“What do you mean ‘create’ a culture? Cultures should and do just happen.”
"A company is a purely intellectual concept."
- Dee Hock, Founder of VISA International.
As Tom Peters put it in his book “In Search Of Excellence”, a company can provide the same level of ‘social resonance’ as does an honorary society, or an exclusive club. A company has the same culture that goes hand-in-hand with that resonance.
But how does culture come about? Does it get ‘created’? Is it not a natural and organic thing that ‘just happens’?
First let’s define what it is meant by ‘culture’. Culture is a set of shared beliefs, values and practices. A great one culture helps attract great people. It helps them deliver their best work.
Can it be argued, though, that culture is the result of some sort of natural and unintentional accrual happening? A short answer is that although that stance is not wholly wrong, it is a passive way of defining culture.
Some may say, “whether you plan it or not, cultures will happen.” According to Dharmesh Shah, Founder and CTO at HubSpot, there are three “misguided but reasonable” assumptions about company culture:
“a) Culture? We don’t need no stinkin’ culture! We’re putting a dent in the universe. That’s our freakin’ culture.
b) Culture? Relax. We’ve got this one covered. We have free beer and a ping pong table. And, as an added bonus, we do cool things like go see a movie premier together in the middle of the day.
c) Culture? You can’t really create that. It has to be built organically. The founders just have to lead by example and “set” the culture.”
But people have dramatically changed how they live and work. Sure, we all bring our bias to a company. Culture helps make a large body of small decisions quicker – and a small body of large decisions easier. You could just let people make decisions organically based on their best interpretation of whatever they think is right. But, why not help it along? Why leave things to chance? Pre-existing cultures mix and mingle, and it is up to a great leader to manage it.
Culture is created.
So then: culture can be explained in more of a practical (yet more challenging) sense. Culture, can in fact be explained as the result of the intention and the ways in which a company tries to achieve their desired objectives. All of that is put in place and in locked in action by a team – and this is where the leadership kicks in, to play a pinnacle role.
Highly successful companies are often complemented by their own distinct culture, and the best companies are deliberate about their own culture. They created it and more importantly, they have defended it.
There’s a lot of content out there regarding “winning” company cultures. They can be:
But the fact is that any of these choices are likely to work. This is what I’m trying to say here: whether the culture within a specific company good or bad is a different story. More importantly, a good culture must be created, cultivated, and nurtured over time, based on the intention of the company.
So Why Is This Important?
Shah said, “Product is to marketing as culture is to recruiting. Just like attracting customers is much easier with a great product, attracting amazing people is much easier with a great culture. Similarly, if you’re looking to recruit amazing people (who isn’t?), you’re going to need a great culture. The kind of culture that will appeal to the right kinds of people and get them to self-select.”
Besides, technology debt will be a tangible problem that you can solve easily. That’s not the case with cultural debt. Culture debt is insidious. It creeps in slowly. It’s hard to measure. What does this mean? Let me explain.
Technology Debt vs. Culture Debt
- Technology debt when you take shortcuts today, because you need to get something out the door because time is super-valuable (just like cash is valuable when you take on financial debt). But there will be a time to pay off that debt – and the debt carries an interest rate.
- Culture debt is when you take a shortcut of hiring someone now because they have the skills you immediately need, but they’re not a good culture fit. By doing this, you let the “culture bar” down.
Technology debt is often “forgiven” because when you take shortcuts, you may actually end up with a better result. That almost never happens in cultural debt. As Shah wrote in his article, “if you bring on people that aren’t a fit, they’ll infect other parts of the organization. Even after culture misfit hires move on, their corrosive effects on the company live on. The key is to understand what it is that defines your culture and to build alignment around that culture. You can nudge your culture. It's worth it. You're going to have a culture anyways -- might as well build one you love”.
As the Founder and CEO of EICG, Eunse Lee wrote in his article, ‘Culture Matters!’, “culture does become the ‘DNA’ of the company and decides the future and product of the company. Culture is something that can only be formed top-down, and it is ‘the’ final product of people’s beliefs and bias” – and this is to be managed by the leader. This is why leadership means everything, and that’s why culture should not ‘just happen’ but rather be ‘created and managed’.