Company Culture…What Is It Anyway?

When Goldman Sachs vice president Greg Smith resigned he wrote in a New York Times op-ed: “Culture was always a vital part of Goldman Sachs’ success…The culture was the secret sauce that made this place great and allowed us to earn our clients’ trust for 143 years.” Whether culture is a secret sauce that makes local companies thrive or just Smith’s outdated verbiage, there’s a lot of talk these days on the importance of company culture.

If you asked ten people walking down University Avenue to define company culture you’d get ten different answers. You might hear a company’s culture is its core values, mission statement or how it interacts with employees and customers, but if that’s the case then how do employees know their company culture unless it’s spelled out, and how important is it anyway?

It depends on who you talk to.

A Gallup Poll indicates companies with a highly engaged workforce outperforms their less engaged peers by 147% in earnings, and companies often attribute company culture to engaged employees. But do core values and well written mission statements have anything to do with the real company culture, and if not, then how do we find one that’s right for small to middle companies in the Gainesville area? Or does company culture matter one iota if the company is functioning effectively in managing a service or product and continuing to draw customers?

Talking to hundreds of people over the last few years on the frustrations rampant in companies across the US, one clear message rings loud and clear, it doesn’t matter how well articulated core values and company culture are unless management acts with integrity; there is no secret sauce to rev up a company and ignite passion and productivity unless employees see management acting responsibly.

Company culture then, would seem to derive from owners/managers genuinely walking their talk, and passing down that honesty in whatever culture seems right for its employees, while fulfilling the mission of the company.

Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, is exuberant about his company’s culture and spelled it out in his best-selling book Delivering Happiness. It is all about his internal customers, and by focusing on their happiness he increases profits and customer service, giving his employees incredible autonomy.

Embracing the ‘work hard, play hard’ mentality, Zappos states, “As we grow as a company, it has become more and more important to explicitly define the core values from which we develop our culture, our brand, and our business strategies.” Their values include create fun and a little weirdness, embrace and drive change and be passionate, determined and humble.

Courtney Zukoski, owner of Best Water Solutions in Gainesville said “No matter how much you love your job, if you don’t find a fit with the organization’s corporate culture, you’ll be adding additional challenges (and headaches) to your work load…I advise job seekers to always inquire about the organization’s corporate culture during the interview process. It’s visible in everything from what they value in their employees, to how they solicit feedback and manage corporate change. If the glove doesn’t fit, move on. “

How much is culture entrenched and how much control do we have as active participants within a culture? First we need to know what to look for in defining any culture. Every company has a vision–what they see in their future and what they want their employees to embrace—whether it’s defined or simply what has evolved over time.

Steve Jobs saw Apple creating artistic masterpieces in the world of technology, where he had complete control of every aspect of development in the software and hardware.  And location/environment can also determine culture. I have worked at Apple’s headquarters a few times and the environment is one of a cavernous space with rows of desks, inviting collaboration mixed with the buzz of constant conversation. On the other hand, some silicon companies I’ve worked with have a more typical work environment, with pods where groups can go for impromptu meetings.

“Culture,” says James Heskett, UPS Foundation Professor of Business Logistics, Emeritus at the Graduate School of Business Administration at Harvard, “can account for 20-30% of the differential in corporate performance when compared with ‘culturally unremarkable’ competition.”

And Laurel Brown, Assistant Director, Professional Development, Executive Education, & Conferences at the University of Florida Distance and Continuing Education, says all culture is set by the leaders within the organization.

Perhaps company culture is somewhat undefinable, yet wherever we work we know there’s an underlying, or defined, way of doing things, treating internal and external customers and getting business done. Smart leadership tends to have found the sweet spot within an organization where employees rally round a specific way of doing business and trust management to be invested in their futures. Maybe that’s the secret sauce that separates some local companies from others, and the good news is, it’s obtainable, company culture is always changeable.

By Jennifer Webb

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