Deliberately Creating a Company Culture

All companies have a culture. Since nature abhors a vacuum, it’s better to select and cultivate the culture you want. Sitting back and allowing your company culture to develop naturally, may result in an unintentional, unprofessional environment inevitably derailing your business.
As Steven Covey says, “Start with the end in mind.”

What is Company Culture?

According to Frances Frei and Anne Morriss at Harvard Business Review: “Culture guides discretionary behavior and it picks up where the employee handbook leaves off. Culture tells us how to respond to an unprecedented service request. It tells us whether to risk telling our bosses about our new ideas, and whether to surface or hide problems. Employees make hundreds of decisions on their own every day, and culture is our guide. Culture tells us what to do when the CEO isn’t in the room, which is, of course, most of the time.”

Building a company culture should be strategic and deliberate. Most importantly, the culture should adapt as your business grows. Experts who write about company culture recognize it at a significant influence on job satisfaction, productivity and even employee retention.

Top Four Types of Company Culture

While many different kinds exist, in the book “Corporate Culture: The Rites and Rituals of Corporate Life” authors Terrence Deal and Allan Kennedy skillfully identify four key company culture categories most companies can be classified in.

1. ‘Work Hard – Play Hard’ Culture

Three coworkers on their laptops, sitting on a coach and working, talking, and laughing.
Photo by Matthew Henry

Both having fun and maintaining action are priorities within this type of company. The attitudes of these employees are all about balancing work and play. An example of this sort of company culture would be Google (or portrayed in the show Mad Men in a more extreme version). Younger employees focus less on hours and take more pride in job performance. Quality of work is important here, but the employee is also looking forward to kicking back and enjoying free time with co-workers. Work-life and social-life are often intertwined in this company culture.

2. ‘Process’ Culture

In this company culture, data, grids, and forms take precedence over all else. Creativity and flexibility are limited, with the focus more aimed at established procedures, corporate bureaucracy and internal hierarchy. In my experience, the larger a company grows, the more likely they will fall into this category.  While I am all about procedure, this type of company does everything by the book, possibly limiting new and innovative idea sharing as well as the opportunity for improvement.

3. ‘All Hands on Deck’ Culture

This “get it done” culture relies on everyone in the organization to participate and work together as a team, no matter what their official title or position. The primary focus is on getting the job done, even if it involves all hands on deck. I would classify most start-ups and entrepreneurial businesses in this category. Nonprofits also fall into this category as well. Titles, job descriptions, and roles are loosely defined and less important than getting the job accomplished. This does not mean there is no structure; it means there’s a great deal of structural flexibility.

4. ‘Tough Guy/Macho’ culture

My experience in the 70’s at Coopers & Lybrand (now PriceWaterhouse Coopers) fell into this category and I am happy to state this does not seem to be the case in the 21st century. This is the type of culture where getting the job done is the most important part, no matter what the cost. This culture expects you to know what you’re doing with little or no direction. Feedback and constructive (sometimes not so constructive) criticism are the norm here. My hope is that this company culture is waning due to its ineffective way of motivating employees and executing projects.

In larger companies, while there is an overall culture, managers within departments may operate across the different types of company cultures described above. For example, the lab area may have a process culture to support the appropriate level of documentation and procedural requirements of outside agencies while the sales department may develop a ‘Work Hard – Play Hard’ culture, exuberantly celebrating victories.

These are general categories and the lines are not definite, but rather quite blurred. There may be elements of each in your business and growth may require some cultural transition. As you build your business, pro-actively developing and adapting your company culture will optimize team performance and growth.

Why does Company Culture Matter?

Team's hands together, showing teamwork and accomplishment.
Photo by Matthew Henry

Family culture defines what the kids do while the parents are out, just as corporate culture defines employee actions outside of the handbook or sight of supervisors. Employees make hundreds of decisions not directly covered in policies, procedures or handbooks. How they act when no one is watching is cultural.

According to Inc. Magazine, “culture is the shared values, attitudes, standards, and beliefs that characterize members of an organization and define its nature. Corporate culture is rooted in an organization’s goals, strategies, structure, and approaches to labor, customers, investors, and the greater community.”

Without a strong overall company culture, employees or whole divisions could find themselves falling off track. A well-established company culture developed to fit specific needs allows for employees and teams to thrive.

For example, a CNN/Money headline described the cause of Wells Fargo employees creating millions of fake accounts as a broken “sales culture” issue. Closing the sale (and getting the subsequent compensation) became the only driving element within their culture, causing them to lose sight of a serious problem.

Embedding culture includes not only stating the vision, mission, and values of the company but also living and breathing them along with reward systems, internal control procedures, and adequate oversight.

How to Create a Great Company Culture

Over the years, I’ve found the smaller and/or newer the business, the more likely it is that an ‘All Hands on Deck’ company culture will be present. There is so much work to do and not enough people around to do it. There is often a sprinkle of ‘Work Hard – Play Hard’ (think: technology start-up) as it reflects the camaraderie of building a business. These cultures are more popular as they bring a small business the most success.

Be aware that as your company grows, the needs of your business will change with it; there will likely be a need for some kind of cultural transition. In my experience, building and transforming a company culture sometimes requires shaking up the status quo. Replace employees who don’t fit with those who do. Replace elements of the business that don’t fit in the new environment.

For example, in transforming a utility culture, I let go of the rigidity of a time clock atmosphere and several employees who could not adapt to a more distributed decision-making model. Once you’ve decided what kind you like best, actually creating the company culture requires consistency of actions. The behaviors you model will drive the perception of the “real” culture.

The Elements of a Great Company Culture

What goes into creating a great company culture, or might I say, sustaining one?

Neil Patel states there are four main elements:

  1. Hire people who fit your culture
  2. Stick to employees who understand the values and mission of your company
  3. Know that good decisions can come from anywhere
  4. Realize you’re a team and not a bunch individuals
A smiling business woman standing in front of a row of employees working on computers.
Photo by Nicole De Khors

To successfully hire people that best fit in with your culture, you’ll have to first create the culture and decide how you’re going to make it great. This step will keep your current performing employees happy and allow you to attract and hire more fantastic employees.

It’s also important to ensure your current employees understand the values and mission of your company before bringing new people on board. Begin the indoctrination in the interview process and follow-up in the training process. Really take the time to feel out whether they’re a good fit (some companies go so far as to have the candidate work in the company for a week).

Delve into their expectations and if your employees (new-hire or otherwise) can’t answer the question, “Why do you want to work here?” you might want to re-evaluate their fit. Ideally, core values between the company and the employee should align.

With many years of consulting under my belt, I fully support the idea that creating a great company culture is about remembering that good ideas and decisions can come from anywhere within the organization. The people who know the job best often have the best ideas.

Remember, no matter what the position title, everyone is an important part of the team. Ensure your team feels respected and appreciated. High-performing members often get frustrated when management makes all the choices or takes credit for everything. It’s often the coach who is fired when the team under-performs. So remember to make sure every member knows their value.

Finally, I strongly believe in a “do as I do” not “do as I say” type of environment. Always model the behavior you’ve defined for your culture. Your actions and expectations will drive the type of company culture you establish.

Culture drives much of the expectations and behavior within your organization. Deliberately decide on the type of culture best for your company and your business will find a more success.


Featured image by Shopify Partners. All image licensed for use via Burst.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *