Culture: what determines how work gets done.
You can’t execute great strategy with bad culture.
When you are building your business, your culture can often take a back seat to all the other priorities. This is understandable, however, entrepreneurs disregard culture at their business’ peril, because culture is the critical factor of how any group of people work together. You need people to work together well in order to be successful.
And realize that your business will develop a culture whether you influence it deliberately or ignore it.
How much should I care about culture?
Let’s assume that you’re running a business that you started, and you have a smashing product and a brilliant strategy to obtain customers and serve your targeted market. In order to accomplish this (unless your business is just you), you need a team in a well-functioning structure to do so.
That team – your employees – necessarily will develop behaviors, habits and make choices over time, and that will be the culture of your business. If the culture is cooperative, collaborative, organized and supportive, the tasks that the group of employees and the resulting goals will be successful. If the group’s culture is combative, disorganized, selfish and destructive, few tasks or goals will be achieved.
This is why business culture supersedes and overcomes your best laid plans. It is a critical element that determines whether execution is possible and how effective it will be.
Additionally, your business culture either attracts or repels current employees, potential hires, customers, vendors, and partners in the community. Think of it as unpaid marketing, which could be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on characteristics of the culture.
What is culture?
In simple terms, culture is nothing more than a group’s accepted and practiced behavior. But determining what is in that short definition is fodder for advanced degrees, thick books, and a lifetime of study. The massive depth and expanse of a group’s culture can be daunting, but a founder disregards it at significant risk.
In 1999, Johnson and Scholes devised the “Cultural Web” to illustrate the culture of a business, and it contained six separate categories:
- Stories & myths (what people talk about regarding the business)
- Rituals (”this is how we do things”)
- Symbols (dress code, uniforms, building, office, logos, “presentation”)
- Org chart – formal, informal and “social power” (Malcolm Gladwell)
- Control systems: formality, standards, expectations, promotion, pay, office time
- Power: ability of a person to decide another’s responsibilities, pay, time, job description, etc.
How to look at your culture
To determine the culture of your business, it’s helpful to ask questions like these:
- What type of behavior is tolerated or encouraged?
- What results, choices and actions are punished or rewarded, both publicly and privately, both invisibly and visibly?
- How does the group make decisions?
- What does the body language, dress, formality, punctuality and cooperation look like?
- Is there a difference between the public face and private face of our business? Why?
- What is the difference between the business org chart and the informal org chart (who has social power)?
- What stories, myths, and rituals are part of the business and why?
How leadership affects culture
We are social animals, and we are attracted to and thrive inside groups. The behavior, choices and values of a group are heavily influenced by the leaders in the group, and that is where you come in.
Starting a business is – among other things – forming a group of humans who will share a similar purpose and have some characteristics in common. Much of what they will have in common in this group will be connected to, if not determined by, what you do, how you behave, and what you tolerate in the group – including your own behavior and choices.
The culture of a business is not what you espouse, it’s not your mission statement, the bold type on the front of the website, or the company motto on the first page of the employee manual. Part of your business’ culture depends on its community, and part of it is affected by external events that affect all businesses.
However, many of the choices you make and things you do shape culture:
- Your personal habits, decisions, how you treat others, how you listen, enforce, and encourage
- Process: are decisions made independently, cooperatively, or collaboratively; what are the characteristics of hierarchy, mentorship, growth and failure?
- Are employees given responsibility and authority?
- What is the story of your business? What do others understand as the story?
- Definition and dissemination of business values and purpose and how closely those mirror reality.
- The difference between what you say and what you do
Where to start
Often, defining the values and purpose of a business is one of the most challenging things for a founder. We often “know” what are values are and why we are doing what we are doing, but we struggle with putting it into words, and daily pressing demands force the idea of facing this hard work into the background.
Until it’s too late.
Spend time writing and define your values and purposes. There are no right answers, no perfect for to them, but most businesses can’t have more than half a dozen, and a sentence or two for each is more than sufficient. If you have more, or they tend to be long, you probably need some editing and time to make choices about what is more important and what is less.
Next, assess your current culture against the backdrop of your values and purposes. Be open and honest with your self-assessment, and then ask others the same question without judgment or opinion. Think carefully about what you do, what you don’t do, what you say, and what you don’t say. It can be quite revealing.
The next bit is quite easy to write, but it describes a life-time set of interrelated and never-ending tasks: in your culture, find what doesn’t fit your values and purpose, and change it. Some changes will seem hard, others simple and easy, but since culture reflects your growing business embodied by a group of ever-changing humans, you have to pay attention to how the business and culture evolves and what you need to do to make the best fit.
Embracing the process of examination and change helps a lot, as does prioritizing the possible changes, finding a way to measure the effects of your actions, and being “public” about your intent. Make your attention to culture a regular drum beat of your leadership.
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