Getting Clear about Corporate Culture

Employees around a conference room table.

Culture is the compass that informs every decision and shapes every process within the organization, from HR technology to leadership competencies.

Over the past year, I've interviewed dozens of HR leaders who have been recognized for creating a great work experience for their employees. They came from organizations ranging in size from fewer than 50 employees to tens of thousands, and from industries as diverse as restaurants to construction firms to tech giants.

Corporate culture was a common discussion topic. They viewed their organizational culture as a competitive advantage and treated it as such by taking steps to ensure that the important elements were clearly defined, codified and communicated. They viewed this as critical to maintaining a positive work environment that fueled employee engagement and performance. This commitment to culture sets these organizations apart from the mainstream.

Many leaders speak about the importance of culture but don't decipher or define their unique culture, much less put it into writing. This isn't particularly surprising, considering it's hard for most organizations to even find a definition for organizational culture.

While I don't pretend to have the definition, what follows is a distillation of what I've learned from observing how successful organizations are approaching culture.

Culture is the shared system of beliefs, values and practices that drive your success.

Culture is essentially the operating system of any organization. It shapes your identity, behavior and approach. It is the compass that informs every decision and shapes every process within the organization, from HR technology to leadership competencies.

With this observed definition in mind, the importance of creating a company culture becomes obvious. But how do you even approach defining something as seemingly abstract as culture? The best way to answer that question is by looking at some examples.

One of my favorites is from the financial advice company, The Motley Fool. From their early days, they have used a surprising tool to define culture: the employee handbook. Their current version is shared online at The Fool Rules. As you explore it, you'll find it feels much less like a handbook and more like a living and breathing expression of what it means to work at the company.

Another wonderful example is the Hubspot Culture Code, a 128-slide deck that details the current and aspirational culture of this marketing automation company. They admit their code was based on the legendary Netflix Culture Code, another great example from which to borrow. Both decks are designed to clarify but also to inspire. Both companies use carefully chosen language to create a clear depiction of their culture that all employees can understand and support.

The skeptics will surely point to the fact that not everything about culture can be defined. They are right. The organizations I've worked with and studied don't bother trying to define everything, and that's why their approach works. It sends a message to the organization about what really matters, and the resulting focus is what makes it so powerful.

While the examples I've shared come from trendy online businesses, I've seen equally compelling cultural definitions in a wide range of industries. If you haven't developed a clearly defined corporate culture, you're likely holding yourself back. This will be a game-changer for you.

Here are a few things you should know before you start.

  1. Defining culture is hard work, but it's worth it. Doing it right will take more time than you might expect. You'll have to get executive leadership on board with its importance, but the effort will pay off. I co-led an initiative to define culture many years ago, and we sloughed through one year, two different consulting partners and countless intense meetings before finally nailing it down. I'll never forget the day we showed it to the CEO. Upon seeing the final product, he said, "You've finally captured in words what I never could. This is it." That clarity played a big role in the following years of unprecedented organizational performance.
  2. The process must be inclusive of all employees. There's no way to define culture that doesn't include significant input from the employees who live in it every day. Leaders and HR professionals often claim to know what the company culture is, but the day-to-day reality is almost always quite different – hence the need to define it.
  3. There is no perfect way to define culture. You don't need to create a 100-page slide deck or an online employee handbook. If your culture communicates in bullet points, use bullet points. The definition of your culture should be reflected in how it's captured and communicated. When it's done, it should not only sound right but feel right.

Embarking on the journey to define your culture can feel intimidating. But if ensuring your employees will be there to fuel your success is important to you, then your only choice is to act.