What is company culture anyway?

This post is adapted from Josh Maher’s blog.

“I believe that the differentiated value of our company is our culture.” -Rajeev Singh, President & COO @Concur #Milestone9

I hear talk all the time about company culture. I’ve seen it make or break startups a number of times, seen countless blog posts written about how important it is, and read all sorts of posts about how to build a culture and who’s responsibility it is. There is not a lot of content about what it actually is though. Culture is not a set of steps that mark off on a checklist once a quarter, once a month, or even once a day.

Culture, as defined by Oxford Dictionaries is:

the arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively

It is the culmination of all the intellectual achievements of an organization. The culture of a company is derived from the achievements of that company. The culture is apparent the minute you begin interacting with the people in a company. They all collectively know how to convey that culture because it is a part of them and the culture is because of them. Sure there are many things leaders in the company can do to influence culture… for example, they can stifle areas of innovation or intellectual thought, they can put barriers in front of cultural avenues, they can also insert aspects into the culture that are more widely viewed (simply because they are leaders).

What do I mean exactly? I had an employee who worked for me that loved process. He wanted to do status reports daily even if they would have no bearing on the work being done. He largely operated autonomously and in that role I trusted him to execute well and discuss the big roadblocks at our weekly check-in. He really wanted the daily status report though, so we evolved that to a point that he felt he was getting value and I was able to find some value. Then I mentioned I was doing this him to another of my reports and our team culture evolved into one where we talked one on one every day. Sometimes it was about the SoundersFC, sometimes it was about our customers, sometimes it was five minutes, sometimes it was fifty minutes, everytime our conversations were worthwhile though. The point is that the members of the team changed the culture of the team. I could have said, “I’d rather just have a weekly check-in, that ‘proper’ cadence and time for us to meet to discuss these things”. In fact, in my early career I had managers tell me exactly that.

It goes beyond this one example though, the people that make up a company need to be trusted with the business, they need to want to contribute to the company, the team, and the success of the customer. Often companies focus on one of those or two of those, but you really need all three for success.

The company — the people that make up a company need to be able to contribute to the company goals and believe in their heart that the company’s intentions are intentions they believe in.

The team — people on each team need to be able to contribute in their own way, in their own style, with their utmost intellectual horsepower. Don’t interrupt team contributions by doing silly things like offering free snacks, but limiting the number of bananas to one per day. Or offering unlimited vacation but never encouraging employees to take any vacation. People on the team are there in part because of the perks of the team, if they are fake perks, they don’t appreciate the team, and won’t contribute with their utmost intellectual horsepower.

The customer — at the end of the day, customers are who pay the bills… if the people that make up the company don’t care about the customers of the company, they’ll never thrive in a culture that is constantly changing.

Culture is constantly changing, with every new hire, with every new fire, as kids grow older, team sizes get bigger, and the products evolve, the culture changes. It grows and changes a little bit everyday. Don’t ignore the feeling you get when you interact with your team, when you walk in the doors of the building, when you meet a new employee. Those feelings are a part of the evolving nature of your company culture.

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