Much has been written about corporate culture. Angelo Kinicki, the author of seven different books on the subject, defines corporate culture as “the set of shared, taken-for-granted, implicit assumptions that a group holds and that determines how it perceives, thinks about and reacts to its environments.” In simpler terms, he says it’s “the shared beliefs, values, and assumptions we have about where we work.” Ultimately, your company’s corporate culture, like its brand, will affect every aspect of how you engage with your customers and your colleagues.
“Culture is everything.”
– Lou Gerstner, IBM Turnaround Maestro
Some companies have an obvious corporate culture. Apple is known globally as a company that attracts the best and brightest employees, fosters a spirit of obsessive attention to design, and combines it all in a casual environment, but one with a strong sense urgency. I’ve been an Apple fan since I bought my first generation Macintosh computer. The products were usually great, but watching how the company evolved in their own very unique way was fascinating to me. The company’s most difficult years seemed to be associated with a time when Apple’s leadership team was not true to its corporate culture.
Southwest Airlines is also known for their lean management style and a focus on process optimization that gives them the fastest aircraft turnaround in the business. I remember when I read that founder Herb Kelleher didn’t consider other airlines to be his competition, but rather bus companies. With a focused sense of mission, they created a corporate culture that makes them one of the few consistently profitable airlines, and yet encourages a sense of fun that spills into the airline’s aisles and onto the passenger’s laps. When is the last time you had a fun flight on a U.S. carrier? Check out this video for a look at Southwest’s culture in action.
“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”
It can be argued how much of Apple’s and Southwest’s corporate culture was planned at the beginning and how much evolved over time. For most companies, their culture is quite accidental at first, but then evolves as the company grows. Looking backwards, there is usually a noticeable shift in culture at important inflection points, often during plateaus in company growth or innovation. Companies will often reevaluate their vision, mission, and culture statements to give themselves an honest assessment of how they currently stack up to those ideals created in better times. Successful companies will use that exercise to either change their vision, mission, and culture, or more likely, to reassert themselves to those principles that helped them become successful in the past.
What is your company’s corporate culture? Is it part of the company’s brand? Is it featured or reinforced through your leadership team? Is it tended to like a garden whose care will later reap rewards? Or is it simply a few phrases on a poster in the lobby or lunchroom?
Most written corporate culture statements are very general, and could apply to just about any company. “We value our employees” or “We believe in customer service” are examples of culture statements that become useless background noise. A better example would be “UNICEF is the driving force that helps build a world where the rights of every child are realized” or Google’s “Focus on the user and all else will follow.”
Google serves as an interesting example. The company’s famous “Don’t be evil” statement was meant to serve as part of their corporate culture, helping to steer Google’s leadership team through the inevitable conflicts of ego, money, and power can lead managers down the wrong path. The statement is simple, direct, and non-negotiable. It helps makes Google’s employees accountable for their actions. But it also demonstrates one of the challenges of having such a straightforward corporate culture statement – the “Don’t be evil” statement has been used against Google by the company’s critics.
Perhaps you believe that your company doesn’t even have corporate culture. An occupational psychologist friend assures me that every company has a corporate culture, declared or not. If it is not obvious, that can be a red flag; a warning that your company is just a place to go and do your job. It is important to understand your company’s corporate culture, because for you to be happy in your career and useful to your customers and company, you need to make sure that your own “personal” corporate culture aligns well with your company’s corporate culture.
We’ll explore the idea of your own personal corporate culture in the second part of this discussion.