What is company culture? Is this a strange question to be asking? After all, company culture is very much at the forefront of business nowadays. The FCA looks for financial organisations to build a culture of doing it right, the FRC is prioritising company culture as one of the key builders of strong corporate governance, and investors are increasingly being urged to look to the culture first before making investment decisions.
But as with so much in life, when a concept is taken up with enthusiasm there is also the danger that it can become bastardised, with bandwagon jumpers using it as an excuse for publicising their own particular point of view. So as with employee engagement which now seems to be the repository for everything from office decor to health plans, organisational culture or company culture is in danger of becoming the go to phrase in front of a variety of causes.
You might argue that that is no bad thing. After all, you may be happy to see an organisation which is innovative, engages with its employees, promotes sustainability, and delivers great customer service. And why wouldn’t you be? The fact is these are traits which sit within an overall culture which encompasses the ethos, aims and values of the organisation.
So what at heart is company culture? Quite simply, it’s the DNA of the company, its personality. An organisation’s culture starts even before it is formed with the values and attitudes of its founders. Left unchecked it develops with every action and interaction, every new member of staff, every supplier and customer relationship and in reaction to outside forces. Under the guiding hand of exemplary leadership, the culture drives excellence and reputation, strong results and longevity.
The values on the wall may say ‘we care’; whether customers are genuinely cared for will depend on the culture. The employee handbook may say ‘our people are our greatest asset’; whether they are treated as such or simply used and abused in the search for profit will depend on the culture. The annual report may claim that ‘the organisation actively looks to deliver innovative solutions’; whether it genuinely seeks to deliver differentiated solutions and experiences or simply to exploit the marketplace will depend on the culture.
Leaders who are aware of the impact of culture on an organisation can deliver greatness. Those who are more interested in profitability or the share price may well find that sooner or later the market passes them by as the company disintegrates and internal strife ranges unchecked. That’s why it is so important not only to keep your finger on the pulse of culture but also to undertake a regular culture assessment; a health check which will help to highlight not only discrepancies with the designed culture but also cultural differences between departments and divisions.
For a beleaguered leadership, or for one which is seen exponential growth, revisiting company culture may be the last thing on their minds. But for all leaders, carrying out a regular cultural assessment and review may just be the most productive time which they will spend.