Commentary by Suzie Elliott, Head of Human Resources, Farmers Insurance®

When people talk about a company's culture, they typically refer to something that's hard to pin down. It's defined by those who study organizations as the shared vision, values, systems or beliefs that shape people's behaviors. But individuals may judge a company's culture by what's considered "right" or "wrong". It's usually the tangible things like what people wear, how hard they work, or how they treat colleagues and customers.

A culture that encourages new ways of thinking can serve as your company's most important growth engine. It's crucial to understand your company's culture, while keeping in mind and in alignment with your core business objectives. And this kind of understanding is even more important today as millennials, the largest generation in U.S. history, enter the workforce with an emphasis on finding compatible cultural working environments.

I like to think of culture as the clay that molds and forms individuals into cohesive teams that can work together to achieve the company's business objectives. On the other hand, it can also become a force that blocks an organization from making needed changes. To develop and support a more productive work environment, in many cases I suggest that you start by examining how you hire and evaluate workers, reward performance, provide career guidance, and cultivate a diversity of perspectives.

Consider the following questions, keeping in mind that there are no right or wrong answers. The goal is to identify areas where the existing culture might be working against your core business objectives. The answers you give can help identify where changes are needed in order to help counteract stagnation and encourage growth.

What determines hiring and performance evaluations? What factors do you use to evaluate job candidates and worker performance? Do you look only at quantifiable factors - their numbers - or do you also take into account qualitative factors - how they got there? Is an employee's career path largely dependent on acquiring technical skills and hitting performance targets? Is it based on seniority? Or do you place value on a worker's ability to work effectively with others and contribute to a positive work environment?

How do you identify, develop and reward high performers? Where are you looking to find the next generation of leaders? Do you encourage lateral moves, enabling people to take on stretch assignments? Do you rely mostly on pay raises and bonuses to reward high performers, or do you invest in their education and growth? Do you offer access to targeted programs, create innovative project teams, encourage mentoring?

Do you know why people leave your company? If you do know, are you making efforts to address any chronic issues or challenges? If you don't know, are you sending a message that your workers are expendable? Along those lines, how do you respond to work/life challenges? Do you offer workers flexibility in how they navigate work and personal commitments? Is workplace flexibility an option that allows you to attract talent? Is it a privilege to be earned by high performers? Or is it off the table entirely?

After you've considered these questions, ask yourself how your employees might answer them. The alignment between your answers and theirs can reveal a lot about your company's culture. It can help pinpoint the issues that need to be addressed to encourage a more rewarding work culture. And creating this type of culture can go a long way in determining your ability to attract, inspire and keep the talent you need to grow your company.