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Corporate Culture is starting to be understood as a key component of competitive advantage, but how do you take it from a buzzword to reality? Culture discussion deserves a little time. Can you describe your company culture in 5-8 adjectives? Good! Now, ask your leadership team and your customers to do the same. Do you all use the same adjectives? If you said yes, stop reading and pop the champagne. You are in a small group. If not, read on.

What is Culture, Exactly?

First, what is culture? It is the organization’s values, beliefs and behaviors and usually represents the unwritten rules through which everyone’s actions are interpreted, individually and in groups. Cultures can be positive or negative.

Why Does Culture Matter?

So what? Here is why it matters. There are two main reasons:

  • A company has to operate in a manner consistent with its culture or values or it can’t be successful. You can’t ask an organization specializing in the blame game to succeed in being accountable. If there is no trust, how can an organization really be motivated by the next big project? In a blame culture, the people in it are sure projects will never be funded anyway. In a culture of privilege, it doesn’t matter how hard you work, if you aren’t in the privileged group, you will never get past a manager title.
  • The second reason is that culture is replacing process as the variable which most determines success.

Culture Trumps Process

Process is made up of repeatable and predictable ways to introduce product, define customer service and other key operations. They are all documented in a book, taught in the company university and ingrained in performance reviews. Culture defines how people behave. It defines what people value, and what drives them to action. When you set out your company vision, if it aligns with what the people in the company believe is right, the culture of the company will support the implementation of that vision. If, on the other hand, the people in the company hold values that conflict with those implicit in the vision, or if they are driven by factors that conflict with implementing the strategy, the vision will remain only an idea.

What is your culture? Do people in your organization want and expect a stable and steady work place? Are they looking for rock and fire? Those people will work differently, respond to different rewards, and view the same goals in a different light. If you said you wanted a culture where there is a sense of urgency, high performance excellence and innovation you would have a very different company than one that is collaborative, concerned for people and focused on empowering great customer service. One is not better than the other, but they are different. Each can be successful in it own way, but the vision of the company must align with the its values, and the people who work there must share in those values to fully embrace its implementation.

In 2009 Amazon bought a small competitor, online shoe merchant Zappos, for $1.2 billion. At the time, Bruce Temkin wrote about Amazon’s acquisition of Zappos, wondering if it would kill Zappos’ culture. Zappos at that time espoused these core values:

  1. Deliver Wow Through Service
  2. Embrace and Drive Change
  3. Create Fun and a Little Weirdness
  4. BE adventurous, creative and open minded
  5. Pursuer growth and learning
  6. Build open and honest relationships with communication
  7. Build a positive team and family spirit
  8. Do more with less
  9. Be passionate and determined
  10.  Be Humble

It was an unusual deal in that Amazon promised to leave Zappos alone so long as it hit certain financial targets. Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, wrote the following year that the relationship between Zappos and Amazon was “governed by a document that formally recognizes the uniqueness of Zappos’s culture and Amazon’s duty to protect it. How did this acquisition impact Zappo’s culture? As of 2018, Zappos continues to practice its own unique culture. On their web site they still post these values. And we all know the Amazon story! Success in business is about understanding the culture of your company and aligning your future with who you are.

So, first define your culture, walk the talk, and be its guardian—be careful of small changes or big changes that jeopardize it Unless that is your intention.

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