Saturday, December 20, 2014

I think that the definition of company culture is wrong

Although cool, your company’s free organic food and Uber allowance are not “culture.” The fact that everyone, including the CEO, comes to work clad in jeans and a hoodie is not “culture” either.

When we talk about culture, too often we talk about the wildly luxurious perks, or we celebrate employees’ traits or behaviors that have little to do with their actual performance at work, as if those were the reasons why the tech sector has been so successful.

Something like, “Company X is cool because they give everyone a free puppy and they’re known to be rockstar engineers and they all kite surf,” is really only describing a company at a very surface level, if at all.

Unfortunately, celebrating, or at minimum acknowledging, that definition of culture is now the cost of doing business, especially when you’re hiring talented engineers, fresh out of school. I can imagine that when you’re looking for your first job, a doggy-day-care subsidy might seem more like a concrete, positive reason to work at a given company, versus transparency or continuous improvement.

Company culture should be about the business

Here’s how I would define company culture:

It’s the set of values, traits, and systems that are deliberate, obvious and inherent in a company, existing to make the company successful.

When you define (and celebrate!) company culture this way, it becomes obvious why culture should be important to an organization, why culture eats perks for breakfast. Culture is the way the work gets done, the decisions get made, the people get hired. If you’re not focused on culture as a holistic mechanism to build the company’s success, then you’re coming at it from a potentially bifurcated point of view.

Call it culture, beliefs, values, organizing principles, whatever. It can be real and right now, but also aspirational. But no matter what, it has to come back to driving company success.

Let’s take a value like distributed decision making: trusting and empowering the experts (not necessarily the execs) in a company to make decisions in their domain. A company might value distributed decision making because it increases the speed of business; employees can move faster and do more if they don’t have to wait on executive approval, and if the decisions are made by the people with the most information.

Sounds great, right? Is that kind of empowerment part of your company’s culture? Here’s how you can tell:

  • When you hire someone, do you ask questions to see if they have decision making skills, if they’re able to make decisions without looking upwards?
  • Do you get rewarded through formal rewards programs for having made good decisions?
  • Are negotiation and evaluation skills critical to your career development?
  • When you finish big projects, do you do a post-mortem that includes assessing whether or not you made the right decisions?

Basically, your company’s culture should be baked into the org structure, the people systems (hiring, firing, performance management), and especially into your business plan.

Let’s get to work on the real definition of company culture

And I know, this process of inculcating a true definition of culture sounds like a lot of work. No organization is perfect at living up to its values. But rather than spend hours and hours wordsmithing the perfect vision for your company’s culture, the real work is find and bridge the gap from where your culture is today and where you want it to be. Aligning the company culture with the success of your business takes it from a nice-to-have to an imperative - a way to achieve success, not just market it.