How do you build corporate culture?

Corporate Culture is a funny thing. Every company has a culture – it’s either built purposefully or by accident. It’s either an asset or a liability. In some companies culture is fostered, in others, it just happens. Simply put, culture is the environment we live in.

I’m ashamed to admit that Three Pillar’s corporate culture – most specifically in our US office (HQ) – has a little bit of both sides of the coin. We’ve purposefully built our vision and core values and we’ve spent time fostering culture by living and hiring to our values, sponsoring special events, and taking on other creative initiatives. On the other hand, our culture has struggled to keep pace with our growth. Despite decent effort, we have been unable to get it to take off like I’ve hoped it would. Recently, I’ve been asking myself why.

Here’s what I’ve determined.

  • We failed to understand the scope of culture – culture is the environment within which we work; it is the personality of the entire organization. It is comprised of a common vision, shared values, and accepted behaviors. As an organization, we have failed to clearly identify the behaviors we embrace and want to foster. We’ve only defined 2/3 of our culture, and while I believe that we live out what we’ve defined fairly well, 66% is still a “D.”
  • We struggled to obtain acceptance – a strong culture must be widely accepted, internally consistent, and make explicitly clear what appropriate behavior within the company is. Because we never defined the acceptable behaviors, our vision, purpose, and core values were given no consistent structure on which to hang. (As a side note, I believe that defined behaviors without a strong vision, purpose, and core values would be perceived as hollow and also struggle to take root).
  • We lacked cultural consistency – due to our eclectic backgrounds and failure to define acceptable behaviors, we failed to establish consistency across the type of culture we were attempting to build. Do we want Three Pillar to feel more like Accenture or Zappos? We have diverse opinions and a lack of consistency regarding what our operating environment should feel like. We’ve fallen somewhere in the middle, but outside a small subset of employees, most people would likely tell you that is because we’re lukewarm, rather than purposefully balanced.
  • We fell into an overly hierarchical structure – to deal with our hyper-growth, we quickly went from a very flat and informal reporting structure to a formal and very hierarchical structure. Neither was appropriate. While we needed to mature and create more formalities, the collaborative teamwork we took great pride in and from which our identity and culture thrived was stifled. Furthermore, our systems and processes were ill-prepared to handle the hierarchy and as a result, we failed to truly empower our team.
  • We ignored our gut – as we grew we began to fall into “because that’s how you do it” syndrome. We began to ignore our instincts and follow the book instead of our gut. This undermined the culture we had built. Strong leaders listen, read, and gather intel. Then, they distill and apply what is appropriate. I think I skipped the distill part of the equation in certain areas for a while.
  • We failed to stress the importance of culture – no matter how much I’ve stressed the importance of creating culture, sponsored book clubs, and hosted happy hours or game nights, I simply haven’t stressed it enough. I’m pretty sure that you can’t over-communicate vision, purpose, and values. If one of my primary functions is to establish direction, then I should spend a significant amount of time reminding everyone what that means.

Don’t get me wrong. Our culture isn’t horrible, it’s just not where we want it to be. I may be fooling myself, but I don’t think our culture is a liability. That said, it’s not a very robust asset – which it should be. As a services company, people are our business. They are our most valuable assets. Creating a strong culture is the right thing to do for your employees. They deserve it. Furthermore, to attract, retain, and optimize the performance of the best talent, we need to step up our game.

Every company has work to do in different areas; we’re no different. This is an area that I’m looking at and focusing my efforts on. How have you seen a strong and healthy corporate culture be successfully fostered? What lessons did you learn in the process? Do you have any words of wisdom to share as we attempt to take Three Pillar to the next level?

One Comment Add yours

  1. Anonymous says:

    David –I think you articulated well what it takes to build a culture when you said “We’ve purposefully built our vision and core values and we’ve spent time fostering culture by living and hiring to our values.” To your first point, ensuring that your vision and values are closely aligned is critical to building the foundation for a company culture, but living it day-to-day, especially by the leadership team, will give it the credibility needed to gain acceptance. To your second point, hiring to your values will allow you to sustain the culture for the long-term. This can be difficult when you are growing as fast as your organization has, but if you start to comprise here, this can quickly erode any progress you have made.Two other thoughts I would add. The first is that in building a culture you not only need to make it known to your employees, but accessible. I believe Netflix did a great job of doing this by putting together a culture document that is available for the entire world to see, but most importantly, the employees. The second is I am a big believer positive reinforcement, and I encourage my managers to seek to catch employees doing something right, instead of always trying to catch them doing something wrong. Have your managers on the look-out for employees that are living the culture and recognize them. I have had my managers’ carry around a variety of $5 or $10 gift cards to hand out at their discretion when they see something they would like to reinforce. No need to make a big deal in front of others, but just an opportunity to reinforce good behavior.Good Luck!Tom Heim

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