What is Culture?

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A few years ago, the Human Resources officer used to be asked if they could see a final candidate to check for their cultural fit before extending an offer. Now successful CEOs have culture front and centre alongside strategy and finance as the key factors for success in today’s fast-paced and challenging markets.

With culture’s increased importance more companies are prioritising behaviours over skills during the recruitment process. Given the cost of bringing on new employees is high, and the cost of those who fail even higher, organisations want to ensure the candidate is going to thrive in the culture. With this comes psychological metrics and tests that are added to the recruitment process to test for ‘cultural’ fit, and there’s been a lot of discussion about the increasing importance of work culture. This article does a good job of explaining why culture should be a priority for leaders, and this one highlights a number of reasons why it is important to employees.

But when we ask ‘What is the culture like?,’ what do we really mean? Where do we look to find our culture?

Culture is simply how we work, that is recognised and accepted by the company. This includes how decisions are made, how employees communicate, what behaviours are celebrated and those behaviours that are not, and how people are promoted.  Some companies have a mission statement on the wall alongside their values or behaviours to achieve their vision. Although this may have been committed to the wall, whether they’re truly lived depends on if the organisation stands by these values or dismisses them as wallpaper that they past as they head through reception.

The challenge is you can’t see culture.  So how can you decide what your culture is, and/or what you need to do so others become familiar with it, and what can you do to support it to be successful?  Assuming your organisation has a clear purpose and strategy, below are the top five places to look to de-codify your culture.

  1. Identify the behaviours that drive the successful execution of the strategy. You may have company values, it’s how these values are lived through behaviours. For me it’s about respecting these values if you have them and getting underneath how they are lived day to day. For smaller, start- up companies this may have been done between the founder and the first few employees. For larger organisations, this may have been done a while back and has not been ‘refreshed’. Existing employees may need reminding what the company’s values are. Ask you employees today what they think is working and which behaviours may need to be dialled up to support the organisation’s strategy and purpose.

  2. Rules of the road. Identify what these are. For example, how are issues raised or dealt with when things go wrong? Is it ok to fail and experiment or risk take? For organisations that are regulating other companies this may not be a success factor, but this needs to be explicit. Is it ok to work from home or work flexibility?  How does trust show up?

  3. Leaders, how do leaders behave, what do they encourage/ discourage? Leaders are role modelling the company values all the time. It’s critical the senior leadership team is aligned and can demonstrate what is expected in an authentic way whilst being consistent.

  4. Development, how are people promoted or offered new projects? Are they given to those employees that shout the loudest or to those that display certain behaviours that generate success?

  5. How do you recruit? What questions do you ask candidates to find out if they are going to ‘fit’ in with the future and to be successful. Of your last recent hires who has been successful in the organisation? What behaviours have they displayed?

Once you have all of this information, look for patterns, review your current values or behaviours. Ask yourself does anything need to be changed or strengthened for you to be successful? Then go and test what you’ve found with your leadership and teams.  Following feedback embed these behaviours in everything you do. The more you do, the more your culture will be explicit and the more employees will talk about the culture with heart and passion in a consistent way, with no prompting or PowerPoint decks. This will help your organisation move faster, a critical need in this world that moves at such a pace.