Culture is more than a buzzword used in employee satisfaction surveys; it is a company’s multifaceted personality, soul, and character. A company’s culture includes concrete aspects of work life, such as compensation, benefits, and career development, as well as less tangible aspects like attitudes, values, and employee behavior.*
For example, in his book Onward, Howard Schultz described the spirit (soul) of Starbucks this way: “Our stores and partners [employees] are at their best when they collaborate to provide an oasis, an uplifting feeling of comfort, connection, as well as a deep respect for the coffee and communities we serve.”
Whether culture is expressed through mission, vision, values, or some other way, every organization appears to be focused on creating and sustaining a culture where workers can thrive, customer service is extraordinary, and products and services are of the highest quality. If you Google ten companies right now, ten would provide an enticing message about their culture. Most go through a painstaking process to ensure they use the right words to describe their culture and why it makes a difference
The truth is culture happens regardless. During my career, I worked for companies that have the best intentions when it comes to culture. Leaders communicated all the right things, but for some reason, the message didn’t translate for the frontline. I have also been in situations where leaders preach culture and then do and say things that undermine it. In an article titled The Soul of a Start-Up, Ranjay Gulati offers a structure for organizations to help them find and sustain three crucial dimensions of a start-up’s soul: business intent, or a loftier reason for being; unusually close customer connections, and an employee experience characterized by autonomy and creativity—by “voice” and “choice.” All three provide meaning to stakeholders. **
Once the leaders in business gain clarity around these 3-dimensions, they must be resourceful in making it stick. This is more difficult than it may seem. As we all know, change is the only constant in business and life. Employees no longer stick around to get the gold watch or, for that matter, a 10-year pin. The churn is constant at all levels. To make matters more challenging, marketplace dynamics are changing at an escalating pace. Therefore, it becomes a delicate balance between evolving the culture based on these changes and holding on to the fundamental elements that are still relevant.
*Culture: The soul of your company written by Paul Larkins, President, and CEO of SquareTwo Financial (2012)
**The Soul of a Start-Up written by Ranjay Gulati. A version of this article appeared in the July–August 2019 issue (pp.84–91) of Harvard Business Review.