certain is that it’s quite an undertaking and one where the job will never quite be finished.