Say hello to company culture, the thing that can make or break your organisation - quite literally. Think of company culture as the strands of DNA that define its customs, norms and business practices. It defines the way the company and its people behave. If you ask a superstar leader about their culture, they’ll tell you “well, it’s just the way we do things around here.”
Imagine corporate or company culture in the same way that you would describe human cultures in different parts of the world. Culture can be fast, exciting slow, strict or relaxed. Some cultures around the world are described as being ‘totalitarian’ ‘collectivist’ or ‘individualist’ whereas some are liberal and free, allowing people to act and do as they please.
So what are the different ways of describing company cultures you ask…
Well, the easiest way to relate to company culture is by comparing two very well-known and very opposite types of organisations. The first is the bureaucratic, corporate organisation. They are famous for their BIG size and strict management style. They tend to have super rigid rules and many layers of management. These big corporate giants are also renowned for having endlessly long rule-books that detail specific guidelines for everything, from dress-codes right through to how projects should be run (and perhaps even the type of coffee that is served). Drip coffee anyone?
Let’s not be too critical here - some of the largest, most successful businesses in the world are bureaucratic. After all, when you’re launching a rocket into space, you need things to be planned down to the second. Their strict ‘command and control’ structure means decisions are taken slowly, prudently and carefully. Big decisions need to be signed off by many people, in polished boardrooms where one typically needs to wear a tie! This strict control is both friend and foe - in some ways it reduces risk and maintains consistency, but at the same time it means that large corporates can find it very hard to adapt and innovate quickly.
Let’s contrast this with the world of startups. In startups you’re just as likely to find the founder in a onesie or board-shorts. Their pet labradoodle is probably sleeping on their desk. Instead of rows and rows of tiny cubicles, you’re likely to find cushions, bean-bags, an area where cold-brew coffee is slowly brewing and yoga mats on the floor. There is an air of informality and ‘renegade’ in this environment. People do what they want (within reason); there’s barely any rules, apart from “get stuff done, and get it done as fast and productively as possible.”
Startups are famous for being innovative disruptors, breaking up the rule-book and moving fast. Corporate organisations are famous for moving slow, being risk averse and sometimes being ‘autocratic’ - meaning that decisions are not made by teams but by controlling higher powers and CEOs.
So - Where does company culture come from in the first place?
Company culture doesn’t just appear out of nowhere. It often forms organically over time, influenced by top management. CEOs and founders are typically the most influential in shaping culture. After all, they decide the company’s values, principles and purpose. It’s their initial behaviours and ethos that set the tone for the way of working. They are the ones who choose whether the working style will be high-octane and high-performance or relaxed and chill. They will decide whether they want strict rules and highly defined roles, or a more autonomous working environment where people have the freedom to get the job done in the manner and style that they choose. If they have an ‘autocratic’ management style, they’ll brief senior people on e x a c t l y what they should be doing down to the most specific and regimented level of detail. In contrast, in more progressive businesses with an autonomous culture, top management will set high expectations of performance but give teams the freedom to choose how to tactically reach those goals (even if it means that all work is performed by people maintaining a constant yoga pose).
BEWARE - whatever you do, your people will do too!
As humans, we have this funny habit of emulating the people around us. We do it as kids, and we do it as adults too. That’s why your most senior people need to practice what they preach. As a CEO or HR director, if you demand high performance from your people, but then visibly spend all your time on the Golf course or playing Xbox, then your people are likely to think it’s perfectly acceptable to do exactly the same.
If you are lazy your people will be lazy.
If you act with kindness and care, then your workforce will act with kindness and care.
If you have the maxim ‘the customer is king’ - and demonstrate this visibly over time, then this will become a living and breathing part of the culture of your organisation.
This is why it’s so important for the most visible, most senior people to live the values of the organisation. Your brand and your purpose can’t just be some fancy blurb that’s written on the wall in your reception area. And you can’t create a modern organisation just by adding a few bean-bags and a football table. Building a culture starts with the founding members setting the right example and tone from the very start. So be self-aware, always!