Can You Define Your Culture? Because It Defines You

I was recently conducting a training session for a group of senior leaders, and we were on the topic of their company culture (what they want to be known for). We were discussing how they aligned their departmental goals with the overall culture. One leader said that as of yet, they had not “created” a culture for his division. I paused to choose my words carefully and said to the group, “What’s happening in your departments while you are sitting here in this classroom is your culture.” I saw a few of them squirm in their seats; one looked at her phone. I think I got my point across on the importance of company culture and how it should transcend throughout the organization, but what is culture?

What Is Company Culture?

company culture

In Start with Why Simon Sinek wrote, “We’ve succeeded as a species because of our ability to form cultures. Cultures are groups of people who come together around a common set of values and beliefs… A company is a group of people brought together around a common set of values and beliefs. It’s not products or services that bind a company together. It’s not size and might that make a company strong. It’s the culture—the strong sense of beliefs and values that everyone, from the CEO to the receptionist, all share.”

I’ve worked with organizations that are defining or retooling their cultures (mission, vision, values, etc.), and I’ve seen components of company culture displayed via impressive artwork that is hung in company boardrooms, cafeterias, and other staff areas. Your culture is a reflection of the things you are communicating daily; not just a mirror of these impressive hallmarks, or things you would like your culture to be. Visuals your employees look at daily become unimportant and are ignored as everyday artwork occupying space on the wall.

Cultural Volleyball at Work


Your actual culture is like a game of volleyball: once the ball is served, it has to be continually touched to keep it aloft, and when it falls to the ground, someone looses a point to their opponent. In this case, it’s your organization that looses when the culture hits the floor from lack of contact.

People want to be a part of something bigger than themselves. Culture isn’t defined by your pet-friendly, casual-attire office rules; it represents the commonly held set of beliefs or values that people use to govern their interactions with each other. These values – that are talked about, embraced, and demonstrated daily, combined with a sense of purpose around the strategy – create the “something big” Jim Haudan writes about in The Four Roots of Engagement.

Whose Job Is Culture?

company culture

With leaders already overtaxed with responsibilities, and in a world where it is now impossible to shut work off, how are leaders expected to add on this task of cultural champion? However, this attitude represents a problem, because culture is not an “add on” to the work that you do, but rather built into the fabric of how you lead and communicate with your team. If the people that you lead do not believe in what you believe in, you can lead them to water, but you can’t make them drink. It starts with hiring like-minded people who want to be part of your “something big.”

In How Great Leaders Inspire Action Simon Sinek said, “The goal is not just to hire people who need a job; it’s to hire people who believe what you believe. I always say that if you hire people just because they can do a job, they’ll work for your money, but if they believe what you believe, they’ll work for you with blood, sweat, and tears.”

A workforce united behind common ideals and goals can accomplish amazing feats, and perhaps its employees enjoy where they work at the same time. How do you go about finding these like-minded people? In the beginning of my career, the only option was to place an ad in the local help wanted section of the paper. Now, the options are only limited by your creativity. Sometimes it’s about finding candidates where they thrive, rather than them looking for you. They are the passive job seekers who never thought of you, but just might be your next great hire; the champions that embody your culture. An example of this would be looking for great public speakers at Toastmaster meetings rather than posting an ad, or giving an excellent waitress your card rather than reviewing a stack of resumes.

Select Your Own Journey

company culture

I recently got to know the internal workings of a new startup that has amazing success connecting with their customers; their emotional connections were off the charts. What I discovered from each leader I spoke to was that this synergy started during the selection process. One senior manager even pointed out that you need to look beyond their behaviors and ask, are they the kind of person I would actually want to have a drink with outside of work? We spend so much time at work; shouldn’t it be with people who not only get your culture, but with whom you also enjoy spending time?

What might that process look like, and how can you rethink your selection process to enhance the culture of your company? Next month we will explore some of those options. In the meantime, your homework is to go on an archaeological dig to find all of the components out there that represent your company’s culture. Happy digging!

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